When we ask Bryan Adams why he chose to give his 15th studio album the title So Happy It Hurts – a phrase that can be taken myriad different ways – the Canadian guitarist is perfectly succinct.
“First of all, it’s good alliteration,” he tells us. “Secondly, it has a good play on words. Finally it’s the right idea to have a song with a positive message in these times.”
Of course, we all know what he means by “These times”, though 2022 has demonstrated that even beyond the pandemic, the world seems to have no shortage of interesting times to inflict upon us. But it was Covid that inspired the theme of the album, but in these times Adams chose to focus on the positives and the hope for good times to come.
“What better way to look at things?” he agrees. “If you turned on the news it was so grim, I couldn’t stand it. I will admit I was disappointed to lose two years of gigs because of this pandemic, but mostly because it affected so many people in my business who had no recourse but to go and find other jobs, and you know that’s not easy.”
Recording So Happy It Hurts in pandemic times led to a dramatic shift in the way that Adams worked with his long-time collaborators Mutt Lange and Keith Scott. Gone were long writing sessions at home and in the studio, replaced with swapping ideas over email and Facetiming one another.
“On this album we couldn’t get together face to face, so we did it via the internet,” Adams reflects. “I would send him an idea, he’d send back another and then we would knock the idea back and forth until it was a song. Just when I thought I couldn’t get the idea straight, he’d help me sort it out. Nothing was planned, it’s how it worked out. It’s in the songs and the way it was recorded, it’s in the words too.”
Guitarist Scott is one of Adams’ most trusted collaborators and the continued this long and fruitful partnership on So Happy It Hurts – but what’s the secret of such a lasting and close musical partnerships? Well, as Adams tells it, the secret is a simple one.
“Well, aside from our mutual love of rocking out, we’ve known each other for such a long time,” he reflects. “I mean, I met Keith when I was 16, that was 46 years ago, the guy is my brother.”
The cover of So Happy It Hurts sees Adams stood atop the hood of a sports car, his back to the camera, guitar raised triumphantly above his head – but the choice of guitar isn’t accidental. A Gibson ES-295 might be a far cry from the Strat that adorned Adams’ 90s classic Waking Up The Neighbours, but it’s a guitar that has become very special to him in recent years.
“It has become my main guitar!” He enthuses. “I think it’s a combination of the P-90 pickups – which kick the hell out of my 60s Vox AC30 amp – and the size of the body, being hollow, there is this amazing resonation.”
As befits an artist who has shifted around a 100 million records in his career, Adams’ taste veer towards the vintage these days, and his collection is replete with Golden Era classics.
“It’s true, l love the oldies,” he smiles. “I’m not sure why I started buying old guitars, perhaps it’s the wood of an old instrument? The sound of all guitars vary so much on each instrument, old and new. I suppose I’ve had good luck with old guitars, so I stick to them.”
So Happy It Hurts wasn’t purely the preserve of ‘old wood’, however, with various brand new but suitably lovely guitars featuring across the record. But is there anything that people might be surprised to hear he made use of?
“Maybe a Fender Ritchie Blackmore Stratocaster, which Keith Scott gave me for a present, we’re both huge fans of his,” Adams says. “It has a scalloped fretboard which is kind of tricky. Otherwise I used a Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul, which was new, a 1962 Fender Precision bass, my 1965 Candy Apple Red Fender Stratocaster, 1966 Hofner Bass, two different Martin D-12s – one of them is from 1956 – and my beloved 1953 Gibson ES-295.”
When it comes to effects pedals, you might not picture Adams as the sort of guitarist who is obsessing over the minutiae a NASA-style pedalboard, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t be inspired by a new box of joy when the mood strikes.
“Keith gave me the [Dunlop] Hendrix fuzz pedal for Christmas, which I’ve used all over another album I have coming out in March: Pretty Woman: The Musical. If you combine that with a wah-wah and a Marshall Plexi 100 from 1969… boom!”
Adams is rapidly closing in on 50 years in the music business, but his enthusiasm for music and for the guitar remains undimmed. Indeed, he still holds fast to the instrument that set him on his path to being a rock ‘n’ roll star.
“I still have my first electric guitar, it’s an Italian made Strat by a company called Gherson,” he enthuses. “As a kid, I had my heart set on being a drummer, but a drum set wasn’t allowed in the house. So for Christmas 1968, my father bought me a Spanish flamenco guitar. I’m grateful he gave me it, even though it was a beast of an instrument with a very wide neck and nylon strings. But that should give you some idea of the direction he envisioned my musical career headed. Or maybe he was trying to put me off, I don’t know!
The hard lessons that he learned on that old nylon-string would stand him in good stead when he was a young musician trying to make it in Canada’s West Coast music scene. It was a time that was formative for Adams in many ways, and one that he clearly still looks back on very fondly as a time when he realised that music was a viable career choice for him.
“I was lucky, at 17 I visited all the production houses in Vancouver making ads in the hopes they might need a singer, and I actually started getting quite a bit of work at the local studios,” Adams recalls. “Suddenly I could pay the rent and not have to burden my mother anymore. That feeling of independence was everything and I also learnt a lot from working with that caliber of musicians and singers at the time. I became very good at memorizing a melody after one run through, they liked that.”
All of which brings us full circle to So Happy It Hurts – an album that captures the youthful exuberance of playing music again, and a cry for freedom in a time of confinement that is now merrily echoing around packed venues across the world.
“I like that you call it a cry for freedom, that’s great,” he observes. “It does feel different out here, it’s funny hearing thousands of people signing through masks. But I’m really glad we can do it, because there was a moment a year ago where I thought it was all over and there would be no more live shows. I guess you could say that I really am so happy it hurts…”
So Happy It Hurts is out now via BMG.