Monday, July 18, 2011

The Music Week Interview, Elton Working on 2 Albums

As one of pop's elder statesman, Elton John is never short of media attention. Wisely, he has exploited that position to regularly and publicly champion new talent he believes deserves greater attention.

George Michael, Eminem, Rufus Wainwright, Rumer and Plan B are just a few of the many artists whose careers were aided by having the presence of such a high-profile superstar in their corner during their early days.

But as Elton surveys the record industry in 2011 – and the way it typically handles new artists – he is not happy. Elton’s own slow-burn rise to fame was dogged with setbacks.

But too frequently it now appears to him if an artist does not break through immediately they are thrown in the trash.

“A record company can drop an artist after one or two albums,” he tells Music Week. “My first record was Empty Sky, which didn’t sell that many. I lucked out with the Elton John record and I was getting known as a live artist so the record company knew there was something there and it’s essential we have live artists as that is the only way they are going to sustain a career.”

Easy words you might think from an artist who has sold millions of records through the same record company system he now questions, but this is a man who is putting his money where his mouth is.

The launch of Elton’s new company – the Rocket Music Entertainment Group – marks a new chapter for the superstar. He can also use it to make his greatest direct contribution yet in helping to nurture new artists – plus support some established names, too – and try to give them the kind of lengthy career he himself has enjoyed.

In some ways he has been here before. In 1973, he launched Rocket Records with a roster eventually including Kiki Dee, Judie Tzuke and, in the US, Cliff Richard, helping Cliff to finally achieve Stateside success nearly two decades after his first British hit.

And when Elton split with his long-time manager John Reid in 1998, he set up his own management company, firstly with Sanctuary and, following Sanctuary’s takeover, with Universal.

But this new venture feels a lot different. For starters the new business will ultimately not only offer management – already boasting a roster including James Blunt, Lily Allen, Leon Russell, Ed Sheeran and Elton himself – but a record label and music publishing division.

The company, headed by chairman Frank Presland with artist manager Todd Interland as CEO, is also totally independent. Perhaps most importantly of all, it further comes backed with his own philosophy that artistic talent cannot be hurried, but must be allowed to develop at its own speed and in its own way.“The worst thing to do is to rush people to have a record out. They’ll make a record when they’re ready and it comes out when it is ready,” says Elton.

His take on the current system the majors and their executives operate when dealing with new artists does not pull punches. “I think they are scared about their own jobs and if a record is doing well they’ll support you. But I would be very interested if Kate Nash keeps her record deal, and Duffy, because it’s a cut-throat business out there,” he says. “The record business is disappearing. The record shops are disappearing."

But according to Elton, there is another way. It is personified by Ed Sheeran whose record company Asylum/Atlantic has only released one record – the top-three single The A Team. However, Sheeran has already put in a lot of the groundwork to build his career.

“He’s been playing for two or three years and creating his own thing and now we’ve come along and helped him along the way,” says Elton.

“He’s going to be huge. I’d be very surprised if his record here wasn’t huge and in America because it’s all about the songs. The songs are great and he can play live. He’s funny. He looks great. He’s a star.”

It is a similar story with another of Rocket’s roster, Seattle singer-songwriter Matt Becker, who has yet to have a record out. “Again he’s in the process of making a record or writing for a record and when it’s the right time to make it he’ll make it, but there’s no rush,” says Elton.

“Get the right amount of songs ready and then make the record. Everybody now wants everything at once and we just tell our acts, ‘We’ve signed you because we believe in you and we’re trying to do it the right way by slowing down the process and making sure, by slowing down, you have a career 30 years from now’.”More than four decades after the release of his first album Elton clearly has plenty of experience to share with his young charges, who also include singer-songwriter Murray James, Australian dance duo Pnau who are signed to Ministry of Sound and feature Empire Of The Sun’s Nick Littlemore, one-time Coronation Street actor and singer-songwriter Richard Fleeshman, Virgin-signed Ed Drewett and Danish artist Oh Land whose self-titled first album comes out this summer.

“I know all the pitfalls,” he says. “I’ve seen them all. I’ve made all the mistakes myself. I’m a big connoisseur of pop. I always have been. I love the charts. I love to see what is going on so I can bring my experience and knowledge and help to these artists. I phone them on a regular basis and make sure they’re OK and see how they’re doing.

"We have someone in the office who works in a kind of counsellor capacity in case some of them have any problems with depression or confidence and stuff like that. Someone who I sat next to at an AA meeting when I first got sober and has been my friend ever since works within the office to help those artists and when they suffer a lack of confidence they can go and confide and he can lift them up.”

However, Elton readily admits parts of the modern way of doing things leave him baffled, not least the world of the internet and how acts can be promoted online.

Fortunately, his company’s west London offices right next to Olympia also come with a bunch of whizz-kid staff who are teaching this old master a thing or two and helping the acts get their messages out there.

“Ed [Sheeran] is good at promoting himself like that and that is something I would never know how to do and that’s why as a company we have people employed to work people digitally and online,” he says.

“That is something – I come from a different age – I don’t understand. It’s vital in the artist’s development and to get the attention of an artist, to get them out there on the net and YouTube and places like that.

“Murray James has done the same thing as well. There is stuff of his on the net and YouTube he did three or four years ago. It’s a whole new ball game and I have to pay attention to that because I tend to stray to the old-fashioned side and I’m not technically minded, but we have to pay attention to that. It’s the way artists are broken now, the way Obama got elected as President for Christ’s sake.

“We’ve got the young kids in the office and youth is such a great thing. We’ve just hired three kids to work on these things and they bring a fresh air to the office and they bring energy and enthusiasm and it rubs off on everybody else and it’s rubbed off on me.”

Rocket is also busy currently with Lily Allen who has been writing the lyrics for a stage musical of The Bridget Jones Diary. “I think this week is the final kind of workshop to that before they go into rehearsals,” reports Elton.

“That’s an incredibly exciting thing for her, an amazing step for an artist to write a full musical, especially one so young, but I think Lily is Britain’s best lyricist and she’s taken this mantle on which is not easy when you’re young.”

He also has ambitions for the company far beyond a management operation and already it houses a filmcompany that was behind the animated fantasy film Gnomeo & Juliet, which has generated more than $100m at the US box office and has been a big international hit.

“We also have a theatre group here,” he says. “We have [Elton’s long-time percussionist] Ray Cooper looking after theatre. We’re hoping to start a classical label so there are so many great things happening, that we can actually concentrate on but not within the confines of a conglomerate like Universal.”

Rocket’s most interesting plans as far as the music industry is concerned will no doubt be the launch of a label, although there are no firm ideas yet whether it will partner with another company – say, Elton’s own record company Universal – or be run entirely independently.

“We’re just thinking about what’s the best way to do this,” he says. “That’s one thing we’re beginning to make a decision on, but we haven’t approached any major labels.”

However, it is the independent record model he is most impressed with currently because the way many labels in this sector nurture and back their acts matches his own beliefs.

“I’m so happy for all the independent labels that are doing well because they stick by their artists,” he says.

“They don’t dump them. They persevere. Some of the artists they have they know they aren’t going to be regular Top 20 or Top 10 performers, but that’s not the kind of artists they are.

"There’s so much room for people who aren’t mainstream who do make great music and I do think the independent record labels are really championing those people. If I put a template for our management company it would be you don’t have to be commercial for us to want to manage you. You just have to be great artists.”

Elton John reserves special praise for XL. “XL Recordings deserve a gold star,” he says.

“Their template is the template to follow and I can’t praise them enough about how they have stuck with their artists and they’ve now had enormous success with Adele and she’s only 21 years old for Christ’s sake.”

As for his company’s own label, Elton suggests its first release might be by Just Jack whose last two albums were issued by Mercury Records. “He’s working on a record right now and he’s an integral part of our company and he will be for years to come because

I think he’s such a really great artist and he’s not necessarily a commercial artist. But I think he has the capabilities of making a commercial record; he doesn’t really want to be pressed into that kind of situation. Left to his own devices he’ll produce astonishing stuff and probably produce and co-write astonishing stuff for other people either within our organisation or outside of it,” he says.

The planned launch of a label naturally also introduces the option of Elton himself putting out his own releases through it. It is definitely a possibility, but a decision he does not need to make just yet.

“Maybe [I will],” he says. “I don’t want to shit in my own nest because I do have a great relationship with Universal and they’ve been very helpful so I haven’t really crossed that road yet. I’ve got two albums to do and I really want to make the best two albums I can. It would be stupid for me to go anywhere else because my catalogue is with Universal.”

He will begin recording the first of those albums in the new year, reuniting with T Bone Burnett who produced his album The Union with Elton’s own mentor Leon Russell. “We’ve booked two weeks in the studio in January and Bernie [Taupin] is writing as we speak and I just want to make an album of good songs. I’m just going to go in the studio and write and see what happens and maybe just write before I go in and I really enjoyed working with T Bone and look forward to that experience again.”

As for Leon Russell, Elton reveals he may be making a new album with producer Tommy LiPuma who has been working on Paul McCartney’s next album.

The return of Russell to the public eye after years in the wilderness thanks to Elton’s intervention and the subsequent The Union album by the pair has been a hugely significant achievement for the Rocket founder.

It also goes to show that all artists – even those with more than a 40-year career on the clock – need proper managing and guidance to fulfil their potential. In Russell’s case, it has been mission accomplished.

“He’s got money in the bank, his fees have gone up, he’s happy,” says Elton. “He now wants to make a record to define himself, so it opened the door for him in a big way. Everything I wanted to do [with him] has been achieved. He’s got his respect back. My main concern was he was being neglected and forgotten about and he wasn’t just a one-track writer. He wrote so many great songs and was so integral on other people’s records.”

The love and attention Elton has bestowed upon Russell speaks volumes about the lengths he will go to in order to aid an artist’s cause – and for those young acts on Rocket’s books that must give them plenty of assurance their careers are in very safe hands.

- MusicWeek

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