How Jay-Z's Producer Brought Neil Diamond Back To The Future

Rick Rubin-produced 12 Songs is singer's highest-debuting LP ever.

He's sold millions of albums, serenaded crowds for four-plus decades and given the world classic sing-alongs like "Sweet Caroline," "Red, Red Wine," and "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon." But until last month, there was one thing Neil Diamond had never done: See one of his albums debut in the top 10.

With the release of 12 Songs, his first studio album in four years, it finally happened.

"It's been a long wait, but it's been worth it," Diamond gushed to MTV News backstage at "Jimmy Kimmel Live," shortly after learning the news.

Fittingly, 12 Songs is a return to the stripped-down, acoustic sound that jump-started Diamond's career back in the mid-'60s.

"The early albums were also very simple, basic, a few musicians, lots of handclapping," explained Diamond, who is a very youthful 64. "They were basic albums and the songs were pretty simple. And I think I've come full circle to that point again, after going through all kinds of conceptual albums and experimental songs, and to come back to the simplicity of these things, it's a good feeling."

Diamond can thank producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Tom Petty, Slipknot, Jay-Z's "99 Problems") for regaining that good feeling. After reaping huge success with his work on Johnny Cash's American Recordings series, Rubin wanted to give the same reinvention treatment to Diamond, who was more than happy to oblige.

"I knew a number of the artists that Rick has worked with over the years, and I like the artists," Diamond said. "And I thought this guy was pretty broad in his production abilities to be able to produce, you know, some heavy rock things or rap things and then go to Johnny Cash doing a very sparse album. And we got along very well. We met, and we had a lot of meetings about music and got to know each other, and I just followed his lead."

That lead led Diamond down memory lane — something the singer wasn't prepared for at first.

"We went through a lot of records together," Diamond recalled. "I wanted to get into some early rock and roll classics that I thought were wonderful, and he had a whole list of songs of mine that he was hoping to re-listen to, to see what I did years ago. And I didn't really understand why he was taking me on this nostalgic trip, but there was a method to his madness and he wanted to really put me in touch with whatever spark ignited those early songs. And it was good, because it helped me a lot."

Rubin went so far as convincing Diamond to pick up a six-string again, something he hadn't done on one of his albums in more than 30 years.

"On my very early records, 'Cherry, Cherry' or 'Kentucky Woman,' I played guitar, and I stopped playing so much on the recordings because I felt there were a lot better guitar players out there," Diamond said. "Occasionally I would play, but on this album Rick was very insistent that I play and sing at the same time. He felt it lent spontaneity and unselfconsciousness to the performance. And I think he was right — it was kind of a breakthrough for me."

While 12 Songs has already gained wide critical praise and is introducing Diamond to an even broader audience, it doesn't mean, however, that he's going to abandon his notorious sequined stage outfits or the sing-alongs.

"Never!" Diamond said. "The audience sings on their own volition and there are certain songs that they really want to join in on. But it never becomes old. When something ceases to excite you, you take it out. Fortunately, I have enough songs that people know, that I could replace it with something."

For a full-length feature on Rick Rubin, see "What's Up With That Bearded Guy In The '99 Problems' Video?".