Jimmy Buffett slyly admits he knows one thing for sure: When you own the record label, "you make yourself a lot more available than when you're working for someone else's company." Therefore, he's gra

Jimmy Buffett slyly admits he knows one thing for sure: When you own the record label, "you make yourself a lot more available than when you're working for someone else's company."

Therefore, he's granting a rare interview as he drives to the airport near his West Palm Beach, Fla., home to talk about "Far Side of the World," which arrives March 19 on his own Mailboat Records. From the airport, he will pilot his Albatross sea plane to survey some Everglades swampland. "I have some friends coming to visit, and I need to check out the alligators before I take them," he says.

But for now, he wants to talk about "Far Side of the World," his 33rd album overall and his first studio recording since launching Mailboat in late 1999

"I'm just glad to still be making albums," he says. "At one level, I pretty much know if you like what I do, you'll like this music. It's not the time to go off and do 'Buffett Discovers Gershwin.' It's like cooking: You don't completely go make some other dish that's not palatable, but you try to use some different ingredients."

In this case, the "different ingredients" in many ways hark back to Buffett's early days, when he recorded such plaintively beautiful songs as "Come Monday." On "Far Side of the World," he reflects on love through a cover of Bruce Cockburn's wistful "All the Ways I Want You," as well as his own ode to dreamers, "Someday I Will," and closes with a gentle reminder to stay true to oneself with "Tonight I Just Need My Guitar."

The slightly more intimate feel was by design, he says. "At a certain age, you start to become more introspective. I'm 55. At some point, wisdom starts to overcome testosterone."

At the same time, longtime fans still have plenty of Buffett's quick wit to draw upon on the drippingly condescending "Altered Boy" and hilariously existential yet nostalgic "What If the Hokey Pokey Is All It Really Is About," which Buffett wrote after seeing the line on a bumper sticker. "Let's teach the parrot heads [as his die-hard fans are called] the hokey pokey," says Buffett, who's working up a new routine for his live show. "We've been doing 'Fins' long enough.

OUT OF AFRICA

Much of the album was influenced by a trip Buffett took to Africa, as evidenced by the rhythms on opening track "Big Guitar." But the travelogue extends far beyond Africa: "Autour de Rocher" details the Bacchanalian decline of a Caribbean hotel Buffett used to own that mysteriously burned down; "USS Zydecoldsmobile," penned by Sonny Landreth, is a high-speed romp through cajun country.

The album was originally slated to be released last October but was delayed when Buffett decided to change the cover art after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

"The cover was a photo of me from Africa [sitting] on a camel with a turban talking on a cell phone," Buffett says. "I decided we'd take another picture from the series. Even before Sept. 11, I was thinking, 'I don't want the cover in this flash, sound-bite world to become an issue.' The album and quality of the work would have gotten lost. Someone on Fox would have taken me to task, so we just re-did it."

The album's first single, the midtempo "Savannah Fare You Well" (written by Hugh Prestwood), salutes the Georgian city, and Buffett liked the title, as the word "savannah" tied in with his African theme.

Earlier this month the song was sent to U.S. triple-A, AC, and modern AC radio stations for airplay consideration. Now on his own label, Buffett would like airplay, but he's not willing to change things to court it. "The consultants [we] hired asked if we would take the steel guitar part out of the song," Buffett recalls. "I told them, 'Hell no, I paid him a lot of money to play that!' "

Buffett turned to Russ Titelman (James Taylor, Randy Newman) to produce "Far Side of the World." Although the two men had known each other a long time, they'd never worked together.

"He's one of my favorite producers of lasting music," Buffett says. "I'd always told him that I'd love to make a record with him where we could use an old-school philosophy to select songs, use a little A&R. I said, 'I don't need to write everything. I'm not trying to get on the radio.'"

QUICK AND TO THE POINT

But Buffett remains committed to trying to make the best record for his fans that he can. "If you're into what we do, it's a record you'd love to add to your collection, but that doesn't mean I just whip something out every year. I try to put as much attention into an album as I do a show."

The pair recorded the bulk of the basic tracks on a soundstage on Sag Harbor in Long Island, N.Y. "It was a public-access studio that we modified," Titelman says. The pair then went to Nashville to complete overdubs, backing vocals, and other instrumentation. After another stint in New York, the album was done. From start to finish, the project took about six weeks to record -- which is a much quicker pace than at which Titelman usually works.

"Jimmy said to me, 'It goes really fast, and it's lots of fun,'" Titelman recalls. "And I looked at him at the end of the record and said, 'Sir, you did not deceive me.'"

Buffett says, "As much as I love his records, I knew Russ had a propensity to extend and go over budget, so I just subtly said, 'We don't have to beat ourselves up in here.' You can approach it as a microscopic surgeon and overdub the beginning of a note because the technology is there, but I don't happen to be one of those people. I'm a live performer trying to capture whatever bit of magic I may have, because I believe in that."

Titelman says Buffett's good-time, life-of-the-party stage persona disguises the serious artist. "He sort of appears to his fans like he's an everyman, and he's a great entertainer," Titelman says. "What I found working with him is that he's a much better musician and singer than he lets on."

But it's Buffett's live appeal that remains his strength. He averages around 30 shows a year, usually logging sellouts wherever he appears, despite lessening airplay. He drew 49,490 people during a two-night stand last September at the Chicago-area Tweeter Center. According to the Billboard Boxscore reports, Buffett grossed $25.6 million last year playing 30 shows.

"After Sept. 11, I had mixed feelings, but I feel that we still had to go out there," Buffett says. "As a performer, I was going to go out and play come hell or high water. I wasn't going to be run out of town by a bunch of terrorists. In doing so, our crowds were -- and are -- so wonderful. I think there was almost a desperation. If we can give them the best night they have all year and they can take home something musically that lasts the rest of the year, I've done my job for them and I've done my job to Mailboat."