The 2016 holiday season is turning out to be a big one for Neil Diamond. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame singer/songwriter has just released a new holiday album, Acoustic Christmas, inspired by the track “Christmas Prayers,” written for his wife/manager Katie.
Acoustic Christmas will take him into 2017, where Diamond will celebrate his fiftieth year in show business with a massive tour starting April 7 in Fresno, California. To commemorate both the album and tour, Diamond has kept a busy promotional December, playing Password with Jimmy Fallon against Natalie Portman and J.J. Abrams on The Tonight Show, as well as appearing on the Today show and at the tree lighting at New York’s Rockefeller Center.
The 75-year-old is having a lot of fun with his busy holiday season as he told Billboard during a recent chat about the new album and tour, some of the songs he might dig out for the tour and a lot of memories of 50 years in music.
What did it mean to you when you saw the number 50 years in show business?
First, 50 years doesn’t sound like it’s real because it went by so fast and it’s hard to accept that 50 years because I remember so well knocking around the streets in Tin Pan Alley and trying to get anybody to listen to the songs for about eight years before I started to catch any even perspective buyers out there. It’s hard to accept that it’s been 50 years, but it has been. And it’s been the most fun I could have ever imagined I’d be doing at this point.
Are there songs you can revisit for this tour that you are really excited to bring out?
I know the audience wants to hear the hits and the familiar songs and we do them, but there are a lot of songs that just miss the cut. So in this tour I’m gonna dig deep into the vault and bring out those songs that haven’t been done in years and try to bring them to the attention of the audience again, make them remember those times and hopefully there’s a connection with the song and the period of time they came out and just keep the whole thing new and flying. That’s my goal. I’ve got a lot of songs and a lot of them can be brought out from the trunk and I will do that to the best of my ability.
As you’re looking back through the music you try to choose for the show are there any memories that reemerge from those songs of the different time periods in your life?
It’s Christmas time now and there was a song I did when I was starting to get my foot in the door. I’d seen a family of kids on the Ed Sullivan Show, they were called the Rocky Fellers. They were cute and they sounded good, so I called them the next day, I called their dad and said, “Hey, can I play you something that I’ve written?” We actually went in and made a record of it, it was one of my very first recordings that was played on the radio. It was called “Santa Santa.” I was scuffling, I was willing to try almost anything to get the ball rolling because I knew if I didn’t I’d have to fall back on the worst possible choice I had, which was to get a normal job, try to make a go of it that way. And I wanted music so desperately and “Santa Santa,” to me, was a step forward cause it showed me that I could go from an idea to writing a song to making the record to getting it played on the radio somewhat. It was a step forward for me. Nobody’s ever heard of it, nobody knows it, but it was an important little step for me on my long journey.
Since you are going to dig deep can you give us a preview of tracks you are excited to play?
There are songs written by other people that I haven’t done in a long time and I’d love to break them out. I haven’t done “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” in a long time and “If You Go Away,” the Jacques Brel thing, do those things again. I opened my show at the Troubadour with a song called “Lordy,” which I liked a lot. I had a little four-piece band playing behind me, I might pull that one out. I’m gonna have to get together with my band and start playing these songs to know which ones are gonna come back to the set. But there are a number of them that I want to try out that I haven’t tried out. I want to feel them out and see if they’re worthy of being back in the set. So I’ll be field testing a bunch of these things.
Is there usually a song that kicks off the Christmas album for you?
Well, in this case it was a song. It came out of my wife Katie’s heart and mind, she was feeling blue about the loss 20 years ago of her grandmother, and it all came up about two Christmases ago. And she asked, or maybe I volunteered, to try and write something that would make her feel a little bit better. I did and I liked the song a lot and I was in the studio with a group of musicians. We had just finished recording something and I pulled this thing out. I said, “Let’s listen to this and see what you guys think of this.” It really caught their imagination and before we knew it they were playing and I was singing and it was becoming a wonderful record. So we just continued on that road and in a relative short period we had 10 or 12 tracks, Christmas tracks, and they were all acoustic because that was the setup that we had in the studio then. It wasn’t planned or anything and that would become Acoustic Christmas, and the song was “Christmas Prayers.” It was very warm and intimate and I thought it would be great if we could put together enough tracks for a record that’s close and is warm feeling as “Christmas Prayers” turned out to be. That’s what we tried to do from that point and I feel very good about the album. It’s a really nice little album.
It’s interesting too because we were speaking with Amy [Grant] about her Christmas album and similarly some of her inspiration was about bringing comfort to people in hard times during the holidays. Have you gotten feedback from people that the music is comforting them?
We’ve gotten a lot of feedback on this particular song and how it touches so many people online and the feeling of loss at Christmas, which is always portrayed as a jovial, joyous holiday, which it is. But there is, underneath that veneer a sense of sadness and I think this song touches that place and it is what I had hoped it would be. It feels right for that, it’s very atypical of any kind of Christmas song that I conceived writing. It’s not “Santa, Santa” and it’s not “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” or “Cherry, Cherry Christmas,” it’s more serious and I get that from the responses that I’ve seen.
This year has been so crazy and rough for so many. Do you think the song has tapped into that and that’s why there’s so much feedback?
The sense of that loss is out there and I think this tune maybe is in keeping with that sense of loss that a lot of people feel, not only of musicians, but family members. There is a deep sadness that I feel around Christmas and this song, to me, is about that and it’s meant to be about that. I wanted to be able to vent for myself and for my wife’s feeling of loss and I think we hit the nail on the head.