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By Charlotte Heathcote Have your say(0)
HE HAS millions of fans around the world, but iconic singer-songwriter Neil Diamond tells Charlotte Heathcote his success has mean sacrificing relationships in order to write great songs.
You don’t get to be the third biggest recording artist in history without making some sacrifices along the way.
In the case of Neil Diamond, that sacrifice has been his personal life. His greatest love has been his career, his dedication to writing classic hit songs like Sweet Caroline, I Am…I Said and You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, then tirelessly touring them.
The hard work has certainly paid off. Fifty years of hard graft has enabled Diamond to shift 128 million records, a number set to climb even higher with the release of his new covers album, Dreams.
But, at 69, Diamond has no significant other to share his success with, and when we speak during his recent London visit to perform at the BBC Electric Proms, he admits: ”In the last few years I’ve just felt that I’ve missed out on a lot personally.”
For him, songwriting is all consuming and isolating. He once said, ”When I’m writing I am truly solitary… I isolate myself, build walls and remove myself from the world,” a state of affairs that can last for well over a year. He explains, in his very considered, thoughtful style, that recording this covers album was a walk in the park in comparison.
”It was a wonderful change. I didn’t have to go and re-examine my psyche and pull out things that were maybe buried or undiscovered for years. I was doing music that was reflective of my own life and experience without having to go through the painful work of creating it. This record is a dream come true.”
The album came about almost by accident. ”I decided I needed to sing,” he says. ”I thought it would be a real lift. So I decided to just go into the studio and sing some songs that I had really loved over the years.”
These include Midnight Train to Georgia, Blackbird and Desperado. Several tracks had been recorded before it occurred to him that there might be an album to release at the end of it.
Its back-to-basics sound echoes his last two records, 12 Songs (2005) and Home Before Dark (2008), both produced by Rick Rubin, who famously worked his career-defining magic on Johnny Cash’s raw American Recordings. The former became Diamond’s first US number one album, 42 years after his debut was released.
He signed his first record deal aged 19 in 1960, with songwriting success coming six years later in the shape of The Monkees’ hit I’m A Believer.
By 1970 he had left the Brill Building, New York’s centre of songwriting, to perform his own material. Over the years, he and his trademark glitzy shirts became one of the biggest live draws on the circuit. However, by the turn of the century, Diamond’s glitter was losing its lustre. He was starting to seem a little dated, a bit of a period piece, more camp than credible.
Until, that is, Rick Rubin stepped into the breach. In 2008, Diamond declared: ”I’m in the twilight of my existence,” though he denies that he made a conscious decision to pursue a more serious sound to shore up his legacy. ”The song dictates the production,” he insists. ”I wouldn’t eliminate the idea of doing full orchestral songs one day.”
Then he concedes: ”As you get closer to the end of your life and further from the beginning of your life, you begin to think about what you want the rest of it to add up to. Maybe doing this album [Dreams] was part of that. I think the projects I do from here on in will all have the approach of ‘These are the summations of my work’.”
Given the fact that songwriting is such a draining experience, when does he think fans might hope for new material?
”I’m already writing because I write, that’s basically what I do. There will come a time when I decide that it’s time to really bear down and get to serious writing but right now I’m just collecting musical thoughts, lyric thoughts, outlines of songs. I’m enjoying the afterglow of making Dreams.
”I love songwriting but it’s very internalised, very reflective, solitary and isolated, whereas performing is very extroverted. It’s another side to my brain, it’s pure enjoyment. There’s nothing that can touch the highs you reach when you’re performing. And I have those two sides to my nature. I tend to be quiet but I do have a raucous, fun-loving streak and it comes out when I’m on stage.”
As a man whose songs are endlessly reinterpreted, his favourite being Frank Sinatra’s Sweet Caroline, it feels apt that he’s returning the compliment with his own selection of covers.
”There have been a few interpretations of my songs over the years that I’ve been surprised by, like UB40’s version of Red Red Wine. I was very happy to hear somebody taking the song and making it their own.” Although he won’t name any names, he admits: ”Not many of them work on the level of UB40 or Sinatra.”
Diamond has so single-mindedly devoted himself to his career that two years ago he admitted, with no discernible self-pity, ”Personal relationships? I have none. I have no friends and it’s just impossible to have relationships.”
The first casualty of his fierce work ethic was his marriage to childhood sweetheart Jayne Posner, mother of his two daughters. The year they divorced he married Marcia Murphey, his wife of 25 years and mother of his two sons. As he puts it: ”The music and my work was overwhelmingly my first choice.”
His most recent long-term relationship, with Australian Rachel Farley, ended several years ago. In the past two years, Diamond has made a conscious effort to make more time for his loved ones.
”I was totally involved both professionally and personally with my work. I’ve come to a different sense of it now. I do have friends, I’ve made friends, I’ve opened myself up to make friends because I believe that life must include friends. I have loved ones.
”It does no harm, in fact it does a lot of good, to have personal relationships and I’m just very open for that in the past few years. I’m doing fine because I do have friends and I do have my work. But I much prefer the company of a woman. I think it’s important to share your life with somebody and I hope that happens.
At least his career seems to have given him a comparable glow of contentment. ”My career has unfolded with great surprise to me, and beautifully,” he says. ”I never expected or anticipated or even hoped for a lifetime career in music. It’s my biggest dream and it’s come true and I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Dreams is out now (Columbia).