First Published October 2021
THE KING STILL REIGNS
“There were challenges involved in collaborating during a global pandemic – I had to get used to recording over Zoom and Rina Sawayama had to quarantine for two weeks before we recorded together – but the tracks I worked on were really interesting and diverse, stuff that was completely different to anything I’m really known for, stuff that took me out of my comfort zone into completely new territory.”
Those are the words of the one and only king of pop ELTON JOHN, talking in advance of last weekend’s release of his latest album, the dazzling collection that is THE LOCKDOWN SESSIONS, a long-player that proves that crown is still very much his. The king still reigns, and don’t you doubt it. If there’s one thing that the esteemed Sir Elton has never shied away from, both in his personal and musical life – and for his courage and daring in both, we can be thankful – it’s an openness to adventure. The Lockdown Sessions is certainly that.
A collection of sixteen songs, all collaborations with some of the biggest, most exciting artists in the world today, The Lockdown Sessions features performances from Brandi Carlile, Charlie Puth, Dua Lipa, Eddie Vedder, Gorillaz, Lil Nas X, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Rina Sawayama, SG Lewis, Stevie Nicks, Stevie Wonder, Surfaces, Years & Years, Young Thug, and more.
In a somewhat beautiful little coincidence, it was officially released here in Ireland last Friday; on the day most – for all intents and purposes – remaining restrictions were lifted in all or in part. This wouldn’t be the first time, of course – nor will it be the last either – that this gifted magician of the ivories has been at the heart of our reasons to celebrate.
For me, a life-long fan of the man who – together with Bernie Taupin – makes up one of the most revered songwriting partnerships of all time, the release of this album brought with it a moment that will be remembered long into the autumn of my days. Last month, courtesy of Elton’s label, Universal Records, I had the pleasure and privilege of sitting in on an invite-only interview with that man himself.
Hosted by Matt Everitt, the webcast took place at Metropolis Studios in London, and it began with Elton remarking that this was an album he never thought he was going to make during lockdown…
“I had no plans to make any music at all during lockdown. So, this really came together as an accident. It started in March 2020 when I met Charlie Puth at a restaurant in Los Angeles. I’d never met him before and he actually lived only four doors away from me in LA and he said, I’ve got a studio if you feel like coming up while you’re here and writing something. So, I did and it’s the track that appears on the record, ‘After All’, and that was fantastic. And the next day I went next door to my music publisher’s house, who lives three doors away from me, and I worked on the Surfaces track via Zoom, the first thing I’d ever done via Zoom. They were in Texas and I played piano on some of that track. And so the first two things really were those two things. And I came back to England and then Damon Albarn asked me to play on ‘Gorillaz’, Rina Sawayama asked me to do a duet and play piano on ‘Chosen Family’. I did the Metallica Miley Cyrus track with Andrew Watt. I did ‘It’s a Sin’ with Olly Alexander and then I went and did Glenn Campbell and Lis Nas X and I thought I’ve got the germ of an album here. And then we got the Pnau track, which was just me singing, and I thought I don’t want to sing the ‘Rocket Man’ but we’ve got to get someone else to sing that.”
“And this year”, continued Elton, “we took Dua Lipa to dinner in Los Angeles and I’d become friends with her and my manager said, listen to the track and see if you like it and play it by the pool very loudly and then give us a call. And she did play it by the pool very loudly and she called us and said, I’m in, I want to do it. So, gradually I got an album coming together. So, I thought, I’m going to continue. I went to Los Angeles and I went with Andrew Watt and the studio and did Brandi Carlisle, Eddie Vedder, Stevie Wonder, Young Thug and Nicki Minaj and Stevie Nicks. And then I came back and SG Lewis had finished the track that I’d written with him in the studio, so I had 16 tracks. And I did Jimmie Allen in LA as well, a bit of vocal on that track. So, voila, out of nothing… It’s all Charlie Puth’s fault, basically. So, there you go.”
A fact sure to interest many is that the vocal on It’s A Sin is actually taken from Elton and Olly Alexander’s Brits performance…
“Oh, yeah. I did that at the Brits because ‘It’s a Sin’ was a fantastic TV series about AIDs in the 1980s in Britain, which I loved and was a huge critical success, and I redid that – ‘It’s a Sin’ – came in the studio and recorded the piano and then the vocals on it are live from the Brits. They’re the actual ones that we sang at the Brits, yeah.”
Elton went on, “I did the piano in here, put that on, and then they added some orchestra after we’d done the Brits performance and so I’m thrilled with that because it’s a great song, one of the Pet Shop Boys’ greatest songs. So, yes, that. And Olly and I have become friends. Rina and I are friends. Brandi and I are friends. Charlie Puth and I are now friends. Lil Nas X and I are now friends. So, it’s just amazing. Andrew Watt and I are now best friends. So, out of this has come a lot of friendships and a lot of magic and a lot of happiness and I loved doing it so much. As a surprise, I’m playing other people’s records and then you have to fit in with what they want and what they tell you to do, which was great, because in the early days I was a session musician, before I became Elton. When I did the Lil Nas X track and Glenn Campbell, I was in Studio 2 at Abbey Road. Fifty-four years prior to that I was in the same studio playing on The Hollies’ ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother’ track. So, I thought I’ve come full circle here and I’m really loving what I’m doing. So, it’s lovely to be able to play on another musician’s track.”
The Lockdown Sessions was, observed Matt, “a record of relationships, a record of friendships”,an insight with which Elton readily agreed…
“Yeah. I do a lot of radio shows. I’ve done a radio show for six years in a row now on Apple and I’ve created and cultivated friendships with young musicians, and that’s really spurred me on. It excites me when I hear something new by somebody new, a Billie Eilish or a Lorde or a Khalid or in England by Berwyn or someone like that. Billie Eilish has just astonished me, when I played that first record by her. So, it gives me an access. And when I love a record by someone new, I interview them on the show, or I phone them up. Even if they’re in Australia or they’re in Europe, it doesn’t matter, because it’s important for me to offer a hand of friendship and offer a hand of authenticity to what they’re doing. Because when I first came to America, Neil Diamond, the Beach Boys, Leon Russell, The Band, George Harrison, all got in touch with me and Leon Russell took me on tour and it made me feel very happy, that they liked my music and it validated what I did. So, you must always try and pass those thoughts on to other young musicians, because it helps them.”
Answering a question about how recording during a pandemic was different from his usual experience (submitted by Joanna, of W Extra, Poland), Elton pointed out that once the person he was working with knew exactly what they wanted, that made everything much easier…
“If people are vague and say, ‘I’m not sure about that’, you don’t really know what they want. Sometimes, when I’m playing on something, I can be a little too Eltonish and they say, can you cut back a little bit on that, you’re playing on my record, you’re not playing on your record. And so it’s really helpful and it’s really interesting, to see what they want rather than what I would have played. I end up playing something different. Like on the Metallica track with Miley Cyrus, Andrew wanted me to start the song on piano and finish the song on piano. On the Metallica track originally, it was just guitar. So, it was another way of looking at things. So, if someone knows what they want, it gives you a direction. It’s fun. And I have to say I never ever thought of making a record during lockdown whatsoever, and it’s become a joyous thing for me.”
“I learn something from each artist that I work with that I wouldn’t normally have learnt,” stated Elton. From Stevie Nicks, from Stevie Wonder, from Sam Lewis to Lil Nas X. I learnt something from each of them and if you’re at my age, which I’m seventy-four now, and you can still be learning from other musicians, that’s the greatest gift of all. You can never stop learning as a musician. If you shut your mind off and say, I’ve done it all now, I can do everything now, I don’t need to hear anything else, then for me that’s the dead end. I’m more excited now about music than I’ve ever been.”
During the course of the conversation, Matt touched on one of the stories that has always added some extra sparkle to Sir Elton’s already glittering legend, his all-round love of music. And this led to Elton revealing something a lot more people should take heed of, and indeed, should do themselves: buy actual physical albums!
“I buy my CDs still. I write the list of CDs that I want and I get the list that comes out on a Friday. I buy my CDs and I buy vinyl. I do my radio show every week, so Apple send me all the new releases that are coming out. There are 30,000 new songs every week on Spotify. So, you’ve got a lot to choose from. I’ve never lost it from when I bought 78 records, and that shows how old I am. The first 78 record I ever had was by Doris Day and it was called ‘The Deadwood Stage’ with ‘Secret Love’ on the other side, and I was so excited. My family always bought records. There was always music in the house. I’ve never lost that thing of going to a record store and buying something. I must have bought so many records the same, duplicate. Scritti Politti with ‘Cupid & Psyche’, every time I go into a record store and see it, I buy it. And so I must have ten CDs or three albums on vinyl. But it just never… It’s so exciting to go in a record store. Wherever I am and wherever I go in the world, I go to a record store or a vinyl store and I get as excited as I did when I was four or five years of age.”
As a massive country music fan, the song that excited me most from the first second I laid eyes on the album’s track-listing was its closer I’m Not Going To Miss You, Elton’s collaboration with the late Glen Campbell…
“Oh, it’s an amazing song. It’s the last song he ever wrote. This album came out ten years ago and it was his last album he ever made, and when it came out I commented on the song ‘I’m Not Going to Miss You’ and his family said, thank you for doing that, because they wanted to thank me for mentioning the song. And so when they decided to recreate the album ten years on, with people doing duets with him, they asked me specifically to do that song, and I was so honoured that they asked me, because it is such a beautiful lyric about the heartbreak of dementia and Alzheimer’s, and I jumped at the chance. And it was really one of the most difficult tracks I had to do on the album because I had to get it right. I had to have the same emotion in my voice that he had. But it was such an honour because I’ve always been a Glen Campbell fan from way back when he was a guitarist on the Wrecking Crew, one of the greatest guitarists ever. One of the greatest records he used to sing, all the beautiful Jimmy Webb songs.”
“He was a gentleman”, concluded Elton, “a brilliant musician, a brilliant singer, a great voice. Like a James Taylor. You can hear them sing, and you love what they sing. So, for me it was an honour to do that and that song in particular I was so thrilled to be able to do. But I had to do it justice.”
~ THE LOCKDOWN SESSIONS, the brand NEW album from ELTON JOHN, is OUT NOW on all platforms.