'Upfront' show on Diamond's mind

By Russell Baillie

Neil Diamond scored worldwide hits in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Photo / Supplied
Neil Diamond scored worldwide hits in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Photo / Supplied

Suddenly Neil Diamond's dark oak voice is rumbling down the phone line from Los Angeles.

He's direct but friendly. He says it's refreshing to speak to someone beyond the walls of the studios he's been holed up in for the past year recording his new set Dreams.

It's an album mostly of covers which follows two return-to-form self-written records, 12 Songs and Home After Dark.

But when he plays in Auckland in February for the first time in nearly 15 years, it's the older parts of the seemingly infinite Diamond jukebox that fans will be there to hear ... .

Are there any of those older songs that you can't avoid playing that you really wish you could?

There are quite a few that I can't avoid and I don't really want to avoid them. They are among my favourites to sing and they will be around as long as I am around and beyond that.

No doubt the shows are a big production.

They are but mostly they are aimed at the heart and we'll see how close we get to people. I really want to get up front and personal and that is what we are about.

And are your shirts still a big production too?

My wardrobe is being worked on now. I have to feel comfortable in it, it tends to be more subdued than it was in the 70s.

Well, most shirts everywhere are more subdued than yours were in the 70s. You are coming up to a significant birthday in January. How old are you feeling?

I don't feel any different. I'm active, I'm healthy I am singing well. And to me they are just numbers. I am healthy and happy and ready to go at it.

It must be heartening to be cooler at 70 than you were at 40 or 50?

Well I don't want to get much cooler than 98.6. That is a bad sign. The perception of people changes over time. I haven't changed very much. I am still the same guy I was when I was 17 years old and and you can't change very much.

It seems you aren't content to rest on your laurels - and they are pretty good laurels.

Well I guess if I could rest I would rest on these laurels. But I'm not a resting kind of person. I am more a restless kind of person.

Does that explain the touring? Because financially speaking you probably don't need to tour.

I need to tour so that I can be in contact with my audience so they can tell me what they like about what I am doing and what they don't like.

How do they tell you what they don't like?

Well I can sense it. I can sense it from the stage and there is a lot that an artist can learn when he goes out and stands in front of an audience.

After your great burst of stardom in the 70s and heading into the 80s, did you ever feel intimidated by what you had already achieved?

I never thought about the previous records. I was always concerned about the songs that I was writing. Just making them so that I could like them. I can't repeat the songs that I had already written. I wanted to find new ideas that excite me and make me want to write and I am still doing that.

Having had some very big hits which eventually tailed off, was it hard to then go: What next?

You don't really think about it. It comes out and either you like it or you don't like it. I don't like to think about it. Thinking is only going to get in my way. I have done very well without thinking and I have no intention of starting now.

Are you a natural writer? Do the songs just flow or do you have to sweat to get everything right?

The beginnings just flow. The sparks of the song will just come but then you have to shape it and make it into a song that reflects the emotion of the music and that is where the work is

Of those great songs was there one that was blood out of a stone?

Well I Am I Said was one of the most difficult songs I have ever written because I had to first understand who I was a little bit and also I had started out with some complicated and sophisticated rhyming patterns and I had to continue those patterns throughout the song and still tell the story. So it was my toughest.

It's interesting that on the new Dreams you are covering two Beatles songs and doing your own I'm a Believer, famously done by a band which was invented in answer to the Beatles

Yeah, well basically I tried to pick my favourite songs to sing and I'm a Believer ended up on the album because there was a way of doing it that I have always wanted to do. So this was a chance to present it and put it in with the others. I think it's the way the song should be done.

You've done Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah too. Did you ever meet in the Columbia Records lift?

No I haven't met him before but I did record Suzanne a number of years ago and I liked Hallelujah. I tried to put my own spin on it and people seem to like it.

Does this covers album allow you to relax a bit after the hard graft of the two previous albums produced by Rick Rubin?

I guess you could say that but it's more an attitude than anything else. I just felt like singing and there is a joy in that and that is what this album is about. I try to do them in my own way anyway and it's not about writing, it's about me being a singer

Given the connections with the producer of your previous albums who got Johnny Cash to cover the song on one of his final records, do you sing Solitary Man any differently now?

Oh I have always sung it pretty much in my own way. I like to think that Johnny liked the way that I sang it. That's maybe one of the reasons he recorded it. As you get older and more mature you sing things a little different just as you see things a little different.

In what way to do you see things a little different these days?

You just have a different perspective than I maybe did than when I was 25. I see the world a little different and I think it reflects itself in the performances.

Were you more serious when you were 25?

I think I was more driven. I think I am basically the same person that I was back then.

* Who: Neil Diamond, born January 24, 1941.

* Best-known songs include: Solitary Man, Cherry Cherry, Girl You'll Be a Woman Soon, Kentucky Woman, I'm a Believer, Sweet Caroline, Cracklin' Rosie, He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother, I Am ... I Said, Song Sung Blue.

* Records sold: 115 million and counting.

* Also known as: "The Jewish Elvis". Even Elvis covered Diamond songs, as did UB40, Johnny Cash, Cliff Richard, Deep Purple.

* Playing: Auckland's Vector Arena on Saturday, February 26, and Monday, February 28.

- NZ Herald

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