"We had chords and a structure, but I didn't have a song," Eric Clapton says of the genesis of "Spiral," an original blues on his new album, I Still Do. One day, his producer Glyn Johns, who "was pushing us to complete it," told Clapton and his band to just play the tune with a guide vocal. Clapton had no lyrics; he "just sang what came out of me." The result was pure gratitude in the first lines: "You don't know how much it feels/To have this music in me."
I Still Do is Clapton's 23rd solo studio album – his seventh just in this century. "It is like being possessed," Clapton, 71, says of his continued productivity during a rare, exclusive interview for the next issue of Rolling Stone. In this extended version of that conversation, he also cites "the conviviality of the studio. You stop, have a cup of tea, start again. I like that, especially as I get older."
The new album is a classic-Clapton mix of roots, reflection and guitar solos; he covers Robert Johnson, Skip James, J.J.Cale, Bob Dylan, the Irish songwriter Paul Brady and the jazz standard "I'll Be Seeing You." Clapton also revives his old partnership with Johns, who produced the 1977 hit Slowhand, while the new album's title comes from something Clapton's great aunt Audrey told him before she died a couple of years ago.
"I went to see her and said, 'I want to thank you for being so kind to me when I was a little boy,'" says Clapton, who was born out of wedlock and raised by relatives outside London. "She said, 'I liked you. And I still do.' That's blessed, really. It just says it all."
You are still active and engaged in recording and releasing new music at a point in life when a lot of your peers are slowing down or pursuing retrospective projects.
It's prudent to get a hands-on experience – to go in there and make music the way I can make it now – rather than have all these other people putting together compilations and best-ofs, the same-old, same-old. At least this album is fresh in that it's me, at this moment.
The feeling that comes through in "Spiral" is that you're not just committed to playing. The music won't leave you alone.
I'm very conscious of the fact that if there's music playing in a place where I'm talking to somebody or if I'm with the family having dinner at home and I've got the iPod on the dock, half of me is listening to music. I'm gone half the time [laughs]. It's an addiction.
Did you feel that way as a much younger man – that you could rely on music for pleasure and survival?
I began using music as a sanctuary when I was probably nine, 10 years old. Before I had a guitar, I had a record player and it was my absolute, most treasured possession. I finally wore it out and got another one. This was the mid-Fifties. Record players were beautiful things – portable, like briefcases. You'd open it, and the speaker was in the lid.
It became my escape. I would go to music and let it wash over me. And I would shut the world out. I could deal with anything as long as I had my record player. I was gone. You couldn't get to me.
When we spoke in 2014 about your J.J. Cale tribute [The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale] , you mentioned that you had started another solo record before he passed away. Is "I Still Do" the continuation of that album?
No. All I had, when I started on J.J.'s tribute, was studio time. I had a couple of songs, but they still didn't make it on to this album. They're just not good enough, or I haven't finished them properly. This album is all new stuff – standards, some blues, a couple of originals. We started in October of last year, and it went on until January. Then Glyn mixed it in January.
How do you look back at Slowhand? It is your biggest-selling solo album, but you made it when you were drinking heavily.
It was a haven, a sanctuary. The music counterbalanced the difficulty in my personal life. The strength of Slowhand was in the people playing together – [bassist] Carl Radle, [drummer] Dickie Sims, [guitarist] Jamie Oldaker. That unit was on fire. That was the power of Slowhand. And it was Glyn seeing that energy in the room and harnessing it, making it work as a recording session.
He had a reputation for discipline in the studio.
I saw him go after people who were screwing around. I suppose he cut me some slack because he could see that whatever he said, it wasn't going to make any difference. I was under the influence. But I always did my best for him.
He has changed in that he is older and mellower. He's had a couple of life experiences that have calmed him down, made him more reflective. He is still pretty aggressive and very fast. You get him on a board with a band, and it's magic.
Did you want to work with Johns again?
He put out a book [2014's Sound Man]. He asked me to read it, maybe offer a quote to promote it – because I'm in it. And he's not very flattering. We had some fairly unpleasant skirmishes early on, when I was really bang at it. Later on, we did some work together for Ronnie Lane and Pete Townshend, an album called Rough Mix. Glyn changed his opinion. He thought I was more conscientious working for other people.
Slowhand came about because I ran into a contractual problem with Atlantic Records, and couldn't work with [staff producer] Tom Dowd anymore. So I asked Glyn to make a record with me, and that was Slowhand. It was a whole different thing. I didn't have to travel to America to work. I could work in London with an English guy. We used American musicians in a really great studio, Olympic.
All of this was in the book. And part of the thing – in the book, he also said he hadn't see me in a long time and wasn't sure if we were still friends. I called him, we went out for a meal and I said, "Let's do something."
How much of this record was cut live in the studio?
A lot of it. Now and then we had to put a vocal in. For me, the best live one is [Skip James'] "Cypress Grove." I doubt we can get that any better onstage. But Glyn works with tape. That gives you another set of disciplines. You try to get everything on the floor. You overdub only if you have to.
Do you plot out your solos before a take – where to go and how much time you've got?
No. I let my hands do the talking. Then my brain catches up.
You're hearing it as it evolves.
I'm hearing it after it happens [laughs]. Then I go, "Oh, that wasn't very good. Try doing this." That happens – I go back and listen to it. But the best bit is still the one before I actually thought about what I was going to do. My hands are in front of me a lot of the time.
Was that true when you were jamming with Cream?
Sometimes – not all the time. Any stuff that sounds good is because it's intuitive. It would go in sections. The solo starts, then I catch up. I start to walk a straight line there, then run out of steam. My hands have to do something to carry me to the next phase – then that bit will be good. It's a progression of trial and error.
How did you go about collecting materal for the new album? You wrote "Catch the Blues" and co-wrote "Spiral," but everything else is covers – and a varied repertoire with some old jazz numbers among the blues.
We would meet before we went into the studio. Glyn and the musicians would come 'round to my house, and we would all sort of woodshed about what there was to work with. I'd throw in things that had been lying around, that I hadn't finished. These were generally things that were just beginnings – a riff or a melody. And there would be suggested covers. I would put all of that in front of Glyn.
That actually constituted quite a bit of stuff. I wanted this experience to be as fruitful as it could be. In the end, we recorded about 20 things and tried to finish them all. That also meant three or four tunes that were too similar, so we cherry-picked it down to 12. We went back and forth on that – the running order – and then compromised. Glyn was the producer, but I was kind of executive producer.
The cover of Dylan's "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" is interesting because you've talked a lot of how the Band transformed your perception of the blues. But you've never spoken much of Dylan's influence.
I tried to cut "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" way, way back. I had visions of recording "Series of Dreams." But this one nagged at me. I was intrigued to know what moved him to write it. It's a sad song, about remorse. I've done a lot of his stuff live. I used to play "Not Dark Yet" from Time Out of Mind. That is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. It says everything about growing old and letting go of things.
Your version of Paul Brady's ballad "I Will Be There" includes a credit for acoustic guitar and vocals by "Angelo Mysterioso" – a George Harrison reference. [Clapton and Harrison co-wrote "Badge" on Cream's final studio album, 1969's Goodbye; Harrison also played guitar on the song, listed in the credits as "L'Angelo Misterioso."] What's the story there?
Paul and I are old, old friends. He came out on the road with me for a long time during the Eighties, around America and Europe. He would go out before me in places like Milan where they would shout and jeer at him. He was up there on his own with an acoustic guitar, trying to sing. He grew into this great composer, and he's a fantastic guy.
I just went in and sang that song. I kind of changed the mood of it, a bit of a reggae thing. I had this [other] guy come and sing with me, and then I tried to get permission to release it. His company didn't like the idea. So we did what me and George used to do, which is just appear anonymously.
Who is Angelo Misterioso?
I'm not going to tell you [laughs]. That would blow it all. The reason we did it was for business reasons, to keep the suits happy. That's the way George and I used to do it. And this guy liked it too. I think he felt quite honored to be allowed to use that pseudonym.
You cover Robert Johnson again on this album – "Stones in My Passway." It's a song you've played live a lot but have never recorded in the studio until now.
Yeah, it's been on hold. There are a couple more – several that I haven't found a way into yet. I don't even know if I'm entirely happy with this rendition.
What is not working?
I'll probably do it onstage more aggressively, with more drums on it.
What is it about Johnson that keeps drawing you back? I'd think you were so embedded in that repertoire by now – you've done entire records of his songs. But you keep finding something new in there.
I don't listen to it much now. It's almost too powerful. I haven't gone into a room and listened to [the Johnson album] King of the Delta Blues Singers from beginning to end for a long time. I think if you were to do that, then the power of it comes back. When I'm inspired, I always try to rearrange the song to make it work for me. There is still a lot of stuff left. I've done most of it. But there's still a few things.
You cover Leroy Carr's "Alabama Woman Blues." As a young Englishman, how did you relate to references to things like old Southern train lines?
My point of reference was zero. I grew up in an English village where we didn't even have a train station. Then I came to New York with Cream to play the Murray the K show, and I saw firsthand all this stuff I was hearing about all my life. To walk around Manhattan as a 20-year-old – it was magical. You would see someone with a biker jacket or cowboy boots, drinking malted milk. I was in heaven.
But the Mississippi River, the Delta – I've never been down there, because I just don't want to dispel the myth.
You've never been to the Delta?
I've been there and played gigs, but I was in and out. I never really walked around where those blues singers were supposed to have been – the cabins and gigs where they played, the crossroads. I deliberately stayed away. So it didn't become a reality.
You keep coming back to America to play. What do you see now?
In Cream, we travelled around America in a car. It's impossible to believe. I was worn to a frazzle. I must have weighed 100 pounds. I don't think we ate at all. We just played every night. Everywhere we went was different. The more I would come back, everywhere started to look the same – the fast-food places, the franchising. Everything got blanded out. It's all gone – to where, I don't know.
The portrait of you on the cover of I Still Do was painted by Peter Blake, the English artist famous for designing and staging the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Was Blake's painting specifically commissioned for this album?
It was for a concert. I did these shows at [London's] Royal Albert Hall last year for my 70th birthday. I asked Peter to paint a portrait for the front of the program. That never got circulated much, so I thought it wouldn't do any harm to use it again for the album cover. I thought it was appropriate.
Did you actually sit for that portrait?
I had my picture taken by one of the McCartney daughters [Mary] – she's quite well known as a photographer. Then Peter worked from the photograph.
It's a suitable image for the music inside – you look relaxed but determined. There is a concentration in your face.
Which is what this record seems to represent for you. It ends with a cover of "I'll Be Seeing You," a jazz standard most associated with Billie Holiday but which actually comes from a 1938 Broadway musical, Right This Way. The song was big for World War II soldiers who were separated from their wives and girlfriends.
I grew up hearing that at the end of the war, as a little boy. It's always been in my heart as the way I feel about something. We gotta say goodbye for a little while, but I'll be seeing you soon. Or if I don't see you, I'll see you in these things – objects, images – and think of you.
I Still Do is almost a concept album in the way resilience and reflection keep coming up in these songs.
It's nice, isn't it? It's best when it's accidental. You know there's something going on that's got substance. I'm happy with it, really.
It's as if in surviving your personal trials in the Seventies and Eighties, you feel you've earned the right to keep going, while looking back in detail.
At this point in my life, with the body of work that I look back at, I have to find a way to be free of that, if I'm going to write and record. I can't let that early work – whatever has gone before – affect or inhibit me. What happens, though, is as you're listening back to stuff, I start to make connections – "OK, that's like something we did" – and the past will unfold. And I'll decide whether or not to pursue that – or ignore it.
One of my daughters played me something about a week ago and said, "This is my favorite song at the moment." And I thought, "That's very hook-y and very nice." Then I recognized it. It was me. It was a track from an album I had, [2005's] Back Home. I had [steel guitarist] Robert Randolph playing on it. And it was fantastic, just to hear it from a completely different point of view – to like it without knowing who it was [laughs].
Are you going back on tour this year?
I've had some health issues with my back and a neurological thing that is tricky, that affects my hands. If there's no serious fallout, I'll start looking to do some work. If there is, I'll have to figure out what to do next – maybe take it easy for a while.