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WILL FERMIA: It is my pleasure to introduce today’s guest, singer/songwriter Neil Diamond,
NEIL: Thank you very much, Will. How are you today?
WILL: I’m very well, thanks. How are you doing?
NEIL: Good, great! I’m lookin’ forward to this.
WILL: Before we jump into the questions, let’s talk about… you have a new box set out. It’s called “Stages” and it’s called that because it’s recordings of your performances on stage and by far the most popular question on the list is: “When are you coming to my area?” And the areas represented are pretty much every state in the Union, plus about all of Europe, and… uh… parts of the Middle East, and a lot of Australia. Anyway, you just came off a huge tour in 2002. Talk about…oh and people are asking about TV concerts. “Are you going back out again on tour?” How soon before that happens and how big a part is touring for you?
NEIL: Well first of all, it’s nice to know that people are interested and enthusiastic about us coming out and doing the show and doing the tour. That’s always good for me to know – it’s an upper – because, basically, right now, I’m working on new material, writing new songs and… uh… I have some really nice things that I’m working on, and I’m hoping to be able to go out and tour as soon as I’ve finished these songs and recorded them. Uh…as soon as that happens, I’d like to be able to go out and… uh… continue the tour.
WILL: Have you every pondered… you know, I just… uh…former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright just finished a book tour and she had figured out the mileage she had done in the course of being Secretary of State. Have you ever contemplated just how far you’ve traveled for 40 years?
NEIL: Uh…I have never figured that out. I’ve never added all those miles up. I guess it would be an interesting number, but… uh… I really don’t think about that. When I’m out touring, I’m thinking about presenting a beautiful show, making the audience happy and… uh… just enjoying myself. You know, I guess when I’m all finished some day, I’ll total that whole thing up and… uh… it’s never occurred to me to try and figure that out.
WILL: Susan in North Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada, asks, “Did you ever guess when you started over 30 years ago that today you would have such a large fan base still anxiously awaiting your next tour or next CD?” When did that become a factor as big as it is?
NEIL: Well…no, the answer is I never did imagine that… uh… I’d have so many enthusiastic fans out there asking when I’d be touring and be looking forward to the next show. It’s… uh… a great, wonderful, exhilarating experience for me to know that — to know that there are people who really want the show to come to their town and it’s very, very exciting. But I never… uh… ever for a moment thought that — all that.
WILL: Gary in Louisville, Kentucky has a 12-year-old daughter who is a big fan of yours. Shannon in Vista, California also is aware of this. She calls it the second generation fan — wants to know if you ever feel awkward or strange about the age difference or how do you explain that cross-generational feel that you have?
NEIL: Well, I’ve never felt strange about having various people — ages — backgrounds come to the shows. I just think it’s great! I’ve been touring now for quite a while and it’s nice to see new generations coming in — kids of fans who have been with me for a long time and sometimes even at this point, grandchildren. So it’s a wonderful experience to see that happen. It’s kind of a regeneration of the audience, and…uh… I love to see it and I never feel strange about it. It’s always a good feeling.
WILL: Julia Ann writes from Brooklyn… I should mention first, your last tour started in the fall of 2001 with the beginning at an awkward time. Julia Ann writes, “I saw you in New York City after 9/11 and that was the best thing for me,” she says. Carolyn in Deer Park, New York says she hoped you realized how amazing your performance was in October 2001, one month after 9/11. Did you have an emergency meeting with the band and say suddenly everything is different and we have to perform, or how did you adjust for that?
NEIL: Well… uh… you know, everybody was affected by that tragic incident, and… uh… we started our tour about 2 weeks after 9/11, and I really didn’t understand what the reaction would be — what the response would be. I was afraid people might be inhibited or might have that on their mind, but as it turned out it became an important element because people… some for the first time… were able to get away from their TV sets… from the news of this event and to get on with their lives, and to show that they could get on with their lives. So it became more than just going to a show and having a good time. It became a re-establishment of their lives, and it became important in that sense and I felt very good about it. I don’t know if I had any meetings. I don’t remember having any meetings with the band. I mean we were all aware of this and we were concerned about it but, you know, when you go out and present a show to an audience, you basically…you want to present the best possible show, and you hope that they will involve themselves in it — maybe more than ever the audience was able to involve themselves in this show, and it was very exciting for us on stage and behind stage to see this go on. It was a very positive thing, and we felt we were making a contribution.
WILL: Here’s something that’s unique to some people we have interviewed in this forum. Josephine in Bedminster Down in Bristol, England named her son, Neil, after you. Deborah in Rome, Pennsylvania also named her son Neil. Oh, she wants to know if you have any statistics on how many boys have been named after you? Shilo wrote in from North San Juan. Of course you know where her name comes from. You know — it’s often when we interview musical guests that people write in — you know — oh, your song was my prom song, or my first kiss or whatever. But I don’t think there is a wedding in North America where the DJ does not play Sweet Caroline and cuts the volume out so everyone can sing the bop, bop, bop part. When you’re woven in the fabric there, how do you process that kind of impact on people?
NEIL: Well, it just makes me feel good. It really does. I’ve said many times before that writing is a very reflective, internal, solitary kind of work, so when you see that people are responding to your work, in an audience, in the sense that they go out and they buy the record, it’s always very positive and when they go further than that and take the music into their own lives, play it at weddings, it just – it makes me feel very, very good and useful at the same time. So I do feel good about it.
WILL: Bruce in Philadelphia remarks on the longevity of your music, and again, people wrote in about appealing across generations. Jim in Chino, California wants to know if you feel the art of song crafting is no longer as important in today’s pop music.
Kiley in Victoria, Australia called it “manufactured.” Do you hate popular music? Have they lost it?
NEIL: Well I’m not sure they’ve lost it but it’s evolved into something a little different than what it was. But really at the heart of it, we’re talking about melodies that are able to move people and inspire people and lyrics that hopefully can do the same. There are all kinds of styles of music that are out there, and, you know, I think that’s good. I think there should be many different kinds of music out there for people. Some of it I get, some of it I don’t get. But that’s beside the point. We have to offer all kinds of music to people and they will respond to the music that’s right for them. So, you know, if produced music, processed music, synthesized music ¬¬– some of it you can take and some of it not. But, I think it’s important that it all be out there and that people make their own choice and find something that moves them. So I think it’s good. We don’t have to love it all but I’m glad it’s all out there.
WILL: You know, speaking of modern things, the DVD in the Stages box set shows you selecting the songs and listening to an Ipod and some of your guys are using laptops that look like some kind of wireless connection. Are you a very wired, modern person?
NEIL: Actually not. I’m not very technical. I still have a lot of questions about my computer. I’ve got a little laptop and that’s about all I have. I don’t do a lot of things on the computer. But I do like it. It’s fun. It opens up all kinds of areas to play in, and I think it’s good, but for myself, personally, I’m not a high-tech kind of a person, and I use it occasionally. I’ve only written a few e-mails in my whole life and I’ve only received a few in my whole life. So I put myself on the low end of the technological scale.
WILL: Well, let me let you know, then that you have a huge on-line presence, regardless of your not personally being there. As a matter of fact, a lot of your on-line fans have written in today. Let me segue then, speaking of modern things and computers, Suzanne in Norman, Oklahoma says you’ve come out as being opposed to file swapping on the Internet. She makes an interesting point though. She says most of the trading, of your songs anyway, involves songs that are practically impossible to find otherwise. Do you have plans to make more of your old songs, including the Neil and Jack tunes available? So there’s sort of a two-parter there — file trading and old songs.
NEIL: Well you know, I think in the sense that people are able to trade files and find things that are no longer in existence in stores, I think that’s probably a good thing. Otherwise I have a real problem with major downloading of music. It’s hurt a lot of people. Not so much myself but a lot of songwriters who are starting out and trying to find work, recording artists who are just trying to break in, certain label recording companies who are small and holding on by their fingernails. It’s done a lot of damage to those people and musicians all over the country so I think it’s bad in the long run. I think it hurts the potential for the future of a lot of these people, and that makes me feel bad. I would hate to think that somewhere out there there’s another “Beatles” waiting that can’t get their start ’cause they can’t survive economically because of all of this downloading. There’s definitely a price that we will pay in the long run for this. And that, I think, is unfortunate.
WILL: Deborah in Ontario, Canada asks, “Have you ever written songs intended for your own album and the song ends up being recorded by another artist?” She also asks if people come to you and say, “Neil, write me a song.”
NEIL: Yeah, occasionally I get people who ask for a song. Although I’m pretty well known now as a person who writes his own material and records it. The last time I had a big success with someone coming out with one of my songs was the “Monkees,” who recorded “I’m a Believer,” and it was off one of my early albums–maybe my first or second album. And, you know, they released it and had an enormous hit with it. So I was very pleased about that, especially though early in my career, it was one of the things that established me while I was trying to make my own records. Occasionally I will… uh… send a song off to somebody. I did recently on a song I wrote just a matter of months ago, to a group called “Smash Mouth.” They recorded a thing of mine called “You Are My Number One,” and I think they did a beautiful version of it, and so I was pleased with that. But for the most part, I’m going to record my own writing myself. Maybe occasionally have somebody else do a song along the way, but for the most part, I think it’s going to be my recording of it.
WILL: Is it hard to let go of a song whether it, sort of selling to another artist or just — you know since the song has a meaning to you since you wrote it but it has a different meaning to someone else — is that difficult?
NEIL: Well… uh… not so much… uh… I think, you know, if it’s a very personal cut of a song; if it’s a song like “I Am…I Said” or something like that which is very personal, I think that would be difficult to send to another artist. But there are a lot of talented artists out there, and if there’s somebody out there that I like a lot and they want to try one of my songs and fall in love with it, I’m very happy about it. I’m very interested to see what they do with the song and how they present it. So unless it’s a very personal kind of a song, I really have no problem with somebody else trying it.
WILL: Uh… we got a lot of questions about your influences. Shirley in Columbus read once that you said you were influenced by Pete Seeger. She’s curious to know how that shows up in your music. Others ask more broadly, “Who do you like to listen to, and who are you influenced by?”
NEIL: Well, Pete Seeger is still around and still performing. He’s a folk performer and has a very strong social conscience in his work. I loved his music, especially when he was part of a folk group in the ’50s called “The Weavers.”
I loved their stuff and, matter of fact, when I first started playing the guitar, I learned all of “The Weavers” songs and played along with their records and sang along with their records. So, I mean, Pete Seeger and “The Weavers” had a very strong influence on my songs. I’ve always loved folk music and… uh… I can hear them and that group in many of my things.
WILL: Are influences — do you have separate influences for performing live? Jody in Shawnee, Kansas asks, “How do you explain how your music and your performance touches people?” She calls it a love fest.
NEIL: Well, ya know, I think it’s a love fest as well. I mean the audience is leaning in my direction, and it’s a very good feeling from my perspective to perform to an audience who’s happy to have you there. And the influences I’ve found on stage at this point in my career, I’ve developed my own sense of self and my own identity as a performer. I like to keep it simple. I like to keep it truthful and as close to myself as possible. I’m not trying to be anybody else, and if I’ve learned anything after these years of performing is that it’s important to be truthful and honest in your performance, and I don’t try to be anybody else, and you know after all these years, that’s what it’s come down to…keep it simple and keep it truthful and go out and have some fun.
WILL: You mentioned — you talked a little bit about writing the songs — some people wrote in asking about the actual song-writing process. Louise in Buffalo, Wyoming asks about the personal inspiration behind them. Eric in Kansas City, Missouri — “How do you write your songs? Do you sit down at a designated time, or do you keep a journal?” And Bonnie in Bismarck, North Dakota asks about the background music and how that becomes integrated with what you end up writing.
NEIL: The background music — you mean the music behind me?
WILL: Well, the arrangement – yes.
NEIL: Well, you know the arrangement should reflect the mood and the tone of the song, and in the best cases, that’s exactly what it does. But, umm, it all starts with the song, the orchestrations, the arrangements, even the performance. It’s all based on what the song is saying and, and, and, uh what the feeling of the piece is, and, ideally, it should be the first consideration, and everything else comes after that.
WILL: And in terms of the song itself, “Do you just jot down ideas as you have them, or is there a more formal way that you have of writing?”
NEIL: Well as far as writing is concerned, you know, I have ideas during the day; ideas for concepts for songs and I will jot them down–a title or a concept–and I keep them in a drawer and strangely enough, they usually stay in the drawer. They don’t usually end up as songs. For me, the reality is that the song starts with the music itself. So I have to pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano and start playing, start noodling, start experimenting, just for my own enjoyment and… uh… occasionally, you’ll find something that you really like — a chord change or a transition — something that you really like or haven’t heard before, or it strikes an emotional chord with you, and you begin working from that to expand it and make it into a full grown statement– a musical statement. But it’s usually the music that starts it off, although I still jot down ideas all during the day — they look wonderful to me, but rarely end up in songs.
WILL: Jamie in Cleveland, Ohio was one of the…she calls it the chosen girls at the Cleveland show in October of 2001. She wrote in to say “Thank you.” Lillian in Sierra Vista, Arizona… she wrote a whole list of questions, but the first one was “What are you thinking about when performing on stage and you pick a woman out of the audience like that with the ‘Girl You’ll Be a Woman’ song? I’m curious to know also how that came about and have you had jealous husbands or that sort of thing?”
NEIL: Well the answer is that usually the husbands are the ones that push their wives or girlfriends up on stage — they, you know, they’re more excited than the girls just to have that contact, and it’s fun. You know, I did “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon” and included it in this set on the last tour, and it just seemed to come out of the situation. I didn’t plan it upfront that somebody would come up or be called up, and I would sing the song to them — it wasn’t planned out. It just seemed to work out that way, and the audience enjoyed it and I though it was a lot of fun. And so I’ve been doing it in the last tour, and it’s just a light moment and everybody gets a chance to laugh and …but I haven’t had too many jealous husbands — they seem to be the ones pushing their wives up — you know, to get a kiss or to have the song sung to them.
WILL: Someone had asked — rather than hunt for it in the list — let me just repeat — when you’re actually on stage and look out — in fact some people had written in — “Have you ever seen my sign? I’ve tried this a number of times. Do you see the individual faces or just see a sea or just see the lights — what’s your perspective on the stage?”
NEIL: Well, over the period of the entire show you see many things. You do see faces and — you know there’s nothing like a smiling face in the audience to make a performer feel good. I would suggest to anybody going to a show — anybody’s show — to put a smile on their face because the performer does see it, and it’s uplifting and it makes the performer feel good. I do see signs in the audience depending how far away from the stage they are, and I do see large groups of people — it would be hard to pick out an individual, I think, although that happens sometimes too. But… um… you see many, many things from the stage, and sometimes it makes an impression, and sometimes you, you know, it just goes past you.
WILL: We got a lot of questions about your motivation and people pleading, “Please don’t retire!” and stuff like that. Patricia in Cleveland, Ohio wants to know “Is there anything you would still like to accomplish in light of all that you have accomplished, and also I noted in one part of the DVD in the box set you remarked to someone ‘I’m burnt today.’ Do you ever feel like — ‘Hey look, I have nothing left to prove, I came and I saw and I kicked it, and I’m gonna just go and sit on a beach now.’?”
NEIL: Well, yes, I mean honestly, that thought does cross my mind occasionally, but the reality is that I’ve been making music since I was a teenager, and it’s part of me and it’s the most fulfilling thing that I do. It’s me at my best, and I would like to continue doing it for many, many years to come. That’s my goal. I really don’t feel that I want to prove anything other than to present beautiful music to people and to uplift them in a way sometimes and give them an experience that’s memorable. Beyond that, I don’t feel that I want to prove anything or have to prove anything at this point. It’s something I love to do and as long as the audience expresses a willingness to join in on the fun, I’ll continue doing it.
WILL: Nancy in Lexington, Kentucky heard you on Larry King say that you were spending more time writing. Can you give us any clues as to what you’re working on?
NEIL: Yes, well this year I’ve been writing and… uh… it’s good because… uh… we spent quite a bit of time on tour, and this is a good counter-balance to that. Touring can be an exhausting experience although it’s great fun and it’s very satisfying. And after a while, it’s good for me to get back to the writing.
WILL: Writing? I’m sorry… writing music or writing a novel?
NEIL: Yes, writing music. Basically what I do. I write songs, and I’ve been writing songs since almost from the day that I finished this tour. I completed the tour on New Year’s Eve and slept through the entire next day, and the day after that I started writing. Not because I had to, but because there was something in me that wanted to write. And… uh… I’ve been writing since then. So… uh… the songs are coming and they’re good. I feel very good about them, and hopefully my audience will think they’re beautiful and ¬– you know — as good as anything I’ve written before. But that remains to be seen. I figured I can only be hopeful about that. Right now, and for this year, I’ll be writing and then recording. And it seems to be the right thing to do.
WILL: Do you ever know when – is it all – you’re sort of surprised what is a hit or what isn’t or when you write “Sweet Caroline” do you sort of throw open the window and scream I just wrote a hit?
NEIL: Well, you never do know when a song is a hit. You know if you like it. You know if it makes you feel good. But, you know, going that next step to being accepted by the public on a very wide basis — you never know that. You can only hope for the best, and really all I know when I complete a song is I like this — I like it a lot and the rest is in God’s hands.
WILL: Well, this half hour certainly flew by. We’re out of time for questions, but let me just relay that there are a lot of non-questions — just sheer well-wishing on the list that you should be aware of and that all of your fans appreciate you very much. Maybe to wrap, you could just give us some closing comments to finish out.
NEIL: Well, I thank everybody for their good wishes. It’s really what I need, and, in truth, what any artist needs to keep going and to keep doing this work. It’s very rewarding work but it is very solitary and, you know, until an audience says we like what you’re doing; we want you to continue, you never really know whether you should — whether what you’re doing is worthwhile. So it’s great for me to hear that people are calling in, they’re sending their good wishes, they want to see the show, they’re waiting for the new songs and new album. This is what keeps me going very frankly, and I’m very grateful for it. I’ve been doing this for my life, and this is my life, and this is my dream to be able to make a life in music. It’s something that I love very much, and as I say, I’m grateful for the chance to do it and that I still have people out there who are excited and enthusiastic and interested in what I’m doing. So I want to thank those people, for they’re really responsible for keeping me going, and I’m so grateful for it and I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world. So I’m going to keep doing it and hope that I make some impact and have some kind of — I don’t know — have some kind of ability to touch people and to move people and to be able to keep doing it for as long as I live.
WILL: Well, we’re certainly lucky to have had you here today. Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us.
NEIL: Thank you, Will. It’s been fun and let’s do it again sometime.
WILL: Absolutely! When you’re ready to launch that new CD, come on back. We’re ready to have you.
NEIL: Thank you, I appreciate it.
WILL: Thanks a lot.
NEIL: Bye now.
WILL: Many thanks to our guest, Neil Diamond, and I’ll add many thanks also to the Neil Diamond fans out there. I read through ridiculous numbers of questions. We got to as many as we could, and hopefully, we can have him back again for more questions. The new CD/box set — 6 CD box set — it’s called “Stages” and it’s in stores now — fresh out, I think, yesterday.
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I’m Will Femia. Thank you for listening.