Interview: Bud Scoppa
Neil Diamond’s last two albums of new material, 2005’s 12 Songs and 2008’s Home Before Dark—stark, elegiac companion pieces produced by Rick Rubin—stand as late-career landmarks for the Hall of Fame artist. Six years later, Diamond returns with the musical antithesis of the Rubin records—the opulent, all but Orbisonian Melody Road, produced by Don Was and Jacknife Lee and featuring the modern-day equivalent of the Wrecking Crew, A-list players including Blake Mills, Greg Leisz, Smokey Hormel, Mark Goldenberg, Joey Waronker, Jeremy Stacey, Hutch Hutchinson, Rami Jaffee and Benmont Tench. It’s a grand gesture for the veteran, who's now 73, and he’s rightly proud of it. Diamond recently took a few minutes to discuss his new album and label, what inspired these contemplative songs and what lies ahead for the still-vital septugenarian artist.
Your recording catalog is now under the Capitol umbrella, and you have a history with Steve Barnett. This seems like a good fit for you, but how did it come about?
I was with Columbia for 40-some-odd years, and I just thought that maybe it was time for a little bit of fresh air, and it seemed like Steve really wanted me on the label, and I went with it.

The first record under this deal was co-produced by Don Was, you’ve got some of the top musicians in Los Angeles on that record and they all sound truly inspired. How did the project come together?
Yeah, the sessions were a lot of fun. I had never worked with any of these people before that I can recall—maybe one or two; Benmont for sure. But I know Don Was, I’ve known him for years. I actually worked with him in the ’80s on a couple of cuts and I liked him. I always knew that I could work with him, and when this opportunity came up to do this album, I called Don [and said], "I like the work you did on the John Mayer album. Don, if you’re available, I got some songs that I’m working on and I’d like you to hear it, see if you want to produce it." And he did hear the stuff; he liked it a lot, so that was it—we were off to the races.

What led to Jacknife Lee partnering with Don Was on the production? I wouldn’t have expected to find those two seemingly dissimilar guys working together.
Jacknife’s involvement was really accidental. I was planning to talk to a few producers, so I set up an appointment with Jacknife. When he came in, I liked him a lot, so I asked Don if he’d mind if we had Jacknife working on this project too, and Don was very open to it, and the two worked out very, very well. It’s something I’ve never done before, to work with two separate producers on the same project. Don Was is a very open, generous creative person, and if I was gonna bring in another guy, it would be with Don, because Don can work with anybody, and he can find the sweet spot in the relationship, and that’s what happened. I turned out to be right, and I just went with the people that I like and felt good about it, and I think they did a terrific job.

Jacknife was important in a lot of aspects of this recording. The recording engineer was his guy; he suggested a couple of the musicians that he had worked with before. So it was a real collaboration, and it just jelled, and you can tell it jelled by listening to the record, because it sounds, to me at least, like it's of one piece, of one mind and heart. And it is. So Jacknife was an important element in the production of this album.

Melody Road strikes me as a reflection on the things that are important, precious and truly worth caring about when you reach a certain point in life.
Well, maybe that’s what it’s about. Regarding my goal for the album, you could say the theme in the story revealed itself as I went along. I wanted to write a little bit of a story, I wanted it to be about a subject, and I guess subconsciously the songs were developed with that thing in mind. It seems like it reflects my own life’s journey in music and in love, and all of the universal things of love and loss and passion and optimism and hope were to make themselves apparent in the songs. Because they do reflect where my head is at right now, which is very optimistic and hopeful and very up. So I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but as long as they got there, I’m happy.
Do you feel a kinship with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Neil Young? Although you sound very different from each other, what the four of you have in common is having somehow managed to continue to be relevant and to document the stages of life in a candid and eloquent way over a period of a half century now, or close to it. Do you feel like you’re part of a brotherhood?
I don’t think about it much, but I’m reminded of it occasionally when I do an interview, so I guess we are part of a brotherhood. I understand their work and their lives and what they have to go through to make their music. So in that regard, we are all brothers; we all know how difficult it is, and we all know how good it feels when you do it right. That’s damn good company.

But I’m just writing because it’s a habit I got into when I was a teenager, and I haven’t been able to get out of it. I could be way off-base, but it seems like all of my past work has been an attempt to discover the meaning of love and the power of love and what that is all about. Seems to me like I’ve always been asking that question, and I think I may have finally resolved it. I go to the end of this album and listen to the last song, and it seems like it has finally occurred to me what it’s about. And if that is the case, I think it’s time for me to move on to another subject. So I have no idea what’s to come, but I don’t feel like I have to dig up and discover more about the subject of love and the power of love. That’s a pretty broad term, but it just seems to me that everything that I’ve done in the past has been an excavation of that concept, and I think I’ve finally figured it out, and I’m telling myself that it’s time to move on to another subject. That’s not to say that next week it won’t occur to me that there’s some new aspect of this puzzle.

So in your mind this is a culminating chapter in a body of work that’s gone on for nearly 50 years.
Actually, 60 years. I’m a slow learner.
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