In addition to his myriad accomplishments as an artist, Elton John has long maintained a reputation as a tastemaker.
He’s been an early champion of emerging pop acts from Swing Out Sister and Eminem in the ‘80s and ‘90s through current stars Ed Sheeran and the Weeknd, thanks to a voracious appetite for the music industry’s latest releases.
Yet when he took the stage recently at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles for a question-answer session in front of no more than 60 people, including his press reps and the technical crew for the satellite radio special he was taping (premiering Feb. 5 on SiriusXM), he cited one of his own celebrated forebears as his recent inspiration.
“When Bob Dylan came out with ‘Modern Times’ [in 2006] that had a huge impact,” John, 68, said, explaining that it demonstrated Dylan’s lack of interest in keeping up with trends in contemporary pop music. That helped trigger a new perspective that manifested in his 2010 album “The Union,” in which he collaborated with his long-ago hero Leon Russell, and the inward-looking 2013 album “The Diving Board.”
“I don’t have to go chasing the hit single anymore,” John said a few days later, relaxing in the single-story Beverly Hills home that he and his husband, David Furnish, bought three years ago after the birth of their second son, Elijah. Its midcentury walls are covered with pieces from an extensive art and photography collection, another manifestation of John’s passion for artistic expression.
I can just do what I like. It’s freedom -- freedom from having to be worrying about whether I have a chart single.
“I can just do what I like. It’s freedom — freedom from having to be worrying about whether I have a chart single,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about that. And then you look at Adele, and you think, [Wow!] it’s their time now — it’s not my time.”
That sense of recalibrated expectations is at the heart of the new album, “Wonderful Crazy Night.” Scheduled for release on Feb. 5, the album is again produced by T Bone Burnett and features John’s longtime songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin. But in a significant departure from the previous two albums, “Wonderful Crazy Night” finds John back in the recording studio with his touring band, which includes guitarist Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson and percussionist Ray Cooper.
“After I made the first two records with T Bone,” John said, “I wanted to make a joyous record because I’m in a joyous place. I have a great band, I have a great career, I have a great relationship with my husband, I have two wonderful children — you know, I’m pretty damn lucky. I just wanted to go back and make a record that sounds like what we’re playing on stage.”
Another difference in the making of “Wonderful Crazy Night” was his request for Taupin to “write a lot of up-tempo lyrics. I said, ‘I’m not very good at writing up-tempo songs, but we’re going to make a joyous record. Even if the songs are slow, I want the lyrics to be joyous, I don’t want any sadness on this record.’ …
“I love a good, miserable song,” he said with a laugh, “and Bernie and I can write one of those every five minutes.”
Taupin, in a separate interview from his home in the mountains of Santa Ynez north of Santa Barbara, said the edict — and the timing — of the new album “threw me for a loop.
“I wasn’t really expecting to be making another record so soon after ‘The Diving Board,’” Taupin, 65, said. “His idea of making it upbeat, joyful and positive — that was also somewhat of a surprise, due to the fact that I usually set the tenor of the records.
“My direction is usually to be slightly oblique and write lyrics that are metaphor-riddled, to let people figure out some things for themselves. But once I got past that and put on my happy hat, it was kind of liberating,” Taupin said. “I hadn’t written anything like that in so long. I much prefer writing songs that are a little darker in nature, that deal with the underbelly of society. But when I actually thought about it, and look back at our body of work, I realized it’s riddled with up-tempo, not necessarily positive, but certainly joyous subject matter. So it’s not something totally new to me.”
Added John, “I haven’t really written an album this up-tempo since ‘Rock of the Westies,’ and I think this is a better album than that.”
It opens with the brightly energetic title track, moves into an achingly lovely ballad “Blue Wonderful” and on to a big arena ballad, “A Good Heart,” that heaps appreciation on a loved one’s fundamental kindnesses. It also contains “I’ve Got 2 Wings,” a number cited by John, Taupin and Burnett as a favorite for its true-life portrait of mid-20th century Louisiana preacher Rev. Utah Smith, who conducted his services while playing an amplified Gibson guitar and wearing white wings on his back. The album’s musical settings cover a broad range of moods, but the overall sentiment is, as John indicates, positive and life-affirming.
I wanted to make a joyous record because I’m in a joyous place.
Where the album will fit into the current musical landscape remains to be seen, although that hasn’t been a major priority for any of the principals who made it.
“I don’t know what the musical landscape is anymore, really,” Burnett said with a laugh in a separate interview. “There are so many places where it’s happening now. I think, more than anything, when doing this kind of thing with Elton, you’re doing it for history. It becomes part of a very long and important story.”
That story includes the standard humble beginnings for a talented kid raised in a family of modest means — in John’s case, growing up in Pinner, Middlesex, England as Reginald Kenneth Dwight. A child prodigy, he spent five years at London’s Royal Academy of Music studying piano, then as a teenager formed with a British blues rock group called Bluesology, taking his stage name later from two of the members of that band, Elton Dean and Long John Baldry.
After connecting with Taupin, John released his debut album, “Empty Sky,” in 1969, one that made no waves here in the U.S. But upon the release of his sophomore album, “Elton John,” the following year, he quickly gained notice in large part because of a string of sold-out shows at the Troubadour in West Hollywood that left most of those in attendance agog at both the quality of the songs and his acrobatic performing style.
John’s kinetic approach to the piano harked back to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll wild men such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, bringing a degree of showmanship that had been in retreat during the psychedelic era in the late-'60s and the gently reassuring folk rock of the early ‘70s.
As he churned out hit after hit — “We were putting out two albums a year in those days,” he recalled, “because we had to” — John became the most successful recording artist of the decade. With that, however, came the perils of fame and fortune.
He joined a crowd of notoriously hard-partying rockers including ex-Beatles John Lennon and Ringo Starr, the Who’s Keith Moon, singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson and others who appeared bent on expanding the boundaries of rock star excess.
“To be honest with you,” John said, “I’m not the sort of person that needs to take drugs or alcohol. I’m pretty stimulated as it is. I’m always doing something, so my character didn’t need to. I just thought I’d join in, and it was a big mistake — and it was a mistake that lasted for a long time.”
He spent a good chunk of the ‘70s and much of the 1980s indulging in substance abuse, some of it in conjunction with still-active societal taboos about homosexuality. In 1976, John described himself in an interview as bisexual but then married German recording engineer Renate Blauel in 1984, a union that lasted four years. After their divorce, he told Rolling Stone magazine he was gay and “comfortable” with that realization.
He got sober in 1990 and in 1993 met Canadian advertising executive-turned-filmmaker Furnish, and they formed a civil partnership in 2005, one of the first gay couples to do so after England made same-sex partnerships legal. They became parents of two boys born in 2010 and 2013 to the same surrogate mother and married in 2014 shortly after gay marriages were legalized in England.
Becoming a parent in his 60s, he said, is “everything I wanted and more. I’m sitting here in this house, which they were in last week, and it’s empty without their voices. Empty without their laughter. It’s a one-story house, and they’re in England, back at school. I miss them. There hasn’t been one moment I’ve ever regretted it. They are the most amazing things I’ve ever encountered in my life.”
“I don’t want miss out on anything,” he said.
“No Monsters,” a song on an expanded deluxe edition of “Wonderful Crazy Night,” reflects on the singer’s recognition of the differences in his life from his days of substance abuse.
“It was either you are going to live or you’re going to die,” he said. And at that point, he said, “I thought all the fun was gone from my life because I was getting sober. I never, really, ever thought when I got sober how much fun I would have.
“Actually I’ve had much more fun,” he said. “Now I get up at 8 or 9 in the morning — it’s a whole different kind of life, but it’s a life I prefer. I could never have thought that my life would be so wonderful without it.”
One area John is particularly enthusiastic about is discovering new music — something he’s always enjoyed but has taken on new energy since he started buying vinyl albums again.
John also programs music for a weekly radio show for Apple Beats streaming service, a job he says let him “continually revisit my life. I don’t look back in my life. I’m not a melancholy, nostalgic person, but doing this show has reunited me with the music I used to play in my old soul band and music that I’ve — not forgotten but haven’t heard in a while. Music that is the story of my life. It’s enchanting to be able to do this, mixed in with new people.”
The quest for new vistas that keeps him looking forward rather than gazing into the rear-view mirror — “You’re always on the lookout for that perfect song,” he said — also keeps him attuned to musical inspiration.
“Did you see the Kennedy Center thing with Aretha?” he asked, referring to the performance in December by Aretha Franklin honoring singer-songwriter Carole King in which Franklin delivered her rendition of King’s "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for an audience that included President and Mrs. Obama.
“It’s one of the great performances of all time,” he said. “I watched it five times in a row. You couldn’t start the day off better off than that. And she’s 74 years of age. …
“At one point you thought maybe she was losing her voice, but she’s hasn’t, and at the end, she goes for it, and it’s thrilling, it’s so thrilling,” he said, sounding more like a giddy music fan than a grizzled veteran. “How often do we get thrilled like that anymore, come on?”
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