Ryan Adams is a notoriously fast worker in the studio, and as a producer, he encourages the same. A week was all it took for Adams and the members of La Sera — ex–Vivian Girl Katy Goodman and guitarist Todd “Totally Tod” Wisenbaker with drummer Nate Lotz — to record Music for Listening to Music To, the group’s fourth album, due in March on Polyvinyl. But as it happens, those brief sessions ended up setting the stage for Adams’ full-album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989.
“I wanted to [record the La Sera album] so bad that we did it on the only eight-day break that my band had in something like two-and-a-half months,” Adams says, talking on the phone from Los Angeles. “Not to mention the engineer, the Spock of Pax-Am, Charlie Stavish, who plays bass in my band, had just recently been married, so he hadn’t even really got to spend time with his wife. It felt like we were destined to do this.”
Working between Adams’ Coachella bookings in April, La Sera cut the album at his Pax-Am studio, often relying on first takes to capture the live sound of the band. “Ryan would be like, ‘That was perfect,’ and listening back, even a week later, he was always right,” says Goodman, who formed La Sera in 2010 as a solo spin-off of her garage-pop trio Vivian Girls.
Beyond Adams’ involvement, Music for Listening to Music To marks Wisenbaker’s first La Sera record as a full collaborator and vocalist (he previously played guitar on and produced 2014’s punkish Hour of the Dawn). There are some through-lines to the group’s past work — Sixties-girl-group-inspired melodies; a warm, reverb-heavy sound — but the new record also has a distinctly Eighties vibe, with cleanly picked, arpeggiated guitar lines and moments of country twang. Both La Sera and Adams cite their love of the Smiths as a big influence on the session.
“Todd and I were totally obsessed with the Smiths and Johnny Marr,” recalls Adams. “It was kind of funny — the subtext of the whole record was talking about those [Smiths] records and geeking out on guitars and stuff.”
“We met and were like the same person musically,” says Wisenbaker of Adams. “It was just kind of like ‘Meat Is Murder, straight to tape’ — that’s the collective sound we were going for. Whether that came out or not, I don’t know, but that’s probably my favorite album of all time. Definitely nothing modern — we’re not trying to be like Vampire Weekend or Chairlift.”
As for the country influence, a quick look at Wisenbaker’s Instagram reveals his love of Chet Atkins–style fingerstyle (“everyone kind of clowns me for being into country and bolo-ties jokes”), which springs up on Music for Listening to Music To, adding a Nashville flair to the sunny California pop songs. Goodman acknowledges that the album is a bit of a departure from the project’s garage-y roots. “I get the vibe a lot from people that they know what La Sera sounds like,” says Goodman. “This record will be like, ‘No, it sounds different than you think it sounds.'”
Accordingly, the album is difficult to categorize: It’s neither a record of love songs or breakup songs, but a bit of both. Wisenbaker and Goodman got engaged over the summer and married just last weekend, and the album captures the pair collaborating as songwriters for the first time. “A lot of my songs are not even about boys, just about friendships and basic human relationships,” says Goodman. “But if you listen to them, you’d assume it was about an ex-boyfriend.” On “High Notes” — which Goodman calls “basically a letter to dudes who stand in the back of shows being very skeptical of me” — she sings snarkily about not wanting to be pigeonholed.
As a producer, Adams focused his efforts on Goodman’s vocals. “I was certain that I could help her lose control a little bit more and dig into some of the creepier, darker and more mysterious aspects to her voice that I would hear in her lyrics,” says Adams, who suggested leaving off harmonized vocals, previously a La Sera trademark. “Records that I love vocally, there’s an aspect where you get a feeling the singer is unaware of themselves and maybe in another place. I felt like she was making great records, but I wasn’t sure she was getting all the way there, and she was really game for it.”
“I felt like [Katy] was making great records, but I wasn’t sure she was getting all the way there, and she was really game for it.” —Ryan Adams
The session turned out to be doubly fruitful for Adams, who has continued to collaborate with Wisenbaker. Mutual friend Jenny Lewis, who played with Wisenbaker in her Jenny and Johnny project, connected the pair over text message a year earlier, but La Sera’s first day recording was their first face-to-face meeting. “That’s when Todd and I basically started our bromance. As soon as that record was done, I was like, ‘I have to go on the road for a minute, but as soon as I’m back, let’s make something. Let’s just jam,'” says Adams.
That jam, again with Lotz on drums, turned into Adams’ version of 1989. “We did three songs that first night, just loosely jamming, and [Ryan] tweeted about it, and it went berserko,” says Wisenbaker. “The next day we’re like, ‘Oh, God, we actually have to do this.’ Not that we wouldn’t have done it well before, but actually, people are going to hear this.”
The pair have continued to write together beyond that, recording at Pax-Am and New York’s Electric Lady Studios and swapping song ideas. “Todd’s just exceptional,” says Adams. “He’s like one part Wild West cowboy guitar player, Gene Autry freak, another part Johnny Marr freak, and he has this classic-rock flirtation in there too. I actually take guitar lessons from Todd. The most crucial guitar lesson I ever took was with him, and it actually helped the rest of my tour. I always [write] songs directly for myself and never by committee, and this is the first time I’ve ever had that happen, so it’s an extremely exciting thing to do.”
Recently, while Adams was in New York, Wisenbaker cut tracks at Pax-Am studio for Adams to add lyrics and ideas to. “We’re trying to do it real Smiths-style, like Johnny Marr gives Morrissey the music, and he hasn’t done that before,” says Wisenbaker. “He’s going to be producing a couple records in the next couple months that we’re all going to have the same crew on.”
It all goes back to that one week between Coachellas, and Jenny Lewis. “It’s just really fortunate. The greatest thing I can say is we finished that La Sera record and I’m like ‘This record is classic.’ I’m so proud of it,” says Adams. “But if it wasn’t for that record, the 1989 record would have never happened, and then all of these new friends that I’ve made that are a huge part of my life wouldn’t have happened. At the end of the day, I have to send Jenny Lewis a big thank-you card, like a cake or something. She started it, so thanks to her.”