Bryan Adams

Miles from Vancouver

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By Gary Graff  

In the early 1980s, Canadian rock meant bands such as Rush, Triumph and Prism -- hard-edged groups with progressive rock leanings. Then came Bryan Adams, a flannel-shirted rock 'n' roller from Ontario, cut from the tradition of the Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Neil Young, with a rowdy attitude (he dubbed himself "the Dennis the Menace of rock") and the songwriting chops of a true craftsman.

The son of a Canadian diplomat who lived in England, Austria, Portugal and Israel before his parents split when he was twelve, Adams wound up in Vancouver with his mother and dropped out of school when he was sixteen to pursue a career in music. He and songwriting partner Jim Vallance placed songs with Joe Cocker, Loverboy, Kiss, the aforementioned Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Juice Newton before Adams landed a deal of his own and started a hit parade that included hard rockers ("Cuts Like a Knife," "Run to You," "Summer of '69") and ballads ("Heaven") -- topping charts in more than thirty countries. His "(Everything I Do) I Do it For You," written for the film Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, won a Grammy Award in 1992 and was the longest-running No. 1 single in British music history.

That and his other movie songs -- "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" from Don Juan DeMarco and "All For Love" with Sting and Rod Stewart for The Three Musketeers -- were nominated for Academy Awards. He's supported organizations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the Prince's Trust. Adams was named Canada's Artist of the Decade in 1990 and also received an Order of Canada medal -- though he's resided in London, England, since the mid-'90s, where he's added photography to his repertoire, producing a series of portrait books that benefit breast cancer research and awareness.

Q: You've been at this for more than twenty-five years as a recording artist. How do you remain fresh?

Adams:  I like being able to challenge myself. No matter what you listen to, the thread of you as an artist is always going to be your own personal thing. For me, it's always my voice. So no matter what happens, whatever comes out of my voice will be my signature.

Q: Early on especially, you were compared to people like John Mellencamp, Bob Seger and Tom Petty. Did that have merit?

Adams:  They're all really fine artists, so it's hard to complain if people compare you to them. But I never tried to do what those guys do. I'm not an American rock 'n' roller, even though my music may be down-to-earth and straightforward. It's not the same thing. I have to say something to myself first. Then, if that says something to somebody else, that's good with me.

Q: Does success generate pressure to have more success as you go along?

Adams: Y'know, I'm just having a good time with it now. The pressure for me like it was in the '90s, to deliver, I just don't have the drive to do that anymore. I did at one time really want to make hit records, and perhaps I'll get that drive again. But once all the record company (conglomeration) deals got made and the Internet kicked in and all that happened I thought, "You know what, I'm just gonna have fun with what I want to do now."

Q: You've written a lot of movie music. What do you enjoy most about that kind of writing?

Adams: Writing secifically for something, not taking an idea just out of thin air, has really challenged my musical sensibility to move in different directions and try something new. By involving yourself with other people and other possibilities, you keep moving. I think that's interesting. That's why I enjoyed doing the soundtrack for (2002's) Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron. It was just truly about songwriting and storytelling. It was a good diversion for me at the time and really inspired me to get back into making another record.

Q: You also collaborated with Barbra Streisand on a song for her movie The Mirror Has Two Faces. What was that like?

Adams: Well, it's nothing I would have woken up in the morning and thought about doing. But it was good. If anything, I was more difficult than she was, although at the end of it, when we got down to mixing and stuff, she was quite intense about how it was to sound. But I think that's good. She really knows what she wants. A lot of people criticize her as being tough, but if it was a guy who was that demanding, nobody would bat an eyelid. At the end of the day, she just knows what she wants.

Q: Another somewhat unexpected pairing was you and Sporty Spice (Melanie Chisolm) for your On a Day Like Today album.

Adams: I just thought it was kind of amusing. We met on an elevator when I was filming a video. She started talking and said "I really want to do my own thing eventually." I said "Well, I've got a song if you want to come and sing on it." She said "Really?!" and I said "Yeah," so we worked it out and she came and sang on it. I thought it would be kind of fun. She was really nice.

Q: It's been twenty years since you co-wrote "Tears are Not Enough," Canada's version of "Do They Know It's Christmas" and "We Are the World." What was your intent with that song?

Adams: That was the first real sort of time we'd ever stretched our songwriting ability. We couldn't write another toss-away song. We had to come up with stuff that had more substance to it. We got away from boy-girl lyrics and tackled an issue that was quite sensitive. That experience really set a tone for our writing style over the next year.

Q: Over the years you've changed your look from T-shirts and jeans to designers like John Adams and A.P.C. Is that just growing up?

Adams: I don't consider it a big change, to be honest. I mean, if you go back to 1982, the You Want It, You Got It album, I was wearing an Armani jacket on the cover, if that says anything. The first thing these guys do is get you a bunch of nice clothes. I never really had a collection of nice clothes, but it was fun to do. It definitely sparked a few comments, though.

Q: You've been getting into photography for the past few years. How does it compare to making music?

Adams: It's enormously challenging. I don't have the twenty-five years of walking on stage to fall back on.  I have to sort of learn as I go. There are parallels, I suppose, if you really want to analyze it. Perhaps writing a song is quite simple. You have to start with a blank page, and the same thing starts when you're looking through a lens. Maybe that's a simplistic way to look at it, but that is what it's like.

Q: At the end of the day, what do you consider your main creative focus?

Adams: If everything fell through, I'd still write. I love doing it. I write songs for myself, just because I dig it. I like taking something, just the germ of an idea, and seeing if we can make it great.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.