“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)?


Audacious Learning: Being Daring and Taking Risks

How Steph Curry borrowed from the best to remain a true original

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.


2 thoughts on “Taylor Swift, Ryan Adams and some creative critical thinking

  1. I was about to write a short coaching post in relation to music but this seems to lead me into it nicely so I’ll just leave a comment here.

    Firstly, what a lovely cover this is. I’ve listened to quite a few covers over the years that have just appeared to be examples of bands enjoying playing almost exactly the same melodies that they were inspired by. The Jam’s version of Dead End Street by The Kinks is a good example of this.

    Just prior to moving out of my university home, I found myself searching around the house like a bloodhound stuck on a scent for a half-decent album to listen to for the drive home. Whilst rooting around I came across Supertramp’s 1979 LP, Breakfast in America. Although I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself to be what one see as the archetypal example of a progressive epic pop rock fanboy, I do occasionally delve into things heavier than my usual tastes and thought Rick Davies and co. could massage my ear drums as I tackle the seemingly ever-congested eastbound M62.

    And that they did. The pleasant drive was perhaps oxymoronically soundtracked with raging guitar solos and punchy ballad-like melodies. But what did take my interest was one song in particular, ‘The Logical Song’.

    The lyrics instantly threw my mind into education and how we as coaches ought to consider the learning process. They are as follows:

    “When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
    A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
    And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily,
    Joyfully, playfully watching me.
    But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
    Logical, responsible, practical.
    And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
    Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

    There are times when all the world’s asleep,
    The questions run too deep
    For such a simple man.
    Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
    I know it sounds absurd
    But please tell me who I am.

    Now watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical,
    Liberal, fanatical, criminal.
    Won’t you sign up your name, we’d like to feel you’re
    Acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable!

    At night, when all the world’s asleep,
    The questions run so deep
    For such a simple man.
    Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
    I know it sounds absurd
    But please tell me who I am.”

    What I picture in my mind whilst listening to this song is an institution, perhaps a school or barracks, that denounces any form of critical thinking. It would be considered anarchic and “criminal” to do anything besides following the orders provided by a superior. “Liberal” here is considered a buzzword for negativity and a despicable lack of respect for authority.

    Rather than solving problems or creating new ideas, the narrator of the dialogue needs reassurance of his/her retention-focussed learning process. “…tell me who I am.” I assume this is because the narrator would have absolutely no idea if he/she wasn’t informed, despite noting in the first stanza that they began their life as a wondrous youngster, fascinated by the world around him/her and eager to learn more about it.

    I remember seeing a cartoon that depicts a teacher at the front of a classroom telling his students that they are going to learn how to think critically and engage in intellectual discussion by doing exactly what he says. This is what springs to mind upon hearing these lyrics.

    Coincidentally to what you’ve written John, it was covered in quite an alternative fashion by Scooter in the early millennial years. Not necessarily my cup of tea, but certainly a different take on what I would deem to be a timeless tune. Here is the link to that cover: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YxTa1AUqps

    Is the traditional authoritative ‘stand at the front and dictate’ approach really demonstrative to critical engagement? Or as the narrator in this song alludes to, is discovery (with appropriate guidance wherever necessary) the key to unlocking an intellectual independence that helps an individual to truly learn? I myself am still learning and don’t really know. But I am aware of my ignorance and refuse to be told what I have learnt and ultimately told “who I am”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great stuff Joe. I think this was the image you refer to:

      You should definitely post your comment separately, really thought provoking stuff!

      Liked by 1 person

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