Elton John has spent the past few years making mostly reflective and piano-based albums like 2010’s Leon Russell collaboration, The Union, and 2013’s sparse, somber The Diving Board. But when he got the urge to make a new album earlier this year, he decided to head in a radically different direction. “I was in Honolulu playing a show with my band, and I said to my guitarist Davey [Johnstone], ‘Go out and buy 12-string guitars,'” he says. “‘I want to hear lots of them on this record. We’re going to make an up record.'”
The end result is Wonderful Crazy Night, which hits shelves on February 5th. We spoke to John about crafting the album, raising his two young sons, his upcoming 70th birthday, managing Ed Sheeran, the possibility of playing a special concert packed with rarities and much more.
When you decided to write this kind of an album, what instructions did you give Bernie?
I just said that I even wanted the slow songs to be optimistic. I wanted to make a happy record. “Joyous” was the word I chose. Not happy, joyous. I said I want it to feel joyous from beginning to end, and even the slow songs should be joyous.
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Bernie told me it’s harder for him to write happy songs than sad ones. Is it the same for you?
Oh, yeah. I mean, as a pianist, I feel its really hard to write uptempo songs anyway. It’s much harder than it is to write a slow ballad because the piano is a different chromatic instrument from the guitar, and so you don’t tend to write three-chord songs with the piano. But on this record, because I was in the mood and I knew what I wanted, it came really, really quickly.
I understand where Bernie is coming from. Normally, I could write ballads and sad songs all day. I do like miserable records and miserable songs, but I don’t feel like that now. I must say, my band helped me enormously. It’s the first record they’ve made with T Bone. He asked for them to play on it. We’d been playing so well live that it was really just a matter of time before this happened.
The idea and the actual result came together very, very well. I was surprised by how many uptempo songs I wrote. In fact, there’s probably two we left off the album, so it actually put the to rest the notion that I can’t write uptempo songs. When I look back on Rock of the Westies, which is probably the most uptempo record we did, I wrote them then, but it’s been a long time since I’ve actually made a band record that sounds like a rock & roll record.
Walk me through your process. I know Bernie emails you the lyrics. Do you talk to him before you sit down to write the music?
No, I don’t [laughs]. I don’t even look at them. I mean, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be insulting to him, but it’s not what what I want. I want to walk in the studio on the first day with 20 pages of lyrics and then look through them and say, “Okay, I’m gonna start with this one.” So I don’t have any preconceived ideas until I sit in the studio. The first song we wrote was “Blue Wonderful,” and the second song was “Wonderful Crazy Night.” We tended to record a song a day and finish it with backing vocals and everything, so apart from the horns on “A Good Heart,” it’s a very self-contained record.
Before you sit down in the studio on day one, do you do any prep work?
Wow. Do you feel pressure to come up with music on the spot in a studio full of people?
[Laughs] I do, but I’m not a guitarist and so I don’t carry a guitar around with me all the time. I mean, I’m not sitting in a hotel room writing a song. I never touch the piano at home because I do 100 shows a year. And so with songs, I really want look forward to writing them, and so when I haven’t written song more or less since the last album, I’m in the mood to write them.
You always think, “Am I gonna be able to write this time?” And you go in there with the usual fears, and you end up writing two or three songs in an hour and a half. That’s the way it’s worked and it’s never changed from the very, very beginning. It’s always the excitement of writing the song to his lyrics and then playing it to him. It hasn’t changed from the very first lyric he ever gave me. I joke about it in my show, but it’s probably why we’ve lasted so long. It’s because it’s still as exciting now as it was back in 1968.
That’s a pretty amazing thing. Most people can’t just sit down at a piano and churn out new music at will like that.
I don’t know what happens. Something channels inside me. I’ve never thought about it. I haven’t analyzed it. I just think, “Well, that’s the way it works.” It’s so exciting. I’m very lucky, but I’m not one of those people that sort of grind the songs out and it takes forever. When it comes out, it’s like it all comes out.
So with a song like “I’ve Got 2 Wings,” you didn’t even know the backstory when you wrote it?
I didn’t know where was such a character until I asked Bernie, “Who is this guy?” And then he showed me it on YouTube. And I’d written the song before I knew who this guy was, and luckily it fitted who he was extremely well. But it was just a beautiful song and a beautiful person that did that in the 1950s. I haven’t stopped YouTubing the guy since I wrote the song because I just think it’s such a beautiful thing that he did.
It was great to hear Davey’s guitar and Nigel’s drums on the album. They’ve been such a key part of your sound for so many years.
Yeah, it’s great. It’s a very powerful-sounding record. I don’t think T Bone’s ever made that kind of record before. The band was so up to being asked to record, and they were so looking forward to working with T Bone. And Jason Wormer, the engineer, is fantastic. He had a wonderful drum sound before Nigel started. I thought he was going to be nervous, but he played the shit out of everything. There haven’t been many records like this for a long time. It’s very old and it’s very 1970s, but it’s up-to-date and modern. I’m nodding to the past, but I’m playing to the future, if you get what I mean.
You recorded it in just two weeks?
We did 14 tracks in 17 days, yeah. But that’s [Goodbye] Yellow Brick Road time, as well. That’s what we did then, and it hasn’t changed. I also did The Diving Board in a bout 10 days. It’s because I don’t write, and I’m so looking forward to it. Also, I listen to a lot of music. Nothing inspires me more than new music. When I wrote “A Good Heart” I was thinking about St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Paul Janeway singing it. I do my Apple Beats program, and I’m given new music all the time. My life is so full of music, old and new stuff, so when it comes time to record something all that music seems to come together.
It’s a good way to work. People that spend six months on a record, or even more, can really overthink the music and kill the songs.
You can overcook the egg. You can work on something so much and remix and do it over and over and over again. I’ve never been someone to do that. It’s always been, “If its not done in seven or eight takes, let’s come back to it another day,” because you lose the energy. You lose the adrenaline, and that’s so important. And most of these songs were recorded in two takes, without question.
Bernie told me he’s in the studio for some of the process. What’s his role in there?
He just likes to hang around and feel the vibe. It’s good to have him around because I can say, “I need an extra line here” or “I need two extra lines” or “I don’t need this — can you change this?” So he’s on hand in case I need anything. He’s a great writer, but sometimes there are five lines in a verse and sometimes there are six, so sometimes I need to modify that and he’s always on hand so that he can fix it straight away so we don’t have to waste time.
And he’s a musician too. If doesn’t like it then I don’t like it because I want him to like everything I write. I mean, obviously that’s not possible, but I just want him to love everything that I do melodically to his lyrics because he’s at the start of everything, and we’ve got it down pretty pat. We’re as simpatico as people having never written in the same room. We just know each other musically and lyrically, and we just know what each other wants, I think, and after being together 48 years, we should.
He was telling me that since you both have young kids right now, your two lives are sort of mirroring each other.
Yeah, we’re both mirroring each other. I’ve got two boys, and he’s got two girls. One of the songs we left off was called “Children’s Song.” It’s a beautiful song, but it didn’t really go with the rest of the album because you can write songs about children all you like and they always end up sounding a little bit twee, so we decided to leave it off, which was a shame because I love the lyrics so much. But I think we’re both in a very happy place, and we were both on the same page. We had no doubts in our minds that this was the kind of record we wanted to make.
This is your third straight album with T Bone Burnett. What keeps bringing you back to him?
He just understands me. He’s a musician. I’m a good musician, he’s a great musician, and he’s recorded with so many great people. He’s good at analyzing a song. He’s good at analyzing my vocals. He’s quick to critique or change things around, and that’s what you need. When you’ve written a song, you can’t actually see the wood for the tree, and he’s there to say, “Nuh-uh, do that instead.” And I’ve always needed something like that around. He’ll say, “This song’s too long. Cut the chorus out there. You don’t need two choruses at the end.” He plays on “Blue Wonderful,” and he just adds a great vibe. Everybody in my band were intimated to work with him because of his reputation, but they ended up loving him. You can tell that it’s a joyous record, and you can imagine the fun we had doing it.
I heard that Capitol refused to put it out. I just can’t understand that. [Capitol declined to comment for this article.]
I don’t know. I know if it was politics or whatever. I was gutted, I have to say. I thought, “This is a fucking good record, and I can’t understand why they don’t want to put it out.” But they’ve done me a favor. I was so upset for about a week, and then I landed on Island’s doorstep with David Massey and they are so thrilled. They have a lot of young artists on their label. I am, by far, the oldest artist they have. They have the Killers, who are friends of mine. I’m 68 years old, and I’ve made 33 studio albums. All I’m asking for at this age is for them to like it, to be enthusiastic and to do their best. I can ask for no more.
I have my own management company. I follow the charts. I know everything about the business. I know where I stand as far as selling albums. I’m not going to sell a million albums. I’m not expecting to.
I know a few years ago, your label actually told you to cover Motown songs and do a Christmas album, which is just so crazy to me.
Yeah. For me, that’s the end. I mean, they said. “Oh, Elton’s gone to Vegas. That’s the end.” Well, I went to Las Vegas and did a very outrageous show by David LaChapelle, which garnered incredible reviews and it was very edgy and people walked out. I still want to push the envelope, and I think that at 68 years old, nearly 69, that this record will come as a surprise to people because they haven’t heard me rock out so much for years.
I love every second of this album and we’re gonna be able to play it in arenas. The last album, as much as I love it, those were theater songs. As T Bone said, I made a parlor record with The Diving Board, and I loved it, but this record is something that we can go out and play. The title says it all: Wonderful Crazy Night.
I think a song like “Claw Hammer” will really work in a big venue.
Absolutely. We’re rehearsing them in January and we’re gonna launch the album in Paris at the Olympia Theater, and we’ll see how many album tracks we can squeeze into our set. It’s difficult when you have a catalog and an audience expects to hear every song they know, but with these songs, I think they’ll become staple Elton John songs, and I think three or four of them will sit inside the set. It’s great to go into rehearsals with a whole new album full of material you can’t wait to try out on an audience. You’ll see which ones work and which ones don’t.
Bernie and I were talking about the challenge of introducing people to new music when they’re so attached to the old ones, especially since they remind them so much of their own youth.
Of course. And you have to respect that. You can’t just come out and play something all the way through. I remember in 1975, I was headlining Wembley Stadium and I played the whole of the Captain Fantastic record, which nobody had heard. I died the death. I mean, halfway through the album, I want to kill myself [laughs]. I have to ingratiate the audience very slowly with the new stuff. I’m still playing a track from The Union called “Hey Ahab,” and they love that. You know which ones work and which ones don’t. I’ll be very interested to see how they go with this.
In 2017, you’ll turn 70, and it’ll be your 50th anniversary with Bernie. Might you do something special that year to honor both those things?
I don’t know that yet. I’m trying to get to 69 [laughs], and I’ll see where we go from there. All I’m looking forward to now is playing this stuff live at the moment. I mean, I’m in a very happy place with my family and my husband, my children, my career. I have a wonderful life. Everything could not be better and to have made this record with so much energy at this age, I am so thrilled.
I heard your kids saw you play live for the first time.
Yeah. They know what I do, but they don’t give a shit about it. They know my songs. They sing “Rocket Man” and “Bennie and the Jets,” and they sing “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” but they’re more interested in Lego to be honest with you, and I am very happy with that. They love music. They love “Uptown Funk” and “Happy” by Pharrell and “I Can’t Feel My Face” by the Weeknd.
Are you still planning on doing fewer shows now that they’re beginning school?
Yeah. I’ve done fewer shows this year. I’ve had lots of time off with my children, and it’s all got to change now that Zachary’s starting school. I’ve got to be off when half-term comes. And I am planning on cutting down my shows to be with my children, because that’s what I really love.
Did I read somewhere that you no longer want to play solo acoustic shows?
For the time being, yeah. I find it very tiring, but I will do it again someday. I’m just so enjoying playing with the band. For me, my band is like Little Feat. It’s so incredibly enjoyable every single day. They’re the best musicians, and I just love playing with them.
A lot of people don’t realize that you work with Ed Sheeran. What’s your role in his career?
I’ve been advising him, and own the company that manages him. He asks me for advice. For example, a couple of years ago, he told me that the record company wanted a follow up to +, but he was also offered a tour with Taylor Swift, 88 shows in America. He said to me. “What should I do?” I said to him, “It’s a no-brainer. You do the 88 shows with Taylor Swift. She’ll be on top of the bill. You’ll be coming on when people are coming in. It’s not your audience. It’ll give you so much backbone, and you can’t buy that experience. And you know Taylor. You like her. Do that — there’s plenty of time for a second record.”
And on the new album, x, he didn’t want to put “Sing” first.” He said, “Pharrell has had so much success recently. I’m worried people are going to be burned out by him.” I said, “Listen, it’s a song that people don’t expect from you. If you want to put out ‘Don’t’ first, it’s gonna take a while to get up the charts. If you put ‘Sing’ out first, it will go straight in, and it will be the biggest thing on radio you’ve had so far.” Every record he put out before that, “The A Team” and “Lego House,” they took a long time to get up the charts. I think that “The A Team” took a year, and they wouldn’t put him on the Grammys. I said to them, “Listen, I’ll do a duet with him on ‘The A Team.'” That got him on the Grammys because that’s what I do. I’m a manager. It was a vital move for him.
But I just give him advice. I’ve been around for so long and I know the scene. I knew that “Sing” should be the first single, and of course, it worked. He emailed to say, “Thank you so much.” He says thank you. He listens. I’m doing it to make sure his career goes the right way. I’m very good at that.
It’s amazing that he plays stadiums with just an acoustic guitar and no band. I’ve never seen that done before.
That’s unique. I mean, I played Madison Square Garden on my own, but he did Wembley Stadium three nights, which was 85,000 people a night on his own. It’s astonishing. It’s very brave. But sooner or later, he’s gonna have to get some other musicians. He’s such a good musician that he will not be satisfied with just playing on his own. I tell him that it’s great for a while, but then the novelty wears off. Playing with other musicians will give him a whole new twist, and I think he’ll love that, but for the moment he’s very happy doing what he does. But putting on my management hat, that has to change soon.
I talk to lots of artists your age, and virtually none of them ever express real enthusiasm for new music. Why do you think you’re different and so interested in what’s happening right now?
Well, I love the young. I love the youth. I love new music. I love the energy from new music, the adrenaline that you get when you’re playing your own music, and so when the punk era happened and then the new-wave scene and then rap, I didn’t write it off. I went with the flow and I said, “Something must be good about this.” You can’t write off a style of music. I’ve been in the studio with Kanye and Eminem, and so I’m not gonna write off rap music because I couldn’t do what they do in a million years. It’s fascinating to see these people work. I live for new stuff.
I still buy my CDs every Friday and my DVDs on Tuesday. I buy my books every week. I write lists out of new things coming out — books, DVDs, music — and I make sure I heard them. And in a way, that keeps me plugged into what’s going. I have a management company, so I should listen to new things, but I love it. I don’t understand people … I mean, I know the past. When I look at a documentary like What Happened, Miss Simone? on Netflix, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever watched. She’s one of the most incredible artists I’ve ever seen in my life, and I know her work and I know that and I can be reminded of it, but when it gets to new stuff … I get sent things all the time for my Apple Beats show and I still love buying CDs.
I’m not sure many of my peers would know about War on Drugs or Hudson Mohwake or Grimes or people like that. You have to listen. Rosanne Cash got me into St. Paul and the Broken Bones. It keeps you young. It keeps your relevant. And I love being around young musicians, and I can offer advice. I had lunch with James Blake. I’ve had lunch with Tom Odell and Sam Smith. I don’t manage them. I have no interest. I have no agenda, but I can offer my love and support and my advice because I think what they’re doing is fantastic and I just want to make sure that they’re okay and they don’t do things too quickly and they take their time.
Bernie told me you’re getting your vinyl collection back together.
Oh, my God. The first thing I did when I got sober was sell my vinyl collection for the AIDS Foundation, sold it all to somebody in St. Louis. Then I just fell in love with vinyl again, and the sound of it. Not just old vinyl, but new vinyl, the new albums. I have John Grant, for example, in vinyl. It sounds so great. St. Vincent, too. When I’m in a car I play a CD, but at home I listen to everything on vinyl.
To wrap up here, I want to name a couple obscure songs of yours, ones you never do in concert. I’ll start with “My Father’s Gun.”
That’s on Tumbleweed. Yeah, I love that song. There are so many of my songs that I think are greater songs than the songs that went popular. We’re gonna make a list and maybe do a program about them. That is definitely one of the songs that I would sing again. There’s so many on that album. “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun” is another one that comes to mind. “Come Down in Time” isn’t so unknown because I’ve done it at solo concerts. What’s another one?
I really like “Blues Never Fade Away” from The Captain and The Kid.
Yep. I agree with you [laughs]. It’s just, where do you get time to play all those songs? But one day I want to do them. I write out lists sometimes. I go through my albums because I can’t remember all the songs myself and I think, “God, that was a great song. Why don’t I play that?” There are different songs on different albums. “Pinky,” for example, on Caribou. “I Feel Like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford)” on Rock of the Westies, “Cage the Songbird” on Blue Moves. There’s so many. And even on the albums that people don’t like, like Leather Jackets and Jump Up!, there are still a couple of really good songs.
The fans would go insane to hear something like “Razor Face” played live.
Yeah! One day, if I get the chance, I’ll sit down and do a concert full of songs like that. I owe it to myself. I owe it to the fans, but I owe it to myself.