Jeff Lynne wasn’t particularly focused on making an album to follow up 2015’s Alone in the Universe, but, much to his surprise, he found himself writing new music. “I suddenly thought ‘This is good already.’ I had just started like the first five minutes,” Lynne says. “From out of nowhere, the tune came. It was just one of those songs that comes really quick.”
That bolt of inspiration resulted in not only a new song, but the title track for From Out of Nowhere, the new Columbia Records album from Jeff Lynne’s ELO out today (Nov. 1).
The album comes after a flurry of activity for Lynne, best known as the enigmatic British studio wizard and creator behind Electric Light Orchestra’s seamless blend of melodic rock, pop and classical music that dominated radio airwaves in the ‘70s and ‘80s via such glorious hits as “Evil Woman,” “Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” “Telephone Line,” “Mr. Blue Sky,” “Shine a Little Love,” “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Hold On Tight.”
After a nearly 30-year hiatus, Lynne returned to the road with the re-branded Jeff Lynne’s ELO in 2015 and a new band and has toured frequently since. He was also inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
From Out of Nowhere features ELO’s trademark layered instrumentation—though with perhaps fewer strings than some past efforts— and stacked vocals across 10 largely upbeat tracks. “I try to make them positive and have a positive vibe and just get on with it and have fun,” a genial Lynne told Billboard on a mid-October day before he left Los Angeles for England to do a concert for the BBC. His joy in making music was palpable, as was his wistfulness when discussing the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup he formed with Bob Dylan and the late George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison.
Billboard: “Time of Our Life” on the new album addresses the utter joy you felt playing live based on ELO’s 2017 concert at Wembley Stadium. What made that show so special that it gets its own song?
Jeff Lynne: The reason it got to me in such a big way was because we made a big film of this whole show called Wembley Or Bust with millions of cameras. And I think the way they captured the audience, it was these little vignettes. You can see what’s going on. They zoom into certain people in the audience who were having the best time of their life— kissing and looking at each other when different songs come on. This happened so many times in the film that I really got to play the show over and over just by looking at the way they shot the audience. I thought it was the nicest atmosphere I’ve seen.
After all these years of touring—albeit with a nearly 30-year hiatus— it sounds like you got to see the audience differently than before and it rewired you a little bit.
Yeah, it did actually, because, you know, obviously I’m not used to playing at Wembley Stadium. Top of the bill at Wembley is what I always dreamed of as the best thing you could ever do.
Album track “One More Time” also extols the joys of the road. Since you started touring again five years ago is there a song that you’ve fallen back in love with?
There’s quite a few actually. One of them was “Xanadu,” which was a strange one because it wasn’t me singing on the record [Editor’s note: The original featured Olivia Newton-John and ELO], but I love the tune of it. I really liked the chords and I liked the construction of the song and we started doing that one. It went down really well always because it was a big hit.
As with Alone in the Universe, you play virtually every note of every instrument on this album and handle all the vocals. Is that because you can’t find other musicians that can create the sound that you want?
To be honest, I love to play all those instruments. My favorite thing is when I’m overdubbing instruments onto a track and I love to play them. So that’s why I choose to do them. I could easily get anybody to play them, probably, but I come up with the ideas and I like to play them and I’ve got all the gear, all the keyboards, all the guitars and the drums, the bass. As a player, it’s just so much fun to do that. I’d rather do that than anything else.
What does your studio look like?
Mine is like a big—what would you call it— like a jumble sale. Everything’s in there, but you’ve got to find it first. It’s all underneath something else. I’ve just got so much gear and it’s all crammed in there because I never move anything in case I can’t find it again. I’ve got a really big studio and a regular control room and the control room is where I do most of the recording because you go directly into the desk. Mine is packed out stupid. It’s embarrassing, actually. I don’t like showing it off because when I see it through somebody else’s eyes, I go “oh, you scruffy bugger.” (laughs).
Your first album came out almost was 50 years ago, but it sounds like it’s still magical for you to be in the studio and creating.
Yeah. I still get magic from it yet and surprises and I actually knock myself out sometimes by just doing a few really good chords strung together and I’ll know that I’ve got a great tune waiting there to work on. It makes me in a really good mood and I’m very happy for that period until I’ve finished it.
Those early ELO records were recorded on 16 tracks and your earlier band, The Move, may have even used eight. You’ve now got an unlimited amount of tracks. Is that a good thing for someone like you who sees infinite possibilities everywhere?
Whether it’s 124 or 200, it’s still not enough. It really is not quite enough. I’m always thinking, “Well, hang on, I’m not going to waste these 25 tracks that are just sitting there doing nothing.” It’s just wonderful to have all these electronic gadgets of today. Most of them are fantastic and I really love using all the modern technology.
“Help Yourself” on the new album sounds like it could have been a Traveling Wilburys’ song. It’s been 31 years since the first Traveling Wilburys’ album came out. Were those some of the happiest times of your career?
Yeah, [those were] some of the happiest times because I started off producing George Harrison with his album Cloud Nine. And then I went on to produce Tom Petty’s album, Full Moon Fever. And then I did a couple of Roy Orbison songs and then that’s how the Wilburys were formed. George started saying “We should have a group, you know, me and you.” And I said, “Who should we have in it?” He says, “Bob Dylan.” And I go, “Ah, okay.” (laughs) “Let’s have Roy Orbison then,” and [George] says, “Yeah, Roy’s great.” And then we both said “Let’s have Tom,” because we all got to know each other quite well by then— not well, but well enough to form a group. And so we did it and that was what happened and it was a lot of fun and very much an exciting time working with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Tom Petty …and me, I suppose (laughs).
What was the writing process like with some of the world’s best songwriters in a room?
We wrote them, literally, sitting at a table, five of us with acoustic guitars. We’d strum chords, we’d shout out chord changes, we’d all go there and pretty soon, within like probably 20 minutes, we’d have the outline of a song. We’d lay those guitars down on to five tracks and then double track those, so we’d have 10 acoustics on the track. All those just funny things like that we used to do because we could. So it was a lot of fun and we were experimenting and trying silly things, complicated things and mainly simple things and it just all worked out. Everybody got along great and we’d do our harmonies together and, aww, it was just magic really.
Do you make albums for a different reason now than you did 40 years ago?
Well, I can’t remember why I made them 40 years ago (laughs). I just hope I can keep coming up with something different, something new. Just keep trying. I just love making music so it’s what I love to do best of all. So I’ll just keep at it and try and come up with the best one ever one of these days.