Elton John’s newest album The Diving Board is about as far away from hip-hop as you can get, but that doesn’t mean Captain Fantastic’s longstanding fascination with the genre has died down. He’s been thinking about somehow incorporating hip-hop beats into his music for years and even had recording time booked with Eminem in 2006, though he had the misfortune of landing in Detroit for the session on the very day that Em’s best friend and mentor Proof passed away.
Kanye West sampled Elton’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” on his 2007 song “Good Morning,” and three years later he invited him to his Hawaii studio to play piano and sing on “All of the Lights.” We recently spoke with Elton about his love of hip-hop, as well as his plan to slow down his tour schedule next year when his son begins school and the possibility of playing more shows with Billy Joel.
Have you given any thought to your next album?
I haven’t thought about it yet. I might do a couple of tracks with Pharrell. I don’t know. I’ve got a couple of things coming up this year, one of which is a thing with a boy called Bright Light Bright Light, which is a record of the week in the USA Today. He’s a friend of mine who is a singer/songwriter, but in electronica. I did that and it was pretty fabulous. I’d like to play on some more people’s records. I just take it when it comes. I have no fixed plans to record.
We spoke in 2006 and you told me you wanted to incorporate hip-hop into your music. Are you still thinking about that?
I’d love to. I just don’t know how to do it. I do love electronica. So, for me, I’d have to work with someone who knows about it, like a Pharrell or a Kanye, who I respect tremendously. I’d love to do that. It’s just a matter of when and where and, should I do it, the mood that I’m in. You can never tell. It’s happenstance and luck, basically.
You’ve said in the past that you only want to work with T-Bone Burnett on your albums. Is that still the case?
Yeah, when I make Elton John records. I like to do things outside of the Elton John genre. Doing other things is a challenge and a learning experience. Playing and singing on “All of the Lights” with Kanye, playing with Queens of the Stone Age, the Fall Out Boy record, they’re all different kinds of music. And they were a challenge for me, so I loved it. It’s also outside of what I do, so I learn something from that.
You never can knock anybody else’s type of music until you try it. I could never do a rap record because I wouldn’t know where to start. You can learn so much from working with somebody that does. In the studio with Kanye, when I was doing that in Honolulu, he was just on fire. It was amazing to watch. You knew you were in the presence of greatness. I knew once I heard four or five tracks from that in the studio, I knew it was going to be a motherfucker of a record.
He’s in a similar place to you in the early 1970s where everything he does just works, and it’s all very different from each other.
Yeah. 808s & Heartbreak came out of left field and just blew my mind. I was like, “What?” And then each album he does is a little different. With us, Elton John was different than Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water was different from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. We tried to change with each record. When I did Rock of the Westies, it was a heavier sound. Then I did Blue Moves, which was probably my most sophisticated record. But, yeah, I love Kanye because he’s not afraid of taking a chance and pushing barriers. Working with people like that is something that I really enjoy.
You seem to do as many shows a year as Bob Dylan or Willie Nelson, but nobody seems to ever say you’re on a never-ending tour like those guys.
I do a lot, though it’s gradually coming down because of the children. I’m only doing about two-thirds this year of what I did last year. And by the time Zachary goes to school, which is next year, I wanna be there. But, yeah, I do tour a lot. But I also like spending time with the children. It’s all about getting a matter of balance and sorting things out.
With your career, it’s clear that you’re no longer trying to write the kind of songs that’ll work on Top 40 radio. I’d imagine that’s a burden off your shoulders, realizing that it’s just not going to happen.
It’s never going to happen, though I am on the radio with Aloe Blacc because he samples “Your Song” [on “The Man.”] I’m very grateful for that. It’s a Top 10 record, and those little things come along and they give you a big kick up the bum and that’s great, fantastic. It means your music is still relevant, but in a different form, in a different way. And I’m all for moving on.
I always read about those amazing acoustic shows you do with Ray Cooper overseas. Might those ever come to America?
Yeah. He does play in Las Vegas with me. We’ll do some more shows together, yeah. He’s just an amazing man and an amazing musician. He’s been with me for so long. His experience and talent and his humor and his camaraderies are something that I cherish.
How is the Vegas show going?
I really like playing it because it’s such a beautiful mixtures of things. I do things like “Indian Sunset,” “Better Off Dead” and “Empty Garden” that aren’t very well known. That’s the challenge that I want. I did the David LaChapelle show, which was edgy and dangerous. It had Amanda Lepore with her cunt on fire, which is what I wanted. It led to people walking out. [Laughs]
This new show is more musical. If you can do “Indian Sunset,” which most of the audience doesn’t know, and they gave it a standing ovation even though it’s just two people on the stage, that’s an achievement for Vegas. We play the hits, too. It’s beautifully staged and the films are great, it’s exquisite. But to be able to get there and do three or four songs that they don’t know, and those songs are probably the best-received, that’s what I love about it.
Do you think about doing concerts where you play your albums straight through?
I did that with Captain Fantastic not so long ago. Everyone does it. Someone else did it with Yellow Brick Road to raise money for AIDS on Broadway Cares. And it was fun because I got to see Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright and Scissor Sisters and people do my songs. God, it’s too much fucking music to learn. I don’t wanna go back. I’ll never say no, but it really doesn’t appeal to me that much.
People would love to see something like The Tumbleweed Connection straight through.
I know. We don’t even play anything from that album on our current tour, and it has such great songs on it. It’s a bitch because you can’t play everything. And most people who come to your shows don’t want to hear new stuff. We do play two new songs from The Diving Board and they go down very well, but any more than that and they’re running for the toilets. And their shrink! They do not want to hear it. [Laughs] Also, those songs from The Diving Board are not arena songs. They are more for a venue like the Beacon Theater or something like that.
Right. So, are you ever tempted to play the Beacon and perform different material?
Yeah. I do solo shows with Ray Cooper. I do orchestral. I do Vegas. I do my band shows. I’ve done Billy Joel shows. There’s so much to do and it’s never boring. And when I do my solo shows, I usually play completely different stuff how what I do in my band shows. Otherwise you’d probably kill yourself.
So, you think your touring schedule is going to really scale down when the kids begin school?
Yeah, it’s going to be slowing down a lot — I’m not retiring, by any means. But I am slowing down.
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Do you see yourself doing this at 75, or even older?
Who knows? Everyone’s made that stupid comment of, “I hope I die before I get old.” I’ve read an NME interview saying, “By the time I’m 40 I’m not gonna want to do this.” It’s like, I’m a musician. This is what I love. This is what I do. And we say all stupid things when we’re young. I mean, people don’t say that about B.B. King and they don’t say that about Buddy Guy. Think of Tony Bennett!
I’ve seen Leonard Cohen a bunch in recent years. He’s about to turn 80.
Leonard Cohen’s concert was probably one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life. It was like a religious experience. It’s probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen at a concert. It was the quietest concert I’ve ever seen, and probably the most beautiful.
Do you think that you and Billy Joel are ever going to tour together again?
I don’t know. He’s doing all these things at the Garden. I have no idea. That’s up to the future, whatever happens. It’s not ruled out. It’s still a possibility. He’s doing his thing at the moment, and good for him.