In its first week in stores, Taylor Swift’s 1989 sold 1.287 million copies. One of those albums was snagged by Ryan Adams, a Swift supporter who’d already praised the “pure alchemy” of working in the studio with “one of the most fucking amazing writers” he’d ever seen.
Back in August, Adams announced plans to cover 1989 in full, an undertaking oddly appropriate for an artist with a history of making more albums than his labels knew what to do with. Now Adams records for his own label, Pax-Am, which helped the 1989 cover album go on sale today, Sept. 21. Adams spoke with Billboard about covering 1989 top-to-bottom and his own creative relationship with Swift.
“I started thinking, you know what? When Christmas rolls around, I’m going to try to record my own version,” Adams says, thinking back to last fall. His earliest plan was to record a “totally reverbed out” version on a 4-track recorder in the style of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, but the analog gods wouldn’t allow it. “I basically forgot the first rule of thumb with 4-tracking and that’s only record two or three songs per cassette because the tape gets really worn out… I got to, like, the fourth song… the tape machine ate the cassette tape and went into the machine, messed up the machine, and totally messed up the tape.”
The project was revitalized when Adams completed some 2015 tour dates, and took up guitarist Todd Wisenbacker on a standing offer to hit the studio when they were both free. Adams met Wisenbacker when he was producing the indie pop band La Sera in Pax-Am’s L.A. studio, and the two quickly bonded over a love of Johnny Marr’s guitar work.
“I was like, this is a perfect opportunity for me to do this now,” Adams says, playing off the post-tour adrenaline that hit him every night around 10 p.m., even if there was no stage to take. “I’d already been singing my own songs for a year and I’d already recorded the follow-up record for my last record, which is a two-part record, so that’s like 23 songs of my own stuff. I was basically pretty tired of singing and playing my own stuff, but I wanted to make music.”
Adams and Wisenbacker — along with bassist Charlie Stavish and drummer Nate Lotz — set out to take on 1989 as “a cross between (Springsteen’s) Darkness on the Edge of Town and (the Smiths’) Meat Is Murder.” “Along the way, Taylor was excited and I would send her little updates. On the last day, I sent it through the link. I was like, here you go, and I really kind of let it go after that.”
Adams and Swift weren’t new friends. Swift has long cited his influence on her songwriting, and the pair hit the studio for some sessions prior to her 2012 album, Red.
“Right away, we sit down with guitars and she has this incredible riff, like really simple but totally effective, with this unbelievable, rolling harmonic line. It was clear to my right then why this artist is basically a solar star. I think some people are able to remain completely personal but able to create something at the same time that’s as vulnerable as any song can be.”
Those sessions were never released, but Adams reflects fondly on that batch of songs. “We cut a pretty cool, uncomplicated demo that sounded pretty vibey. It sounded like she was rolling her way to a pretty full, great record by then.”
In covering 1989, it’s clear Swift’s work touched Adams profoundly. “I certainly felt everything as though it were my own experience.” Adams was once a Manhattanite, and his 2001 single “New York, New York” was perhaps his biggest hit, but what memories bounced around his head while he sung “Welcome to New York”? “I think if I were to be specific, it would probably take away things for the listener.” Some you can actually hear.
On the chorus of “Style,” Adams nixes Swift’s “James Dean daydream look in your eye” for “Daydream Nation look in your eye,” nodding to a very different sort of classic that came out of New York City one year before 1989. “In the moment I wanted to think about someone in particular, just for that brief moment, to change a moment, to just change one color of the lyrics.”
But the vas majority of 1989’s lyrics remained unchanged, even if it meant Adams entering Swift’s vernacular of haters and “mad love.” Adams own interpretations — sometimes drastically different than their Max Martin and Shellback-produced counterparts — were personal enough.
“Where it might have been hopeful before, it might sound more filled with regret, like ‘How You Get the Girl.’ Or like ‘Shake It Off,’ like the way I read the lyrics out loud to myself, I was compelled to side more with the anxiety and the pressure of a feeling like you are the subject matter of people’s conversations that maybe aren’t in the best light. I liked the pressure of that and wanted the music to sound like it was running away from that… That’s a feeling and a place and a time that was inside the movie of my mind — what the parallel universe of my 1989 could be.”