Two years ago, when Clash last held court with Elton John, we caught him in a rare moment of nostalgia, reminiscing over his legendary 1973 album, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, which established him as one of the world’s most colourful performers and, ultimately, the most successful – he still retains the position of the third biggest artist in the history of the US charts. Today, however, he is characteristically forward-looking again; a jubilant new album (his 32nd!) marks a turning point in an already inventive and eventful career, one that, inspired by his two young children, unclutters his hectic schedule, business and mind, leaving the 68-year-old less stressed, more happy, and with a previously unimaginable achievement: an end goal.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – he’s not going anywhere in a hurry. ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’ is the latest in a string of releases that finds Elton following a creatively indulgent muse – most notably as generous benefactor repaying a debt of influence to friend and hero Leon Russell on ‘The Union’, then in the sparse intimacy and profound musicality of ‘The Diving Board’. This time around, Elton is shamelessly wallowing in absolute personal contentment, bringing songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, producer T-Bone Burnett and long-standing band members along for the celebratory ride.
Married since December 2014 to David Furnish, his partner of 23 years, the pair welcomed sons Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John and Elijah Joseph Daniel Furnish John in 2010 and 2013 respectively, endowing Elton with the hope, pride and joy that fatherhood brings. His radiant positivity that glowed as a result proved infectious as work began on ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’ and manifested itself in the lustrous hues of songs with roseate titles such as ‘Blue Wonderful’, ‘Looking Up’ and ‘In The Name Of You’, and the manic spontaneity of the album’s cover art. Not even the humiliation last year of being dropped without warning by his label, Capitol (before swiftly being scooped up by Island), could dent such an irrepressible disposition.
That good mood must have endured, then, as he invited Clash all the way to Las Vegas for our interview, and to witness the closing night of his most recent residency, The Million Dollar Piano, at Caesars Palace. And so, in an oasis of calm at the heart of Sin City, where all around, blandished tourists and inveterate chumps languish in avaricious, air-conditioned vacuums of speculation, Clash meets the only man in town with A Sure Thing in the bank.
The conviction behind ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’ is borne out in the constant, confident new ventures undertaken by an ever-active and inquisitive musical mind. He’s dedicated to his Rocket Music management company, proving an invaluable mentor to charges such as Ed Sheeran, and keeps on top of all new releases, playing the pick of his favourites – alongside treasured oldies – on his Beats 1 Radio show. (At one point in our conversation, Elton reveals his latest playlists, wielding an unruly pile of scrawled notes and endless lists of newly discovered hopefuls.) He’s revealed a collaboration with Lady Gaga on her follow-up to ‘Artpop’, while his Instagram feed attests to his personal patronage of new acts – Clean Bandit and Sam Smith having recently benefitted from his counsel.
Relaxing in the comfort of his private apartment, Clash is drawn into the boundless devotion that drives Elton John. Are you ready for love?
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At this stage, once you’ve made over 30 albums, is it just an impulse within you that keeps you creating?
Yeah. I mean, I could stop, because basically the records don’t sell as much and you don’t really make any money from records, but that’s not the point. I never did records in the first place to make money, I did them to write songs and record them, and I was lucky enough for them to be successful. So it’s not just about are they going to make money, it’s about still wanting to be creative and still wanting to do something. And I think now, in the latter years, that I have hooked up with T-Bone and done three albums with him, which have all been kind of different, I feel…every now and then I get the urge to do something.
This album was an urge to do something kind of retro in a way and go back to what I was doing in the ’70s, as far as up-tempo stuff and playing with the band. And I thoroughly enjoyed it, because I wanted to make sure that this was a joyous record, both lyrically and musically. So that’s what I wanted to do. I can just do albums how I want to do them now. I’m under no illusion how they’re gonna do. So the thing is, you can just do what you like, basically. And the last two albums were one with Leon [Russell], which was only for the purists really, and the last one (‘The Diving Board’) was probably one of the least commercial records I’ve ever made, but it was a very intimate piano record. As I approach 70, I’m lucky enough to be able to do what I do. If people like it, fine. If they don’t like it, I don’t care anymore. I really don’t.
The most favourable change in your life over the last few years is undoubtedly fatherhood. Since we last met, I’ve become a father to a little girl, so I know what it’s like to suddenly have your brain switch to not just thinking about yourself any more.
It’s all about them. And they put things into perspective so much… I think that contributes a lot to the album, and where we were in a very happy place. Bernie finds it hard to write ‘up’ lyrics, and I find it hard to write up-tempo songs because I’m a piano player, so it was a bit of a challenge. Misery is great – I love recording misery, and sad songs always, for me, have been a big part of my life. Up-tempo songs are harder for me to write. I don’t write that many, so when I had to write a lot together for this album it was a challenge.
Your music is identifiably Elton John, but while you are very passionate about contemporary music, you don’t tend to follow fashions and adopt modern elements, therefore ensuring that the music doesn’t date in that way.
It’s very tempting to do that. I mean, I’ve thought about it a lot, but mostly the way I would go would be electronic, and I don’t really know anything about that kind of world. There are people that I would love to work with, and that may happen in the future – the next album will be different from this one again, I hope. When you hear records like The Weeknd and you think, ‘I’d like to make something like that,’ or a Kanye West track… I played [and] sang on a Kanye West track [‘All Of The Lights’], and I wouldn’t know where to start. Those guys, they’re on a different planet.
It’s all very well having a go, but you can fall flat on your face. I like writing songs, I like playing the piano, so it’s probably what I do best. I’d love to be James Blake, but I’m not, I’m Elton. I would kill to be James Blake. But I can’t; I’m who I am and it’s got me a long way and I’m quite happy with it, but I would like to work with other people, obviously. I don’t know how it would turn out though.
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Sad songs always, for me, have been a big part of my life…
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‘Blue Wonderful’ is a fantastic track, and its balletic video is beautiful.
Yeah. [It] was inspired by Gregory Crewdsen, who I collect a lot of photographs from. He’s one of my favourite contemporary photographers. And it’s funny, because Gregory saw the video and emailed me and said, ‘I loved the video. Thank you, it’s obviously a tribute,’ and then I called him and he called me and it worked out really, really well. For me, when I wrote that song, I knew it was gonna be a bit of an EJ/BT classic, and I think that’s the song that will drive the album. I always have done.
For me, the two best songs on it are ‘Blue Wonderful’ and ‘A Good Heart’, because the other ones are up-tempo songs, and up-tempo songs are never really as good a song as the ballads usually. But, having said that, I love ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’, I love ‘Looking Up’, I love ‘In The Name Of You’. But ‘Blue Wonderful’ and ‘A Good Heart’ are the things, I think, that will drive the record. And maybe ‘Tambourine’ as well.
You’ve talked many times before about not knowing how or why the magic seems to work between you and Bernie, but I wonder whether there’s some kind of subconscious link that you find in the lyrics that immediately relates or means something specific to you too. In something like ‘A Good Heart’, it sounds like you could have written it for your children.
He will probably say that it’s not about my kids, but to me, it’s either about David or it’s about my kids. He’s very clever, because he writes very androgynously – it could be about a boy or it could be about a girl; he’s done that for years – but ‘Blue Wonderful’, as soon as I saw ‘Blue Wonderful’ I just thought of David when I wrote that. It’s weird, when I’m writing with his lyric, I just see something visual, and ‘Blue Wonderful’ to me was kind of like ‘Tiny Dancer’-esque, California sounding. That was the first song I wrote, and it just came together very quickly.
There’s a bonus track, ‘Free And Easy’, which is about freedom and independence. Listening to it, I was reminded of something you’d said recently about a life cleanse; you said your husband, David, had “weeded out all the horrible people” from around you…
Yeah, and that’s continuing to happen. David has come into our organisation and has made it a more leaner machine. Not getting rid of people because they were doing a bad job, it’s just because they weren’t really needed. And unfortunately, (guffaws) people are accusing him of being the Yoko Ono of my life… I don’t want to be on the road all my life – I want to see my kids grow up. I’m used to having an affluent lifestyle and spending too much money on things that I don’t need to spend much money on on the road, and David has come in and cut those things down.
And it’s all coming together much tighter, and the people that have gone have
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I do like to tour, and I live a lavish lifestyle…
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Yeah. It’s now a family business: it’s David, me and the kids. That’s what we’re looking at.
Yeah. I want my kids to have… I’m a very wealthy man, I don’t have to tour, but I do like to tour, and I live a lavish lifestyle, so I have to keep that up, but I want to come off the road sooner than later, because I do want to spend time with my children. I spend time with my children – all my shows now are built around holidays when they’re not at school. I’m not working when they’re not at school, and I’m doing less shows in a year, now, than what I’ve been doing. It’s just looking towards the future.
Well, nobody expected it. It was like the day after his album came out. I had no idea. I knew he’d had a heart attack (in 2004), but I had no idea he was sick. I don’t think anybody
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It was like, wow. Grab every day as you can.
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No. I couldn’t care less. I couldn’t give a fuck. Everything I’ve recorded has come out. I’m gone. I don’t spend hours poring over my old tracks – Neil Young has done that, and David [Bowie] has apparently done it as well. I’m not interested. I’m more interested in listening to other people’s stuff, to be honest with you. I don’t want to listen to mine. It’s nice to hear it occasionally and remind yourself that it’s really good, but I like to move on. The thing about George Harrison was we all knew he was sick. The thing about David was that nobody really knew. And he’d done so much work – I mean, he’d done ‘The Next Day’, and then lo and behold ‘Blackstar’ came out, and in between he did that best of Bowie (‘Five Years’), which is the big box-set, so he’d been busy. And then he wrote the musical of Lazarus. So, who knew?
It’s different times, but David was a great performer. Kanye West is not that. It’s a different genre. I love Kanye West – I think he’s brilliant – but he’s not in the same league as Bowie. Don’t even think it. He’s just said, ‘I’ve made the greatest album ever.’ Yeah right, in your own fucking mind. That’s not to say it’s not going to be a great record, but it’s just like, no no no… I grew up through Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, the Stones…the list is endless. These people, they don’t have it, and there’s no one around that has that any more. It’s a dying breed… Rock music is dying out as that kind of form. Like the ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’ form of rock music that I’m playing on this album, it’s a dying art – it’s not going to happen very often any more.
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The quality of music in general is nowhere near as good as it used to be…
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(Scoffs) He was hanging by his bootstraps from the white cliffs of Dover.
It’s a great pop record. I’m so happy for him, because I don’t like to see anyone fucking fall off the edge of a cliff and lose everything, and he was very close to doing that. I think he smartened himself up. He suddenly grew up overnight. He obviously got rid of some people, and he made a great record, doing what he was good at when he started. He went away from the music. It was all about cars racing up and down the street and getting into trouble in clubs, but it’s like, no, you’re still only 21, you should be making music. This should be what you concentrate on. So he did. He went in and made a great record, and the result is he had three records in the top three in England, and I’m very, very happy for him, because that boy can sing. And he’s only 21.
Yeah, but I’m British. Being British does help, because they take the piss out of you. You can never get away with that behaviour in Britain. I mean, Justin got his fair share of bad press in Britain. I always say that Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson would probably still be alive today if they were British, because the British (press) would have given them hell. Sometimes that’s a cross to bear with the press, but I would rather have that – even though it’s a pain in the arse sometimes – than, ‘Oh, you’re wonderful, you’re fantastic, you’re great,’ and suddenly no one is going to tell you (otherwise). In Britain, they’ll soon put you in your place.
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Sometimes that’s a cross to bear with the press…
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I’ve always had a route: don’t believe the hype. Don’t believe your own press. If you get a great review in one paper, you’re gonna get a bad review in another. So it evens itself out, and you should never go by that. You should go by your own instinct as a musician – is this good work, or is this not? And I know it’s good work but other people may not like it – and that’s fair enough, I can deal with that – but as long as I’m happy with it and I know that I’ve done my best, then that’s all I can do.
Not so much now. Elton gave me the freedom to be the person that Reg was too afraid to be. But then, when I came offstage, I was still Reg. Your name can only take you so far, and of course the Elton John bit was an act – it was showing off, it was performing, and that’s what performing is. But, at the end of the day, I think when I got sober in 1990 – I had to do a lot of work on myself and write a lot of stuff down from the past and my addictions and everything like that – I came much more to terms with the dichotomy, as you say; it became closer. The two people began to merge much more. It’s got as close as it could possibly be at the moment.
Words: Simon Harper