For nearly two decades, Ryan Adams, one of the most prolific singer-songwriters of his generation, has been heralded as a mercurial creative genius and a respected industry tastemaker.
Equal parts punk-rock folk hero and romantic troubadour, Adams, 44, has 16 albums and seven Grammy nominations to his name. He has overseen music by Willie Nelson, written a Tim McGraw hit and recorded with John Mayer.
He has also taken a special interest in the trajectory of female artists, especially younger ones, championing them onstage, across social media and in the studio, where his stamp of approval can jump-start careers.
Some now say that Adams’ rock-star patronage masked a darker reality. In interviews, seven women and more than a dozen associates described a pattern of manipulative behavior in which Adams dangled career opportunities while simultaneously pursuing female artists for sex. In some cases, they said, he would turn domineering and vengeful, jerking away his offers of support when spurned, and subjecting women to emotional and verbal abuse, and harassment in texts and on social media. The accounts have been corroborated by family members or friends who were present at the time, as well as by correspondence from Adams reviewed by The New York Times.
From a teenager living in a small town to his ex-wife, singer and actress Mandy Moore, these artists said Adams exploited and then stifled their ambitions. “Music was a point of control for him,” Moore said.
When Adams began corresponding online with a fan, Ava, in 2013, she was a 14-year-old bass player already forging a career.
But their correspondence about music turned into graphic texting. Eventually, Ava said, they conducted video calls on Skype, where Adams exposed himself during phone sex.
The Times has reviewed extensive communication between the two, including 3,217 text messages they exchanged over a nine-month period when Ava was 15 and 16. (The Times is identifying Ava, now 20, by her middle name because she was a minor during their online relationship. They never met in person.)
In the texts, Adams questioned Ava repeatedly about her age, and sometimes she said she was older than she was. Though he did not seem convinced, their sexual conversations continued. “i would get in trouble if someone knew we talked like this,” Adams wrote to her in November 2014.
Andrew B. Brettler, Adams’ lawyer, said that the singer did not recall these exchanges. “Mr. Adams unequivocally denies that he ever engaged in inappropriate online sexual communications with someone he knew was underage,” Brettler said.
Through Brettler, Adams said that he did not have the power to make or break careers and categorically denied the “extremely serious and outlandish accusations” in The Times’ reporting. Adams recalled the interactions with the women differently, his lawyer said, referring to some of the allegations as “grousing by disgruntled individuals” who blamed Adams for personal or professional disappointments and were now out to harm him.
‘I never see pics of you anymore’
Adams was an early adopter in communicating directly with listeners, responding to fans and critics on Myspace and then Twitter and Instagram. He also used social media to scout and meet artists. It was on Twitter that he found Ava, who excitedly messaged him to say hello after she followed him and he followed her back.
“I was really alone,” Ava said in an interview, “and he was really friendly and cool.”
Their conversations were on and off, but a constant theme was Adams fretting about Ava’s age — and asking to keep their exchanges secret — while also indulging in sexual scenarios.
“I never see pics of you anymore,” Adams wrote in November 2014, when he had just turned 40 and Ava was newly 16. “You were blowing my mind.” He had pet names for her body parts.
Days later, Adams expressed anxiety: “If people knew they would say I was like R Kelley lol,” he wrote.
Adams, through his lawyer, said that while he “has communications online with various fans and aspiring musicians,” he “does not recall having online communications with anyone related to anything outside of music.” The lawyer added that “if, in fact, this woman was underage, Mr. Adams was unaware.” He pointed to her performances in clubs and provided photos of Ava from that time, saying she looked “approximately 20.”
As their relationship waned, Adams returned to the possibility of recording together. But for Ava, the idea that she would be objectified or have to sleep with people to get ahead “just totally put me off to the whole idea” of being a musician, she said. She never played another gig.
Other women in music said they, too, were subjected to Adams’ intense flattery and a bait and switch in which professional opportunities would be commingled with sexual come-ons.
The musician Phoebe Bridgers was 20 when Adams invited her to the Pax-Am studio one night in fall 2014. “There was a mythology around him,” she said. “It seemed like he had the power to propel people forward.”
Beguiled by Adams’ energy and enthusiasm, Bridgers brought her best songs. Adams proposed putting them out as a 7-inch vinyl single on his label, setting her on a professional path.
But as they discussed the record, Adams started sending Bridgers flirty texts, she said, and a whirlwind romance commenced.
Yet in the weeks that followed, Adams’ attention turned obsessive and emotionally abusive, Bridgers said. He began barraging her with texts, insisting that she prove her whereabouts, or leave social situations to have phone sex, and threatening suicide if she did not reply immediately.
When she broke off the relationship, Bridgers said, Adams became evasive about releasing the music they had recorded together and rescinded the offer to open his upcoming concerts.
When three songs by Bridgers were eventually released by Pax-Am in April 2015, bringing her serious industry attention, the media gave Adams credit for her nascent career.
Through his lawyer, Adams contested how Bridgers described their relationship, calling it “a brief, consensual fling,” though he did not recall any flirty texts. He never told Bridgers he would withhold her songs, he said.
Two additional female singer-songwriters, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution, described a similar pattern of behavior from Adams: raving about their work and offering tour spots amid aggressive romantic pursuit, followed by harassing messages and threats of professional retaliation when the relationships did not progress as he wanted.
A marriage of music and control
Even for an artist like Moore, now a star of the hit series “This Is Us,” Adams could wield his influence in damaging ways.
When they met in 2007, she was 23, he a decade older. Professionally, Moore was at a turning point: She was exiting her teen-pop years, and his reputation as a sensitive, authentic voice provided the artistic credibility she craved. In 2010, Adams offered to work on her next album; when she parted ways with her music manager, Adams discouraged her from working with other producers or managers, she said, effectively leaving him in charge of her music career.
They wrote songs together regularly that Adams promised to record, but never did. He booked them time at his studio, only to replace her with other female artists, she said. And he lashed out in ways that Moore came to consider psychologically abusive.
Adams lorded his artistic accomplishments over her, she said. “He would always tell me, ‘You’re not a real musician, because you don’t play an instrument.'”
Through his lawyer, Adams called Moore’s characterization of their time together “completely inconsistent with his view of the relationship,” adding that he was supportive of her “well-deserved professional success.” The lawyer said Adams had been happy to help her career and had not prevented her from working with others.
Megan Butterworth, Adams’ ex-fiancée, also described him as a controlling and emotionally abusive partner, who later targeted her with digital harassment. During their relationship, he isolated her socially and professionally, she said, trying to dictate who she saw or worked with. And he could turn rageful, smashing things and physically intimidating her, she said, though he never hit her.
Only recently did the women discover that their experiences overlapped. And in the last few months, Moore and several others who said they were scarred by their relationships with Adams have found one another, creating a support system.
“What you experience with him — the treatment, the destructive, manic sort of back and forth behavior — feels so exclusive,” Moore said. “You feel like there’s no way other people have been treated like this.”