Last Christmas, Ryan Adams was, in his words, "a little lost." He'd wrapped up one leg of a tour supporting his self-titled album, and he and his wife Mandy Moore had just separated. "I had gone through some life changes, and it would be the first Christmas and New Year's I'd spend by myself in over five years," he recalls. "And I thought, 'What the fuck am I going to do?'"
Chilling out on his tour bus, Adams would read or fixate on the same album so many others were obsessing over at the time, Taylor Swift's 1989. "I was listening to that record and thinking, 'I hear more,'" he says. "Not that there was anything missing. I would just think about the sentiments in the songs and the configurations." During his lonely-guy Christmas break, Adams had what he calls "this weird idea." Buying a four-track cassette recorder, he decided to recut Swift's new songs in his style. "It wasn't like I wanted to change them because they needed changing," he says. "But I knew that if I sang them from my perspective and in my voice, they would transform. I thought, 'Let me record 1989 like it was Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.'"
For several days, Adams did just that, reconfiguring Swift's songs as stark voice-guitar-harmonica remakes. The experiment didn't last long—four songs in, the recorder malfunctioned and devoured and mangled the tape—but the idea of recasting the entire 1989 stayed with Adams. This past August, he tried again, this time with fellow musicians in a full-on studio, and the second time around, Adams made it all the way through his complete, same-sequence remake of 1989. "It's not a reimagining or a reconstruction at all," Adams insists. "It's a parallel universe. That's how I think of it. We're creating an alternate universe, like in Marvel Comics."
With Swift herself chiming in when she heard the news ("Is this true???????" she tweeted. "I WILL PASS OUT"), what began as a killing-time lark has turned into one of the year's most anticipated albums: Adams' own 1989, released digitally today, with a vinyl and CD release imminent. "Holy heck y'all," Lena Dunham tweeted last week. "Just heard [the album] and it's a masterwork. Taylor Swift as you never imagined."
Adams wants to make one thing clear: He's no-nonsense serious about the project. A Swift fan since he first heard "White Horse," he's an unabashed admirer of her skills, which became vividly apparent to him when the two collaborated on an unreleased song a few years ago. Looking for help finishing a song, Swift visited Pax-Am — Adams' own studio inside Sunset Sound in Los Angeles — and sat down with Adams and a couple of guitars. "She had a verse and the first part of a chorus, and she wasn't sure where to go with it," he recalls. "She had this really cool riff and verse, and we dug in and worked all day." That same night, the untitled song finished, the two recorded what Adams calls a "groovy" demo of it, which remains unreleased to this day. (Adams says he isn't sure what will come of it.)
Even in that context, Adams sensed Swift's power. "You sit next to her, and she plays a verse of a song with some lyrics and a chorus, and it's clear right in that moment: 'Of course, this is someone who's playing to 50,000 people in a stadium,'" he says. "It's not shocking. You hear the tone of her voice or the clean line of a song and it's just clear. You think, 'Well, of course, this person is who they are in music.' The undeniable force of her personality comes through in her music. There are certain people, like Keith Richards, who have that thing."
"You sit next to her, and she plays a verse of a song with some lyrics and a chorus, and it's clear right in that moment: 'Of course, this is someone who's playing to 50,000 people in a stadium.'"
Adams' admiration for Swift continued with 1989, which he feels isn't as radical a departure as others have labeled it to be. "When I played these songs on acoustic guitar, they sounded like all the other songs I knew of hers before," he says. "You can tell she built the record in the same way. She just recontextualized them. She brought it to a mall in the Eighties, which is really awesome."
With his tour dates all wrapped up, Adams bore down on his more fleshed-out 1989 project at Pax-Am this summer. "After almost a year of playing my own songs for two hours every night, there was some part of me that said, 'I just want to sing and play acoustic guitar,'" he says. "It was just a perfect idea, at least for me at the time." Working with a small group of musicians — guitarist Tod Wisenbaker, bassist-engineer Charlie Stavish, drummer Nate Lotz and Bright Eyes keyboardist Nate Walcott — Adams began the painstaking task of recasting Swift's songs. Starting with "Welcome to New York" (the musicians listened to Swift's version and pulled up the lyrics online), the process proved immediately cathartic for Adams. "Halfway through way the first take, I was really digging into the vocal, and I watched Tod and Charlie, and they were like, 'Holy shit—he's in,'" he says. "And I was. Everything was coming out. I think I had more in me that I wasn't able to extract from my own records. By the time we got to 'Out of the Woods,' I realized, 'All this stuff is in me, and when I'm singing it, I get a bunch of it out.'"
Adams' plan from the start was to re-record the 1989 songs in the same order as on Swift's album, a process that him to attempt different approaches to ensure the album had variety and flow. "We listened to the whole record and absorbed it, and we were thinking about peaks and valleys as we were making it," he says. "We didn't want to end up with a block of four acoustic songs and then a block of four electric ones."
With that in mind, "Blank Space" was recast as a ballad, while the next track on the album, "Style," became a stuttering piece of punky power-pop. Similarly, "Bad Blood" is now flowing Americana, "How You Get the Girl" is slowed down to ballad speed, and "All You Had to Do Was Stay" takes on a U2-gone-synth-pop vibe a world apart from Swift's original. "This Love" went through several configurations — one reminded Adams of Nineties emo faves Jawbreaker — before it settled on a midtempo approach. As for the first hit from Swift's album, Adams says, "I thought, 'Man, if "Shake It Off" was set with a sort of Sonic Youth Evol vibe mixed with some Springsteen or Eddie and the Cruisers vibe, it could be really dark, in a great way."
Along the way, Adams had to occasionally adjust his vocal approach: "She has that dynamic range I don't have — her voice can go way higher." And to "speak to the songs more from my perspective," he also did some minor lyric tweaking: "You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye" in "Style" is now "You've got that Daydream Nation look in your eye." ("I'll take any opportunity to give a shout-out to Sonic Youth," he chuckles.)
In two efficient weeks of recording, plus a week for mixing that ended in early September, Adams was finished, winding up with a full remake of Swift's album devoid of irony or novelty aspects. How exactly did he achieve that? "You just have to mean it," he says firmly. "Even if I do something funny, I'm going to fucking mean it. As I was singing those songs, they mattered to me as much as any of my own songs ever did. Or I wouldn't have sung them."
As the project was underway, Adams kept Swift apprised of its progress and promised her she'd be the first to hear the completed record. As soon as it was wrapped up, he sent her a link to the tracks, and the two spoke about it at length the next day. "She was listening, and we were exchanging commentary as each track went down," he says. "She was stoked. I imagine it was surreal — someone she knows is singing her an entire cover of her whole record. I can only imagine what that's like." (Swift soon Tweeted that it was "surreal and dreamlike.")
At first, Adams says he had no plans to officially release his 1989. "I just wanted to make it for me and play it for her and be done," he insists. "I didn't go any further than that. I already knew there was some buzz about it, that I was making it. But I didn't go, 'Oh, great, this is what I'll do.'" But after encouragement from friends, combined with Swift's positive response, Adams spent a day rethinking his plan and changed his mind.
"Everyone was saying, 'You should share this and put it out,'" he says. "The day after mastering, I listened to it and I just said, 'This is great. Everyone's excited for it to be out there, so I'm gonna let it live.' When all is said and done, it sounded crucial to me. It didn't feel any different from anything I've ever done, and in fact, it felt exciting. It just felt right and I said, 'Let's do it.' In a lot of ways, it's exactly what music is about for me. It's about doing something that means something, whether or not it will be understood."
As far as appearing onstage with Swift during her 1989 tour — where he'd join the ranks of everyone from St. Vincent to Mary J. Blige — Adams is noncommittal. "No, I don't have any plans," he says. "I'm off the rest of the year. I haven't really thought that far. Honestly. Last night I played Neil Fest, and I tried not to mess up the chords of 'Old Man.' That's as far ahead as I'm thinking right now."