Elton John on Christmas songs, retirement and his 'joyous' new album
- 16 December 2015
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Pop star Sir Elton John talks about his "joyous" new album, and insists he will never retire.
Sir Elton John's work rate might have slowed since the 1970s, when he regularly released two albums a year, but the star shows no signs of stopping.
Somehow, amid the charity tennis matches, phone calls to Vladimir Putin, Aids initiatives and 94 concerts he's undertaken this year, the star has found time to write and record his 33rd album, Wonderful Crazy Night.
And he says he couldn't imagine abandoning his first love.
"Some people don't make records any more, like Billy Joel," he tells the BBC. "They still have wonderful careers but I'm not like that. I want to be creative. It keeps you young.
'Prime of my life'
"I'm not retiring. I'm still enjoying myself so much. I'm 68 and I feel like I'm in the prime of my life."
The star says the hit-strewn success of his 1970s purple patch means he has the "freedom to do exactly what I want".
"I don't have to worry about the record company saying, 'You need a hit single,' and that's a wonderful position to be in."
But the musician admits he has come under pressure to copy his friend Rod Stewart by putting his spin on the great American songbook.
"I've been asked to do Motown covers, Christmas records. It's not going to happen," he says.
"I don't want to sing standards. They don't mean anything to me. They're music from an era gone by. If I want to hear them, I'll put on Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and I'll enjoy them.
"But I couldn't sing them because that would just be a commercial exercise and I don't want to do that."
Instead, the 68-year-old immerses himself in new music. His current playlist includes alt-rock singer St Vincent and Scottish electro wizard Hudson Mohawke, while his album of the year is Blur's The Magic Whip.
"Why wouldn't you want to listen to someone with a new idea?" he asks, genuinely puzzled.
Yet his latest album marks a return to his roots as a vaudevillian rock star. Packed with pop riffs and vamping piano chords, Wonderful Crazy Night is designed to be slotted into the set list of his Las Vegas residency.
"It needs to be played loud," the star laughs. "It's not Enya."
The album was written and recorded in at Los Angeles' Village Studios in a 17-day flurry of activity.
"I don't like messing about," Sir Elton says. "Studio time is valuable, it's expensive. I like to go in there and make the most of my time.
"I won't beat about the bush - it's a very odd way of doing things compared to everyone else. But the moment that music all comes together and the red light's on… It's just something very, very special. Instantaneous. Adrenalin-driven. That's why I love doing it."
The star began the way he always begins, with 20 pages of lyrics from his writing partner Bernie Taupin.
"I don't see the lyrics before I go in the studio," he says. "And it's wonderful because I don't know what I'm going to get.
"Then I sit down at the piano and look at them, and it just comes out. I don't know how it happens. I just look down and I come up with the riff. Something comes through my fingers."
Sir Elton and Taupin have an almost telepathic relationship after 48 years of working together - and, this time around, both men found themselves taking stock of their good fortune.
"I wanted to do something joyous because I was so happy with my children and my husband. Happy with everything," the star says.
Lyrically love-struck, he sings of happiness and devotion on tracks like Blue Wonderful, In The Name Of You and The Open Chord ("you're the open chord I want to play all day").
There is a lazy assumption, he says, that songs can only be autobiographical if they're downcast.
"It's easy to be miserable. And I love being miserable. As a keyboard player, it's much easier to write miserable songs.
"So the challenge on this one, as a piano player, was to say, 'right, I've got to write up-tempo songs and I've got to try and write them in guitar keys like A, B and E, and not write in flat keys,' which is what I normally do.
"It's great for my guitarist. It saved a lot of time for him."
Indeed, the record sees John bringing his touring band into the studio for the first time in nearly a decade.
The line-up includes drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone, who have been playing with the musician for more than five decades, while T-Bone Burnett produces.
Of the 14 tracks they recorded together, 10 made the final cut.
"I think 10 tracks is the only way to go," he says. "Jill Scott had 17 on her new album, and I love Jill Scott, but I can't wade through that.
"I think 42 minutes is the perfect length because people don't have the attention span they used to.
"In the old days it was different - you could put out double albums and people would sit there and really listen. They don't do that any more. They download, they listen to two minutes of a single. Times have changed."
He is ruthless about editing his music, insisting the four rejected songs simply "weren't as good" as the rest.
"There was a song about my children and Bernie's children, called Children's Song, which was really sweet. But it's very hard to write a song about children without feeling a little saccharine. It's too schmaltzy. You've got to be careful.
The release of Wonderful Crazy Night next February will be accompanied by a world tour, which reaches the UK in June.
But a long-proposed biopic of the musician, starring Tom Hardy, may not arrive as planned.
"It's in limbo at the moment," admits John. "To give a really honest answer, it's going to take $60m to make this film the right way and, at the moment, the film industry has had a few flops musically - Jersey Boys, James Brown.
"They're like sheep and lemmings. They're like, 'Oh no, we don't want to do music any more'. Then they suggest doing it for $30m. I'm not doing it for $30m. I want to do it for $60m."
The star's film company is currently making a sequel to the hit animation Gnomeo and Juliet - with Johnny Depp playing a puntastic new character called Sherlock Gnomes. John says he "hopes" profits from that movie can be ploughed into filming his life story.
"It's still got Tom Hardy attached to it. It's still a viable proposition. But only if we can do it the right way."
Wonderful, Crazy Night is out on Virgin EMI in February 2016.