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Ryan Adams 1989 interview: Indie icon opens up about covering Taylor Swift's smash album

“I would send her clips and she would be like, “Whoa! I can’t believe it sounds like that! How are you doing that?” And I’d say, “I don’t know! I don’t know what’s happening!”

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Late last year, Ryan Adams was hanging around his newly adopted hometown of Los Angeles and trying to cope with heartbreak. In one month’s time, he would announce his split from his wife Mandy Moore and the holidays were fast approaching. “Between my birthday and Christmas of last year, I had this bulk of time alone,” he tells EW. “I went through a pretty obvious life change. I was like, “What am I going to do?”

To overcome his blues, the revered singer-songwriter, 40, found solace in his headphones and started listening to Taylor Swift’s pop smash 1989, among other records. “I kept going back to [her album],” he says. “I found myself side-writing it a little. I’d think about the lyrics and play a few minutes on acoustic guitar. It got me thinking.”

Adams—who runs the studio PAX-AM on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, where he records and produces his own material, along with music by other artists (including La Sera, the project from Vivian Girls’ Katy Goodman)—set up a four-track cassette recorder and started recreating songs from the pop star’s album. A tape malfunction destroyed early demos, but when Adams returned home a few months later from a tour, he was ready to try again. And with the backing of his trusted pros—bassist Charlie Stavish, drummer Nate Lotz, guitarist Tod Wisenbaker, keyboardist Nate Walcott, and pedal steel player Stephen Patt—he started recording his tribute to 1989 in earnest this summer.

Now, Adams is ready to share his love letter to Taylor with the rest of the world. On Thursday, Adams announced it will be available September 21. So why did an indie-rock icon want to honor a pop icon—and what does she think of the finished product? EW checked in with the singer-songwriter.

How did your earlier cassette recordings differ from the final version?

The cassette versions were dark and creepy and lonesome. But this was different. I was halfway through recording the pre-chorus [of “Welcome to New York”] and I remember feeling, like, “Whoa, I’m digging in so intensely now.” And [the guys in the band] perked up. The tone and the mood was set. And as we went [through the recording process], there was a beautiful open discussion about what’s an appropriate path for the song.

Certain covers, like “Blank Space,” have gotten radical overhauls. How did you decide which songs would get that kind of treatment?

“Blank Space” was the first turn. I thought right away, the record should divebomb. The way we talked about certain songs—Is a beat a fundamental element of the song? Is the forward motion of the chords with the beat? Is it a train? Is it on a path of urgency? How do we know when to deviate?—was amazing. Too bad those weren’t recorded.

Why do you connect with 1989?

The record is its own alternate universe… There’s just a joy to 1989. I think she said it as well: she was in a joyful place making that record. Even if there are elements that describe these situations—that describe interactions and the world of romance and the confusion of being alive and knowing how you fit in—all that stuff is there. It’s what we write about.

Did you share tracks with Swift during the process?

I would send her clips and she would be like, “Whoa! I can’t believe it sounds like that! How are you doing that?” And I’d say, “I don’t know! I don’t know what’s happening!” [Laughs] She’s been on tour but we’d check in and she was super excited about it. That made me feel good.

How did you send her the finished product?

It was a text to her. I didn’t say anything. It was so cool the minute I sent it off, like, there it is! I think I went and played some [pinball] that night and woke up the next day and started getting updates [from her]. I think it was her second listen-through or something. It was really nice. She’s such a busy lady but it was really cool to feel that excitement.

Swift brings out surprise guests at each stop of her current tour. Any plans to join her?

Everyone asks me that. I literally have no plans to do anything. Now, there’s just time off. I haven’t made any plans or thought any of that through. I don’t know.

What do you admire about Swift as a songwriter and pop star?

I was watching this Jimi Hendrix live performance last night and seeing just how chill he is. He’s doing all this stuff on guitar and just, like, whatever. It’s all easy to him. Taylor is like that. I find that so refreshing. Those songs are fragile and vulnerable at their core. They’re constructed from such an honest place. Those are the kind of songs…I don’t think they’re overshares. But they’re all completely giving, to the point that they move people to tears.