Bernie Taupin on 48 Years Writing With Elton John and Their New LP
In about a year and a half Elton John and Bernie Taupin will celebrate a rather stunning achievement: 50 years working together as a songwriting team. “That makes me immensely proud,” says Taupin, phoning in from his California home. “The fact is that we’re still actually making records. We’re still a viable team. I think we’re probably the longest-lasting songwriting team in music history. I guess you could also say Jagger/Richards, if they make a new record, that is.”
But the Rolling Stones have only made a single record in the past 18 years (and even then, it was questionable how much Mick and Keith actually wrote together), but Bernie and Elton have never slowed down. Their new record, Wonderful Crazy Night, hits stores on February 5th. We spoke with Taupin about the new album, his life as a painter, his rock-solid friendship with Elton John, why he’s never heard a Kanye West song, and why he hasn’t even thought about retiring.
How did you first hear that this new record was happening?
The idea came up sooner than I expected after [2013’s] The Diving Board. I didn’t expect Elton to want to go back in so soon. The thing is, it’s my tendency to set the tenor for the albums when I’m writing. As you’ve probably realized from my past work, my tendency is to lean a little toward the more esoteric. I like darker subject matter, but I think that this time Elton felt there was enough pain and suffering in the world without me contributing to it, so he wanted to do something that exuded positive energy.
It was then just a matter of me getting over the fact that he wanted to do it so soon after the last two albums, and it was a matter of me putting on a different hat, though I liked the idea. I like the idea of coming at it from a different angle. We’re not the sort of guys who are going to solve the world’s problems and write about fracking and corporate greed. I don’t particularly have a problem with Starbucks [laughs], so we’ll leave that to other people. No names mentioned [laughs].
Tell me how you started.
Once I got the idea of it, it was pretty easy. I knew that, basically, it was gonna be a loud, brash pop record. I don’t want to say there wasn’t a tremendous amount of thought put into the songs, but I certainly realized that we wanted to blow skirts up. We wanted to write songs that were really hook-driven. As I think I wrote in the liner notes, I’m dealing with a guy that’s got more hooks than a tackle box.
The combination of the two of us on this different level was a fun adventure that we haven’t really investigated since the loud, brash pop-rock we were doing in the mid-1970s. I think it’s a natural curve for us to come back to. We’re visited our early roots with the last album, and I think it was natural to return to the poppier sound of our mid-1970s work.
Do you find it harder to write happy songs?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I always lean towards the darker side. I think any songwriter, and my contemporaries would probably agree with me, thinks its far more interesting to investigate the seamier side of things, the underbelly of life, the heartbreak. Heartbreak is more easily mined than the happy side of romance.
Having said that, you try and find blueprints. You find people that you respect that have a sort of backbeat that drives the energy. You look at people like Tom Petty and his catalog. I’m not saying all of his songs are of a positive nature, but they have a positive groove to them. I was looking for a sound that was definitely West Coast. One of the possible ideas we had was that West Coast, Jim McGuinn, Rickenbacker, ringing, joyful kind of sound. As you can probably tell from the album, that’s nowhere to be seen [laughs]. But it was something that gave us an idea of where to start off.
With me, it’s all about titles. I love coming up with titles and I work around those titles or first lines, because if you have a title, you can really build a strong chorus behind it. And the song titles that I came up with on this really kind of screamed for big hooks, and I think that’s what this album is. It’s an album of big hooks. Once I cracked the egg and got the ball rolling, it came fairly easily.
How do you work? You set aside time each day to write and write, or just do it at moments where you feel inspired?
No. Bear in mind that most of my life is painting. I paint 24/7. People in the art world are constantly saying to me, “What do you enjoy doing most: painting or writing?” And it’s really a moot point because we have a record maybe every three or four years, and it takes a couple of months. I probably set aside a month, or two if I have the luxury of time. If you think about it, I’m only writing songs two months out of every three years. Once I get the green light and I know there’s a record ahead, I pretty much go in every day and work for four or five hours a day.
Do you write longhand or by computer?
It’s almost like a circular motion. I write on a guitar because it gives me a rhythmic sense. It’s got nothing to do with how it ultimately turns out with Elton, but I do use a guitar. I play chords and just sort of sing the lines over to myself, so that I feel when he reads them, he can read them in a rhythmic cadence. So what I’ll do is have a pad and a pen and a computer and I will just sing to myself on the guitar. I’ll come up with something, write it longhand and after I’ve written maybe a verse or something, I put it onto the word processor because I wanna make sure I can remember it, because I’m scrawling on a pad. So it really goes from guitar to the pad to the computer and back to the guitar again. Again, a circular motion.
Do you send them off to Elton in chunks or do you go one-by-one?
In the past I’ve faxed him things, but now he’s been dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century. He actually has an iPad and a computer. Either that, or I’ve met up with him somewhere and we go through them together, which is what we eventually do. I don’t want you to think its a cold connection. We do get together and discuss things.
But I”ll email them and let him ingest them for a while and then we’ll get together and I’ll say, “Well to me, when I wrote this, it had a kind of Byrds-y feel,” or I’ll give him sort of an idea. For the most part, he just totally rejects those and goes the way he wants to go with them, but at least I gave it a shot [laughs].
Do you go into the studio to watch the recording process?
Oh, yeah, I’m there pretty much 24/7. I mean, I do come in and out because I’m not really a studio rat. I don’t like places that don’t have windows and you can’t see outside. I start to feel a little constricted. And my job is done by that point, but I think that Elton enjoys the fact that I’m there. He likes my presence, though I’m not sure why [laughs]. But yeah, I’m there waving the flag.
It’s gotta be gratifying to see your lyrics come to life.
Oh, yeah, that’s something that never gets old, believe me. I still get a kick out of it, the same he gets a kick out of seeing a new batch of lyrics, so we’re both like kids on Christmas.
I know that “I’ve Got Two Wings” is about the Reverend Utah Smith, [a musical Louisiana preacher who performed around the South in the 1940s with enormous white wings strapped to his back]. What drew you towards that figure?
I have this terrible tendency in my work to resurrect the neglected [laughs]. It’s great ammunition for songs. I mean, a Louisiana guitar-playing evangelist who wears a pair of wings? What’s not to love about that?
Is there any sort of theme to the album?
No, none whatsoever. It’s just a collection of strong, hook-y pop songs. If it has a theme, it is just one of positive energy.
When you write a song, do you ever try to tap into how Elton is feeling at the moment? He’s got such young kids now, and that’s obviously making him very happy.
Well, I think we have a mirror image on that because we both have young kids. Mine are a little older than his, but it’s interesting. That ties us together because we’re such radically different characters, but the one thing that ties us together is the kids. We can both understand the perils, pitfalls and joys of raising kids. He’s got two boys and I have two girls that are seven and 10. But you draw so much energy from them, and I drew from that in a couple of songs. They’re about the feeling you get from raising kids and the things you want to instill in them.
Is “A Good Heart” one of those?
Yes, definitely. I can’t even remember the other one.
I think the problem that so many veteran artists face is they’re always competing with their own past.
Oh, you don’t have to tell me that!
I’m sure. I mean, when people hear a song like “Tiny Dancer” they’re taken right back to the time they first heard it. But when they hear a new song, they simply don’t have that emotional connection and often just tune it out.
That’s a very, very, very astute analysis of it. I absolutely agree. Yeah, there is a nostalgia about our work that can be very debilitating at times. Depending on your mood, you can run into somebody who will be effusive about your older work and not even mention your new work. You just feel feel like … well, not so like grabbing them around the throat [laughs]. You kinda want to say, “Well, OK, but how about the last record we made?” And they’ll go, “Oh, well, I didn’t even know you had one.”
That can be extremely frustrating. But it’s what we have to live with. The thing is, you can be Billy Joel and just give up making records. But the thing is, if you really have the drive and the passion for music and writing, you’re going to do it whether it sells or not, because it’s there inside you. If you don’t get it out, you’re going to explode.
Elton and I are incredibly creative people, and if people like what we do, that’s just the icing on the cake, but we’re still going to put it out there. I don’t know how much longer we’ll do it, but we still enjoy it immensely. And to shut down and say, “Well, that’s it. I’m not going to write anymore.” I’m not sure that’s a healthy way of looking at it.
Most partnerships in every sort of creative field usually break down at some point. Resentments creep up and people begin hating each other. How have you guys avoided that?
Well, that’s an easy answer. The fact is, you have to see each other for that to happen. We live such separate lives. We are two separate people. I think had we been the same kind of personalities and been in close proximity of each other these past years, I think there probably would have been a more acrimonious kind of thing between the two of us.
We do talk on the phone a lot, but not a tremendous amount, and it’s usually about record collecting. Elton has recently reinvested in vinyl because he sold his collection years ago for charity. Now he’s trying to reclaim everything. We’ll have these long discussions about it. He’ll call me up and say, “Do you still have the first Tiny Tim album?” I’ll go, “Yeah, I’ve got both of them.” He’ll go, “You’re kidding! Really?” It’s because I never got rid of my vinyl, so I probably have like 15,000 albums and they’re all in, like, immaculate condition. I’ve pretty proud of that because all I play now is vinyl.
I’m always surprised when he talks about his passion for new music. Most artists I talk to his age haven’t bought a new record in decades.
Well, yeah. That’s a big difference with me. He has his finger on the pulse of everything out there. I mean, let’s put it like this: I was just looking at the paper before I called you. I was reading about the CMAs and their Entertainer of the Year is … Luke Bryan?
Now, I’ve never even heard of him. That’s where I’m at. I mean, Elton is just unbelievable. I’m still listening to Louis Armstrong …
And he’s listening to Kanye West.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, of course, I know who Kanye West is. Have I ever heard one of his songs? I don’t think so. I mean, I guess I could have and not known about it.
Isn’t it crazy to think that you got teamed up with a random musician 48 years ago by a record executive, and that single event changed both of your lives in such profound ways?
I’m not a nostalgic person by nature. I live very much in the now. Having said that, once in a while it does kind of hit you on the head. You think, “Well, it was definitely kismet that I did this and he did that and we met in the middle.” I am eternally grateful for that, but I don’t dwell on it. If things are meant to be, they happen. My personal feeling about it is that if something is meant to happen, it’s by the grace of God and I’m not gonna argue with it.
He often needs security when he goes out into public. I take it you enjoy your relatively anonymity.
Oh, absolutely! [Laughs] That’s one of the things I’m the most thankful for. I mean in the early 1970s, I would get recognized because my picture was on the album covers a lot. My name does still get recognized. I go places and give a credit card or give my name at the airport, and someone will recognize the name and the gushing begins.
But I couldn’t live his life. I would rather drill myself in the head with a nail gun than do what he does. And it’s what keeps him young. It’s what keeps him going. I’m sure he gets very tired at times. It’s got to run him down, but he doesn’t play to make a living. He plays because he loves to do it. He loves to be in front of that crowd. The more they give him, the more he gives back. That’s the drug he’s on right now.
It’s just so much traveling …
Oh, I can’t imagine. I just can’t imagine. I think about the band. They’re on tour all year outside of two months when they take off in the fall, and we’re talking about all over the globe. He flies private, but even that takes it out of you. But I can’t imagine what it does to the band flying on regular airlines. I can’t even imagine the packing! How do you balance all that out?
Finally, do you see you guys still doing this in 10 years and even beyond?
I don’t see why not. I mean, as long as he wants to make records, I’ll be happy to do it. What kind of records they’ll be, I have no idea. Whether there will be anyone to listen or most of our fans have passed away … No, no. As long as they don’t pass away, we won’t pass away. They’ll stick in for the long haul with us. But yeah, I’m here. I’m feeling good. I’ve got no complaints. I just create in my studio and when he calls, I’ll be there, willing and able.
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