Elton John tried the clubby, techno thing, but it didn't stick. This is a guy who doesn't even own a cell phone because he finds the technology annoyingly slow. Which is why you won't find him busting any dance moves on his latest album, the back-to-basics Songs From the West Coast.
A return to his more traditional piano man setting, the album has already notched John's umpteenth chart hit with the introspective first single, "I Want Love." And, never one to shy from controversy, John suggested that the one-shot video star troubled actor Robert Downey Jr. The album also features John's reaction to the 1998 murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, "American Triangle."
Sir Elton tickled the ivories for VH1 News' Rebecca Rankin and told her why he thinks this is his best album in ages, why he continues to defend Eminem's right to speak his mind and why when the world is a mess, he's still got his songs. And he'll play them for you.
Rebecca Rankin: You've said you are really happy with this album. Your voice shines through in a way it hasn't in a while.
Elton John: I don't think I could have made a better album at this stage in my life. When [songwriting partner] Bernie [Taupin] and I talked about doing it last year, we wanted do a much more simple album piano, bass, drums, guitar, a little bit of organ and some orchestra. It's the same lineup as all the early albums. Because of technology, I've been diverted musically on the last few albums. There hasn't been a flow from track to track. On this album, there is. It starts with piano and finishes with piano. A lot of my vocals on this album don't have any echo on them. I'm used to having a lot. I was kind of shaky at first, like, "Where's the echo?" They said, "You don't need it." I don't. I'm singing better than ever. Technology slows things down, ... [especially] in the studio. We tried to stay away from that [technology] on this album. We used just our musical skills, and we recorded on analog tape.
Rankin: Why did you want Robert Downey Jr. for the "I Want Love" video?
John: I wanted to do a video that was mature. And [director] Sam Taylor-Wood said, "I've got an idea of just doing it very simply, one person, not you, lip-syncing to the song. An actor, maybe." I came up with the idea of Robert. I thought, "God, the lyrics are very close to home. I wonder if he'll do it?" He was very interested. It all came together in five or six days. We sent him the album, and he said, "Yes." I'm thrilled with it. I don't necessarily think an artist has to be in a video. On the other singles that we do videos for, I'm going to ask people that don't normally make videos to interpret the songs, whether they use me or not. This one worked perfect, because I was able to stay in France on holiday while Robert was doing it. I love the fact that it is a one-shot video. He did 16 takes. They used the very last take because he was completely relaxed by then. ... It's so pertinent to what he's going through, and the way he underplays it is fantastic.
Rankin: When you make an album, are you competing with yourself and your past?
John: In recent years I've been too influenced by what I've been hearing. I've been trying to do an ambient track, or a dance track, and that's not really what I do best. I'm a musician, I'm allowed to experiment. I'm not competing against myself, I'm competing against the influence of so many other people and trying to be like so many other people I can't be. You can only be like yourself. On this album I have been competing with myself.
Rankin: One of the people this album is dedicated to is Matthew Shepard. You wrote the song "American Triangle" about his 1998 murder.
John: When Matthew was murdered I was so outraged and shocked that there could be someone out there that could do something like that. I went to Wyoming and did a concert at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, and I met Matthew's parents. I set up a scholarship in his name. I did a fund-raiser for anti-hate groups. I'm a gay man, and whether it had been a girl [or a boy], I would have done the same thing. It's the first song we wrote on the album. When Bernie came up with the lyric, I thought, "God, if I can't write a good song to this lyric, I'm going to be in real trouble." I wanted desperately to write something about this. It's not a hateful lyric, it's sensible and poignant.
Rankin: At the same time, you are dedicating a song to Matthew Shepard, you went onstage at the Grammys last year with Eminem, whose lyrics some have called homophobic. Is that a contradiction?
John: No. I don't think he's homophobic. I wouldn't have done it if I thought he was, and he wouldn't have asked me to do it. We ended up hanging out for three days. He's a brilliant lyricist. If a person writes a novel and there's a homophobic scene in it, you don't say that the novelist is homophobic. I thought he had a bad rap, and because I'm gay I came out and defended him. I'll defend his right to say what he wants to. I don't think he's hateful.
Rankin: You've been talking a lot lately about ex-Whiskeytown singer Ryan Adams. What is it about his songs that appeals to you?
John: I listened to [his solo debut,] Heartbreaker, last year. I just fell in love with that album. I bought it for a bunch of people and gave it to Pat Leonard, who produced my album. I tracked him down. I went to see him [in concert,] and he was fantastic. He's like a rough diamond. He's 25, a bohemian, sharp, intelligent, witty and a brilliant songwriter. It really moved me like I haven't been moved since I heard the The Marshall Mathers LP or Nirvana's [Nevermind] album.
Rankin: The album doesn't have a very reflective mood, but in light of the recent terrorist attacks, do you think there's something in there that people can relate to?
John: When something bad happens, the music at the time is always a healer. Bands like U2 go out and bring people together when they're playing. That's what I do when I'm in concert. I don't go onstage and think, "Is there a Catholic in the room, or a Muslim?" It's just a bunch of people listening to my songs. I think music will help people get through this. Whether they're going to like the album, I don't know. I don't know if it's fitting enough. ... All I can do is to bring people together and say, "Come to my concert and let's have a good time."
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