Ryan Adams bursts through the door of Rivington Guitars, the tiny East Village instrument shop where he’s asked me to meet him, and immediately launches into a conversation with the owner, Howie, about the red 1983 Les Paul he bought there last November.
“Dude, ❲the Smiths’❳ Johnny Marr’s guitar tech sent me a DM on Instagram and goes, ‘You chose wisely — that’s the same guitar I bought for Johnny,’ ” says Adams, 42, wearing a Black Sabbath T-shirt under a leather jacket with an Iron Maiden logo on the back.
“He told me to go on YouTube and watch ❲the Smiths❳ play ‘How Soon Is Now?’ on Top of the Pops.
It’s the exact model Johnny had!”
“Holy shit,” says Howie, valiantly attempting to match his customer’s enthusiasm.
I’d been warned Adams might be tired today; he just arrived from L.A. last night for three concerts this week in support of his new album, Prisoner. But he seems happy to be back in one of his favorite stores, where he’s purchased six guitars over the years and says the Gibson Flying V hanging behind the register could be next.
Some musicians are agnostic about gear, but not Adams, an obsessive whose social-media feeds have largely been given over to rhapsodic endorsements of guitars, amplifiers, and effects pedals from his ever-growing personal collection. (His Instagram review of the Chase Bliss Tonal Recall delay pedal: “If you play guitar and want to go to space for way cheaper than on a Soviet satellite repair rocket, get this fucker.”)
He recently designed his own signature stomp box, and a prototype was delivered to his hotel room this morning, another reason for his good mood. The VCR — volume, chorus, and reverb — pedal promises to make your guitar sound like Adams’s (think Marr’s jangly, ten-feet-underwater tone) for $270, a bargain compared to whatever he paid to sound like himself. The company that built it for him couldn’t believe that no single pedal had ever combined those effects before, he says, “and I was like, ‘Who’s going to use chorus without reverb unless they’re in the Police?’ ” — a joke that gets predictably huge laughs from Rivington Guitars’ employees.
I hate to be a buzzkill, but I also need to ask about Prisoner, a breakup album that’s dark even for a chronically heartbroken musical memoirist who seems to make only breakup albums, written during the collapse of his six-year marriage to actress Mandy Moore, and featuring sturdily constructed, Springsteen-evoking, bummed-out tracks like “Do You Still Love Me?,” “Breakdown,” and “Doomsday.”
So we sit on two stools near the back of the store, and Adams picks up a Stratocaster that he’ll hold for a few minutes and then put back down.
He’s acknowledged that Prisoner is “directly related to my divorce” but tells me the album — which New York’s Craig Jenkins called “the best thing he’s put out in a decade” — might not have happened without the help of the late Garry Shandling, to whom it’s dedicated.
“I was in a period where I wasn’t playing any music, because I was depressed from having Ménière’s disease” — an inner-ear disorder that causes serious vertigo — “and in a stifled romance, and I just didn’t know myself,” says Adams. But then, backstage at a charity event, he saw the comedian “deliberating and overthinking his material, and he saw me doing the same thing, and he said, ‘Ain’t it funny what not liking your mom will do for you?’ I was like, ‘Wow, I love you.’ ” (Adams has intimated that his childhood in Jacksonville, North Carolina, was dysfunctional, and he says he was raised mainly by his grandparents; when Shandling was a kid, his mother told him his older brother had gone to live with a relative, when in fact he’d died.)
“We had this long dialogue that woke me up,” Adams says. “He showed me the door out from the Ryan trap. He’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
Though he has his own recording studio in L.A., where he’s lived for the past eight years, Adams opted to record Prisoner at Electric Lady Studios in New York, where he had lived for the previous 11. “I was going through a public divorce, and although I was doing okay, being in L.A. was kind of a bummer,” he says. “Also, there was a girl here who was fucking awesome ❲he’s been linked to the model Megan Butterworth❳, plus my best friend, Johnny, who plays the drums, and I thought, I’m going back to New York because I need to have fun.”
Adams says he wrote many more songs than ended up on Prisoner, “tons and tons of songs, just an embarrassment of tunes,” which is a thing lots of artists say when they’re promoting a new album. But given his productivity — Prisoner is his 15th studio album since 2000, and then there are the many one-off singles, EPs, side projects, and live albums, plus his 2015 track-for-track remake of Taylor Swift’s 1989 (which spawned so many think pieces that Adams has since sworn off full-album covers) — it’s plausible in his case.
I ask him to walk me through the process of writing one of the songs on Prisoner, but instead he picks up a Guild Starfire and composes a new one on the spot, just to show how fast he can do it. The lyrics are slightly below his usual standards — “Take me through the new songs, so I can understand what it means to write a song / I just really want to know what it means to write a song / I’m writing articles, I’m writing articles …” — but the melody’s not bad.
At home in L.A., Adams has a circle of collaborators around, for when inspiration strikes. His studio, Pax-Am, hosts regular jam sessions with a revolving lineup that frequently includes Bob Mould, Jello Biafra, Jenny Lewis, members of Fall Out Boy, Liz Phair (for whom he’s producing a double album), and Johnny Depp, an underrated guitarist in Adams’s opinion: “He can play the shit out of solos. It’s like a wild tangent of unbelievable licks. I had this amp that I loved, but it had a bad transformer and I was afraid one of my cats would get zapped, so I gave it to him. He makes that thing sound great.”
With cats out of harm’s way, life on the West Coast is good. “I always got a lot of shit when I lived in New York, because it was the first time when media became an aggregated, blog-centered thing, and I couldn’t even open Time Out New York without getting battered,” he says, acknowledging that some of his hobbies — which included leaving angry voice-mails for journalists and releasing goofy homemade rap tracks via his website — occasionally attracted more attention than his work.
“So I thought, I want to go someplace where I can really build something. I want a studio. I want to get my hands dirty and do some gardening. I want to design pinball machines.” He now owns a 3,500-square-foot warehouse filled with over 100 vintage pinball machines. “It’s my private portal to the ’80s, a retro arcade for myself and an overloaded vape pen.” (He’s been sober since 2007, unless you consider pot a drug, which Adams sure doesn’t.)
Even though, in a few minutes, on the way to his New York photo shoot, he’ll surmise that the Pitchfork reviewer who gave Prisoner a 6.2 this morning probably looks like Trump adviser Stephen Miller, Adams says he’s “older now and more impervious” to criticism.
“I’m making my best shit. There are gonna be some people who don’t get it, and that’s cool, because they’re not awake to what I’m making. But I know what my groove is now, and there’s nobody that can tell me different. I feel grateful to know the path I want to be on, so I’m going to blaze it and get blazed on it.”
∗This article appeared in the March 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.