Bryan Adams on his Cover Album, Family and Rock ‘n’ Roll Longevity

Bryan Adams lying on his back surrounded by acoustic guitars.

Photo: Bryan Adams

The photo of Bryan Adams on the cover of his new album, Tracks of my Years, shows a cocky 15-year-old with arms folded, an unlit cigarette between his fingers and a whole lot of hair. It’s the kind of hair that seems designed to make girls envious, a luxurious mane that shrouds his face and tumbles down his chest into a bouquet of Pre-Raphaelite curls. As Adams says in the liner notes, he “looks like someone who just crawled out of the Deep Purple tour bus.” In fact, he’s a kid in a Vancouver schoolyard and barely recognizable as the Bryan Adams who mimics the pose on the back of the album – a 54-year-old rock icon with a stern gaze and a haircut that would have passed muster in the British Army where his father was once an officer.

As the title suggests, Tracks of my Years marks a milestone for the Canadian singer. Now the father of two young daughters and rocking through middle age, he has cast a wistful eye back to the music of his youth. Adams’ 12th studio album is his first collection of covers in a career that spans 36 years. It’s an unabashed nostalgia trip through the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. But the hard rock that Adams worshipped as that long-haired teenager – Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and, yes, Deep Purple – is absent. Instead, he has assembled an eclectic playlist of vintage pop, soul and R&B, ranging from such timeless classics as I Can’t Stop Loving You made famous by Ray Charles to faded gems like Kiss and Say Goodbye. Don’t remember that one? It’s a bedroom ballad from The Manhattans that reached No. 1 in 1976; you can see them crooning it on YouTube, a formation of five black dudes in white jumpsuits swivelling in sync.

Although Adams makes a couple of concessions to rock with The Beatles’ “Any Time at All” and Chuck Berry’s “Rock And Roll Music,” much of the album is drawn from the tender underbelly of top-40 radio. And Adams makes some surprising choices. But whether scaling the fragile heights of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” (1966) or sinking into the warm swell of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” (1969), he has a way of stripping a love song bare with that familiar rasp of his and finding the ache within. Somehow, they all end up sounding like Bryan Adams songs.

 

 

That voice, which can sound ragged and smooth in the same breath, is one of the most distinctive brands in pop music. But it’s not a brand Adams is especially eager to promote. He’s notoriously guarded in interviews and, for a celebrity, he’s achieved an odd anonymity. Even the album’s producer, David Foster, a friend since Adams met him at 18, doesn’t claim to know him well. In their two-year span of work on the album, “It was pretty much all business,” says the producer. “One night, I had a dinner party and he said, ‘Why didn’t you invite me?’ I said, ‘I would have but I didn’t think you like to go to those things.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I like to go to those things.’ ”

But Adams doesn’t have to hobnob or work the media circus. In fact, having sold millions of records, he doesn’t have to do anything but watch the royalties flow in and raise his kids. Born in Kingston, Ont., and raised as a global nomad – his father’s work in Canada’s diplomatic corps took the family to Britain, Israel, Portugal and Austria — he could enjoy luxury retirement at any one of his homes around the world. Yet he continues to tour and record with the restless energy of a man half his age. Which leads Zoomer to ask: how does he do it? After all these years, where does a wealthy international superstar and late-blooming father still find that lean, mean teenage mojo?

Adams, of course, is not just another Zoomer cover boy. Having carved out a second career as an acclaimed celebrity photographer, he has worked with this magazine since its inception and shot 29 of its covers – including the self-portrait on the 2008 Winter issue and the cover of this issue. So you’d think he would be a compliant subject. Also, after interviewing him twice before, first in 1992 and then backstage in Paris two years ago, I would like to think I’ve gained a modicum of trust. But it doesn’t get any easier.

This time around, Bryan is on the line from London, where he lives with his family. As always, he is friendly, polite — and circumspect. On two occasions, he prefaces an answer with “as I wrote in my liner notes,” as if to suggest that it might be easier if I simply retyped them. But over the course of the conversation he loosens up, talking about the joy of fatherhood, the key to his longevity, the trials of Justin Bieber, the collapse of the record industry — and how he came to make the most unlikely album of his career, almost 40 years after posing for the photo that landed on the cover.

It began with his friend David Foster. The legendary Canadian producer and pianist, who is now head of Verve Records, a heritage label for jazz and R&B, came to him with the idea of a covers album.

“To tell you honestly,” says Adams, “it wasn’t the first thing I really wanted to do.”

“So what did you want to do?”

“Just what I always do, plod along making my own music.”

Producer Bob Rock, who worked on three of the tracks, helped convince him. “He said, ‘Make a record you like and you want to go out and promote.’ I thought that was sensible advice. It just took time to find the songs that would work together.” They didn’t turn out to be the obvious ones. “I couldn’t really make the record of the songs that would have had the biggest impact on me,” Adams explains. “Those songs are the untouchable ones. Why do a version of Smoke on the Water if you don’t have to?” Laughing at the absurdity of the prospect, he adds, “I’d rather not try to have to compete with the originals of Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. And The Beatles. There are some Beatles songs you just can’t touch, so you try to find the ones that are a little more off the beaten track.”

The singer’s tastes have mellowed considerably over the years, as he settled into his vocation as one of rock’s most earnest romantics. So much of what fuels rock ’n’ roll — ironic commentary, literary pretension, nihilist rage — is absent from his repertoire. His songs, whether hard or soft, fast or slow, are almost all love songs, including those he covers on the new album. Tracks of my Years pays homage to a lost era, but “it’s closer to what I do nowadays,” he says. “The key was to present classic songs in my way. In a way you hadn’t heard them before. If the song felt like something I could have come up with somehow, then I would stick it on the album.”

The songs that made the cut were not necessarily ones Adams paid attention to when they came out. “They’re songs that were in the air when I was figuring out what I wanted to do,” he explains. In an era when everyone listened to the same wildly diverse radio playlist, they were inescapable. “Now,” he points out, “there’s a rock station, a soul station, a country station. Back then, whatever the best song was would get on Top-40 radio. It wasn’t cut up into genres.”
David Foster had been keen to make a record with Adams ever since he produced the chart-topping duet between him and Barbra Streisand in 1996 (“I Finally Found Someone”). And Foster had enjoyed success with covers albums. “There’s no shame in it,” says the producer, on the phone from his car in L.A. “Everybody has done them, and it could cast him in a new light with new fans.” Bruce Allen, Adams’ longtime manager, agreed. “Bryan really admires David,” he says. “The dilemma was: is it the right thing for him? They come from different sides of the street. Foster had to make a lot of compromises.”
Foster wouldn’t put it that way: “We didn’t make compromises because compromise breeds mediocrity,” he says, quoting a motto found on his website. “The main thing we tussled over was strings. The only song that has strings on it is “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and it’s a very small string section.” As the songs got stripped down, adds Foster, the lush orchestral arrangements he’s famous for didn’t make the cut. “The other thing we debated about is reverb. There is no reverb on his vocals anywhere. Do you realize how fierce you have to be as a singer to sing “God Only Knows” naked with a piano and no reverb on your voice and still make it sound enchanting? That’s talent.” Foster still won’t quite let it go: “I don’t know whether he’ll end up being right or not about the reverb.”

Bryan Adams

 

But on at least one point, the producer got his way: every track had to have been a Top-10 hit in the United States. “There was all kinds of stuff requested by various people,” says Adams, who made the final selection. “Not because I didn’t try the suggestions. I just know my voice really well.” Some of the material “wouldn’t necessarily be on anyone’s radar,” he adds, citing The Manhattans’ “Kiss and Say Goodbye.” He remembers hearing it played in a bar in Japan one night when he was with Allen. “It was a tiny little soul bar — all the lady did was play soul music. It came on the jukebox, and Bruce said, ‘I love this song.’ I said, ‘Me too!’ This was in the ’80s, and it had stayed with me.”

Nostalgia tends to run deeper when it’s triggered by an obscure, half-forgotten memory, rather than a fixture on oldies radio. But for a whole generation of Adams’ younger fans, there is no memory to be triggered. He discovered that recently when he played Tracks of my Years for about 20 fans waiting to see him backstage. “I said, ‘Come in, I want you to hear this record.’ ” He played it for them off his computer from start to finish. “None of them knew any of the songs,” he says. “I had to explain every single one. Someone said, after ‘God Only Knows,’ ‘Oh, is that the song from Notting Hill?’ That was their only point of reference.” (In fact, it was on the soundtrack to Love, Actually, then resurfaced on a CD called The Hugh Grant Collection and as the theme song for the HBO series Big Love.)

So did the fans like the new Bryan Adams album?

“Of course. What are they going to say? They’re fans.”

Adams, of course, has by now built a deep catalogue of his own original classics. In concert, as he rolls out one hit after another, you don’t have to be a fan to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of songs that are instantly familiar, from rock anthems like “Summer of ’69” to ballads like “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You.” In the audience, you can cut the nostalgia with a knife. But Adams sings and plays his vintage repertoire with such uncanny energy that he doesn’t comes across as a legacy act, more like a no-frills rocker who never got jaded and never gets tired of singing his heart out.

Fatherhood, it appears, hasn’t changed that. Asked how having a second daughter made a difference, he says, “It’s just a lot more poo.” What about the challenge of balancing a touring schedule with raising two young kids? He claims it’s not an issue: “I get lots of time with both of them. Everybody’s really happy, and they’re good girls.” Asked how the responsibility of raising a family might affect his music, he bridles at the notion. “I’m telling you right now, I’m not going to do an album of nursery rhymes.” When it’s suggested that fatherhood must somehow colour his songwriting, he’s vague: “Having children is just another extension of a really big love and a love of life.”

Even approaching the issue of rock ’n’ roll longevity is a minefield. Asked if he’s ever discussed it with Mick Jagger, Adams offers a curt “no,” followed by stony silence. If he’s not going to dish about his personal life, he’s not going to gossip about his famous friends. As for how he keeps on rocking as the years tick by, he responds as if the question is both premature and preposterous — only fair given that Jagger, who is 16 years his senior, doesn’t seem to be slowing down. “It’s not something on my horizon because it never has been,” says Adams. “I don’t sit and think about how I’m going to make myself rock in my old age. I’m grateful and I love singing and I’m going to carry on doing it as long as people like it and as long as I’m loving it, too.” Then, seizing on one of his lyrics, he adds, “I’ll answer that question with one phrase: ‘18 till I die.’ ”

A nice thought. But the songs Adams is writing these days do seem more in tune with this stage in his life. Tracks of my Years includes an original called “She Knows Me,” an infectious pop song composed with Vancouver’s Jim Vallance, who’s been a writing partner since Adams was 18. With lines like “There’s a constant fire inside of her” and “She’s got a permanent hold on my heart,” it plays as a buoyant ode to domestic bliss.

Winds will come and winds will go
And the seasons always change
But the light that shimmers in her eyes
Stays the same

That’s a far cry from songs of his youth, anthems to fleeting romance like “One Night Love Affair,” “Run to You” and “It’s Only Love.” Those are among the hits on Reckless, an album slated for a 30th anniversary re-release in November. And with that package, Adams will include six previously unreleased tracks recorded for Reckless. “Back in ’84, when that album was made, we were on the cusp of CD technology,” he explains. “There was only a certain amount of songs you could put on a vinyl LP, and I thought I’d put out the strongest ones.” After digging up the rejects, he says, “I wished I’d put a double album out. The songs all work together in a strange, kinetic way. Let’s just put ’em out, who cares?” Then he laughs, “It doesn’t even matter any more. People aren’t going to buy it anyway.”

Even a multi-platinum artist has trouble selling records these days. And Tracks of my Years evokes nostalgia not just for an era of music but for a time when people actually bought records. Adams conceived the album package himself, with graphics picturing each track as a vintage 45. But he doesn’t pine for vinyl. Sure, Verve will offer a vinyl edition of the album, “but I don’t know why anybody would want to buy a vinyl record.”

He does, however, express concern for the collapse of the record industry and its impact on emerging artists. “It’s upsetting because a lot of people who need to cut their teeth before they make the record that’s going to change people’s lives — they’re not going to get there because they won’t be able to pay their rent. The artists aren’t making much unless they can tour. And the only way you can tour is if you have songs that are big enough.”

Adams has no shortage of those, and some of the biggest are ballads. “He’s a rock ’n’ roller,” says Allen, “but rock ’n’ roll you now find on the country charts and that’s it, these guys with the backwards baseball caps and the tattoos.” Ballads have a far wider reach, “and Bryan really knows how to sell a ballad.” What’s odd is that in an Alice-in-Wonderland music biz, where “alternative” equals mainstream, ballads that sweeten a Hollywood soundtrack can end up being more hip than guitar-driven rock. How else to explain ultra-cool Arcade Fire trotting out “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” as their encore at the Squamish Valley Music Festival in August?

Adams gets covered by everyone from indie stars to contestants on shows like The Voice. If, in fact, there is such a thing as a post-1970s American Songbook, this Canadian boy has minted more than enough solid standards to warrant his own tribute album. For all his rock ’n’ roll roots, he may have more in common with Tony Bennett than with Mick Jagger. “I rank Bryan up there with the greatest of singers,” says Foster, who has won 16 Grammies and worked with such virtuosos as Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder and Céline Dion. “He sings so in tune and still has the same range he had when he was 20. I’ve never worked with a singer who could literally walk into the studio and not warm up and hit it. He’s always in great voice.”

Achieving stardom is one thing; surviving it is another. Adams, a vegan who doesn’t smoke, do drugs and barely drinks, is anything but reckless about taking care of his instrument. Which brings to mind his young compatriot Justin Bieber. Asked his opinion of the Biebs’ troubles, he’s diplomatic: “He’s just rocking around the world and tearing it up and finding his way. That’s what you do when you get into music and rock ’n’ roll. He’ll find his way.”

So what advice would he give him?

“Just keep doing what you do.”