An Interview with Bryan Adams: More Of A Good Thing
—by Andrea Seastrand, October 22, 2014
Marking the release of a new album and the 30th anniversary of his studio classic, Reckless, Bryan Adams’ career is one any artist would envy and any fan would appreciate. On his latest studio work, Tracks Of My Years, Adams is in new territory as he interprets classics such as “Sunny,” “Rock And Roll Music,” and “God Only Knows.” The album’s original track, “She Knows Me,” showcases (yet again) the unparalleled collaboration shared between Adams and longtime songwriting partner Jim Vallance. For more on Adams’ music, tour plans, and award-winning, spectacular photography visit bryanadams.com or bryanadamsphotography.com.
There are so many things we can talk about, from awards to photography and of course your music career. Where would you like to start?
Let’s talk about the new album. That’s a good start.
OK. So what can you tell me about the song selection process for Tracks Of My Years and why were those songs so influential for a young Bryan?
I knew you were going to ask me that. OK, well, look at the album cover, alright? I’m just about to turn 16 there, my world is kind of all about hard rock, and I loved my little AM transistor radio. It was kind of like my outlet to the world. AM radio didn’t play one kind of music back then. They played everything so you’d hear “Kiss And Say Goodbye” into a Beatles song into a Janis Joplin song into a Ray Charles song, it didn’t matter if it was a good song.
The idea for this record came about and when choosing songs for it I decided pretty early on that there was no chance that I was ever going to be able to record the songs that were truly the influences that I had because, why would anybody want to hear me do a version of “Hey Jude” or Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love?” It’s not gonna happen. But I could choose songs that were, perhaps, not as well recognizable. I had to record a Beatles song because they were sort of the cornerstone of why I even started making music, or loving music really. I used to drive around in my parents’ Corvair playing with the AM radio, turning it up as loud as I could til I got smacked.
So, AM radio was kind of exciting. I kind of thought I’d choose songs that were around on AM radio and that I still loved today, but there was no way that I ever would’ve bought them (laughs), except perhaps for Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Down On The Corner.” I thought all of these songs are just good songs and I love singing them. I was way too into The Who that I would have ever bought The Association, or The Manhattan’s “Kiss And Say Goodbye,” but I still loved those songs. I remember when we were in Japan after a show we went to this tiny little bar—I think it held 10 people, this bar—and the owner of the bar in Tokyo had a jukebox just full of 1970s Philadelphia and Motown records. We’d sit in that bar all night until he’d kick us out. That song was on all the time because we kept playing it over and over. I just remember how fantastic that song is. So when we cut that song, we were like, “Yeah! Remember when we used to sit in that bar in Tokyo and…” That led to that whole thing on YouTube where, you know when you listen to a song and it brings up a directory of other songs? So that directory ended up being kind of an encyclopedia when we’d go into the studio and figure out what song I wanted to do.
I read a quote on the 30th anniversary of Reckless, where you say you pushed people so hard to get what you thought would be a perfect album out. Did you carry that same work ethic into the studio on Tracks Of My Years?
Kind of, yeah. You’d have to ask David Foster about that. I know he wasn’t too happy with me, because I have a particular opinion on how I want my song to sound. It’s not disrespectful to him, because I have immense respect for him as a producer, but in my own pea-sized brain I had this idea of how I wanted it to sound. And because I was working with a couple different producers, I decided I wanted nothing on my voice. I wanted no harmonies. I didn’t want any reverb. I didn’t want any echo. I wanted my voice to sound just like I’m talking to you on the telephone, really really raw and really clear. That would be the glue that would unify all of the different types of songs and would be the glue that would unify the different productions. That would be the key to making this record sound like it does. It was kind of a fight. I really had to fight for it, but in the end I’m happy with it.
Specifically, I wanted to ask about “God Only Knows.”
Well there’s a very good example. Listen to how simple that is and how there’s not much. There might have been one or two little tiny harmonies throughout the record that David would talk me into but for the most part there’s no orchestration. The temptation was there because it’s so sparse and you can just imagine a great big swirling string section underneath it. I think the intimacy of the lyric and the sentiment of the song and production being so close, almost like somebody whispering in your ear, I really wanted to keep that intimacy without a lot of extra orchestration.
Earlier you mentioned having a pea-sized brain, but judging by your love songs, you must have an enormous heart. What do you think of the love song these days? It doesn’t seem to me that people write them quite like you do any—
Oh wait, no, you can’t say that. Because that song that came out this year by Coldplay called “Magic?” Oh my God, what a beautiful song. That song is like…ah! I wish I’d written that song. It’s so beautiful. It kills me. The song kills me! And the production of it, too. It’s beautiful.
Ok, ok (laughing) I’m happy to be proven wrong on that one!
Ok. You put that song on, it’ll make you cry.
I mentioned Reckless before. What does that album mean to you after so long?
It’s really such a fine memory for me. It was such a lot of work, but with a team of really good people I’d assembled. We stuck together and worked really hard. I’m talking specifically of Jim Vallance, my songwriting partner, Bob Clearmountain, and even my manager, Bruce. All of these guys were all thinking the same way and all pushing ourselves to do better and make a better record.
I’d been on tour with Cuts Like A Knife the year before that and had assembled a few songs that were looking like they’d be the beginning of a new album, specifically “Heaven” which came out on a soundtrack shortly before Reckless did, and “Run To You” which I’d written for Blue Oyster Cult who didn’t want it. So when it came down to writing more songs we had a good head start. It looked like it was going to be a good one.
It’s all very well to talk about the songwriting process but the other thing that was important was making the record. You mentioned how I pushed everybody and I really did. I recorded and re-recorded and recorded and re-recorded until I thought it was as close to being as good a record as it could possibly be. I can even remember when the final fader went down on “Summer Of ‘69” I still thought we hadn’t quite got it. I listen to it now and I don’t know what I was wondering about because it sounds right to me. I think if you’re complacent with things, it’s not the way to be when you make records. You always have to second-guess yourself quite a bit.
But at any rate, it was the right record for the right time. So many interesting things happened. The duet with Tina [Turner] for example. I’ll be forever grateful to her for taking me on tour with her in Europe after that because it broke the album. The record company had kind of shelved it by that point. “Summer Of ‘69” never got any traction, anywhere, except in America and Canada. 10 years later in 1992 or 1993, sometime after the release of the So Far, So Good album I started getting people calling and saying, “You know I just heard ”69′ is number one in Holland this week!” You know? (Laughs) This is, like, maybe 10 years after it was released.
I kind of felt like those records were right but we might have been a little bit ahead of everybody else because they didn’t catch fire at the time. “’69” was Top 5 maybe in America, I can’t remember, and surely didn’t even break the Top 30 in the UK, but America was the place that that record really did its job. That was a beautiful thing. I remember I got a call…you know what, I got a telegram…
I’ve got it somewhere. “You have the #1 album in America. Congratulations.” I sat there and looked at it for a while and thought, wow. I have to dig that up.
Do you approach photography in the same way you approach working on an album?
I like the idea of waking up every day and making something beautiful, whether it be music or photography. I like the idea of starting with nothing and at the end of the day having something really nice to look at. That’s all it comes down to.
How about the subject matter of Exposed versus that of Wounded? They are both beautiful, but for different reasons. What brought those collections together?
I really like to make portraits of people. Wounded took about four years because a lot of guys weren’t comfortable in the beginning to reveal their wounds. It took some time to work out the best way to do it. Was it going to be an exhibition? Was it going to be a book? I didn’t know what it was going to end up being. It came about because I’d done Exposed and I’d shown the pictures to my publisher and he said (lowers voice), “I want this. I want to make this into a book.” (He’s German by the way. That was a German accent.)
Bryan Adams will be playing the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, PA on Oct. 23, and the Theater At Madison Square Garden on Oct. 25. His new album, Tracks Of My Years, is available now. For more information, go to bryanadams.com.
My Dream Duets: Chatting With Barry Manilow
Posted: 10/22/2014 12:00 am EDT
A Conversation with Barry Manilow
Mike Ragogna: First off, thanks for the interview and it’s a true blue spectacle that I landed it, Barry!
Barry Manilow: [laughs] Sure, sure.
MR: The concept for the album is pretty unique. I don’t think anyone’s done a whole album of posthumous duet tributes.
BM: Well, Verve, the record company that I’m on this month are great people and one of the guys I’m working with is a wonderful guy named Jay Landers who’s a Senior Vice President there said, “What about you doing a duets album?” Of course, everybody’s doing duet albums and some of them are pretty good, too, so I said, “Yeah, let me think about it.” I said, “How am I going to make my duets album any different from all of these other duets albums that we’re hearing constantly?” So I made a list of who I would like to sing with and as I started making my list I realized many of these people are gone. I would love to have sung with Judy and with John Denver who was a friend of mine and with Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis Jr.. It would be my dream to have been in the music business when they were at their peaks. I said that to Jay and I said, “I know this is impossible,” but he said, “It’s not impossible.”
Music technology has gone pretty far and there’s this company that David Foster worked with who can actually remove the orchestra from these old records and just give me the vocals by themselves, which sounded amazing. It took them a long time to do eleven songs. They gave me eleven vocals by themselves. I’m pretty good at my music technology and I sat for two months creating eleven duets out of songs that never were duets. I rearranged the songs, I re-orchestrated the accompaniment and I made them into duets. I changed keys where I wanted to, I made bigger endings than they originally had, you can see that it’s a different angle for every song. I’ve tried to stick pretty close to their original arrangements but I was able to play around with them and make them into duets. This album was a miracle. It took a lot of people to put this together with me. Now that it’s all done, I’m very proud of it.
MR: On “I Believe In You And Me” with Whitney Houston, it’s clear you love the original vocal, and you’re not dominating the track. Actually, that’s true for all of these duets. You have a lot of respect for them.
BM: I do. It was one of my goals to try and show the audience why these people were such legends. I didn’t want to get in their way. Singing the duet with Whitney was the most challenging because her style is so far away from what I do. Her church vocal approach is so far away from my pop singing it took me days to figure out where I should sing, how I should do it, when do I harmonize with her, when do I leave her alone. I had to do this with all of them, but Whitney was the most challenging.
MR: You said they pulled the vocals out of the records, but did you pull at least some lead vocals from original 16- or 24-track tapes?
BM: I’d have to go back to David, my co-producer, but I would say maybe one or two were actually doing multi-track recording. The rest of them came out of the old scratchy records. I’m telling you, this is a miracle how these men made this record sound like I’m singing with them yesterday. They all sound beautiful. Their vocals sound like I was in the same room with them. Mike, I’m telling you, I ran for the tissues a lot on this project.
MR: How did you get through a recording process this intense?
BM: I’m telling you, it was a very emotional experience. I would put my headset on, they’d sing to me and I would get lost in it and then realize they’re not there! This is when they were young and beautiful and in their prime, all of them. Andy Williams and Judy, this was at their peak. And then to think that they really weren’t standing next to me when they may as well have been!
MR: Another interesting thing about this project is that there are songs on here that seemed like they were yours to cover already. For instance, “Sunshine On My Shoulders” seems like a perfect song for you. And there’s the Andy Williams track…
BM: When I sang with Andy Williams, I was surprised to hear that I sounded so close to his voice. Now and again I would forget, “Which one is me and which one is him?”
MR: Are you happy that as you’re maturing, you’re taking on the soul and the depth of a lot of these classic artists who also matured into the artists they became?
BM: Please, it was an honor to do this. It’s an honor to even hear you say that, but it was an honor to do this. Listening back to this whole album is just an amazing project for me.
MR: Does this make you want to do something like this again in the future?
BM: As I finished it up, I was talking with friends and I heard, “Why didn’t you do one with George Harrison? Why didn’t you do one with Marvin Gaye?” Why didn’t I? I didn’t think about it. I went through the big list but there are more. If this thing becomes popular, it would be great to do another one.
MR: As a producer, arranger and talent-discoverer it seems like you have to be in constant motion. Are you that guy?
BM: Listen, I keep coming up with ideas. The well hasn’t run dry yet. I’m waiting to get bored, but an album like this for a performer it starts my motor going at a hundred miles an hour. If I can keep coming up with ideas like this I’ll keep going. I’ve always got the next one. There’s always “the next project” with me. Like I say, the well hasn’t run dry yet. I’m ninety-five years old and I’m still promoting albums for God’s sake.
MR: [laughs] No, no, not quite ninety-five. Hey, you were a wonderful mentor on American Idol. That experience must have been very fulfilling for you.
BM: It was surprising. These young people just don’t know about the songs that I grew up with. They don’t know anything from Irving Berlin or George Gershwin or Jule Styne or Stephen Sondheim, they don’t know any of it and they don’t get the opportunity to sing great lyric, they don’t get the opportunity to sing a great melody anymore. In my catalog, there are good lyrics and there are good melodies, so when they sang “I Made It Through The Rain” and they started to do their doodling and their vocal acrobatics I would say, “Wait a minute. Why are you singing this song? Who are you singing it to? What does this word mean?” I would have to go through it line by line and I do think they did really well on that week.
MR: I’m sure you helped a lot of them because they’ll think of that advice in the future. I’m often baffled by why a syllable needs that many notes.
BM: I think you’re right. Whitney was one of the inventors of that kind of singing, but when I was listening to her do that song she sang the melody and the lyric in the beginning of the song. She didn’t start doing those vocal acrobatics in the beginning. She sang the song the way the composer wrote it and told us what the story of the song was. Then as the song built, she dropped in the church. By the time she got to the last verse and chorus, she had earned the right to do whatever she wanted to do with this melody, but she had already told us what the song was about and then she started to drop in this fantastic way of singing. I’m telling you, she was the inventor of that kind of singing. But these days these singers start there and after a while how many notes can you sing in one bar? There’s no emotion anymore, it’s just, “Listen to how many notes I can do!”
MR: And yeah, when Whitney dropped the gospel into it, you heard the soul behind the notes, not just a lot of notes.
BM: Yes, you’re absolutely right! It wasn’t just singing notes for Whitney. Like I say, she had earned it. She was telling the story the way she wanted to, but not right at the beginning.
MR: Beautiful. Since we’re kind of on the subject, what advice do you have for new artists?
BM: It all depends on who the artist is. My overall advice for young musicians and young artists would be to learn how to read music. I know it sounds dumb, but I’m telling you, man… Young musicians and young singers, learn how to read music. If you can read music, you’ll always be able to work. If you can’t, maybe you will become Whitney Houston, but that’s a rarity. If you can read music, you can always work because you can do studio jobs, you can do commercials, you can do whatever you want and actually have a career and if you are really talented then great. But if you don’t happen to luck into something like a hit single, then you can always work.
MR: That’s really good advice. By the way, earlier, I wanted to add that your “What A Wonderful World”/”What A Wonderful Life” duet with Louis Armstrong was pretty clever.
BM: Yeah, it was kind of a challenge to write a brand new song that fit over “What A Wonderful World,” but I think it came out okay.
MR: Were there any moments on the album where you discovered something about your duetist that you’d never known before?
BM: All of them. These people are not legends because of luck. Every single one of them had this little extra something that made them stars. The sound of Judy Garland’s voice, there’s something in her vocal chords that is just so appealing. She’s one of the greatest acting singers of all time. The same thing with all of them. There’s something special about all of them. I always knew it but having my headset on and them singing to me in the headset, it was really a very moving experience.
MR: And of course, with you being a writer, “The Song’s Gotta Come From The Heart.”
BM: [laughs] It does. Don’t ask me where I found that one, but it was a ball to do that one.
MR: I know this isn’t exactly what an artist with as extensive a career as you have wants to hear, but your first hit, “Mandy,” was the first recording I ever heard by you and it played on New York’s WNEW-FM. Loved it, and it still pops into my head from time to time.
BM: Thank you, Michael. It’s the big one for me, too. It’s the most moving one for me, too. Now it has become more than a song for me, it has become the memories of this young kid, I didn’t know what I was doing really. I wasn’t supposed to be a singer, I was supposed to be a musician. What was I doing behind the microphone and singing? When I think back on it, it’s just an amazing moment for me.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne