Few, if any, producers can boast a body of work that matches that of Rick Rubin in terms of variety, influence and substance. First as co-founder of Def Jam Records in 1984, then in his role as head of American Recordings, Rubin has produced some of the most important albums of the past 20 years. In 2007 he was named co-president of Columbia Records.
His achievements have also impacted the culture in profound ways. Among his credits are landmark albums by Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy—records that played a pivotal role pushing rap music into the mainstream. Moreover, it was Rubin who set fire to a fusion of rock and rap by pairing Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. on the seminal remake of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” a masterstroke that kicked off a revolution in popular music that continues to this day.
Rubin’s other credits include such diverse fare as Mick Jagger’s 1993 solo album Wandering Spirit, Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, Donovan’s Sutras, Metallica’s Death Magnetic, the Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way, Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs, and a number of recordings by Slayer, Danzig and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Of his many accomplishments, however, perhaps none has been more important than his collaborations with the late Johnny Cash.
Beginning with the seminal 1994 album American Recordings, Rubin began a working relationship with Cash that continued until Cash’s death in September of 2003. That album, and the three that followed over the course of the next several years, constitute some of the most timeless music of the past half-century, and certainly rank among the most significant work of Cash’s career. A string of Grammy awards and being named the most important producer of the last 20 years by MTV, comprise just a small portion of the accolades that testify to this legacy.
Was there something in particular that drew you to Johnny Cash, something that made you feel you were the person to produce him?
I think it came from the idea that, at that point in my career, I had worked pretty much exclusively with young artists, either making their first album or their second album. There might have been minor exceptions to that, but I really felt like it would be an exciting challenge to work with an established artist, or a legendary artist who might not be in the best place in his career at the moment. The first person who came to mind was Johnny, in terms of greatness and in terms of maybe, at that moment, not doing his best work.
Timing-wise, do you think the work you had done prior to that prepared you in a particularly good way for working with him?
Probably so. I think every project I work on, regardless of how radically different the music is, helps me to learn more and more about how to do my job. It’s a constant game of learning. Sometimes it’s technical things, and sometimes it’s inspirational things, and sometimes it’s just ways to make the artist feel comfortable. Much of the job is about creating an environment in which the artist feels safe, so that they can allow themselves to be more vulnerable. There’s something very beautiful in seeing someone allowing themselves to be vulnerable. I think that, more than anything, is my job.
How did you come to the decision on American Recordings, the first Cash album, that the approach was going to be as stripped-down as it was?
That took some time. We didn’t go into it with any preconceived idea of what that first album should be. We recorded many different ways, with different bands and different players and different styles. Many of those experiments are actually on the Unearthed boxed set—those songs that were recorded prior to the first American album. We were just trying to find our way—again, without having any preconceived idea of what it was supposed to be. The first thing we did were acoustic demos in my living room. And then we went into different studios, with different players, and tried songs in different ways. Ultimately, after many experiments, we kind of looked at each other and decided that we liked the acoustic stuff—those first demos—better than any of the other experiments we tried. So we decided that’s what the first album should be.
How comfortable was he with that approach—with being sort of out there naked in that way?
I think he had mixed feelings about that. I know there was a part of him that was excited about it and that always wanted to do it. And there was another part of him that was insecure about it and felt, “Well, if they don’t like this, I’m really in trouble, because this is really me.”
At what point did he start to feel validated? Did he grasp that this was something really special as soon as the work was done?
I think he knew it was good while we were doing it, but it wasn’t until it came out and got the critical praise that it really sank in. The fact that young people were coming up to him, telling him how much they liked the album—that’s when he really knew. It had more to do with other people’s reactions.
Was there a conscious effort to attract a younger crowd?
No, no really. We just wanted to do great music.
The process itself—the way you and Cash settled upon which songs to record—was interesting. I know the two of you participated as song-finders, but did the original method change over time?
No. We both always brought in everything we had. I would send Johnny CDs that contained 30 songs sometimes, and other times it might be one song. It was just whatever I could find that I thought he might like, or that I thought might be appropriate. And then he might call me back and say, “Well, I like four of these” or “I like this one a lot.” And he would send me songs, and I would tell him which ones I liked and why, and which ones I didn’t like and why. It was a matter of finding common ground, where we both liked the songs.
Did you have any strategies you put into play to get him to record something he might not otherwise have wanted to record? Something like Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” for instance?
That was one where I had to re-record the song to present it to him, because when he heard the original recording of the song it really terrified him (laughs). He thought it was unrealistic and that I was crazy for suggesting it. But then when I recorded it more the way I imagined him doing it, just as a demo, he really liked it.
I think as time went on, as the trust in our relationship grew from working together and enjoying the work together, if there was a song I really felt strongly about, I might pitch it a bit harder than the typical, “Here are all the songs that I like.” “Hurt” was one of those where I was like, “This really has the potential to be something great. I think it could be a really important song, and I really hope you do it.” But again, if he didn’t like something, then we wouldn’t do it. It’s just that he might have listened a bit closer because of the pitch I made.
In the case of something like “Hurt,” which he viewed as an anti-drug song, did he consciously try to maneuver the song in a direction different from its original intent? I don’t mean in a completely different direction necessarily, but it seems that he was gifted at imbuing things with a multiplicity of meaning.
Well, I think he tried to make them all his own. He would read them, and I don’t think he was especially concerned with what the writer’s original intention was. It was a question of, “How does this song hit me, and how can convey that mood or the emotion that I feel in my version of the song? He was really a master at taking a song—even a song you might’ve heard many times in your life—and imbuing it with a kind of storyteller mentality. Again, even if you had heard a particular song your whole life, when he sang it, all of a sudden you understood it, or thought about the words in a different way, or you took the song more seriously.
There are lots of examples of that, but one example, for me, is “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I’ve heard that song my whole life, but until Johnny sang it, I never thought about what it meant. All of a sudden the words took on a whole new seriousness when he sang them. Some people have said they felt that way about “One”—the U2 song. They’ve said that when Johnny sang it, the words rang true in a way that was different from what they had heard before.
What role did you play in helping him communicate in that way?
Most of the time he just had it. Sometimes, though, we had discussions about what the goal was, or about what was trying to be accomplished within a song. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which we recorded for the last album, is a love song, but I asked him to not sing it as a love song to a person, but as a love song to God. That idea really excited him, and it gave him a point of view. Sometimes, before starting a song, I would just say, “Think about this,” whatever that might be. The idea was to give something a new point of view, or give it a touchstone. That really seemed to work.
Did you ever just give him lyrics to a song, or did he always want to hear the original music as well?
He always wanted to hear the complete song—the original.
After the success of first album, what issues were you confronting when you began work on the second album? I would imagine that after receiving so much adulation for that album, there was some concern about how to follow it up.
Yeah. It was fantastic, and we’d had a great accomplishment, and Johnny was really proud of the album. He felt we had really done a good job. My main concern on the second one was to do something that was as good, without repeating ourselves—to have it not just be “part two” of the same thing. It just magically worked out that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ended up playing on it. And of course it was very different from the acoustic first album; it was a whole-band album.
Was he more relaxed going into the making of the second album, having had the success with the first album?
I don’t know that I could say that. I think he was pretty relaxed on the first one.
A lot of people have talked about the fact that Cash had an intimidating presence, but that he also had a gift for putting people at ease.
He did that with everyone. I don’t know if he was aware of the magnitude of his presence, but pretty much anybody who came into contact with him was intimidated by him, for the most part. But he was just such a humble person, in a few lines of casual conversation he was able to make everyone feel OK. Again, I don’t know how much of that was pre-planned, or done on purpose, but I saw it happen a lot. It may have just been a natural urge to put people at ease; it may not have had anything to do with celebrity. But it definitely worked, in terms of just taking the intimidation factor down, and making people feel comfortable.
It was during the making of Unchained that he first began to show signs of becoming ill. You’ve said he was confused, because he didn’t understand what was happening to him. How did that manifest itself?
I know he wanted to be able to do more than he was physically able to do. He couldn’t understand why one day he would come in and be able to sing great, and feel good, and then the next day he would come in and not be able to catch his breath, or would have to lie down between takes. He was suffering a lot. Actually, he had suffered for a lot of years, and yet he could still get the job done whenever he wanted to. But now, for the first time, he was experiencing times when he wanted to be working, and the frustration of either physically not being able to do it, or mentally not being able to stay focused, or voice-wise, not being of strong voice. This was all new to him, and it was very difficult for him to deal with.
Given the changes that were happening to his voice, was he still able to be satisfied a song, once the work was done?
He was, but I know there were times when he wished his voice was better. Sometimes he felt embarrassed, and it really took the people around him to say, “This is beautiful, and we love it.” And again, he trusted the people who were saying that, because we really did feel that way. But there were times, I know, when he felt a little insecure about his voice and wished he sounded stronger.
You spoke a bit about this before, but can you elaborate on his ability to inhabit other people’s songs so completely?
I think part of it has to do with just what a bright and wise person he was. Putting aside singing songs, if he just told you a story, he was able to explain things in such a way that you really understood them. And he knew so much about so much, and had lived so much in his life; the wisdom that came along with that showed up whenever he spoke. That transferred into his storytelling in his songs. He just had that power. When he said it, you believed it. It’s an unusual gift.
I’d like to ask a few questions about production in general. How invisible do you think a producer should be, as far as the work goes? Do you feel a producer should have his or her own style, something that’s detectable in the albums they work on?
I don’t think there’s a “should” or a “shouldn’t.” I try not to, but on the other hand I like Giorgio Moroder’s productions, and they sound like Giorgio Moroder. I don’t think there’s a rule. I think it’s really a matter of whatever is appropriate for the artist.
Do you have a preference between working with a band and working with a solo artist?
I suppose the good thing about working with a band is that it’s all self-contained, and the job of figuring out what it’s going to sound like is less of a job. It becomes more about arranging the material, and orchestrating the parts to be as good as they can be. But ultimately, if it’s a band with a bass player, drummer, guitar player and singer, it’s going to pretty much sound like that, at least as a starting point. That doesn’t mean that we can’t add percussion or strings or keyboards or any other instruments we want, but at least we have a starting point.
With a solo artist, it really is so open. It can be anything. Because of the way I like to work, which is more experimenting, and experimental, in finding the sound, it’s sometimes just a longer process—more time-consuming and more difficult to do—with a solo artist. That’s because there are so many more options that need to be examined before finding your way.
What about the difference between working with someone who’s a veteran, as opposed to a new artist?
Interestingly—and I would not have guessed this before working with both—often the veterans are easier to work with than new artists. New artists tend not to know, necessarily, who they are, or why they are who they are, or have confidence in who they are. I remember producing a song with Roy Orbison for a soundtrack. I asked him to sing things in a different way, and to try this and that, and he was open to trying anything, because he knew nothing I was going to tell him was going to make him less “Roy Orbison.” Whereas, with a new artist, they’re much more defensive. It’s like, “You want me to play a different guitar? This guitar is my sound, it’s what makes me me.” And of course it’s not (laughs). It never is. There’s just often a level of protection that a new artist has that a grown-up artist generally has less of.
Generally speaking, when you begin working with someone for the first time, are you hopeful that that will turn into something that goes on over the course of several more albums?
It really depends on the artist, but for the most part I would say yes. I like establishing a language with an artist, and it’s much more work to do that on the first record. Once we’ve established that language and a working relationship, it gets much easier to continue working together. It’s nice after putting in all that effort on the first one, to be able to reap the benefit of it being easier in the future.
Returning to your work with Cash, the first album you made with him was a real watershed. Do you remember the equipment you used?
It was done with an ADAT tape recorder and two microphones. I can’t remember what they were. I think the vocal microphone might have been an AKG 414, but I can’t remember what the guitar microphone was. It was probably one of those little Neumann, finger-looking mics. I imagine there was a Neve 1073 as the mic-preamp, and a [Universal Audio] 1176 as a compressor.
Have you given a lot of thought to what made the relationship between you and him special and different?
I guess it was that the goals were really noble goals. We both wanted to do the best work we could, and there was very little in the way of “commercial” thoughts. It was really about the art, and about the love of great songs. And again, for my part, it was about re-framing Johnny’s experience of just making another album—number 40, number 45, number 70, or whatever—into “Everything we do has to be the greatest that we could possibly do, and whatever that takes is OK.”
Was there anything that came out of the work you did with him that changed you in a fundamental way—either personally or in the way you approach working with other artists?
I don’t know that I could quantify that. He really played a huge role in my life, and of course we worked a lot together for a long time. It was always fulfilling, and I always looked forward to it. I would have to say it affected me more in terms of quality of life than in terms of the way that I work. My life was definitely made better by having him as my friend. He was just a beautiful man.
—By Russell Hall
From Performing Songwriter Issue 79, July/August 2004