If you grew up among my generation in Canada, four things were certain: death, taxes, hockey...and Bryan Adams.
The fact that it’s difficult to remember a time when Adams’ music wasn’t part of our country’s artistic landscape is a testament to its virtue. By the time I started buying records with my own pocket money, copies of Cuts Like a Knife (1983) and Reckless (1984) pervasively occupied the “best seller” shelves of every store. Almost hourly, his trademark husk was pouring out of radio stations up and down the dial, AM and FM, selling hooks that were unwaveringly good.
As a Canadian success story, Adams’ company of peers who have achieved the same level of domestic and international recognition is small (as an aside, Adams landed his first American top ten single, “Straight from the Heart,” more than a year before he’d have his first at home). When his amaranthine ballad “Heaven” reached the top of the US singles charts in June 1985, he was the first artist from Canada to do so since 1978—and one of only five solo artists to score multiple Billboard Hot 100 number ones since the chart’s inception in 1958.
His role in legitimizing Canadian music in the popular sense beyond its borders is incalculable, and the Biebers, Mendeses, and Drakes whose fame has been unfettered by geography partially have him to thank.
But for the impressive sum of record sales (100 million globally), Juno Award nominations (fifty-six) and wins (twenty), and the GRAMMY Award (fifteen), Golden Globe (five), and Academy Award (three) nods he’s accumulated over four decades, Adams has been crystal clear that he’s uninterested in dwelling for any great length of time on his past accomplishments.
“What drives you isn’t the past; what drives you is the future and what you’re creating next,” he told Billboard in a 2016 interview. “That’s how I think about it. I don’t think about what I’ve done; I think about what I’m about to do.”
Remaining true to this ethos, Adams released his fourteenth studio album Shine A Light on March 1st. While it’s certainly an evolution of his sound built for 2019, it retains much of what made him compelling from the start: well-constructed melodies with as much optimism in their fabric as there is grit. The title track’s luminous bounce sets the tone for the relatively short set (a total of just thirty-five minutes for twelve tracks), but Adams proves that three minutes is more than enough time to grip the listener with a memorable tune.
Highlights include the playful blues-rock riffs of “Driving Under the Influence of Love,” the deliberate pulse of “All or Nothing,” with an anthemic chorus just as infectious as any of his hit singles, and the Beatles-esque ballad “Talk to Me.”
As good of a listener’s album as Shine A Light is, its songs seem to have also been thoughtfully constructed for the tour stage, which is where Adams is spending much of his time nowadays. His latest road trip has taken him to the UK, Australia and New Zealand so far this year, and he’ll return to the US for a handful of dates before making his way to Europe and then back to Canada before the summer’s out.
Adams and longtime songwriting partner Jim Vallance also composed the music and lyrics for Pretty Woman: The Musical, which first opened at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre last March, and then made its way to Broadway at New York City’s Nederlander Theatre in August.
When he’s not engaging musically, Adams is behind the camera as a renowned photographer. His work has been featured in exhibits and published media since the early 2000s (a separate website for his visual art, bryanadamsphotography.com, was established to showcase his photos). This week, he announced a forthcoming book, Homeless, which he describes on his Instagram account as “a portrait study of people living homeless on the streets of London.” Proceeds from the book are being donated to The Big Issue Foundation, a UK-based charity that offers disadvantaged individuals a path to gainful employment, training, and development as newspaper vendors.
Despite his incredibly busy schedule, Adams generously offered me some of his time while he toured New Zealand to discuss his new album, as well as a few points of interest he’s experienced along the lengthy career path that led to it.
Grant Walters: I love the energy of "Shine A Light," and the idea of paying homage to one's roots and not forgetting where you came from. What's your first vivid memory of growing up?
Bryan Adams: Thanks. I used to live in Ontario, and my memories are mostly based on snapshots in the family album. However, snow drifts and cold walks to school were unavoidably memorable. Snow so deep it would come up to your waist. Sometimes it covered the front door. We used to have to dig out the car from the snow the night before. My mother loved our Chevy Corvair. She loved to drive. She would drive to this day if she could—she’s almost 91 now. I co-wrote “Shine A Light” with Ed Sheeran.
The middle eight of that song sums it up: "people love and people cry / people live and people die / but I’ll never meet another life like you / every day and every night / teaching you wrong from right / now you get to shine a light, don’t you?"
GW: Who’s the protagonist in this particular song? What's their story?
BA: I had written the chorus thinking about my parents, as they were both in hospital in Canada in the summer of 2018. And I suddenly imagined that they’d actually be gone. It’s not an easy thing to grasp.
GW: You cut your teeth as a working musician in Vancouver. How would you describe what the scene was like in the mid-to-late ‘70s when you were getting started? I imagine it was markedly different than when I moved there and started going to see bands in the mid ‘90s.
BA: It was great on one hand, because there were plenty of places to play and an abundance of musicians and bands—the club scene was thriving. On the other hand, unless you could get out of it and start making your own music, you were destined to stay there. I tried to tell the musicians I met and worked with that writing new songs was the ticket out of these dumpy clubs.
The best response I ever had to that plea was from one of the drummers I worked with—he said 'Yeah? Why don’t you fucking write them?’ I took his advice.
GW: Do you remember your first paid gig?
BA: Yes, I had made a little bit from the clubs, but it wasn’t until I quit that scene and started to look for studio work that it started to pay my rent. A few of the local jingle companies started hiring me, and I can remember I took my brother for dinner at the local Greek restaurant to celebrate. I could have quite happily stayed as a studio singer, but I knew there was something else.
Robbie King [Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, Skylark] was a local keyboard player who hired me quite a bit to sing backup vocals for gigs he was doing. He was a brilliant gospel pianist. I’ll be forever grateful to him for helping me out. I hired Robbie years later in return, to play on my album Waking Up the Neighbours. It was the last thing he recorded.
GW: I watched footage a few days ago of an interview you did for Rock on TV in 1983, in which you discussed some of the trials you experienced in breaking into the industry, and how important it was for you to believe in your own merits as a “solo artist with a good song” before anything else. Is that still fundamentally who you are?
BA: I’d say so. You ain’t nothing if you ain’t got a song to sing.
GW: I know the first time I connected to your music viscerally was when I saw "Heaven" on CBC’s Video Hits. Obviously, it was a tremendously successful single for you, but it's been covered in almost every conceivable genre since then. Did you have any sense you were creating one of the great Canadian rock standards at the time?
BA: I knew it was a good song, but you don’t think of songs being standards when you write them. The funny thing was the song was written for a really average film [1983’s A Night in Heaven] that my record company wanted to make and then use the song to promote the film. I refused because the film was so awful. I waited a year and put it on the Reckless album and released it as a single two years after it had been written.
GW: I read somewhere recently that you and Jimmy Iovine had planned to exclude it from Reckless, but you changed your mind at the last minute.
BA: That is incorrect. I never changed my mind. Jimmy was amazingly supportive, and I had been confiding in him during the final stages of the mixing Reckless for his views. He thought I could perhaps write two new songs for “Heaven” and “[Summer of] ‘69,” but I had no more time and released the album as it was.
GW: What have you learned most about the world through your eyes as a composer?
BA: That music is incredibly important and powerful thing that brings people together. I hear it every night when I perform—people all over the world sing the songs. Music brings solace to so many. It’s a form of healing.
GW: What do you hope your audience has learned about the world through your songs?
BA: To be 18 ‘til you die.
GW: If you don't mind me being a little self-indulgent for a moment, one of my favorite tracks of yours is "Back to You" from your Unplugged set I was living in Vancouver at the time it was released, going to college, and I was struck by it as a devotional. Would you tell me a little about how that song came about?
BA: It was written at the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver specifically for my MTV Unplugged album. All of the rehearsals for that album took place at the studio, with Pat Leonard co-producing. It was a fantastic album to make—really enjoyable, really musical.
The song itself was written about my girlfriend at the time, as I was away a lot on tour—and it wasn’t like we could get on video chat. Sometimes months would pass before we would see each other, hence the words: "you've been alone but ya did not show it / you've been in pain when I did not know it / you let me do what I needed to / you were there when I needed you."
GW: What piece of music makes you most emotional when you hear it—one that really transports you to a place of feeling vulnerable and in touch with your innermost feelings?
BA: Of mine? A song called “Where Angels Fear to Tread” on the album On A Day Like Today. It never did anything, but there’s something really tender and open about the song. It’s about being unsure in relationships, doubting the longevity, when suddenly someone comes along and makes it all seem possible, if only for a moment: “I never thought I'd find someone to move me / someone who could see right through me / you found your way into my head; where even angels fear to tread.”
And there’s “Why Do You Have to Be So Hard to Love?” I love the vocal in that song—it gets me.
GW: I wanted to ask about your photography, which I think is stunning. As you're framing a subject, to what does your eye become most immediately drawn that prompts you to think 'this is the shot?'
BA: I used to do photo sessions with photographers and see things I didn’t like on the Polaroids and wonder why the photographer didn’t see it. So, I started doing self-portraits to see if I could get it right. As far as getting the shot, sometimes they happen immediately. Sometimes it takes all day. There’s no finite way to do it. Like all things, good things take time.
GW: You've mentioned that your music and photography have a common thread of your love of creating something out of nothing—capturing a moment that wasn't there before. How do those moments of inspiration typically present themselves to you?
BA: You have to create the inspiration. In other words, I have to sit down with my guitar in order to write a song. It won’t come to me otherwise. Images work the same way—you need to graft at it. It ain’t easy.
GW: You've used your platform to be a vocal advocate for so many people and important causes. If someone came to you and said, "Bryan, all you have to do is say the word, and tomorrow people will start doing this unconditionally,” how would you want us as a global community to be different?
BA: That’s easy: go vegan. It’s the one thing that everyone could do quite easily. It would help the environment, and, best of all, stop contributing to the killing of millions of creatures daily because we think we need to eat them. Plus, it would help everyone’s health.
GW: In the spirit of our site, what would you say are your five favorite albums?
BA: My five go-to albums are Bob Marley’s Kaya, Ray Charles’ The Birth of Soul, Willie Dixon's The Chess Box, Donny Hathaway’s Live, and James Brown’s Star Time.