He brings back the sparkle
Mark Edwards talks to Rick Rubin, the man who reinvented Johnny Cash and is now polishing Neil Diamond
What is the secret of success in modern music? The right haircut? The right guitar sound? The right drug habit? Or could it be making sure that you do your homework?
According to the producer Rick Rubin, it’s the homework, every time. It’s hard to square Rubin’s hard-work ethic – surely the very thing most people join bands to avoid – with a production CV that includes such notorious party animals as the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But a strong belief in the benefits of hard slog has helped Rubin to coax the best work out of artists as diverse as Slayer and Johnny Cash, has fashioned some of the key tracks in the history of rap and has now produced a Neil Diamond album that will force those who consider the man a sequined MOR joke to recognise that he’s actually a masterful singer-songwriter.
Rubin’s insistence that songwriters put in long weeks of homework before they get near the recording studio may help to explain why it took Diamond 10 years to agree to work with him. Otherwise, what the hell was keeping him? Surely Diamond had watched Rubin mastermind Johnny Cash’s comeback, helping us all to see that a man who was looking like a directionless anachronism was in fact one of the most powerful performers of our time? Who wouldn’t want some of Rubin’s magic?
Diamond, apparently, who steadfastly refused to return the producer’s calls over many years. To be fair, he was busy. Although his records haven’t made much of an impression for a while, he did gross the small matter of $88m on his 2001-2 world tour. His was not a career that needed rescuing, in the way that perhaps Cash’s did, or indeed in the way that Rubin had rescued Aerosmith’s, by teaming them with Run DMC on Walk This Way. But maybe Diamond’s songwriting self-esteem was in need of rescuing. Because Rubin worked patiently away over 10 years, luring Diamond with the simple hook: “How would you like to make your best ever album?”
Patience is one of Rubin’s greatest attributes. It took him more than five years to coax the first Public Enemy album out of a reluctant Chuck D. Cash’s final works were slowly pieced together, working around his declining health. “Whatever it takes to be great, that’s what we?re going to do,” says Rubin of his approach to recording. “The idea is to take all other boundaries away – budgets, schedules, deadlines all go out the window.”
Speaking from his West Coast headquarters, Rubin elaborates: “It’s often a lengthy process, but it’s not often a lengthy process in the studio. A great deal of the work is done by the artist, sitting alone at home writing songs. Homework is the least attractive part of the rock-star life, but it’s the most important. It’s difficult work – a craftsmanlike job that, honestly, many artists don’t have the patience to do and have never learnt to do. But if you’re not willing to do the work, if you take any short cuts, you won’t get there.”
Before the songwriters do their homework, Rubin does his – getting to know the artist he’s going to produce. “Neil and I got together on a weekly basis for about four months, never hearing a song – just talking. It felt like therapy. We became friends, got to know each other, built a platform from which to work.”
It was, presumably, during just such a bonding process that Rubin read through the diaries of Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis, found his thoughts on his drug addiction and suggested that there was a song in there. The result: Under the Bridge, the song that propelled the band to their current global stardom.
Rubin recalls Diamond gradually beginning to write. “One day, Neil said, ‘I’ll have something for you to listen to next week.’ Then next time we met, he’d say, ‘Er’ maybe next week.’ And that happened three or four times. But it was really worth the wait.”
It was. The resulting album, 12 Songs, is at the very least Diamond’s best album since 1976s Beautiful Noise, and the two men just maybe hit Rubin’s target of creating his best album ever. Building slowly through the defiant Hell Yeah and the metaphor-extending Captain of a Shipwreck, it hits a peak with the lazy lope of Save Me a Saturday Night, the dramatic strut of I’m on to You and the urgent pop of Delirious Love, the track that most vividly recalls his hit-writing heyday of Cracklin’ Rosie and I’m a Believer.
Apart from his hard-work regime, Rubin’s key contribution appears to have been insisting that Diamond play guitar on the record – much against the singer’s wishes. “When we started recording, his natural inclination was to not play guitar,” says Rubin.
“But when he sang without the guitar, the tone of the songs changed. I missed the singer-songwriter spark. He was very insecure about his guitar- playing. But when he played it, first, he sang differently, and second, he became the musical leader of the band and informed what everybody else did. He was connected to the song with his whole body, rather than just his voice.
Rubin isn’t too happy with Diamond being seen as his “next Johnny Cash”.
“I knew that would happen,” he concedes, “but they’re such radically different artists. With Johnny, we were mainly covering other people’s songs; Neil is a singer-songwriter. But they’re both grown-ups, and there aren’t that many great albums by grown-up artists.
“There’s no reason why great artists shouldn’t make their best records when they’re 50, 60 or 70. In other disciplines, it would be expected. It’s hard when, like Johnny, you’ve made 100 albums, to think that your 101st is as important as your first. That it could be your best. But we got there. Each one of those albums Johnny thought was the best he’d ever made.”
He was right, I say. “Oh, wait till you hear the next one,” replies Rubin. But Cash died in 2003, and the outtakes of his work with Rubin were collected on the Unearthed boxed set – how can there be a ‘next one?’ Rubin explains that Unearthed contained only outtakes from the sessions for the four American albums released during Cash’s lifetime. The pair had carried on working on tracks for a fifth album. “I’ve got probably close to 50 songs that deserve to be released. I’m just thinking of the best way to present them,” says Rubin. And he sounds as eager to get those songs out as anyone who knows Cash’s later work will be to hear them.
12 Songs is out now on American/Columbia