“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.