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It seems any conversation with Ryan Adams will inevitably turn to black metal and an intimate acoustic radio set is no exception. That’s what happened on Wednesday night as the singer-songwriter took part in an onstage discussion with KCRW Music Director and Morning Becomes Eclectic host Jason Bentley at Santa Monica’s Berkeley Street Studio. Sure, the focus was largely on Adams’ new album Ashes & Fire, but music’s dark side became the fulcrum around which the evening revolved.
Clad in a Slayer T-shirt, Adams, who performed two sets totaling 15 songs, pulled from both the new album and his past releases, spent nearly ten minutes educating the audience on black metal guitar tuning — complete with visual instruction — and recounted a visit to a certain genre-specific record store during his recent European tour.
“My wife, who is lovingly not terrified of black metal because I’ve desensitized her to the entire thing, and I went to a place called Nose Blood Records,” the musician said (his wife being singer-actress Mandy Moore). “That record store has so much black metal in it, I don’t know how it even exists… Literally on the wall they have a bracelet made of bone and hair and I remember looking over and M’s just going ‘Ugh’ and I’m like ‘Isn’t that amazing?’”
The connection between black metal and Ryan Adams, a notably introspective, emotional troubadour, may not be immediately apparent. But the musician, who self-released the metal-inspired disc Orion last year, is ultimately attracted to the genre because he says it displayed extreme vulnerability — something his music overflows with. Adams’ performance last night, which was almost awkwardly intimate (“Don’t worry if you feel like this is really weird,” he told the audience as he took the stage), spanned his history as a songwriter. From his roots in alt-country band Whiskeytown with songs like “Houses On the Hill” to his solo work with “Oh My Sweet Carolina” (from 2000’s Heartbreaker) to brand new numbers like “Chains Of Love,” Adams revealed a consistency in this emotional vulnerability he finds so attractive in heavier music.
If Adams’ discussion of black metal — and his later insistence the audience hurry out to purchase Ratt’s newest album Infestation — were gleeful and borderline manic, his responses to Bentley’s queries about his own work displayed less zeal. The musician did reveal he continues to pen lyrics via typewriter (“I like the sound of it”) and hopes to one day succeed his two books of poetry with a third. As for Ashes & Fire, which came out Oct. 11 and is Adams’ first solo disc since he disbanded The Cardinals in 2009, Adams says working with producer Glyn Johns taught him a new boundary. “I really learned this time that if a song has too much personal information it’s almost like a perishable,” Adams noted. “You can only leave it out for so long before it gets sour.”
The second set of the evening, which followed Adams’ 30-minute conversation with Bentley (both will air on KCRW on Dec. 2), was significantly lengthier than the first, doubling what was meant to be a five-song set because the musician kept seeing songs in his hefty lyrics binder that signaled “a good one too.” The encore went five tracks deeps, culminating with “Like Yesterday,” an effecting number from the 2008 Cardinals disc Cardinology, stripped down to only acoustic guitar and Adams’ emotive croon. Finally, the musician reluctantly exited, saying “I have to go. I’m demoing new stuff tonight. I’m starting to demo the new record called Pizza & Soda.”
Will that new record be a black metal covers album? “It’s like physically impossible on several levels,” the musician told Bentley earlier in the night at the suggestion. “It would be bad.” And anyway, he’s happy with a remote connection between his own work and that he admires. As Adams concludeed, “Ashes & Fire is a very black metal album title.”
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