Bryan Adams
© Bryan Adams

Bryan Adams: “It’s like mining for diamonds”

Short Profile

Name: Bryan Guy Adams
DOB: 5 November 1959
Place of birth: Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Occupation: Musician, songwriter, photographer

Mr. Adams, is rock music dead?

I said that once as a joke, but these days rock music is as big as ever in concert, so in some ways it is doing just fine. It doesn’t get played on the radio like it used to, and the youngsters don’t have the kinds of guitar heroes I had growing up, so as result kids aren’t going for guitars like they used to. Computers changed rock. To be a musician nowadays, you don’t need to play an instrument like you used to, and the same goes for singers. Everything is either already in the computer, or the signal gets processed through a computer. We’ve changed how we make everything.

How about your love of or hope for rock — has that changed too?

I love making music, that’s never changed. My former manager called me one day to ask me what I was doing and I said I was writing songs, to which he replied, “Why bother? No one cares about new music.” I don’t believe that! I don’t despair over the future of rock, because like I said, in some ways it’s better than ever and the gigs are so great. Kids find the songs through the Internet, whereas I remember driving around with my mother listening to AM radio and The Beatles. Of course that opened the door to pretty much all of the seventies rock artists, some I was lucky to see live like Led Zeppelin and T.Rex, and others I got to tour with, like Bowie and Tina Turner...

“I think you need more than tenacity to make it as a musician. You need a good sense of humour as you watch everyone rip you off!”

Apparently after discovering rock music, you just couldn’t stay away. You once joked that you didn’t really have any other job, so you had to make it work. Is that unending passion and tenacity essential to being a musician?

What did Hunter S. Thompson say? “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, where pimps and whores run free, and good men die like dogs… There’s also a dark side.” (Laughs) I think you need more than tenacity to make it as a musician. You need a good sense of humour as you watch everyone rip you off!

What is it that helps keep your creativity alive despite all that? Perhaps your love of photography inspires your music — or maybe it just give you some respite from music when you need it?

It’s a good question and I’m not sure why I delved into photography so deeply. There was something about it when I started, perhaps it was the 1950s Rolleiflex camera I bought in Japan, there was something amazing about that camera, almost every shot I took whether exposed correctly or not, seemed to have something interesting about it. It was a diversion from music, but at the same time it was an integral part, because I started doing self-portraits for albums, not in the Cindy Sherman way, but I’d see a shaft of light from the window and set up my tripod and self-timer and hope for the best.

Actually, I think many of your most iconic photos have a certain musicality to them — some, like your photo of Lana Del Rey in the mirror, look like album covers, while others, like portraits of Mick Jagger or Amy Winehouse really express a lifetime dedicated to music.

Thanks! When you’re working with people as brilliant as the ones you’ve mentioned, you just need be there to make the shot happen, because they instinctively know what to do. By that I mean: turn up the music, or go to a space that is inspiring, a cup of tea, who knows. Mick brought his own music, which was fantastic, Amy wanted The Shirelles.

“Creating something from nothing in that way is basically magic... It’s not easy, it takes a lot of work, sometimes you don’t even know what you’ve done it until you look back at the work.”

Is it true that you learned much that you know about photography when you would have your own portrait taken?

I remember walking into Hiro’s studio in the eighties, and that was a trip into the future. He had his camera assistants loading film, there were hair and makeup people, there was someone to spray water on us, there was a lighting guy running around, there was lots of shouting and moving things around… That was for the cover of Reckless. From then on I worked with Andrew Catlin who had a very different style of simply being there quietly on his own, camera always on hand. That was Waking Up The Neighbours. And I worked with the brilliant Anton Corbijn whose work was not only in camera, but in the darkroom. He introduced me to my printers in the early days, and turned my lacklustre negatives into something I was proud of. He shot the album cover for Into The Fire.

Does songwriting come from the same creative place as photography?

Well, it all starts with nothing, and usually at the end of the day you have something new and original to either look at or to listen to. And it’s the effort that’s fun, I can certainly remember many times looking up at my co-writer, smiling and thinking, “Wow… This is something good.” Creating something from nothing in that way is basically magic, without the trickery. It’s not easy, it takes a lot of work to get there, sometimes you don’t even know what you’ve done it until you look back at the work, or listen to the tape. Sometimes the moment is so small, you miss it. It’s like mining for diamonds.

Does it help to have good collaborators — guys like Robert “Mutt” Lange and Jim Vallance who lend that necessary bit of magic to your ideas?

Those two guys are the unsung heroes of some of my biggest songs, and the moment I just spoke about when we both know something is good, it’s something I’ve experienced with both of them. Songwriting isn’t just a skill — I mean, yes, you need to have some knowledge to be able to play an instrument or put together a rhyme, but what I find interesting is that many young bands and songwriters have created some of the most enduring songs and lyrics with absolutely no experience. So in some ways, it’s about not knowing anything and simply going for it.

So what is it that makes a good song, or even a good photograph, if there are no rules to how you get there?

I think the mark of a great song, photo or a painting is something you can remember. It’s kind of that simple. That’s not to say other photos or paintings aren’t great; if it moved you or if it inspired you, then it’s great. Of course, great is subjective, because the same thing to someone else might not have any effect. But if you work at it, there will be times when the intangible becomes tangible and for a moment… You are a wizard.