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How Ryan Adams Saved His Career With ‘Heartbreaker’

Singer-songwriter looks back on 2000 solo debut.

Singer-songwriter looks back on 2000 solo debut.

At the turn of the century, Ryan Adams was in a bad way. His alt-country band Whiskeytown dissolved, thanks in large part to major record-label consolidation; a long-term relationship with music publicist Amy Lombardi ended, prompting her to move out of the New York City apartment she and Adams shared on 10th Street and Avenue A; and, worst of all, the singer ran out of money. Having spent three years living in Manhattan, Adams felt he had no choice but to move back to his hometown of Jacksonville, North Carolina.

“I went from living [in New York] to basically moving back to the house behind the house I grew up in, which is a pretty intense thing to do,” he recalls of holing up at his childhood friend Alan Midget’s house, separated from his grandmother’s residence by only “a single fence and the remnants of a pretty huge wooden half-pipe.” Adams, however, made the most of this rough patch: While in Jacksonville, the singer-songwriter wrote and demoed the majority of what would become Heartbreaker, Adams’ revered 2000 solo debut, which will be reissued today as a deluxe four-LP box set.

Adams says the album, which he later recorded with producer Ethan Johns at Nashville’s Woodland Hills studio, was little more than a last-ditch effort to save his dream of life as a musician. “I felt at the time that I needed to say goodbye to my career,” Adams recalls, speaking from his Los Angeles home on a recent afternoon. “There wasn’t anybody really looking for me.” In early 2000, when he arrived in Nashville following his time back in Jacksonville, Adams had plans to record his debut album. Still, he wasn’t expecting anything much to come from it. He figured he’d do some gigging around town or maybe pick up a trade job on the side to pay the bills. “I was fully humbled and prepared to sort of go, ‘OK, I had my shot and it was over,'” he says.

His manager at the time put him up in a large, old-fashioned two-story Southern-style residential home that he recalls being “haunted” and “infested with brown recluse spiders.” “I had no furniture; I had no clothes; I had a very small amount of things,” Adams says with a laugh. “There were no lamps in the house but one – I didn’t have a shade on it. It had luckily been left there. So I would just plug that in at night so I could see to get into the room I slept in.”

Recording for Heartbreaker began only one day after Adams arrived in Music City. Each morning, Johns, who credits Heartbreaker with helping invigorate his production career, would pick up Adams and together the pair would drive to Woodland Hills where only a few years earlier Adams had recorded Stranger’s Almanac with Whiskeytown. During 14 days in the studio, Adams recorded live, straight to tape, typically with only him and Johns in the room. The result is a spare, meditative acoustic-guitar-anchored debut that speaks to Adams’ conflicted emotions at the time: pain (“Amy”), longing (“Oh My Sweet Carolina”) and the occasional reverie (“To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)”).” “I obviously wasn’t trying to write any singles or anything for the radio at that time,” Adams says. “Pretty much any commercial-type sounding song that I presented to Ethan, anything that sounded sort of intentionally dumb or like a trick, he usually scoffed at.”

Adams was listening to a great deal of folk and blues music around Heartbreaker, including Sleepy John Estes, Big Bill Bronzy and Bob Dylan. “I could hear those things at play in what I was making,” he says. And while he often felt creatively stifled in Whiskeytown, he felt that a new creative spirit was welling up within him when recording Heartbreaker. “I always felt like in Whiskeytown I never completed my thoughts,” he says, “and now I was writing more complete songs.”

“I always felt like in Whiskeytown I never completed my thoughts, and now I was writing more complete songs.”

Writing for Heartbreaker had actually started in earnest when Adams was still living in New York City. After Lombardi moved out of the pair’s apartment, the then-25-year-old Adams spent the few days before he left town writing songs both at his now-empty apartment and at Niagara, a bar on Seventh Street and Avenue A owned by his friend and longtime musical collaborator Johnny T. Yerington. “I would go out, have drinks, meet friends, write a couple of songs if there was anything in there,” Adams says. Some of his most revered songs arrived during this time period: Adams recalls writing the first verse and chorus to “Oh My Sweet Carolina” at Niagara before finishing it up when typing out the lyrics at his apartment. The song, he says – specifically referencing the line “Oh my sweet Carolina/ What compels me to go?” – was an ode to the grandparents who had raised him. “Those are the people that I loved at home,” Adams explains.

The title of the album, Adams proudly explains, came from a split-second decision he made while on the phone with a record label executive at Chicago-based indie label Bloodshot Records who released Heartbreaker. Standing in an upstairs room at his house in Nashville, Adams stared at his bedroom walls, then covered with only posters of the Smiths, and Mariah Carey in “that amazing boardwalk spray-painted ‘Heartbreaker’ top.” “And I was just looking at her and was like, ‘Heartbreaker,'” he recalls with a laugh. “The label guy was like, ‘Wow, that’s a great title!’ but I was just naming it after something that made me really happy.”

For Adams, the reissue, which includes a remastered version of Heartbreaker, a collection of outtakes and demos, and a DVD of unreleased footage of Adams’ full solo acoustic show at New York’s Mercury Lounge in October 2000, provided an opportunity to reflect on the past – something the famously prolific musician rarely allows himself to do. (The DVD notably includes Adams’ first live performance of a cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” which, he says, eventually ended up on 2004’s Love Is Hell due to an in-joke with his Blur-obsessed then-girlfriend.) “I just have this unspoken rule with myself where I don’t allow myself to be self-critical about things I’ve recorded,” he explains, “because at the time there’s no way I’m going to record it if I don’t mean it. It’d be foolish to go back and punish myself or get myself into a place where I felt like I needed to nitpick.”

Though he acted as a consultant on the project – rounding up outtakes, finding old tapes or CDs – Adams says revisiting Heartbreaker remains an emotional undertaking. His friend Allen Midgett, whose house he’d demoed the songs at in Jacksonville and who later played drums on “Come Pick Me Up,” died in 2014. Additionally, Adams’ grandmother, who inspired several songs on the LP, also recently passed away. To that end, even 16 years after releasing the LP that would launch his solo career, “it’s really hard for me to want to listen to it,” Adams admits. “It’s still very hot to the touch.”