AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Singer-songwriter Ryan Adams has been just as prolific, churning out some 20 albums in the last 10 years, taking off in new creative directions each time. But as much as he was admired for his music, his hard partying, battles with labels and band mates and journalists got attention as well. Now, sober, recovered from health problems and fresh off a two-year break from music, Adams is back on tour with tunes from his latest album, "Ashes & Fire."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASHES & FIRE")

RYAN ADAMS: (Singing) Where he stared past...

CORNISH: I asked him about the sound of the title track - we're hearing it now - which I think has a bluesy, country feel. But I figured I'm just biased from having lived in Nashville. He agreed - about the bias anyway.

ADAMS: Everybody that spent time in Nashville has a story. (Unintelligible) gets that out of you. I wanted it to sort of musically and sonically feel like the feeling you get when you're sort of overheated in the car and you're driving someplace in the summer and the windows are down but it's still very warm. I think somehow that idea ended up permeating into the themes in some of the other songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASHES & FIRE")

ADAMS: (Singing) And the wind was suddenly sweeter than Roosevelt pine. The windows broke out and the cigarette smoke drifted by...

CORNISH: I'm curious about your writing style. I read that you work on a typewriter. Is that true...

ADAMS: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...for some of your lyrics? And is it usually lyrics first, then instrumentation or the opposite? Sort of how do the songs come to you?

ADAMS: They're definitely isn't a structure anymore about how I get ideas. A lot of times I'll just write down a phrase or I'll have an idea that's attached to just a few chords. Other times, it's work. I go to my office in L.A. and there's this thing I do. And it's this game that I play with myself. It's really bizarre to explain this but it's called stacks. And there's a bunch of books on the left and there's a bunch of books on the right and there are very different kinds of books. And then there's me in the middle with my feelings. And I do this weird research where I sort of read lines from books on the left and then I read lines from books in the right until something strikes an emotional chord in me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASHES & FIRE")

ADAMS: (Singing) One day there was silence and it washed through the town. There was no reason to speak and no one made a sound. Her eyes were indigo, cats were all calico and the sailboats, they all sailed by. And the river, she cried...

CORNISH: The thing that you do so well in your writing is make it sound intimate and almost journal-like. I feel like I'm learning something about you, the songwriter. When I think of a song like "Save Me," that feels very personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVE ME")

ADAMS: (Singing) What am I doing here in the setting sun with the windows down? What am I?

Well, you know, all the tunes, even the ones when I do the stacks game, I can't win unless by the end of it I'm uncomfortable with the information because I am scraping the bone a little. Either that or they have to be really funny. And something like "Save Me," it was one of those songs where I kind of heard it. There's no way to explain this process without sounding like a complete lunatic, but I had a mental impression of that song already. Like, I knew what that song was meant to do and I knew what it sounded like without knowing the chords and I knew that that was the chorus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVE ME")

ADAMS: (Singing) Somebody save me. It's just too much pain. If someone can save me...

And when I wrote "Save Me," I was going through this period of time where for the last couple of years, I moved to the West Coast and there was a feeling of being lost in a really kind of beautiful way, in fact. But still, there was this letting go that was happening, which was really hard to put into words to describe it the way that it was. And it felt better to write a song called "Save Me" with that chorus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVE ME")

ADAMS: (Singing) In the early dawn, with your heavy bend, and your careless heart, where you been?

CORNISH: I had read that you had taken a break from doing music, I think around 2009, due to health problems. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what made you hit the pause button.

ADAMS: I have been struggling with a hearing issue for a long time and I didn't know what it was. Part of it was due to too much volume and because I had already had this genetic thing of basically of the inner ear canal in my left ear, it sort of blew up, I guess. And the stress of what was happening was all caused by this thing called Meniere's Disease, where you feel, the symptoms are you feel nauseous and dizzy. But also there's extreme tinnitus, which is like a car alarm that's just outside of, like, your bedroom on the street but 24 hours a day. And then it's at different volumes and frequencies.

CORNISH: What did this mean for a songwriter as prolific as you are? I mean, did you just stop music?

ADAMS: There were nights I just couldn't hear. It's middle tones too. So, what's interesting is I could hear the bass, lower frequencies, and I could hear the very high stuff but I couldn't hear the middle and I couldn't hear my own voice. It got to the place where I just thought I have to stop and just basically for six months slept.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: What was it like getting back to your music after that period? How does this affect the kind of music that you make or the sound of it, I guess is really the question?

ADAMS: Well, I think one of the things that I realized was that the ear stuff and the struggles that I was having, they were all meant to be because I think I just ended up in this place where by the time I could play again all I wanted to do was play acoustic guitar. And then I wanted to write songs that were basically, they were beautiful on their own. They didn't need any accompaniment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKS")

ADAMS: (Singing) Flickers in mine eye like a memory. I'm not rocks I am not rain. I'm just another shadow in the stream that's been washed after all these years. I'm not rocks in the river. I am bursting in tears for it...

CORNISH: When I was reading interviews from the last couple of years, I have to admit, I got kind of nervous.

ADAMS: Yeah, I'm really sorry. Yeah.

CORNISH: And I wasn't sure, you know, like, how it would be. And I think that the thing that's most fascinating is you just seem so comfortable on who you are.

ADAMS: That makes me really happy. I think I had some weird times. I was very earnest and very lost guy for a long time. I've hopefully come out the other end of the spectrum.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKS")

ADAMS: (Singing) I believe the sun still rises here. When it falls, there is something to be said for the calm at night, when the stars up above are so cold and bright...

CORNISH: Is there a song on the album that is very meaningful for you, either it was a challenge in creating it or that brings you a lot of joy to perform?

ADAMS: Hmm. I'm still blown away playing "Dirty Rain." I go to a different place in my mind when I play it. It's unbelievable. And the way that it all kind of flows together, it just kind of carries me along with it. And even if it's not a good song, 'cause I can't know because I made it, just being in it physically is so awesome. It's one of those tunes, like, you wait five or ten years and you find one of two or those and you're like, oh, that's what I was waiting for.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRTY RAIN")

ADAMS: (Singing) Last time I was here, it was raining. It ain't raining anymore...

CORNISH: Ryan Adams joined me in the studio. His new album, "Ashes & Fire," is out now and he's currently on tour. Ryan Adams, thanks so much for taking the time to come in.

ADAMS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRTY RAIN")

ADAMS: (Singing) I'm just looking through the rubble, trying to find out who we were...

CORNISH: Ryan Adams performed two songs from the album, plus a cover of his favorite metal tune, here in our studios. To hear them, go to our website, NPRMusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish saying so long for now. For the next year, national security correspondent Rachel Martin will be sitting in this chair while I move to our daily program, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, for the 2012 election season. It's been an honor and a pleasure sharing Sunday mornings with you. All the best in the New Year from all of us at NPR.

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