Friday, February 10, 2023

Rick Rubin on recording Johnny Cash

Ezra Klein, The Tao of Rick Rubin, NYTimes, Feb. 10, 2023.

Ezra Klein: So you look back early in your career and you’re a producer of a really remarkable series of hip-hop recordings. You co-founded Def Jam Recordings, one of the early hip-hop record labels. And then there’s this period when you begin to expand.

And among other things, you begin working with Johnny Cash on these really now legendary recordings, the “American Recordings.” But at that point, his career had really stalled. So when you walked into that studio, when you begin talking to him, what did you see there? What did you think was there that you were trying to bring out?

Rick Rubin: Well, we’ll start with I worked on hip-hop music, then I worked on other kinds of music. I worked on heavy metal, rock music. I don’t think I’d done anything within the country genre. But I’m doing the same thing in all the cases. And it has very little to do with what kind of music it is. It has more to do with just how it feels.

And after having success doing hip-hop, and hard rock, and heavy metal, I realized most of the artists I worked with were young — almost all of them. Almost all of them, it was their first project, maybe their second project. So I had this thought, because I’ve only worked with young artists, what would it be like to work with a grown-up artist?

I wonder if whatever this is that we’re doing would work with a grown-up artist? And I thought about who is the grown-up artist who has the potential to be great or who has been great over the course of their life, but maybe isn’t doing their best work now.

And that was the key to it because it wasn’t finding someone who was doing the best work of their lives and working with them on more of that. It really was a who’s someone who’s proven that they could do it, but who hasn’t been doing it for a long time.

And the first person I thought of was Johnny Cash. And it had nothing to do with him being a country artist. it had nothing to do — it had to do with him being, in my mind, an iconic figure and someone whose best work, I think, everyone would say, including him, was long behind him. So it was more of an experiment.

Ezra Klein: And as you walked into that room, though, what did you see in him? I mean, beyond that his best work had been behind him, when you met him, and you tried to open yourself to what he was and what he could be, what was it you noticed? And then how did you guide him there, if that’s how you would describe what you did?

Rick Rubin: I felt a very deep soulful human being. He seemed like someone who had essentially given up on themselves. He was a huge star on Sun Records, along with Elvis Presley. Then in the ‘70s, he was the biggest artist on Columbia Records, and then over time got dropped by that label.

He was playing at dinner theaters. And I don’t think he thought of himself seriously as a current recording artist. I think he saw himself as someone who’s past their prime and now was getting to sing the old songs in front of the audience who’s interested.

And we met at a dinner theater in Orange County. I watched his show. And I thought he sang great. And I thought it was a great experience, other than the sadness of seeing this iconic figure singing in a room of maybe 150 or 200 people who were eating dinner as he’s singing.

I was curious to know what would a great new Johnny Cash album sound like. And I had no idea of what that was. And usually with the artists I work with I have no idea going in what it’s going to be. And I met him backstage and I liked him very much. And we didn’t speak very much. We sat together for a while. But I would say he’s quiet and shy. I’m quiet and shy.

And we just were in each other’s presence for a while. We said a few words to each other. But I would say there was some sense of connection. And he may have said, so I understand you want to record me. And I said, yes. And he said, well, why would you want to do that or what would you do different than anyone else has done?

And I said, I really don’t know. I’d be curious to see what happens if we got together and you just sang me songs on acoustic guitar and played songs for me that you like over the course of your life to give me an idea of who you are, so I understand your taste. And then once we do that, we’ll figure out what to try to do.

And he agreed to do it, but he didn’t agree to do it enthusiastically. It was more of a, why does this person — it’s funny to say he didn’t know who I was. He’s like, why does this guy want to work with me? Does it make sense? So he thought if I cared enough to want to do it, he would see where it went, but with zero expectations. And then we did that. And he would start coming to my house. And he would sit on the couch and he’d play me songs on his guitar. And they were — I learned so much from him because he had this wealth of history of music. He knew so many songs.

He didn’t know many modern songs, but he knew songs from the past. And he knew songs from his childhood or from before he was born that I’d never heard before. And he would sing me these beautiful songs.

And I recorded the songs not with the idea of anyone ever hearing them. I recorded them more as a reference, the same way that we make notes in the studio. It’s like, I’ll record these songs so that we have a reference of all of the songs that you play me. And then if there’s a question between which songs to do, we could listen back and decide. If it comes down to choosing between two songs, we could listen to the original time that you played them for me and decide what to do.

So it was purely to document the experience for us. And we did this over time over and over again. And then it got to where we had, OK, here’s a handful of songs that we think it’s time to record. And then we booked studio time and went in with different musicians. And we did this several times with different musicians — great musicians.

And over time, it became clear to me that none of the experiments we did were better than what happened on the couch. And that actually, the solo acoustic performance on the couch was the most interesting thing that happened, even though when it was happening, I had no idea that it would ever be a record. I just thought we’re looking for songs. This is just part of the process to find the songs.

And then I remember calling him and saying, I feel like these are — listening back, this is the most interesting stuff. What do you think? He’s like, well, it makes me nervous. But I’ve always wanted to do, like, a late and alone kind of album, but I never had the confidence to do it. But listening to these, if you think these are better than when the band’s playing, I’m willing to try what you want to do. And that was how it happened.

And then we did a show at the Viper Room, which is a club owned by Johnny Depp. And Johnny Depp brought Johnny Cash out on stage. And it was beautiful. And I don’t know if it holds 100 people — 120 people — tiny club. And the house was packed with musicians and people who just love Johnny Cash.

And this was sort of a loud, rowdy club if you’ve ever been to this club. It’s kind of a loud — it has a bar and they usually have loud music. And it was kind of a loud rock and roll club. And from the moment Johnny Cash stepped on stage, you could hear a pin drop in the room. It was dead silent in the room.

And Johnny started playing the first song and I could tell he was uncomfortable and afraid. And he told me he’s uncomfortable and afraid every show. Every show, with his band, has been, over the course of his life, terrified, would sometimes throw up before shows, even after doing it for 50 years. And here was the first time he was ever doing it solo. Came out solo.

[johnny cash, "the man who couldn't cry"]
There once was a man and he couldn’t cry.


[johnny cash, "the man who couldn't cry"]
He hadn’t cried for years and for years.

Rick Rubin: After by about the third song, he got in the groove and just was feeling comfortable. And the love after every song, even the first where he was uncomfortable, the love in the audience was so profound and the cheers were so strong, that I think the acceptance of the people in the room gave him the confidence to continue the show.

And it was a beautiful, beautiful moment. And I think after that show, he was convinced for himself that maybe this is OK to put this out as a record.

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