Ryan Adams rises from the ashes

ON FIRE: Singer/songwriter Ryan Adams performs live in Salisbury.
ON FIRE: Singer/songwriter Ryan Adams performs live in Salisbury.

When Ryan Adams stepped back from music three years ago, he was desperately looking for a way to be a "normal person".

Up until then, Adams had the well-earned reputation of the hard-living, alt-country bad-boy, who despite it all managed to record an album a year since he started releasing music with Whiskytown in 1995.

He went solo in 1999 and released his debut Heartbreaker a year later.  He's made albums with his band The Cardinals and on his own.  He's been praised by everyone from Bono to Emmylou Harris.

ON FIRE: Singer/songwriter Ryan Adams' new album Ashes and Fire is out now.
ON FIRE: Singer/songwriter Ryan Adams' new album Ashes and Fire is out now.

But that all changed in 2009 with the realisation he physically couldn't do any of it any more.

In 2007, two years after symptoms started to appear, Adams was diagnosed with Meniere's disease - a condition that affects hearing and balance, with episodes of vertigo and tinnitus plus progressive hearing loss.

Not ideal for a musician.

"It took me a little bit of time to get it under control and get my life under control.

"I was very, very sick. I was very ill. I had screaming loud noises in my left ear from the tinnitus from the Meniere's.  And... I just felt sick all the time.

"There was no way I was going to play."

He says despite music being his bread and butter before he was forced to take a break, there was no time or energy to question being away from it.

"It wasn't about 'was I happy or not happy to be away', 'did I want to play, did I not want to play' - I was in bed, I was very ill. I was just trying to recuperate and get a handle on it, feeling like s***.

"I physically could not go on. I had to stop.

"And when I did, all the years of pushing past the point of where I should have taken a break, manifested itself.  So I really, honestly was rehabilitating myself and finding ways of recuperating and just to try to be like a normal person.

"If I could be a normal person and I felt comfortable again that is when I would decide to actually make music again."

And that's exactly what happened. The 36-year-old has the condition under control and now, with the release of his 13th album Ashes and Fire, Adams says he is easing himself back into the game.

Of course, during the recuperation process, Adams has written his second book of poetry, written a novel, set up a his own record company, recorded more than three albums for his website, married actor/musician Mandy Moore and hung up the drugs and alcohol.

But he insists he is taking it easy compared to how it used to be.

"I don't ever want to do it the way I did it before. I can't physically do it the way I did it before. I have to be more careful, so I'm just kind of taking it slow."

But it is Ashes and Fire that is driving Adams right now. After mixed reviews for the last handful of releases, it seems Adams has found something in his time away from the studio - Ashes and Fire is arguably his best release in years.

He says the album hasn't been influenced by his experience with being bed-ridden.

"[Meniere's] is a personal thing, and I decided it didn't have to have anything to do with my creative life, it didn't need to be a record about recovery."

But it's clear his new, clean-living life with Moore has something to do with the revitalisation, along with working with his "kid sister" Norah Jones, who plays piano throughout the album, producer Glyn Johns and Benmont Tench - founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - during recording.

And despite it being nearly midnight at his home in the States, a clearly exhausted Adams comes alive when he talks about returning to the stage.

He's just returned home from a European tour. These days it's just him, a stool and a guitar on stage but Adams says it was a perfect way to perform.

"It's a very beautiful and mellow way of playing songs.

"It was really great, it was beautiful.  People seemed to love it. I really loved it."

And soon it will be New Zealand's turn if Adam's has his way. 

"Yes!  It couldn't be any later than early next year, if not the end of this year."

Ryan, you've just made a lot of people happy.

"It will make me happy too.  It's lovely there, although the plane ride is not something I am entirely ok with."

Ashes and Fire is out now.

Listen to Ryan Adams' new album Ashes and Fire right here on Stuff.co.nz:

- Fairfax NZ