Elton John & Lana Del Rey Conversation: Musicians on Musicians Cover – Rolling Stone
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Ryan McGinley for Rolling Stone

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MUSICIANS ON MUSICIANS Elton John & Lana Del Rey

Pop's most enigmatic star visits her idol at his Beverly Hills home to talk about songwriting, Seventies L.A., and how live shows are like sex. The first in a series of intimate conversations between artists

Lana Del Rey is sitting across from Elton John in the kitchen of his Beverly Hills home, where she’s about to talk with her musical hero. But there’s a problem. “Wait a minute, my notes!” she says. “I have 13 pages! Where is my purse?” Elton calls for his staff to help, but Del Rey jumps out of her chair and heads outside to her pickup truck, a black Chevy Colorado with a broken headlight. A couple of minutes later, she returns with a stapled stack of pages.

Del Rey is one of music’s most enigmatic stars, someone whose presence can intimidate even other artists. (“I love Lana,” Billie Eilish recently told Howard Stern. “Around her I just turn into a little, floppy, baby child.”) But there’s no evidence of that mysterious persona today — Del Rey is excited, funny, and maybe a little nervous. “All right!” Elton says as she first walks through the doors of his surprisingly cozy home, full of pop art, with a zebra-print rug and mirrored walls. “I’ve been listening to your album all morning,” he tells her as they hug. “It’s really great. Number Three on Billboard, 108,000 copies sold. Way to go!” Del Rey erupts. “Oh, my God, you know my statistics,” she says, laughing. “Oh,” Elton says, “I know everything.”

Elton is talking about Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey’s fifth album. After eight years living in New York, she moved to L.A. and started working with producer Jack Antonoff. It radically changed her sound. Del Rey carves out her own darkly alluring vision of the California dream as she sings about listening to Crosby, Stills, and Nash at house parties and falling for a “self-loathing poet, resident Lauren Canyon know-it-all.” Elton says that her new album reminds him of the era when he first came to Los Angeles, in 1970: “You drove around in a convertible, and you listened to Joni Mitchell and you listened to Jackson Browne and James Taylor, and it was just a magical time.”

Elton John and Lana Del Rey photographed in Los Angeles on September 11th, 2019 by Ryan McGinley.
Elton John’s grooming by Jamie Madison.

Elton recalls that period in his new autobiography, Me, where he chronicles his journey — from his difficult childhood to addiction struggles, with behind-the-scenes stories about everyone from Princess Diana to Elvis. “I thought, ‘I’m never going to remember anything,’ Elton says. “But once you open that can of worms, it all starts coming out.” He sees the book as a companion to two other retrospective projects: the 2019 film musical Rocketman, and his three-year Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour, which may end up being one of the highest-grossing tours of all time. He played yesterday in Anaheim, California, and has another show there tonight. “I’m really enjoying it,” he says. “If I wasn’t, it would be an awful long way to go without enjoying something. There’s something about the American audiences. They’re more effusive. More stoned.”

Before their interview begins, Elton excuses himself to change into a sparkling red, white, and blue tracksuit and bedazzled sunglasses — his preshow outfit. “Oh, you little cutie!” Del Rey says as he enters the kitchen. “Can I take a picture, just for my bedside table?” she asks. “Sure,” Elton says, sitting down, crossing his arms, and smirking for the camera. “I know it’s a little creepy,” Del Rey says, “but whatever.”

 

LANA I read your book. It reminds me of when I read Chronicles, by Bob Dylan, or The Mayor of MacDougal Street [by Dave Van Ronk], and I was like, “Oh, that’s how you do it. This is how I get from where I am to where I’m going.” It was fun to read because everybody always asks me, “Well, how do you do it?” And I’m like, “Well, you play everywhere for no money with anybody who asks you, and do anything you can.”

ELTON Exactly. And you love it, and you don’t care if you don’t have any money.

LANA You almost kind of like it.

ELTON When I look back on the days when I was getting 15 quid a week, playing all those shows, I don’t know how we managed to do it, but it was the most fun. I was just having the time of my life. I would have liked to have been in a more prestigious band. But when I did start to become successful, I drew on all those experiences. I was playing with people like Patti LaBelle and Major Lance. Watching them taught me so much. You have to have that bit of where you’re in the van, playing shit clubs. People who don’t go through that shit never appreciate what they get, and they fade away too soon.

LANA I agree.

ELTON But listen, you survived. You came through that awful thing in that Saturday Night Live [in 2012]. Which was so distressing for someone like me to see someone so crucified. I’ve watched it, and it wasn’t that bad!

LANA It wasn’t terrible!

ELTON It wasn’t terrible at all. I don’t know what the agenda was there, but where was the #MeToo movement there?

LANA Oh, you said it, not me!

ELTON That’s the first time I ever talked to you. I rang you up and said, “Listen, I just want to offer my help. I know you’re sober and everything, but just don’t take any notice of these people.” Most people, that would have flattened them forever. It was an outrageous assault.

LANA What’s weird is, it’s the one night in all my time performing that I wasn’t nervous. I remember the intention I had. Looking back, there was a more eccentric performative approach to it. I was thinking about Maria Callas, or someone darker coming through.

ELTON You were still a very, very young artist. I don’t think you should have been put in that position so early on in your career.

LANA What’s funny is, I was selling out arenas for a year before — that’s how the guy who runs it heard about me, because he thought, “This is strange. This girl is selling out arenas, and she has two songs.”

ELTON You recovered from that incredible shellacking. I’m sure it gave you a lot of trauma. But it also gave you incredible backbone. And I didn’t think it was a major fuck-up. I saw Ashlee Simpson and, yeah, that’s a major fuck-up. That’s funny. Not to her it isn’t, but it’s very funny to watch.

LANA I’m not laughing!

“Mystique is your greatest asset, because you don’t want people to know too much. You have what Prince had. Nobody knew the fuck what Prince was like” –Elton John

ELTON Anyway. With your record now, the thing I’ve noticed about Norman Rockwell is that it has such a flow. I don’t think you’ve ever made a record with such a flow to it. I was listening this morning. David came in and said, “This is the sort of record that you’re going to love forever.” I don’t think I’ve heard a record like this for so long. It has a mood. Why did you choose the title?

LANA It’s not something that I felt like was in my ether, or future, as a title. But I think Jack was sort of my Bernie [Taupin, Elton’s lyricist] in that situation. It’s not like I’m always trying to evaluate the state of the American dream, or my version of the white picket fence, but there was some kind of version of [that], where we both felt the culture was.

ELTON Ironically, the music that you’ve created fits the image of a Norman Rockwell painting. You could have sung these songs in the Fifties. They’re kind of timeless songs. It’s the sort of record you could hear Sarah Vaughan singing, or Dinah Washington. They’re singer’s songs.

LANA Thank you so much. To the point where, being in rehearsals now, getting ready for these bigger shows, it’s almost a little stressful, because what I’ve written is so much of a different mood from what I’ve been playing live for, like, 10 years. I’m like, “I think I need to just do the whole show differently.”

ELTON You’re going to have to think about it. Because if you play a lot of these songs . . . Playing a live show, I always think, is a bit like having sex. You start quite raucous, and then you slow down, and then you build up to a climax.

LANA I start the opposite, for what it’s worth! [Laughs] Slow burn!

ELTON How big is the band?

LANA It was a four-piece, it’s a three-piece now. And I’ve got two girls who do backup, and they do some Sixties girl-group movement stuff.

ELTON It’s almost tempting to do the whole album from start to finish.

LANA That might work better than trying to fit it in with some of the songs from 10 years ago.

ELTON I think some of those songs will fit in if you do it right. The mistake I made was when I played Wembley Stadium in 1975, I brought the Eagles to England for the first time. It was them, the Beach Boys, Chaka Khan. I played the Captain Fantastic record from start to finish live for the first time. And after the fifth song, you could hear people wanting to kill themselves.

LANA Oh, no!

ELTON It’s horrible. Then you get to song six and think, “I don’t want to be here anymore!”

LANA Pull out the hits!

ELTON The record is also very simple. There’s hardly any arrangements at all. Piano, drums, and guitar. And some synths, here and there? And there’s a beautiful brass arrangement.

LANA I think that might have been the Mellotron. It almost sounds like a Spanish horn, but it’s not. We call it “the Norman sound.”

ELTON The Mellotron’s a greatly undervalued instrument. I’m so glad it’s had a renaissance. I grew up in an era when the Moody Blues introduced the Mellotron. There were no samples or anything like that. All I had was a Farfisa organ.

LANA I just saw them at the Bowl, the Moody Blues. They’re right up there for me. By the way, everybody waited for an hour and 40 minutes for them to play “Nights in White Satin”! We were like [pretends to check watch] . . .

ELTON Well, of course they’ve got to leave that until the end. Did you have the songs written before you went in the studio?

LANA I only had one song completely written. Everything else, I think, was done in the studio, which I’ve never done. I think the best stuff was recorded in three weeks.

ELTON You never know. The studio is a complete crapshoot. That’s why it’s important that you had Jack, because you have to have another pair of musical ears. Not just a pair of technical ears. I’ve noticed with all Jack’s productions, you can tell what he’s putting in. I never understand people who fire their producers after one great record. Duffy with Bernard Butler is a perfect example.

LANA Duffy, the blond singer? Where has she gone?

ELTON Well, she made that first record, which was so great, and then she fired her producer and it all went pear-shaped. You look at all the major acts who [kept] their producers — Springsteen, the Beatles, the Stones, myself. It’s really important. It’s like fashion. Why does fashion have to change every five minutes? It doesn’t. This constant desire for something new…

LANA Thinking about your career, you were playing, first, really, at three years old. So there’s this prodigious element.

ELTON Yeah, but I was playing by ear, just because I loved it.

LANA Yeah, but some people can’t play and sing. I would never play guitar and sing.

ELTON And I’m hopeless at lyrics. People say, “Oh, for God’s sake, you should be able to write lyrics, you’re very verbose, you’re very intelligent.” And it’s a huge insult to people who write lyrics, because I just don’t have it. I love to get Bernie’s written work on the page. I know nothing about what’s coming, and then the story comes and I’m off. It’s like listening to a play on the radio when you’re a kid; your vision comes up in your mind, and it’s just incredible. When you write a song, at that particular moment it’s the best song you’ve ever written. It’s like giving birth to a baby.

LANA I’m the same way, thinking about them as children. If I know there’s an album that people don’t like, I don’t think of myself first. I think, “Oh, I feel bad for the music!”

ELTON Exactly.

“I read a book in college that talked about burning every single bridge except for the one that led to your greatest desire. And I thought, ‘My greatest desire is to sing.'” – Lana Del Rey

LANA When you were finding the melody for “Your Song,” did you know right away that you wanted to pick that melody for the chorus? Do you remember that moment?

ELTON I don’t have a melody until I get a chord. That’s written in E-flat, so I started with the chord in E-flat, and just went. That’s the way it happens with Bernie. It was just a magical connection of chords. And then it all came together, and then you think, “Oh, my God!”

LANA Were your mom and your grandma really in the same house, like in the movie?

ELTON My grandmother wasn’t. My mother was. It was a little apartment. We just had a kitchen, a living room with a piano, and Bernie would write in the bedroom.

LANA That’s cute. In the movie, when you sing, “Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen,” did you actually look at Bernie like that?

ELTON Probably. He wasn’t in the room, but . . .

LANA But at the time, those were the kindest eyes you had seen.

ELTON Yeah. He was my buddy. He was my brother I never had. We were soulmates. We did everything together. We went to the cinema together, went to the pub, everything together.

LANA That is so special.

ELTON It was just the most exciting time. And to actually make it and have someone to share it with was so nice. When I saw the film at Cannes, when he comes into treatment and I’m washing the floor . . . I just lost it. Because he did come to see me in treatment.

LANA It’s interesting in your book when you talk about dropping into Mama Cass Elliot’s party, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Joni, everybody was there. They’re not in the Canyon now, but I just feel such a connection to that singer-songwriter world. And you know, my girlfriends, like Weyes Blood or Zella Day, or [friends] like Father John, or Jonathan Wilson, they’re making album-albums. And a lot of people I hang out with are making longer records. . . . When you were talking about early touring, you would see the Stones having a whiskey somewhere. I see something closer to that here. I was in New York for eight years, but the Strokes were already gone. There wasn’t really a camaraderie. There’s a lot more music here. I could call a bunch of people and have them come down and play.

ELTON I think the template that you’re talking about — the early Seventies and late Sixties in Los Angeles — the music was so good, you just can’t knock it. I arrived here at the start of stereo music on FM radio. Before that, there was only AM radio, and you heard the same tracks. When FM came out, a lot of radio stations really went out on a limb and you would hear people like Frank Zappa and Hot Rats playing next to Ray Charles and Zeppelin. It was so great because people were experimenting. They were using Ravi Shankar. Miles Davis was getting into funk. Wendy Carlos was doing Switched-On Bach. It was a great time of “anything goes.” To hear it on the radio, instead of having to listen to just pop music all the time, was fucking amazing.

LANA Do you think there could be another revival of that kind of real togetherness, and community, and something super-different, emerging out of rock right now?

ELTON I wish. It would be fantastic. But I don’t think there are the great musicians around that there were in those days. I’m talking about the greats. Also, it’s about the era you were living in, the drugs that were available, the feeling of community, the feeling of love and togetherness. I think that all contributed to it. I think what Pro Tools and everything else did, they took the musicianship away from people, and people made records in their bedrooms instead of with each other in a bar. In Nashville, you don’t see that. You have people playing together all the time. And maybe here too. I do four radio shows a month; I sit down and I listen to all the new stuff they send me, and a lot of it is from people who are writing their first songs in a bedroom. Ninety percent of the time it’s horrible, 10 percent of the time it’s good. It would be much better to get a band. I’ve always said to Ed Sheeran, “Why don’t you go out and play those songs with a band?” These fucking girls from Nashville: Brandi Carlile or Maren Morris, the Highwomen, these girls are on a mission.

LANA I need to listen to that record.

ELTON These are amazing girls. You, Billie Eilish, Kacey Musgraves — I mean, the girls are leading the way. They’re writing about their life. That’s what moves me. There are very few male singers that move me. Sam Fender is my top pick for the guys.

LANA I love that.

What about L.A. makes it such a great backdrop for evocative music?

LANA I think if I could sum it up in one word, it’s “sun.” It’s perfect every day.

ELTON It’s so lovely to be here [even] in January, and that is very conducive to making music, I think. When I got here, it all made sense. It looks like it sounds.

LANA That’s it!

“Your songs evoke a pathos inside of you. There’s a little sadness in there, a little melancholia, a little nostalgia. If something makes me cry, I feel as if I’m having a good time. Does that sound as if I’m crazy?” – Elton John

ELTON But I do like misery. All my favorite songs I’ve written are the saddest songs, probably. I could listen to Leonard Cohen on a loop. Your songs, they’re not miserable songs at all, but they evoke a pathos inside of you. There’s maybe a little sadness in there, a little melancholia, a little nostalgia. That’s what I love. I love to sit there and cry. If something makes me cry, I feel as if I’m having a good time. Does that sound as if I’m crazy?

LANA No! I mean, I love Leonard Cohen. But I banned myself from listening to people like Elliot Smith, because it’s, just, so much.

ELTON It can be one chord, it can be two chords. But as long as it makes you feel something.

Lana, when did you know you had to be a songwriter?

LANA When I was really young, I always thought I would do it. But then when I got to college, I definitely thought I would not do it. And then, after a year enrolled in business school [Del Rey went to Fordham], I went back to it.

What happened?

LANA After my freshman year, I read Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill. It wasn’t necessarily about money. But he talked about burning every single bridge except for the only bridge that led to your greatest desire. And I thought, “My greatest desire is to sing.” So I switched out and became a philosophy major, because they told me I’d never get a job doing that [laughs].

ELTON We’ve all heard that one!

LANA So I thought, “Well, then, I’ll have to graduate and be a singer.”

ELTON That’s been the biggest thing in my life, having the hunch. It’s something that comes inside your gut and inside you. A gift from God or whatever you want to call it. When I wanted to leave the band [Elton left Bluesology in 1967], I had to have something concrete to hold on to, but I thought, “I’ll answer this advertisement about singer-songwriters.” I’d only written a couple of songs, and I was quite chubby. I didn’t have any self-esteem, but I went because anything was better than playing to people not interested in what you were playing.

And the envelope I picked up [at Liberty Records] — there were so many envelopes, it could have been anybody else’s — was Bernie’s. How weird is that? That’s happened about five or six times in my life, where I’ve had a hunch: “I’ve got to do something.”

LANA What a big testament to shutting one door completely. That was actually going to make me ask you a funny question. Do you meditate?

ELTON I don’t. I’m such a fidgeter, I cannot meditate. David, my husband, meditates all the time.

LANA I’m so ADHD, you’d never know, but I cannot stay still. But my favorite thing is to mix future tripping with inward seeking.

What is future tripping?

LANA Like what [Elton] said, about always looking for the new. I thought it would be cool to combine future tripping with a little meditation. And then, all of a sudden, your finger’s on the pulse of something you didn’t even know was there. And then you put out a record that sounds a lot like other people’s and you’re like, “Oh, wow. They must have been on the same wavelength.” I love that combination. And I was never someone who liked to sit still.

ELTON If you continue with that frame of mind, you will always produce something of substance. And the surprise in life is the greatest element.

LANA And substance to yourself, which I think is the most valuable thing.

ELTON Ten years ago I never thought I’d be saying goodbye on the road. But I didn’t have a family, and I love it more than anything else [Elton and David Furnish have two sons, Elijah and Zachary, ages six and eight]. I love it more than my music. I’ve been traveling since I was 16. My life has been so unstructured. If we hadn’t had children, David and I would have been two very wealthy gay guys going around the world, but to what purpose? The purpose now is to make sure that our boys have the best education, the best chance of doing things, and, most of all, they’re filled with love. And that they have fun. Because, boy oh boy, do they give us a lot of fun.

LANA That’s a part of that intuitive knowing. I love how the last page of your book was about, “Well, what am I going to do now? . . . I’m going to be, well, as normal as I can be.” For someone who comes from a chaotic, more eccentric place, I actually think it’s the most beautiful thing you can aim for.

ELTON That’s why life is so brilliant. If you’re willing to accept that life will change and you roll with it, it will always be brilliant.

Elton, you made clear in “Rocketman” that you had to kill Reginald Dwight to become Elton John. But, Lana, you recently tweeted, “Never had a persona. Never needed one.” What did you mean by that?

LANA That’s what I believe, that I’ve never had one. I believe I wear my hair high, and that’s kind of the end of it for me. I mean, I like to get dressed up and everything, but no one ever said that Elton John was a different person from Reg [Dwight] or whatever. It’s like, just because I wear a babydoll dress onstage or high heels . . . I really don’t need a persona. I’m at the dog park, I’m at Valvoline freaking filling up my own gas tank, and I don’t pretend not to be.

Still, there’s a lot of mystique around you. Unlike most pop stars, nobody knows anything about you.

LANA But it’s not on purpose.

ELTON That’s the best thing to have. Mystique is the greatest thing you could possibly have. People think they know me, but they just talk about the hair, the glasses, the spending. They didn’t know anything about me. I never do interviews anymore. The mystique is so important. Your mystique is your biggest asset. It’s what Prince had. Nobody knew the fuck what Prince was like.

LANA It’s just that my family is still around and close. There’s only so much I could put on the table, coming from where I come from. I’m limited in what I could say in terms of being open. Maybe in 10 years.

ELTON Thank you very much. This was so good.

LANA I didn’t know you had a show tonight. When I have a show, I can’t hardly see anybody. I’m like a wreck in the morning.

ELTON Oh, I go [to the venue] and have a nap, and then I see everyone [backstage] before the show and get it together, because I don’t want to pace around waiting to go on. Everyone has their own routine.

LANA So, are you here [in Los Angeles] for a while?

ELTON I leave Friday to go to San Francisco to do a show there, and then I fly to Vancouver. I do another show in San Francisco, and then I’m playing Canada. I do three in Vancouver, two in Saskatoon, two in Edmonton, two in Winnipeg, and then I come back here to promote the book.

LANA That is amazing.

Is it sad to say goodbye to audiences every night?

LANA I like that question!

ELTON [Shakes head] There are some places you think, “Thank fuck I don’t have to come back here! Yeah! Bye!” I’m not going to say where, though. Oh, my God. No.

LANA I knew you were going to say that.

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