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Meet Iain Thomas, the 36-year-old South African poet who is famous all over the world except in SA

"I don’t wanna become a Vegas personality"

2008-06-21 11:13
What made you record another album with Rick Rubin- never change a winning team?
I had no choice, the first album was special; it was a moment in time for me. It came at the right time, the right time of my life. A time when I had to really look into myself and question whether I was worthy of being in the position I was in, and whether that position was the right position and whether I had time to do more, how much time I had to do more. And working and meeting and then working with Rick came at the time when I was ready to make my presence known again, at least to re-evaluate my work and where my future would be.

We hit the ground running. The material was at the highest level of my capabilities anyway. And I think Rick brought his end off beautifully - Rick and the musicians and the engineers. So, I am a happy man, my fondest dreams have been realized to finally have the record of a lifetime, the album of a lifetime - long after my life had been discounted by many people and my work.

Was “Three Chord Opera” the big turning point for you? A return to songwriting that initially led to working with someone like Rick?
I think “Three Chord Opera” was the second step in my re-emergence as a writer, the first being the “Tennessee Moon”-album, which I went down to Nashville to do, and co-wrote all of the material on it. And this one I ventured out by myself to do all of the material on. And it was kind of a slow evolution of finding myself again as a writer and as an artist.

So what was it like turning into that stripped down Neil Diamond, without the bombast and the shtick?
I think I finally got to know myself again, I got to see who I really could be, and without the fear of being naked in front of an audience, the confidence to actually write the music as a I saw it. I think it was a revelation for me, it did wonders for my confidence, the 12 Songs album, and this album has only taken me that much further along that road.

But as for the sparse production: Weren´t you afraid of turning into a 2nd Johnny Cash, as some critics call you now?
How? How would I be second Johnny Cash? He is unique, he stands alone in his world. I’d like to have people say the same for me, you know, when my career is finally over. Nobody… There’s no second Johnny Cash, there is only Johnny Cash and I want them to say: “There is only Neil Diamond.”

The album title Home Before Dark, is that like in “home before it’s too late”? Are you running out of time?
There’s a little of that… Home - escaping the danger, home before it’s too late. Home, reaching home, the safety of it, the comfort of it, the leaving the fear behind, outrunning those demons that have been chasing you. There’s all of that in that song and in that album.

The personal and the political?
The personal, you know, mostly personal. Political to me has always been one on one, one person and one person, and it’s the most basic form of political writing and it starts with two people. So every part of me has been affected by this newness, this new understanding of myself.
However, all the songs on the album are in fact about love – as they have always been. Would you call that a trademark of yours?
I guess so. I mean, it’s something that’s confounded me and amazed me and, you know, set me head over heels for my entire life. I don’t understand it. I try to, I try to explain it, I try to tell stories about it, but I still haven’t come to grips with it. So, that’s what my songs are about, this unbelievable thing that involves the relationship of a man and a woman that I can never really come to grips with. And with each song, with each album I try resolve it, but it doesn’t get resolved, it only opens up new doors and new questions.

And you obviously come from all angles. With women being either goddesses, temptresses or even devils. Would you call them the last big mystery on planet earth?
They are mysterious and all powerful and amazing and curious enough to spend a lifetime writing music about and still not begin to scratch the surface of the subject.

What’s interesting is that every singer is mistaken for his songs. Which is even more true with you, isn´t it?
Well, you know you can only run so far away from something that you’ve created and the songs speak for themselves. They tell what I am and they tell what I believe. And it’s difficult for me to go beyond that, I feel as though I say everything about myself in the songs. Some of it maybe understood, some of it may not be understood, but it is what I am.

People always think of you as being melancholy or sentimental. Does it bother you your light side is constantly overlooked?
My audience knows that side of me. I love to have fun, I love to laugh. And through all the serious and intensity of my life, laughter is so important, it’s one of the things I need.

So at 67 you are not tired of the nomadic lifestyle at all? Or is that in your blood by now?
I don’t like the nomadic lifestyle, I don’t like the Gypsy lifestyle, but it’s part of the price that you pay when you want to bring your music and your presence to an audience. I don’t wanna stay in one place, I don’t wanna become a Vegas personality, I will come to where people live and present my music. And it is not easy, but it’s worth it, it’s worth it. And I can’t wait, this is something that I’ve been thinking about on a daily basis for the last two or three years: “When can I get out of this ethic of only writing and thinking about what is internalized? When can I get out of it and express my music?” And the time is now. Your songs have been re-recorded by hundreds of artists, including UB40, Urge Overkill, Deep Purple, Him, The Monkees and of courses the late great Johnny Cash who did “Solitary Man”. For you: What’s the ultimate Neil Diamond-cover?
Well, you know, for me the ultimate cover record was Frank Sinatra doing “Sweet Caroline”. He did a big band version of it, I´ve never heard it sung better, presented better. Of course he was the greatest singer of the 20th century, so I’m not surprised that my all time favourite cover record is Frank Sinatra doing “Sweet Caroline”, without question.

London, May 2008
Interview courtesy of SONYMG

Neil Diamond on life without the sequinned shtick, what women want, his late career revival and his killer new album, Home Before Dark.

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