Wednesday, September 4, 2013
'I don't have to tour, I don't need the money. This has got to stop, this is crazy' - Elton
On Monday night, in an extravaganza at the Palladium in London, Sir Elton John received the first Brits Icon award. Holding the statuette aloft, he joked: “They’ve even made it sparkly on the bottom, which you know I love!” But if you want to know what the 66-year-old star really thinks, it is probably best to ask away from the glare of cameras.
“To be honest, when I agreed to do it, I didn’t realise it was an award. I thought it was an ITV programme,” he tells me. “I've had so many awards, they’re always nice, but if I’m being really candid, it’s a lovely way to sell the new record. I don’t get played much on the radio any more. So, at my age, I’ll take what exposure I can get!”
Elton is laughing as he says this. He knows he is being slightly disrespectful but his honesty is one of the things that has come to characterise him. “I am who I am,” he says. “I stick my head above the parapet.”
His 30th studio album, The Diving Board, will be released by Mercury on September 16. It has been the result of some soul searching. “Who needs another Elton John record? I’ve made God knows how many!” he says. There was a point, a few years ago, when he thought his recording career was over. His 2006 album, The Captain & The Kid, had the lowest sales of any album since his 1969 debut, Empty Sky. “I knew it was not a commercial album but it was important to me, and the record company just dumped it. It p----d me off so much, I didn’t want to make another record ever again.”
He was tempted back into the studio in 2010, with one of his heroes, Leon Russell. The Union proved a commercial and critical hit, and led to hatching a plan with producer T Bone Burnett to record with the minimalist piano, bass and drums set up that launched his live career, but which had never been the basis of an Elton album. “If I was going to go out there again, I knew we had to do something different.”
He confesses to a moment of nerves at the first session, when he picked up a sheaf of his writing partner Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. “I’ve never had a writer’s block but still I think: ‘Is it going to happen this time?’ You never know what you’re going to get, you just put your fingers on the keys and hope.” The songs came fast and the basic tracks, featuring 12 songs and three improvised instrumentals, were written and recorded in two sessions, lasting five days. “It was actually quite weird, I’m a singer-songwriter piano player, and I’ve never done a track that’s just piano and voice before Ocean’s Away. I’ve never done a solo on a record before My Quicksand.”
The Diving Board is an extraordinary record, full of long, winding ballads contemplating aging, mortality and memory, the ghostly elusiveness of a past that can be recalled but never recaptured. “That’s Bernie,” says Elton. “He’s the tortured one.” Some of the lyrics are so strange, full of personal references and hallucinatory imagery, it comes as a surprise when Elton reveals that he never questions Taupin about the meaning of the songs they write together.
“There are lyrics that are obvious and there are others that are esoteric, like Take Me To The Pilot (from 1970), that I still haven’t got a f-----g clue about. The magic of the relationship is that it's odd and otherworldly – the connection between two minds so in sync we’ve never had an argument about anything in 46 years, and I can tell you that on my son’s life. Even though he’s probably been disgusted with some of my behaviour over the years, and rightfully so, it’s never crossed his mind to be anything other than kind to me. It’s incredibly moving, really.”
If Taupin is the complex, cerebral half of the partnership, Elton is the virtuoso musician and flamboyant showman, who, at this stage of his life, comes across as one of the least tortured artists you could imagine. “I’m very relaxed. I have a family, I have a partner of 20 years, I have a wonderful life, nothing could be better. It’s taken a while to get here, but now that I’ve got it, I’m going to hang on and not f--- it up.”
It hasn’t always been so straightforward. “I’ve had some very good times that I can’t remember”, he jokes. He regrets “the extended use of drugs and selfishness that goes with it. But I had to go through that to get here now”. He has been clean and sober for 23 years, and effusively credits his husband by civil partnership, David Furnish, with making him a better person. More recently, two sons Zachary (two) and Elijah (7 Months) by a surrogate mother have, he says, been “the icing on the cake. I love every minute of fatherhood, staying up all night, changing nappies, kids crying, I find it really funny and inspiring. It connects you to the world in a new way”.
On cue, a small boy toddles into the room, and Elton scoops him up. “Come here, Zachary, give me a cuddle.” Given his father’s touring schedule, Zachary is a well-travelled child. “The great thing about small children is they’re portable, so we take them everywhere, but when it comes to 2015, Zachary’s going to school, and I want to be there to drop him off and pick him up. I don’t want to just be the father who reads them a bedtime story. I want to be one of the dads in the playground, there for parents' evenings, sports day. I am so looking forward to it.”
It is going to mean big changes. He is one of the hardest working stars in popular music, with a touring schedule that runs to over a hundred concerts a year. But in July this year, he was forced to cancel a concert at Hyde Park when he was diagnosed with appendicitis requiring immediate surgery. In fact, he had been suffering for over a week. “I knew I was sick but I didn’t know I had such a dangerous thing inside of me until I had a scan, which was after nine shows, 24 flights and a summer ball. I could have easily died.”
It has made him reconsider his approach and he reveals that we won’t be seeing so much of him in the future. “Of course, your sense of your mortality kicks in. This is a wake-up call. I’m 66 not 36 anymore. I want to write another musical for Broadway and I want to spend more time with my children. I don’t have to tour. I don’t need the money. I just love playing. When I had the operation, I said: 'This has got to stop, this is crazy, why am I doing this?’ I’m a great believer in signs coming to you in life to tell you something. This appendix thing, it’s so lucky I didn’t die. So I’m treating is as a sign in great big letters saying ‘for f---’s sake, get a grip!”
at 3:10 PM