Sprawled on a giant beanbag in an all-white sitting room at Malibu's Shangri-la Studio, Damien Rice yawned and admitted he was feeling beat.
The Irish singer-songwriter had performed the night before in San Francisco and was now preparing for a show in Los Angeles ahead of the release of his new album, "My Favourite Faded Fantasy." The record, which came out Monday, is Rice's first in eight years, and on this recent afternoon he was still acclimating to the uptick in activity.
"A day off wouldn't be the worst thing," he said with a weary chuckle.
Just then Rick Rubin entered the room, accompanied, it seemed, by a gust of restorative energy. Rice leaped up to greet the amply bearded producer, who clapped the singer on the back and told him how excited he was to see him again. Within seconds, Rice's exhaustion appeared to have drained away.
It wasn't the first time Rubin has had that effect on him.
Rice, 40, a 1990s-era alt-rock journeyman who finally broke through with his intensely personal 2002 solo debut, "O," came to Malibu months earlier to begin work on what became "My Favourite Faded Fantasy." At that point he'd been out of the spotlight for years, the result of various troubles, including his dissatisfaction with his second album, 2006's "9," and his breakup with singer Lisa Hannigan, who'd contributed crucial backing vocals to both of Rice's records.
"I basically crashed and burned at the end of the last tour," he said in an interview outside the studio, which Rubin owns. The two were seated on a spacious lawn with a clear view of the ocean; Rice curled into a wooden chair, his bare feet tucked beneath him. "That's when I took the shovel and started digging the hole."
The pleasure of making music, he went on, had been overwhelmed by all he resented about being a professional musician: the pressure, the compromises, the glad-handing. And that, in turn, shook his belief in his work. He was still writing songs privately, but he wasn't happy with them — certainly not happy enough to venture back into public view.
"'You're no good' — there was a lot of that," he said, then laughed ruefully. "I mean, I'm Irish — it's very easy for that to surface. It's programmed in."
Though Rice claims he was largely unfamiliar with Rubin, who's renowned for shepherding artists such as Johnny Cash and Metallica through periods of transition, he said he somehow had a feeling that the producer might be able to help him regain his footing. (Like Rubin, a devoted student of Transcendental Meditation, Rice has a slightly mystical side.) So the singer settled in at Shangri-la for what he described as "a kind of boot camp."
"I'd play something to Rick, and he'd see my frustration and go, 'OK, show me what's wrong,'" Rice recalled. "I literally felt like he was holding my hand — like I was a child. And then you'd leave the studio," he said, turning to Rubin. "He'd say, 'Between now and tomorrow, I want you to work on these five words.' Five words!"
"Very doable," Rubin said.
"It felt ridiculous," Rice continued. "You'd ask me, 'Do you think you can do that?' Obviously, I couldn't say no. So I'd spend the next 24 hours working on part of a bridge that I hadn't been able to finish for the previous year."
Rubin said his approach was about taking small steps to "create a space that was safe enough to be vulnerable." But if that sounds like mumbo-jumbo, you need only listen to Rice's new music to sense that it worked. "My Favourite Faded Fantasy" is full of grippingly intimate confessions from a songwriter unafraid to present himself and his flaws.
"We learned to wag and tuck our tails / We learned to win and then to fail," he sings, barely above a whisper, in "The Greatest Bastard." "We learned that lovers love to sing and that losers love to cling."
Stately arrangements streaked with horns and keyboards (some recorded during additional sessions in Iceland) add drama without overpowering Rice's vocals.
"When Damien plays and sings, nothing else in the world seems to matter," said Rubin. "It's almost like a meditation. You're put right into the present moment."
Dave Rawlings, a songwriter and producer who also worked on the album along with his creative partner Gillian Welch, said Rice is uniquely "adept at striking an arresting emotional tone. He finds a moment and then reinforces it with his language and his melody, and that brings people into his songs."
Some of those people are the younger artists who drew inspiration from Rice's music even while he was away.
Ed Sheeran, the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, has called "O" a primary influence on his plaintive folk-pop. And the British girl group Little Mix scored a No. 1 smash in 2011 with its cover of Rice's "Cannonball." His songs have also been widely licensed for use in movies and on television, which is one way the singer kept himself afloat during the long interim between albums.
In true tortured-artist fashion, Rice said he doesn't see what people find so special about "O."
"I can tear that record apart!" he exclaimed, adding that there are countless things he'd change now. Still, he understands the value of supposed imperfections — the qualities that sometimes make a song seem more alive.
"There's a Nina Simone record that I love, 'Live at Vine Street,' and she sings flat on it," he said. "I can imagine she might've told the record label, 'Oh, God, you're not releasing that!' But I'm glad they did."
With "My Favourite Faded Fantasy" out, Rice said he feels as though a "bunch of gates have been unlocked in my head." He's even eager to begin work on his next album, possibly as early as January or February, a development he happily acknowledged came as a surprise, given the turmoil that preceded this one.
"But now that the gates are open," he said, "the things I thought I hated before about the music industry, I don't hate at all." He looked at Rubin and laughed. "I find them funny."