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Q&A; with Neil Diamond : ‘I Just Didn’t Have the Desire for a Few Years’

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Neil Diamond appeared to be taking a big gamble last year when he went to Nashville to work on a new album with more than a dozen top country music singers and songwriters.

Though Diamond continues to be one of pop’s hottest live draws, his album sales have slipped dramatically in recent years. So he could have been perceived as yet another veteran pop star trying to jump-start his career artificially by turning to suddenly hot country music.

But Diamond, who has long loved country music, was embraced by the Nashville community, with everyone from Harlan Howard and Waylon Jennings to Hal Ketchum and the Mavericks’ Raul Malo writing or recording with him. Fans, too, have now warmed to “Tennessee Moon,” which is No. 3 on the country chart and No. 14 on the pop charts. Diamond is now looking forward to a world tour that begins March 26 in Australia and will include an Aug. 20 date at the Pond of Anaheim. (Tickets go on sale Monday.)

Despite some upbeat edges, there’s a melancholy streak in the album--his first collection of new songs since 1991--because several of the tunes reflect on the 1994 breakup of Diamond’s 25-year marriage.

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On the eve of an in-store appearance at 7 p.m. today at the Virgin Megastore in West Hollywood (all 400 tickets have been distributed), Diamond, 55, spoke about his new album, his marriage and his renewed enthusiasm for music.

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Question: Were you worried that you might be perceived as trying to jump on the country music bandwagon when you went to Nashville to work on the album?

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Answer: Not at all. The main thing for me in going to Nashville was getting down to the process of songwriting again, which I’ve avoided or danced around for a number of years now. I was just four or five months out of my marriage and I needed something to throw myself into. I had no idea of whether it was a good idea or a bad idea commercially. But I’ve always thought of Nashville as this special place for writers and I wanted to get in touch with my writing again.

Q: Why had you gone so long without writing?

A: I started a number of songs over the last few years, but I finished very few of them because I had no real target until I started this project. What happened was you’d start a song and maybe get the melody and a verse and a chorus, but then put it down for a while, thinking you’d finish it when it was needed or when you had the energy or the mind for it. And the truth is, I just didn’t have the desire for a few years to finish the songs.

Q: Many writers say they are at their best when they are in turmoil or pain. Is that true of you?

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A: No, I feel I write better when I am in a good frame of mind . . . when I am not into a quagmire of emotional problems. In fact, writing usually lifts my spirits. Even with my personal life going to hell, I was in a very up mood writing this album. It was like a football player who has been kept off the field for five years finally given the chance to get in there again.

Q: Some of your most enduring songs have been your most personal ones, such as “I Am . . . I Said” and “Brooklyn Roads.” Are there any songs on this album that are very much your story?

A: There are, but I wouldn’t want to say which ones.

Q: Let me ask you about one of the songs. Is “Win the World” as personal as it sounds?

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A: Definitely. You have to drag up your own guilt to write a song like that . . . find out whose fault it was and why when you are looking back at the breakup of the marriage. I felt I was the one who set the tone for the relationship and the marriage and the amount of time we spent together.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Work has always been my drug of choice, so it’s pretty predictable what would eventually happen. In the song, he is saying he blew it because he missed the trees for the forest. He went after the big enchilada and forgot to take care of the things that were really important around him.

Q: When you listen back to the songs on the album, do you see a changed man? Is there a personal pledge in the songs not to forget about other things in your life again?

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A: I don’t see that in any of the songs because I’m still a workaholic. Music is still the thing that enthuses me and gets me going, more than anything, except maybe being with my kids. No, I don’t see any changes in that sense. That’s why I back off from any long-lasting relationships at this point, because it is going to be the same thing all over again.

Q: If the marriage was a topic on your mind, why didn’t you make “Tennessee Moon” more a concept album along the lines of “Beautiful Noise,” which is probably your most acclaimed album ever?

A: I didn’t want this album to be only about my marriage. It was only part of my life, certainly an important part . . . and it left a big dent and some bruises, but that’s not what this album is about. To me, it is about finding myself as a writer again, experiencing the joy as a writer I haven’t had in a long time. I wanted the album to be about the whole person . . . the insanity of the life, the promises you make to yourself, your dreams, your guilt.

Q: Were you surprised in recent years when a lot of young bands started doing your songs and speaking of you as some sort of songwriting god?

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A: Sure, it was surprising, but after doing this for 30 years you cease being surprised by things. The fact that I’m still around is the biggest surprise.

Q: Was there a time in recent years when you felt you were perhaps coming near the end of your career?

A: There were probably times, sure, when I thought there might be an audience out there for another couple of years, and then it would be over. Now I’m thinking maybe I can go for another 10 years or more. This album has given me a real shot of adrenaline. Somewhere along the line, I think I got caught up in too much expectations and too much experiments with my music. I needed to get away from all that and get back to basics . . . writing songs straight from the heart again.

Q: Did you ever imagine you’d be doing an in-store appearance again?

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A: The idea came from Don Ienner, who is the chairman of Columbia Records, and my first reaction was, “What?” But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how an in-store is very much in keeping with what is happening with this album. There’s an interest and excitement, personally, that reminds me of the early days when I was starting out in New York . . . when you had to go out and play at all the dance hops and call the radio stations to try to get them to play your record. You’re young and so excited that you’ll do anything. And it’s great to feel that way again. So play a record store? I told Donnie, “Absolutely, let’s do it.”


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