A Q&A With Elton John
An edited version of this interview appears in the Nov. 20 issue of Billboard. The full text is presented exclusively on Billboard.com.As a major artist on major labels for nearly 35 years, Elton John long ago proved himself one of the most durable artists of the rock era. At 57, the many challenges he rises to are the ones he sets himself, with a solid schedule of writing, recording and performing that would stretch musicians three decades his junior.
Nov. 9 marked the North American release of two ambitious projects: "Peachtree Road," a new studio album for Rocket/Universal, and "Dream Ticket: Four Destinations Four DVDs," a 10-hour package issued in the United States exclusively by Minneapolis-based retailer Best Buy.
John performed concerts for "Peachtree Road" Nov. 4-5 in one of his adopted hometowns, Atlanta, and will play a British tour in December before returning to Las Vegas to resume his "Red Piano" residency at Caesars Palace in February 2005. He is also completing work on the musical "Billy Elliot," a stage version of the 2000 film about an 11-year-old boy who becomes an acclaimed ballet dancer.
John spoke with Billboard about his current and upcoming activities and his views on the music business and how it has changed since his emergence in the early 1970s.
Note: An edited version of this interview appears in the Nov. 20 issue of Billboard. The full text is presented exclusively on Billboard.com.
Q: You've been in Las Vegas playing 'The Red Piano' residency, and you'll be back there in February after a British tour in December. Does the Vegas set change from night to night?
A: It's pretty much a set, but it will change next year, David [LaChappelle, production designer] will put stuff in. This [has been] our fourth stint this year, and it will change gradually. We [have done] two shows in Atlanta [Nov.4 and 5] the album, doing nine new songs from it.
Q: The new album seems invested with the same spirit as 2001's "Songs From the West Coast."
A: I'm very happy with it. On the last album, [producer] Pat Leonard got me back to doing stuff that was much more simple, playing more piano, doing what I do best. Trying to be Elton, not trying to be anybody else. That really paid off, and then this album I decided to produce myself, which I'd never done before. I knew I wanted to make an organic record like 'Tumbleweed [Connection]' or 'Madman [Across the Water],' with a band playing, which we did on 'Songs From The West Coast,' so to continue it, but using my band. I thought that was important. We've been playing a lot of shows this year, [so I thought] we've got to go in as a unit.
Q: Were you happy with the way "Songs From the West Coast" performed?
A: In the U.K., I was ecstatic, it [sold] 1.4 million copies, which was extraordinary as it didn't have that [many] big hit singles off it. In America, I was very disappointed. It did 600,000, they didn't really know what to do with it. I think it's done 3.5 million copies around the world, I can't grumble at that.
When we put an album out now it's all about TV and doing [deals like] this Best Buy thing. I noticed what they did with the Rolling Stones [on last year's 'Four Flicks' DVD]. It's been like working with an old record company, they've been so enthusiastic. I've got the XM radio ad, the NFL are using [current U.S. single] 'Answer In the Sky,' that's the way to go.
Q: A lot of the material on "Peachtree Road" has echoes of your 1970s songs, without ever sounding as if you're trying deliberately to recreate them.
A: No, I'm not trying to do that, I don't think you can recreate anything from the past. You can nod to it. If you're going to go out and imitate a Motown sound, you can't do it, it's impossible because of the studios and players involved and the atmosphere.
I just wanted to go back and write decent songs and sing them really well. My voice is the thing that's really improved the most over the last few years. There's more resonance to it. It started to change when I had the operation in Australia after the live album ["Live In Australia," 1987], because of the nine cancerous... whatever it was on my vocal chords.
I get live reviews now that say 'He's lost his falsetto.' To a certain degree I have because it changed the timbre of my voice and made it deeper, [compared to] when you listen to my voice on 'Yellow Brick Road.' I still sing certain songs in the same key, I haven't taken them down, but I just have more resonance in my voice and I'm much happier with that. Halfway through my career I got a voice change, thanks a lot! And I've learned to breathe properly, I've watched other people singing, I've become a much better singer. I've become a singer that plays the piano instead of a piano player that sings.
I saw Tony Bennett last year, and he was singing at 72 better than I've ever seen him sing. It's that kind of thing, you're still trying to learn as an artist, trying to play better, sing better. I'm happy at my age to have that kind of power in it.
Q: You have several other projects in development. Your career is much more "multi-media" now, isn't it?
A: I've got so many projects on the way. "The Lion King" opened so many doors for me in the '90s. Up to that point I was just making albums and touring and promoting them, which was OK, but "The Lion King" obviously enabled me to write for animation. Consequently, it went to the stage then I wrote for "Aida," I've written another two musicals, two film scores, so... I'm not bored with my life. I'm not just making the records and touring, I would find that boring.
Concert-wise, in an eight-week period over the summer I played over 70 different songs. Elvis Costello, in a three-week period, sang about 85. But that's the way to go, it's how an artist keeps himself on his toes. I've played with my band, I've played solo, I did a "Billy Elliot" presentation, I did the orchestral stuff and then I came to Las Vegas. And I could tour with Billy Joel if I wanted. So I've got band, solo, orchestra, Billy and Vegas, they're all different options.
Q: What's the latest update on the "Billy Elliot" musical?
A: It's going to open in May in London at the Victoria Palace, and we've been finding the boys [to play the lead]. That's the biggest problem with "Billy Elliot," you have to have three boys a week because of the labor laws in England, and they have to be of a certain age. So we opened a kind of school in Leeds, or [director] Stephen Daldry did, to train them, [laughs] to put them on a production line. We're going to need a lot of them, because their voices are going to break and then that's it, thanks very much! But it's in really good shape.
Obviously I've written too much for it, [and] we still might be writing something with the Scissor Sisters, I don't know. We approached them to record one of the songs and they said 'We'd like to write a song with you for it,' that may happen, I don't know.
Lee Hall's lyrics for "Billy Elliot" are just fantastic, and he's never written lyrics before, he did the screenplay for the movie. I really enjoyed working with him. It's a feelgood story anyway. I identified with it very much, it was one of those things that left me emotionally hanging out to dry by the end of it. I knew there and then when I saw it at Cannes that it would be a great musical.
Q: But that's not your only theatrical undertaking, is it?
A: I wrote "The Vampire Lestat" with Bernie Taupin, which was his first foray into the theatrical world. It's an amalgamation of the first two Anne Rice books, "Interview With the Vampire" and "The Vampire Lestat," something we've been trying to do since the 1970s. I did that after "Billy Elliot," consequently I've written 60 songs in one linear year, the most I've ever done in my life, it was just a joyous period.
To be honest with you, it's much easier to write a musical than it is to do an album, because you have a knowledge of the characters, especially when you see a film, or you know the books, as in "The Vampire Lestat," you know there's a beginning and an end. If you're writing an album you don't know what you're going to come out with, and is there going to be any kind of cohesion. You write 17 songs, are they gonna form any shape?
Q: So were you writing for three different projects at once?
A: I more or less finished "Billy" first, and once I started "Vampire" I was so into it, because it's so different, there's no electronic music in it at all. "Billy Elliot" [is] set in the 1970s, "Vampire" is set in the 18th century, [so] it was a completely different kettle of fish. I was writing things for other projects at the time as well, so I had to divorce myself from "Vampire" and "Billy Elliot," but I can do that now. It's incredible fun.
Q: Is the songwriting process with Bernie the same as ever?
A: Yes. No collaboration whatsoever beforehand, or any hint of what's going to come, just a folder full of lyrics that I get slightly before the album. I look at them, but I don't have any preconceived ideas until I set foot in the studio. The first song we wrote isn't on the album, then we wrote "The Weight of the World." When I'd written that and I knew it was about me and how personal it was, I wanted that to be the first track on the album.
After that was done, we wrote 17 songs, 12 ended up on the album.
Q: Presumably Bernie's lyrics arrive by e-mail now rather than fax?
A: E-mail rather than fax except I don't have a computer. I am the Luddite of rock'n'roll, I don't have a portable phone. I write things down.
So basically the situation with Bernie and writing hasn't changed, from the early days when we first wrote together we were living with my parents in Northwood Hills [in Middlesex, north of London], I would be in the living room writing something, he'd be in the bedroom, and I would bring him out once I'd finished the song and play it to him and see the reaction, and the pleasure on his face is something that hasn't really changed, that excitement.
People say, "You should write lyrics" and I say I'm quite happy not to, because I like being part of that process where you write your version of what someone else's lyrics are saying to you, and that enjoyment has never changed in 38 years, that's pretty amazing.
Q: Has he ever said that you "got it wrong," gave the wrong musical interpretation to one of his lyrics?
A: No, he's never said that, but there've obviously been times where I haven't quite hit the mark. If I haven't done a lyric, it's because I couldn't get a melody around the words. But no, we've never had interrogations, thank God.
Q: The album has a lot of blues, gospel and country flavors to it.
A: It's a very southern feel -- 85% of it was recorded in Atlanta, and we used a lot of gospel singers who hadn't sung on pop records before. There's a country influence, even the uptempo track "They Call Her the Cat" has a country-rock influence more than straight out rock'n'roll. So it's country, soul, blues, and a little bit of Philadelphia with the soul arrangements. I'm very happy with the way the album sounds. I had a review in Q [magazine] which says the production's too glossy. I don't think the production's glossy at all, there's hardly any echo on the record, not on my voice anyway.
Q: "Turn The Lights Out" sounds like it could be covered by a country artist.
A: Hopefully we'll be able to [edit it and] release that as a single. I think that's the most obvious single on the album, but it's quite dangerous to put out a country record first, especially in England, because country music has a following but it doesn't really have a big following, which is a shame. But when I wrote that song I wanted it to be like an old Patsy Cline kind of country & western song, a piano solo that has a nod to Floyd Cramer in it. It's a definite hit song, whether it's for me or someone else, I don't know.
Q: What do you feel when you hear another artist covering one of yours and Bernie's songs?
A: We started off as songwriters, [so] it's always fantastic when anyone records your song, whether it's William Hung [from "American Idol 3"] or Aretha Franklin. It's just a compliment, and nowadays it seems to me more and more people are going back to the old material and recording it.
Q: Is there anyone you'd still like to cover one of your songs?
A: Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, people like that -- well, Bernie's already had Willie Nelson [on his duet with Lee Ann Womack, "Mendocino County Line"], so I don't really have specifics in mind. It's just when anybody records your song it's exciting, whether they make a good job of it or a mess.
Q: Actually, Aretha was one of the first big names to cover you, wasn't she, with "Border Song" in 1970?
A: Yes, we were responsible for ruining her run of top 10 hits, she was in the middle of that glorious run of singles. I was afraid of meeting her! But to be early on in your career and have Aretha Franklin cover you was quite amazing.
Q: The singles format has always been important to you, and you're a keen chart-watcher. But with the traditional single in a parlous state, what does the future hold?
A: I'm a bit of a Luddite, it doesn't really interest me if people download, and the ringtone chart doesn't interest me at all. But they have to [add] the downloading [data to the U.K. singles chart, which is still a traditional sales-only survey with a separate download chart]. It might make the record industry a bit better if people go and make albums rather than just singles, it'll get rid of some of the pap, hopefully.
In America, radio stations play records for too long. Look at the AC chart, which I'm crawling up. Dido's No.4 with "White Flag." I mean... stop it! There should be a legal amount of time they can play a record and then drop it. If the radio stations don't change their ways, people are going to switch, because it's ridiculous. It's a hindrance to new artists, for example it didn't do Alanis Morissette any good to have all those records taken off "Jagged Little Pill" and played for years and years. Even though she followed it up with a 7-8 million-selling album, it was considered a flop.
It's a ridiculous burden to place on a new artist, and radio stations have got to stop playing these bloody records forever. In the old days we had two or three singles out from an album and then you had the next album ready, but now, I mean "Toxic" by Britney Spears, you switch on the radio and it is toxic, no reflection on her because it's a good pop record. It's not her fault, it's the radio stations.
It's the worst I can ever recall it, and now you listen to satellite radio and think 'Thank God for that.' Radio stations, if they're not careful, if they don't change their ways, people are going to switch, because it's ridiculous.
Q: So what is your view of the business.
A: I have an optimistic view of everything. You have to, otherwise you'd go nuts. The thing that really worries me is, how can Rufus Wainwright be played? How can Ryan Adams get played? There's no real outlet for bands like Basement Jaxx or Groove Armada in America, where does that music fit in? It's an essential part of the recording scene. [The U.S. was] the slowest to get onto Moby, and it's so formatted that people like Rufus Wainwright or Kings Of Leon for example don't get any play. If you don't fit into a certain format here, you've had it. Pop radio, CHR, is all one kind of thing, it's hip-hop or nothing else, and it's killing radio.
Q: Your endorsement has been instrumental in the development of many young artists. How do you retain that enthusiasm?
A: You get to a certain age. From 1970-75, when we could do no wrong, it was all done on momentum and adrenaline and the fact we were having the greatest time meeting people, we had a great career surge during that time. Then it's someone else's turn, and you switch off for a couple of years because you want a personal life or whatever. You lose that adrenaline and you don't really get it back.
The only way I can get it back is by listening to people. I'm the ultimate record fan. I still go out, as you know, and buy records, I'm searching for stuff because I can't o if I'm going to hear Kings Of Leon or the Darren Hayes album, which is a fantastic album -- a new artist has tried something really adventurous and different from what he's done before, but because it doesn't sound like Savage Garden, "We'll wait for the next one."
So it's important if I can do it, I have a little column in Interview magazine, to write about the records that I like. If I can help in any way then it's great, because it was done for me earlier in my career by people like George Harrison sending me telegrams when I flew to America, by the Band coming and seeing my concert and Leon Russell taking me on two tours. You've got to pass that down. At 57, you're an old man now, you can't possibly feel like you did when you were 20, 23. I have as much enthusiasm for music as I did at that age, but times have changed.
Q: You might think from unimaginative radio playlists that there isn't great new stuff around, but nothing's further from the truth.
A: There's fantastic stuff out there, people like the Killers to Muse to Keane to Anthony Hamilton to Raphael Saadiq. In every genre, there's good stuff coming out. I don't think it's ever been healthier, I'd just like to hear it on the radio. I think the radio in Britain is getting to be like it is in America, and that's really unhealthy too. The death of [pioneering U.K. broadcaster] John Peel should be an alarm bell setting off, because he was a champion of the unheard, and these days it's harder for an act to be heard because there's so many bloody conglomerates.
Q: Are the majors still capable of nurturing new artists?
A: Record companies, a lot of them don't care about nurturing their acts any more. Some of them do, some of them don't, and if you have an organization like a Sony, BMG, Universal, Warner Brothers, they're so large, how can you have the intimacy? You can't, they're going to be all about putting out the new Eminem record and the new U2, and I don't think acts today get the chance. I think people like Sanctuary can find the older acts who don't have a home, and they've done such a good job, the younger acts are looking at them.
Q: Who are the best record executives you've ever worked with?
A: Russ Regan was my A&R guy and president of Uni Records when I first went to America, and I had an incredible relationship with him. Alain Levy was fantastic, and Lucian [Grainge, Universal Music U.K. & Ireland chairman/CEO] is fantastic. I really miss Alain, but he's doing a good job at EMI, they're not signing any crap.
I would go out with the record company people, have dinner and we'd be talking music non-stop, they'd call me up. I don't really get phone calls from record companies anymore, because they haven't got the time. In those days it was the early '70s, it was one of the most incredibly creative periods for music. Artists like myself used to put out two or three albums a year because we had to, we were under contract. Ryan Adams is so frustrated that he could do two or three albums a year, but it's like, "Oh no, we couldn't possibly do that." Why not? Is there any rulebook? Why can't you be prolific these days?