Eric Clapton was fishing in the English countryside last summer when he got a text: Singer-guitarist-songwriter JJ Cale had died. "I just sat by the river," Clapton recalls. "I heard myself every now and then let out this low moan, like pain. It was deep." Later, on a plane to America for Cale's memorial service, "I decided I would make this record."
The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale is Clapton's homage to a friend whose earthy minimalism and low-key magic with a song hook were, Clapton says, "a summation of American music for me – country, jazz, blues, everything." Clapton and Cale made a collaborative album, The Road to Escondido, in 2006, and the Oklahoma-born Cale was a rich source of hits throughout Clapton's career. Two of Clapton's biggest, 1970's "After Midnight" and 1977's "Cocaine," were Cale songs. In return, on The Breeze, Clapton covers deeper gems such as "Magnolia," from Cale's 1972 classic, Naturally, and 1974's slinky "Rock and Roll Records" with an all-star cast of fellow fans including Mark Knopfler, Tom Petty and John Mayer.
In a rare, wide-ranging interview, Clapton, 69, admits he has trouble writing songs now; claims he is truly serious about retiring from the road; and confesses he doesn't listen to much new music. Instead, on recent records and tours, Clapton has emphasized the inspiration and solace he still gets from the past, in Cale's songs and classic blues and jazz. "I'm a messenger," Clapton says. "That's been my vocation for most of my life, showing people, 'Look, this got to me. Maybe you'll like it too.'"
The Breeze is also a message to Cale. "In this case," Clapton adds, "I'm just saying, 'Thank you.'"
The last time you devoted a whole album to one songwriter was 2004's Me and Mr. Johnson. What connects Cale and Robert Johnson?
The tremendous power in their performances and the understatement in what they did. JJ never tried hard to do anything but perfect his craft. There was something in his recordings, the level of the voice in the mix. I felt I had to get closer to the speaker.
Many Americans only know Cale from your versions of his songs.
When I started talking about this album with Dave Kaplan, who runs [Clapton's label] Surfdog, he had only heard the JJ songs that I covered. In Europe, we heard JJ as Americana, all the roots put together. JJ was very self-critical, dismissive about his gifts. He was happy to just be known as a songwriter. But when I tried to play like him – it's beyond most musicians. We get too heavy-handed. He had a touch that was sensitive and subtle.
Why do you keep returning to early inspirations like Cale and Johnson, the bluesmen Freddy King and Charles Brown, on stage and record?
They tap into my earliest recognition of music, when I was going 'round clubs, just a fly on the wall, picking up on blues and folk music. Those songs were like standards to me. It had substance and weight, wisdom and history.
If you want to put it in a social context, England came close to being defeated in World War II. But we stood up and fought back. The blues singer represents that kind of resistance and defiance. Robert Johnson was one guy against the world, and kids of my generation picked up on that feeling – we could not be beaten.
What has happened to your songwriting? Your recent albums have been mostly covers.
I'm just lazy. When I get to "What am I going to do for that bit?" I stop and turn on the TV. I'm easily distracted. What I've done a lot is written songs, then forgotten them. I put them down as a voice memo, on my phone, then I lose the memo.
Are you running out of things to say?
That would come. The music – that's difficult. That's why I love JJ's writing. There are complex details going on. That's what writing music is about: "What can I do with these chords that's interesting and unique?"
Do you listen to rock much anymore?
Occasionally. [Pauses] I don't know what rock is now. I'm not sure who's playing rock. Blake Mills [who has played with Conor Oberst and the Avett Brothers] is the last guitarist I heard that I thought was phenomenal. At Crossroads last year, I was playing with [jazz guitarist] Kurt Rosenwinkel, trying to keep up with him and wondering what I could steal.
If you're not listening to new music, how does that make you feel about the future of the guitar?
The guitar is in safe hands. Gary Clark Jr. shines now. He's years in and hasn't even gotten started yet. And it's always safe with people like Jimmie Vaughan and Derek Trucks. It's about soul and character. It's about humility and the willingness to learn, to be of service to the music. There's always going to be someone, no matter how much dross is going on, who is curious and wants to know, "Can I get anything like that?"
Will you do another Crossroads? After each one, you swear that's it.
No, I think this could be it. I don't want to work that hard, that much, anymore. The Breeze was a joy to do. I was planning to write and record another album for myself when JJ passed away. So that's the next thing I would do. Next year, I might do a couple of shows and say, "Folks, that's it, I'm off." Then I'll see what I make of that, whether I'm content to just go into the studio now and then and play at home for the family.
You told me the same thing in 2001, that you were ready to retire.
Yeah, well. . . [laughs]. The fight to stay healthy – to be agile and energetic, to do that show – gets harder all the time. Most evenings, if I'm not playing, I'm watching TV and in bed by 10:00.
How often do you play at home?
Quite a lot. Maybe once a day or every two days, for a fair bit of time. I pick up an acoustic and try to work something out.
Do you play the same old blues numbers you do onstage?
No. I always play into the unknown. I don't practice things that are known to me unless I'm getting ready to do live work. Most of the time, it's abstract, like picking up a pencil and paper and drawing what's in front of me. It's improvised, always.
Will you do any shows with the songs and guests from The Breeze?
I don't think we can. It's logistically difficult to do it properly. There were songs left over from the JJ catalog. We recorded many more tracks, some of them unpublished. I have some time in August in the studio to complete that and maybe start recording self-penned stuff.
So you do have new, original songs you haven't forgotten or lost?
Yeah [laughs]. They're on my iPhone.
This story is from the July 31st, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.