Ryan Adams on His New Album: It Has 'Sexuality, Trouble and a Little Bit of Danger’

Ryan Adams performs during the 2014 Newport Folk Festival
Taylor Hill/WireImage

Ryan Adams performs during the 2014 Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park on July 25, 2014 in Newport, Rhode Island.

Cynically speaking, the best Tom Petty album to come out this year may be the one by prolific singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer Ryan Adams. Full of crunchy chords, undeniable melodies and high-flying harmonies, the self-titled effort (out Sept. 9 on his own Pax Am label through Capitol’s Blue Note) justifies the comparisons. Adams, 39, is at a seeming high point in his personal life as well, giving up alcohol and drugs (pot being a frequent exception) and recently celebrating his five-year anniversary with wife Mandy Moore. These days, Adams spends more of his time as a producer (Jenny Lewis, Ethan Johns, Butch Walker), which may explain the confidence with which he decided to shelve a completed album in favor of Ryan Adams, his 14th LP in 14 years.

You tabled a record you spent $100,000 making with producer-engineer Glyn Johns. How long did you contemplate that?
Ryan Adams: I knew intuitively at the end of the recording that it couldn't be the next thing. Because I'm reacquainted with energy right now and the thing I made then was like music in the void. I wanted to just explore. So I wrote 150-f---ing songs and got this killer record together that really had the sexuality, trouble and a little bit of danger.

The first single, “Gimme Something Good,” is building at radio right now, can you wrap your head around possibly having a real hit?
It's not going to be one. But I think that it's bold, it's beautiful. The song was just in there. Like the demo is shocking … I'm not a careerist or I would have made very different decisions. I'm a songwriter. That’s what I do.

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How did you get Elvira to star in the video?
I really want to do something with Elvira because pinball is, like, my world and I love the two Elvira machines. I kind of designed a third one with Elvira in space, and that's how I met her, talking to her about that. And as soon as it was time to make a video [for “Gimme Something Good”] I knew I wanted to make a black-and-white, spookier video and we just did it. It was pretty minimal ideas: I knew I wanted it to be performance and I wanted her to be in it.

Is production something you want to do more of?
I don't know. It's a lot of responsibility and not a lot of glory. It’s really an altruistic notion. I've used this analogy before, but I really believe in it: In Lord of the Rings, there's the guy from the f---ing Goonies [Sean Astin] and his job is to help Frodo [Elijah Wood] get to Mordor. But by the time they almost get there, and there's that last little bit to go, he can't take him the rest of the way, right? Frodo has to go on his own because he has to take the ring and throw it in the f---ing lava or whatever. Your job as a producer is to be the guy from The Goonies. You're just there. You're helping along the journey. You're encouraging them, sometimes they don't want to do it anymore -- “Come on, we can do this, find the best path” -- and you try to nourish them with positivity, keep them moving, keep their perspective open. That's kind of the job.

Mike Viola, who co-produced the album, worked on your wife’s last release, 2009’s Amanda Leigh. Did she introduce you two?
We used to live a block from each other in 1997 in the [East Village]. We went to the same bodega and I vaguely remember seeing him on the street. But we never interacted. Then when he was working with Mandy, it was clear to me he was this musical genius. Where our record collections differ, he's into the Beatles and I'm not. But I love Big Star and The Replacements, so we meet in that middle. He listens to a lot of stuff that I just wasn't exposed to. I kind of feel like a wooden table and he's this beautiful thing that you put on it. It's interesting because we're very much like brothers now -- like inseparable. I can't imagine not knowing him.

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You’re turning 40 soon, is this record reflective of that milestone?
At 39, there's this intense thing with my friends and people I've known my whole life where some of them have now dug in so far into the hill with their lives and their kids and their worlds that they're able to see themselves and see the structures breaking for their ego and their id. And then other people didn't find their way and they're lost and happy but they're f---ed. And then other people have died. . . . I think this record is haunted by loss of people close to me and me watching other people lose their parents. And me looking around at a lot of people who have changed close to me who have gone through the same kind of stuff and how they're holding on. Because at this stage of life where I'm at -- like, the shit is hitting the fan.

How do you feel about working with co-writers?
It's been interesting. But it rarely works out for the people. In the experience I've had, I get this sense that they're snooping around, seeing if they can find some mystical piece of music that's lying around that they could use for the betterment of themselves and that makes me want to throw up a little bit because there's more important shit to do.

An edited version of this story orginally appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of Billboard.