Wednesday, February 3, 2016

LA Times & NY Times Interviews

In addition to his myriad accomplishments as an artist, Elton John has long maintained a reputation as a tastemaker.

He's been an early champion of emerging pop acts from Swing Out Sister and Eminem in the '80s and '90s through current stars Ed Sheeran and the Weeknd, thanks to a voracious appetite for the music industry's latest releases.

Yet when he took the stage recently at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles for a question-answer session in front of no more than 60 people, including his press reps and the technical crew for the satellite radio special he was taping (premiering Feb. 5 on SiriusXM), he cited one of his own celebrated forebears as his recent inspiration.

"When Bob Dylan came out with 'Modern Times' [in 2006] that had a huge impact," John, 68, said, explaining that it demonstrated Dylan's lack of interest in keeping up with trends in contemporary pop music. That helped trigger a new perspective that manifested in his 2010 album "The Union," in which he collaborated with his long-ago hero Leon Russell, and the inward-looking 2013 album "The Diving Board."

"I don't have to go chasing the hit single anymore," John said a few days later, relaxing in the single-story Beverly Hills home that he and his husband, David Furnish, bought three years ago after the birth of their second son, Elijah. Its midcentury walls are covered with pieces from an extensive art and photography collection, another manifestation of John's passion for artistic expression.

"I can just do what I like. It's freedom — freedom from having to be worrying about whether I have a chart single," he said. "I don't have to worry about that. And then you look at Adele, and you think, [Wow!] it's their time now — it's not my time."

That sense of recalibrated expectations is at the heart of the new album, "Wonderful Crazy Night." Scheduled for release on Feb. 5, the album is again produced by T Bone Burnett and features John's longtime songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin. But in a significant departure from the previous two albums, "Wonderful Crazy Night" finds John back in the recording studio with his touring band, which includes guitarist Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson and percussionist Ray Cooper.

"After I made the first two records with T Bone," John said, "I wanted to make a joyous record because I'm in a joyous place. I have a great band, I have a great career, I have a great relationship with my husband, I have two wonderful children — you know, I'm pretty damn lucky. I just wanted to go back and make a record that sounds like what we're playing on stage."

Another difference in the making of "Wonderful Crazy Night" was his request for Taupin to "write a lot of up-tempo lyrics. I said, 'I'm not very good at writing up-tempo songs, but we're going to make a joyous record. Even if the songs are slow, I want the lyrics to be joyous, I don't want any sadness on this record. …

"I love a good, miserable song," he said with a laugh, "and Bernie and I can write one of those every five minutes."

Taupin, in a separate interview from his home in the mountains of Santa Ynez north of Santa Barbara, said the edict — and the timing — of the new album "threw me for a loop.

"I wasn't really expecting to be making another record so soon after 'The Diving Board,'" Taupin, 65, said. "His idea of making it upbeat, joyful and positive — that was also somewhat of a surprise, due to the fact that I usually set the tenor of the records.

"My direction is usually to be slightly oblique and write lyrics that are metaphor-riddled, to let people figure out some things for themselves. But once I got past that and put on my happy hat, it was kind of liberating," Taupin said. "I hadn't written anything like that in so long. I much prefer writing songs that are a little darker in nature, that deal with the underbelly of society. But when I actually thought about it, and look back at our body of work, I realized it's riddled with up-tempo, not necessarily positive, but certainly joyous subject matter. So it's not something totally new to me."

Added John, "I haven't really written an album this up-tempo since 'Rock of the Westies,' and I think this is a better album than that."

It opens with the brightly energetic title track, moves into an achingly lovely ballad "Blue Wonderful" and on to a big arena ballad, "A Good Heart," that heaps appreciation on a loved one's fundamental kindnesses. It also contains "I've Got 2 Wings," a number cited by John, Taupin and Burnett as a favorite for its true-life portrait of mid-20th century Louisiana preacher Rev. Utah Smith, who conducted his services while playing an amplified Gibson guitar and wearing white wings on his back. The album's musical settings cover a broad range of moods, but the overall sentiment is, as John indicates, positive and life-affirming.

Where the album will fit into the current musical landscape remains to be seen, although that hasn't been a major priority for any of the principals who made it.

"I don't know what the musical landscape is anymore, really," Burnett said with a laugh in a separate interview. "There are so many places where it's happening now. I think, more than anything, when doing this kind of thing with Elton, you're doing it for history. It becomes part of a very long and important story."

That story includes the standard humble beginnings for a talented kid raised in a family of modest means — in John's case, growing up in Pinner, Middlesex, England as Reginald Kenneth Dwight. A child prodigy, he spent five years at London's Royal Academy of Music studying piano, then as a teenager formed with a British blues rock group called Bluesology, taking his stage name later from two of the members of that band, Elton Dean and Long John Baldry.

After connecting with Taupin, John released his debut album, "Empty Sky," in 1969, one that made no waves here in the U.S. But upon the release of his sophomore album, "Elton John," the following year, he quickly gained notice in large part because of a string of sold-out shows at the Troubadour in West Hollywood that left most of those in attendance agog at both the quality of the songs and his acrobatic performing style.

John's kinetic approach to the piano harked back to the early days of rock 'n' roll wild men such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, bringing a degree of showmanship that had been in retreat during the psychedelic era in the late-'60s and the gently reassuring folk rock of the early '70s.

As he churned out hit after hit — "We were putting out two albums a year in those days," he recalled, "because we had to" — John became the most successful recording artist of the decade. With that, however, came the perils of fame and fortune.

He joined a crowd of notoriously hard-partying rockers including ex-Beatles John Lennon and Ringo Starr, the Who's Keith Moon, singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson and others who appeared bent on expanding the boundaries of rock star excess.

"To be honest with you," John said, "I'm not the sort of person that needs to take drugs or alcohol. I'm pretty stimulated as it is. I'm always doing something, so my character didn't need to. I just thought I'd join in, and it was a big mistake — and it was a mistake that lasted for a long time."

He spent a good chunk of the '70s and much of the 1980s indulging in substance abuse, some of it in conjunction with still-active societal taboos about homosexuality. In 1976, John described himself in an interview as bisexual but then married German recording engineer Renate Blauel in 1984, a union that lasted four years. After their divorce, he told Rolling Stone magazine he was gay and "comfortable" with that realization.

He got sober in 1990 and in 1993 met Canadian advertising executive-turned-filmmaker Furnish, and they formed a civil partnership in 2005, one of the first gay couples to do so after England made same-sex partnerships legal. They became parents of two boys born in 2010 and 2013 to the same surrogate mother and married in 2014 shortly after gay marriages were legalized in England.

Becoming a parent in his 60s, he said, is "everything I wanted and more. I'm sitting here in this house, which they were in last week, and it's empty without their voices. Empty without their laughter. It's a one-story house, and they're in England, back at school. I miss them. There hasn't been one moment I've ever regretted it. They are the most amazing things I've ever encountered in my life."

Consequently, he said now that Zachary, 5, has started school and Elijah, 3, won't be far behind, "My career has really got to be about them now," he said. "The touring is going to gradually be scaled down. It's all about when they're out of school and on holiday.

"I don't want miss out on anything," he said.

"No Monsters," a song on an expanded deluxe edition of "Wonderful Crazy Night," reflects on the singer's recognition of the differences in his life from his days of substance abuse.

"It was either you are going to live or you're going to die," he said. And at that point, he said, "I thought all the fun was gone from my life because I was getting sober. I never, really, ever thought when I got sober how much fun I would have.

"Actually I've had much more fun," he said. "Now I get up at 8 or 9 in the morning — it's a whole different kind of life, but it's a life I prefer. I could never have thought that my life would be so wonderful without it."

One area John is particularly enthusiastic about is discovering new music — something he's always enjoyed but has taken on new energy since he started buying vinyl albums again.

John also programs music for a weekly radio show for Apple Beats streaming service, a job he says let him "continually revisit my life. I don't look back in my life. I'm not a melancholy, nostalgic person, but doing this show has reunited me with the music I used to play in my old soul band and music that I've — not forgotten but haven't heard in a while. Music that is the story of my life. It's enchanting to be able to do this, mixed in with new people."

The quest for new vistas that keeps him looking forward rather than gazing into the rear-view mirror — "You're always on the lookout for that perfect song," he said — also keeps him attuned to musical inspiration.

"Did you see the Kennedy Center thing with Aretha?" he asked, referring to the performance in December by Aretha Franklin honoring singer-songwriter Carole King in which Franklin delivered her rendition of King's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" for an audience that included President and Mrs. Obama.

"It's one of the great performances of all time," he said. "I watched it five times in a row. You couldn't start the day off better off than that. And she's 74 years of age. …

"At one point you thought maybe she was losing her voice, but she's hasn't, and at the end, she goes for it, and it's thrilling, it's so thrilling," he said, sounding more like a giddy music fan than a grizzled veteran. "How often do we get thrilled like that anymore, come on?"

- LA Times

After 47 years in the spotlight, more than 250 million albums sold, six Grammys, a Tony, an Oscar and a knighthood, Elton John still gets the jitters when he steps onstage. Striding to his piano at the Wiltern here in a blue, rhinestone-dusted suit to play songs from his new album, “Wonderful Crazy Night,” for the first time, he surveyed the crowd of die-hard fans and music-industry insiders fretfully.

“When you’re playing new things,” he said afterward, “you’re thinking: Are they going to the toilet? Are they liking it? It’s impossible for them to like it right away, because compared to the other stuff, it’s not going to sound as good.”

He filled his two-and-a-half-hour set at the club, an Art Deco theater that’s a tenth the size of the arenas he normally plays, with that “other stuff”: hits like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” standing and strutting around the piano, the consummate showman. “Nobody rocks out anymore,” he said, exhorting the audience. “They’re all bed wetters. I wanted to make a proper rock ’n’ roll album for all the bed wetters!”

A few days later, at his ’60s-Modernist Beverly Hills home, he said he enjoyed the concert, “but I wasn’t relaxed.” He shrugged amiably. “If you don’t have any fear anymore, then you have to give up.”

Fading out is not the Elton John way. “Wonderful Crazy Night,” due from his new label, Island, on Friday, Feb. 5, is his 33rd studio album. He’ll be 69 in March, as he mentioned more than once, and next year will celebrate 50 years with his songwriting partner and lyricist, Bernie Taupin, a near-singular act of rock ’n’ roll endurance. Like his 1970s compatriots Fleetwood Mac and Billy Joel, he could be forgiven for a little late-career coasting on his greatest hits, especially as he’s relishing family life with his husband, the film producer David Furnish, and their sons Zachary, 5, and Elijah, 3.

Instead, Mr. John has injected himself ever more forcefully, and candidly, into pop culture — and art, and politics. He’s continued his activism and advocacy for gay rights and AIDS research while on an endless concert tour, which outgrossed the teen juggernaut 5 Seconds of Summer last year and Miley Cyrus the year before that. He’s probably the only musician to have scored both a show on Apple Beats 1 Radio and a phone conversation with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia within a few months. He beefs like a rapper, and mother-hens younger artists. Lately, he’s even started collecting vinyl records again — on an extravagant scale, of course. As an artist and a personality, he lives in the flourish.

“His nature is to do things when he thinks about it,” Mr. Taupin said. “And he certainly is not painting by numbers now; he’s doing it because he loves it. I think if he wasn’t on the road, he’d be bored to tears. I think the stage is his life.”

Mr. John — born Reginald Dwight in Pinner, a hamlet outside of London — couldn’t disagree. Sitting at his dining-room table, surrounded by a formidable art collection (Keith Haring, Willem de Kooning, William Eggleston, the Chinese pop artist Wang Guangyi) and ignoring a fresh cappuccino brought by a housekeeper, he sermonized about the value of performing.

“If you want to be in the game, you’ve got to be good live, and you’ve got to do it regularly, to improve your chops,” he said. “‘Wonderful Crazy Night,’” he added, “is an example of the energy I have at this very moment in my life, which I’m very grateful for. I don’t want to wallow in nostalgia.”

After “The Diving Board,” his darker, more intimate 2013 album, he craved something upbeat. “I said to Bernie, you’re in a good place, I’m in a good place,” he recalled. “Let’s make the album jingly-jangly, and as happy as we can.” Hearing 12-string guitars on a trip to Hawaii even influenced Mr. John to write, atypically, for the guitar.

But jingly-jangly does not come easy. “It’s not in my nature,” Mr. Taupin, 65, said. “I had to put my happy cap on.” Mr. John, too: “As a piano player, I find it very hard to write up-tempo songs. You can write ballads coming out of your wazoo. This was a challenge for me.” The album has love songs both languorous and “jovial,” as Mr. John put it, and one, “Good Heart,” lyrically inspired by the musicians’ children.

Mr. Taupin, who composes on guitar, sometimes gives his partner a song’s back story, but just as often Mr. John prefers to leave it a mystery and creates a different melody. “Tiny Dancer”? “Rocket Man”? “I find out what they mean about 30 years later,” Mr. John said.

Their songwriting process is idiosyncratic. Mr. Taupin, who’s also a painter, lives with his wife and young daughters on a ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif.; Mr. John, he said by phone, had been there “once in 25 years.” They email — sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly — mostly about music. For “Wonderful Crazy Night,” Mr. Taupin wrote lyrics for 24 songs, which Mr. John first saw when they got in the studio together, with his band. He writes and records, analog, in days — “I don’t pore over things,” he said.

Their relationship is one of the great flukes in songwriting history: They were matched at random by a record label in London in the 1960s. It took five years, Mr. John said, “to become Elton John,” and then a string of seven No. 1 albums — what he called his golden period — followed. Two of his bandmates from that era, the drummer Nigel Olsson and the guitarist Davey Johnstone, remain with him. (Early on, Mr. John said, he gave them royalties.)

Though they took breaks, the John-Taupin partnership is equally ingrained. “He was my first-ever friend,” Mr. John said. They buddied up at movies and concerts; shared books and records. “He introduced me to ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and to Bob Dylan, really.” But their tastes, and lifestyles, diverged. Mr. John once spent $100,000 on tablecloths in Italy with Gianni Versace; Mr. Taupin likes to lasso cattle.

“It’s not soppy or silly to say this,” Mr. John said. “Because we haven’t lived in each other’s back pockets, we still love each other. To me, he’s like a brother.”

Mr. Taupin agreed that their differences kept their union strong, though he was sometimes annoyed by Mr. John’s flamboyance. “Donald Duck in Central Park, hello!” he said, referring to Mr. John’s 1980 performance of “Your Song” in a duck costume.

Sober since 1990, Mr. John has toned it down considerably. At home, he wore a black-and-gold Adidas track suit, sneakers and rose-hued glasses, though he had eye surgery years ago and now has 20/20 vision. In conversation he can be sharply funny, and unsparing. Of Demi Lovato, who joined him on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” at the Wiltern: “The song was in the wrong key for her, so she had an unfortunate time.” “Artpop,” the last album by his friend Lady Gaga? “It was unfocused, and went down the E.D.M. dance-routine thing, and I thought she already made that record,” he said. (He is serving as a sounding board, at least, on her new tracks.)

“He doesn’t hold anything back,” Mr. Taupin said. “There is no one that wears their heart on their sleeve more than him, and sometimes not just his heart. Sometimes you go, ‘Elton, keep your mouth shut!’

“But,” Mr. Taupin continued, “he’s certainly one of the best. And that’s why I’m still here.”

Mr. John’s obsession, besides music, is art: On his album cover, he’s grinning in front of a photo by the Brooklyn artist Mariah Robertson; his video for “Blue Wonderful” was inspired by a Gregory Crewdson image. He has a piano at some of his homes, but “the kids play more than I do,” he said. Yet he was fist-pumpingly excited about his vinyl collection, now numbering about 3,000 records, from Nina Simone to the country star Chris Stapleton. And he pays close attention to new artists, inviting songwriters like Sam Smith and James Blake to lunch.

“He’s a huge influence,” said Tom Odell, another young British musician whom Mr. John counsels. They discussed career moves and his coming second album. “We can talk about records for hours,” Mr. Odell said. “I don’t think he ever stops. He’s got more passion than some of my friends who are 23 who are making music.”

In an email, Adam Lambert said, “When I was in the final stages of ‘American Idol,’ Elton hand-wrote me a note wishing me luck and praising my run on the show.” Mr. Lambert, who came out after his “Idol” season ended, added that as a kid, when he first heard Mr. John’s music in “The Lion King,” “I remember the label ‘gay’ being used, but it never sounded like a negative thing. It was just a matter of fact. The focus was on his music.” Only later, he said, did he realize how groundbreaking that was.

After a year in which he lost both Ingrid Sischy, the cultural critic and a close friend who was writing his biography, and his compatriot David Bowie, Mr. John understandably has legacy on his mind. The gay community is still stigmatized in Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, he said. “I’m going to try to help see if I can change those things. I probably won’t, in my lifetime, but I’m going to try. I might get ridiculed, or I might get laughed at — I’m prepared for that. But I know I have the ability to bring people together, so I have to try.”

First, he hopes to parlay his phone conversation with Mr. Putin — a call the Russian president made after pranksters impersonating him conned Mr. John into a plaintive conversation about Russia’s dismal record on gay rights — into a face-to-face meeting. “I’m not going to go in there and say, ‘Hey, Mr. Putin you’ve got to do this,’” he said. “I’m going to have a cup of tea and I’m going to talk to him, and schmooze. It’s all about schmoozing.”

Towering artistic achievement was also on his mind. Among recent highlights, he said, was the clip of Aretha Franklin performing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors. “When she sat down with that fur coat and that clutch bag, and started singing, I went nuts,” he said. “I watched it four times in a row.”

The bar for electrifying performance has been raised. “I will definitely, when I’m 75, be having a fur coat like that, and coming in with a clutch bag too,” Mr. John said. “And throwing my coat off. And in a fishtail dress.”

- NY Times

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