2017 BET Awards

The Billboard Q&A: Neil Diamond

Neil Diamond doesn't mess with success. That's why he "never doubted" he'd work again with producer Rick Rubin, who steered their 2005 collaboration, "12 Songs," to a No. 4 debut on the Billboard 200,

Neil Diamond doesn't mess with success. That's why he "never doubted" he'd work again with producer Rick Rubin, who steered their 2005 collaboration, "12 Songs," to a No. 4 debut on the Billboard 200, Diamond's best since "The Jazz Singer" in 1982. The album has sold 571,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Indeed, Diamond, 67, says he and Rubin began working on "Home Before Dark," which arrived May 6 via Columbia, "within weeks after '12 Songs' was finished." And once again, their hard work has paid off, as Diamond debuts this week at No. 1 on The Billboard 200, the first chart-topper of his career.

Diamond worked in the studio with Rubin and an improvisationally leaning band featuring guitarists Mike Campbell, Matt Sweeney and Smokey Hormel and keyboardist Benmont Tench. Dixie Chicks vocalist Natalie Maines chipped in on "Another Day (That Time Forgot)," Diamond's first major duet with a female voice since "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" with Barbra Streisand in 1978.

As with "12 Songs," the material on "Home Before Dark" is drumless, with Diamond's still-commanding voice front-and-center and his rhythm guitar, which he went three decades without playing in the studio, guiding the way for the other instrumentalists.

Below, Diamond chats with Billboard about the recording process, his upcoming tour and how writing songs hasn't become any easier after all these years.

"12 Songs" was a big hit and it got a lot of acclaim. Was there any question that you and Rick would do this again?

I never doubted we'd do it again, because we both liked the working process of "12 Songs." We started on this album and talking about it and preparing for it almost immediately after "12 Songs" was finished -- within a matter of weeks.

Once that process got rolling, did you approach the songwriting any differently?

It was different. I mean, first of all, we'd already gone through the experience of working on "12 Songs" together, so we knew each other. We knew how we worked. We knew what to expect. We knew we worked well together. I respected Rick and he respected me. All of those questions you have when you work with somebody new were yesterday's news. We knew what we wanted to do. I went off and began writing, and I wrote for about 14 or 15 months. When I felt I had the crux of the album, I played them for Rick and he was very enthusiastic. So we booked the dates. It was that simple. We knew what we had to do, and we did it.

If it wasn't Rick behind the boards on this record, would that have informed your writing differently? In other words, knowing you'd do things fairly similarly this time, was it easier to craft the material?

No, it wasn't. It's never easy to write the music. It's the hardest thing I do, the writing of the songs. It was just as difficult this time at it was the first time, or as it always has been throughout my career. You want to write the best music that you possibly can, regardless of the production or whatever elements are involved in the recording process. So, there was no difference. I clear the boards for action. I turn off the noise around me and focus in on the music that I'm writing.

What you came up with, some of these are the longest songs you've ever put onto a record.

That's right.

Were you adding to them incrementally, or were they elongated once you started recording?

Well, I never paid any attention to how long the songs would run. They just happened to run four, five, six or in one case, seven minutes. I didn't realize it and I don't think Rick realized they'd all run this long. I was just writing until I felt the song was complete and made its point. It wasn't until we finished recording that we realized, there's a lot of music on this album!

What were you looking to hone in on from "12 Songs?" Was there anything you wanted to take in a slightly different direction as a launching point?

Not at all. This album is a whole different animal. I didn't think of "12 Songs" for a moment when I was writing this album. These are new songs and they had their own challenges. They each presented mountains to climb and rivers to forge. But I did not relate them at all to "12 Songs." They're unique representations and I treated them as such.

Are there any songs that you and the band nailed right away, compared to one that changed drastically once you started tracking?

Well, most of the tracks on this album were developed pretty quickly. The songs were pretty fleshed out and so the tracks were developed quickly. Of course, when you're working with musicians of this caliber, and also musicians who are very adept at improvisation ... Nothing was written, not a single note. It was all played at the session. The musicians were inspired by the songs and looked to find places where they could add to the track. It was not prepared, in that sense. The song was prepared. I'd play it for the band and they'd listen and try to find their place in the whole scheme of things. They'd find what they wanted to do until it began to gel as a complete recording.

There were no real surprises in terms of the recording of the tracks. These guys did a magnificent job representing these songs and giving a musical setting for them. For example, in "Pretty Amazing Grace," there's an extended solo section. I felt that rather than play the song from the top, which I usually did with the musicians, that I'd work with them on that solo section first. We worked on that and got that down, and then I said, okay, here's the song, and here's where I want to fit that solo section in. So, they were prepared for it, but it had to be learned separately. I felt it had to be learned first. It wound up working out beautifully.

But on the others, the musicians caught on pretty quick to the groove that I laid down. I did play rhythm guitar on all of the cuts, which Rick kind of had to force me to do on "12 Songs," but felt more natural doing on this album. I realized how important it was for me to be playing and performing the song at the same time.

The only track that was recorded a little differently was "Home Before Dark," which was the last song written. That was myself and Matt Sweeney, just the two guitars as kind of an after-thought. We hadn't booked a session. Matt was in, and I asked him to come down. The two of us just recorded that together. Rick loved it. There's a small cello line that Rick added in the second verse, and some very light flute in the bridges, but that was about it.

And lo and behold, that became the title track.

And it became the title track. "Whose Hands Are These," I had difficulty with because I wasn't able to find the right feel when I did it with the group. But at the end of one day, Benmont stayed later and the two of us went out there and did the track together, just guitar and piano. That's the record as you hear it, without any premeditated plan on how to do it. We just started it and felt it all the way through. I think it's amazingly effective, especially since it's just the two of us performing it. Rick was pleased as well, because we spent all day trying to lock in on the feel of that with the whole group, but it wasn't until Ben and I played it that we found where it belonged.

It sounds so wonderfully collaborative, and also fun.

It was a lot of fun, and it was a collaborative process. Working with these guys, and having Rick's ear, made it a great deal of fun. Of course, I had to have the enthusiasm of the band, and their consent in a way. When I played them a new song, I wanted them to love it and feel where they belonged in it. I was lucky enough to receive that on all of these songs. They'd be playing along and looking for their places even before I'd finish the first run-through. It was magic, in a way.

I undestand you also recorded Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer."

Well, it didn't make the album, but it's one of the videos on the deluxe edition. I tried very hard to bring that off, basically with just my guitar, voice and me playing a bass drum, based on a demo I did that both Rick and I loved. We weren't able to recapture the same spontaneity of that demo. I will try it again, and I may even do it live in the show, because it's a wonderful song. But we never reached a point with it where we felt it belonged on the album.

On your last tour, did you incorporate any of the "12 Songs" material into the set list?

Very little, because "12 Songs" came out right at the tail end of the tour. So I was able to do a few of the songs, but I'm going to make up for it in this new show and include a number of songs from "12 Songs." I'm very excited about that.

Will they have full band and drums, or will they be true to the studio versions?

For the most part, they'll be true to the studio versions, with the exception of "Pretty Amazing Grace." I wanted to try that a little differently. It's more ... well, I can't explain it without you hearing it. But that'd be the only one. We try to remain true to the presentations on the albums.

Do you envision those having their own block, or will they be woven in with the rest of the repertoire?

Well, without giving away any surprises, let's just say they are in the show in various places. I wouldn't say anything beyond that.

At the beginning of a tour, do you say, 'You know? I want to swap out half-a-dozen songs. What are we in the mood to play?'

I actually do that with my band, which has been with me for 30 years. I have no hesitation about saying, here's a half-a-dozen songs I want to add to the show that we haven't done. Please, let's rehearse them and see if we can find a nice home for them. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but I always like to include songs I haven't done in the show, along with all the favorites done in various ways. But songs that have not been done for a while that I think deserve to be done in the show are prepared with the band and myself. As we go along in the rehearsal process, things are added to that original group and things are removed, up until the very end.

[After] we completed the rehearsals [we] took out one of the songs we'd been using in the show as part of the rehearsals since we started eight or nine or 10 weeks ago. We took it out completely and replaced it for something that was better-suited and something I definitely wanted to do but couldn't find a place for in the show. It's a work in progress, truly, and it will change on stage as well. In this show, there are quite a number of songs that haven't been done for 20 or 25 years.

How did your duet with Natalie Maines come about? It's probably been a long time since you did a duet with a female singer.

That's true. I had written a song called "Another Day (That Time Forgot)," and from the beginning, I felt it called for a woman's voice singing with me. I mentioned it to Rick and he immediately mentioned Natalie. He said, why don't you send over the track and see if she likes it? We did, and I spoke to Natalie later, and she told me, I called my manager before the record was over and told him I wanted to do it. So she loved it and I think she added something special to the record. I was very lucky to have her be a part of it.

I'm curious about your thoughts on the modern music industry.

Well, I concentrate on the art part of things, but like any other artist, I'm dismayed at the usage of music just willy-nilly on the Internet. I've seen dozens of people I've worked with over the years fall by the wayside because of cutbacks at record companies, etcetera, etcetera. I think the public that is involved in this does themselves a disservice, because for whatever the pluses and minuses of record companies over the years, they still have brought to the general public some of the greatest musical artists, ever.

All the great artists we've loved over the years have been brought to us through the auspices of the record labels. They searched them out and spent money and time bringing them to the public's attention. I'm afraid that these talents would not have been brought to the public's attention if the situation that exists now existed over the years. I'm not at all happy about what's been happening. I think it's a shame. It will not affect me, but it will affect thousands of other musicians, writers, engineers and arrangers, who need those pennies to support families.

I remember very well desperately needing the money I earned from my recording work to put food on the table for my family. Even though it was only a few pennies per record, this was important. I had to make a living. I spent years of my life working on this, and I see that whole system being undermined. It's so unfortunate, because we're losing a lot of talented people because of it.

It's interesting because Rick is not only your producer, but he's the head of your record company. Did you guys ever find yourselves in conversation about these types of things?

No. I've never had a conversation with Rick about this. We talk about the music and the recordings, and that's what our relationship is about. His work with Columbia is his own challenge, and I wish him well with it. But my relationship with him is all about the art of making great records.