“Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else has ever thought.” – Albert Einstein
Last year, Ryan Adams was listening to Taylor Swift’s 1989 on his tour bus.
“I was listening to that record and thinking, ‘I hear more’. Not that there was anything missing. I would just think about the sentiments in the songs and the configurations.”
To kill some time on the road between venues, Adams experimented with playing some of the songs in his own style.
“It wasn’t like I wanted to change them because they needed changing, but I knew that if I sang them from my perspective and in my voice, they would transform.”
Following the tour, he made the decision to have a go at recording his own version of the album, insisting:
“It’s not a reimagining or a reconstruction at all, it’s a parallel universe. That’s how I think of it. We’re creating an alternate universe, like in Marvel Comics.”
Getting to work, the plan was to re-record the 1989 songs in the same order as on Swift’s album. However, the flow and feel of the new songs didn’t quite work:
“We listened to the whole record and absorbed it, and we were thinking about peaks and valleys as we were making it, we didn’t want to end up with a block of four acoustic songs and then a block of four electric ones.”
As a result, Adams recast the songs in a range of different styles, often going through several different configurations of a song, and venturing far from the original sound. For example, Adams says of one song:
“I thought, ‘Man, if “Shake It Off” was set with a sort of Sonic Youth Evol vibe mixed with some Springsteen or Eddie and the Cruisers vibe, it could be really dark, in a great way.”
Similarly, Adams had to tweak and alter his usual vocal approach on some songs:
“She has that dynamic range I don’t have — her voice can go way higher.”
After 3 weeks, the album was finished and Adams gave Swift the first listen.
“She was listening, and we were exchanging commentary as each track went down. She was stoked. I imagine it was surreal — someone she knows is singing her an entire cover of her whole record. I can only imagine what that’s like.”
Here’s an example of one of the songs, Out of the Woods.
Original Taylor Swift version:
Ryan Adams cover version:
I know which version I prefer!
Despite having no intention of releasing the album, fan and critic pressure, as well as Swift’s encouragement, led to Adams making the songs available. He says of himself:
“Some of us just go up and we work on the satellites, we do some space walks and we go back to Earth. Then there’s the Neil Armstrongs – those folks that go to the moon. They’re awesome. I’m just a dude who works on the satellites. And I’m happy with that. At least I get to go to space.”
Thought provokers and points for reflection:
Adams wasn’t copying Swift, he was innovating: completely reworking her album in a way that worked for him. HOWEVER, to do this – he was taking elements and tweaking them against a structured foundational knowledge base and coherent philosophy of his own. He was a scaffolder, not a magpie looking for gold nuggets. A chef, not a cook following someone else’s procedural recipe.
Agree or disagree:
“A great coach has got to be an innovator…where are the improvements going to come from if we’re all just copying each other? The improvements come from the guy who is innovating…the crackpot who is trying things.” – Golf Coach
When was the last time you innovated in your practice? Why was it better or more useful than what you or others were doing before (for you in your specific context)?
Swift and Adams discuss the album, as well as their approaches to songwriting here.
N.B. The quotes in this post are taken for an article in Rolling Stone magazine.