The prolific singer-songwriter talks "Ashes & Fire," hyped as his best solo album in years.
"How does he function? How long have you got?!" Legendary producer Glyn Johns, his Surrey accent flaring, is asking, rhetorically, about alt-country troubadour Ryan Adams.
"He functions like no one else on the planet. How does he compare with the other people I've worked with?"
The question hangs. Johns, after all, is the original "Let It Be" producer, the man behind the boards when Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey made "Who's Next" -- and the producer behind Adams' new album, "Ashes & Fire." It's due Oct. 11 on Adams' own PAX-AM Records, through a new distribution deal with Capitol (stateside) and Columbia (internationally). "He's certainly as good and as interesting as anybody I've ever worked with," Johns concludes. "I have a huge respect for him as a songwriter, and equally as a performer."
This is Adams' 13th record since disbanding influential alt-country group Whiskeytown in 2000. "If you're a Ryan Adams fan," Capitol/Virgin president Dan McCarroll says, "you're certainly not sitting around, pining to hear more music."
Though far from dour, Adams is a bit less diplomatic about his work. "I'm not commercial-minded," he says with a laugh. "Which explains a lot of my career. I just like making tunes all the time, which I've gotten a little bit of hate for. For some time, people thought my work was disingenuous for the sole fact of how much I did. Thing is, there's a lot of positivity too-and the intention is good."
Adams is all about the positivity these days. During his "break," he released heavy metal concept record "Orion" (exclusively on vinyl) and the double album "III/IV," both on PAX-AM, in 2010. "III/IV," originally recorded in 2006 but rejected by then-label Lost Highway, went on to sell 47,000 copies (according to Nielsen SoundScan) -- a sum Adams is particularly proud of. Perhaps more crucially, Adams made some major life changes: He quit smoking, overcame inner ear and balance problems caused by tracheitis and tinnitus and, in March 2009, married singer/actress Mandy Moore.
"I feel like I could do anything now," he says. "I'm mentally free and physically well, and I love what I do. I'm not the guy I was. If I was, I couldn't be alive."
A sense of gratitude does dominate first single "Lucky Now," which debuted online Aug. 23 and is No. 15 on Billboard's Triple A chart. With a little help from famous friends like Norah Jones and Benmont Tench, Ashes & Fire showcases Adams' most mellow melodies in years-and feels like a rebirth for the North Carolina native.
Audio: "Lucky Now," Ryan Adams
"One of the ways that literature has connected with me is from people who wrote about their experience-people like Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Mould in music," he says. "All these people are talking about their lives in a really unembarrassed way. It's romantic how much they expose themselves, how much of themselves they let crumble in their work so they can be reborn."
Longtime friend and collaborator Jones notes Adams' lifted spirits, which she sums up as "having joy all over the place." On a lark, Jones lent her vocal, piano and songwriting talents to seven of the 11 tracks on "Ashes & Fire." She describes the recording process as funny, fast and full of spontaneity.
"It had been a long time since Ryan was in the studio," she says, "which is a big deal for him, because he's made so many records. This was the first period where he has really not done that for a few years. I could tell he was really excited. Especially working with Glyn, who's like our uncle, [saying things] like, 'Come on, kids, get to work,' in his stern voice [while at the same time] telling a dirty joke."
Nine albums later, after his contract with Lost Highway ended in 2008, Adams turned his attention to PAX-AM (Pax Americana), the label he formed in 2004 to release demo material that was, according to him, of little interest to Lost Highway. Adams is serious about maintaining PAX-AM's identity, noting that "Ashes & Fire" is only distributed through majors. Capitol's McCarroll and EVP of Marketing & Promotion Greg Thompson are confident the label will continue its relationship with Adams beyond this album.
"The record was made, and we gave people the opportunity to see if they wanted to be the distributor or just be involved," Adams says. "It's a different situation when you can say, 'I have this, and I was wondering if you wanted to be a part of it.' There's not really a sense of a loss of control."
McCarroll didn't sense much hesitancy from Adams. Their relationship was bridged by people close to the artist: Manager John Silva (of Silva Artist Management), who also works with Capitol on the Beastie Boys, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers keyboardist Tench, one of McCarroll's closest friends and Adams' repeat collaborator, tipped off the label to "Ashes & Fire."
"Tench is pretty tough on records, and he kept saying to me, 'Man, this Ryan Adams record is amazing,'" McCarroll recalls. "So I met with Ryan, and we sat for probably three hours and talked about records. He was in such a great space about the record and about his life that it made it even more appealing to want to be in business with him."
He continues: "Then Ryan called Benmont and was like, 'Is this guy for real?'"
Video: "Ashes & Fire," Ryan Adams
During the course of his 11-year solo career (and alongside backing band the Cardinals), Adams has sold 2.3 million records, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Needless to say, word-of-mouth and engaging his core fan base have served him well, but Capitol is looking to go beyond his regular MO.
Adams' last two records, both on PAX-AM, didn't have major-label marketing power or continuing promotional campaigns behind them. In the immediate, Capitol's Thompson looks to tastemaker media outlets -- New York magazine, the Onion A.V. Club -- and triple A radio (like WFUV New York) to herald "Ashes & Fire." Early on during the campaign, Thompson was already gushing over the triple A reception.
"We're not even supposed to release 'Lucky Now' for a couple more weeks and it was No. 1 most-added at triple A yesterday," he said on Aug. 30. NPR is also part of the equation, as Adams prepares for appearances on programs like WXPN Philadelphia's "World Cafe" and WNYC New York's "Soundcheck."
Adams will also perform on TV, visiting "Conan" on Oct. 10 and "Late Show With David Letterman" on Dec. 5. The break between late-night appearances not only accommodates Adams' eight-date West Coast acoustic tour -- his first in two years -- but also brings the campaign into its second phase: the holiday season.
"We're going to make sure people savor it, and that we have a nice, strong build into the holidays," Thompson says. "We all realize that a Ryan Adams record is always going to be a marathon and not a sprint -- even if Ryan's trying to sprint toward the next one."