Elton John on his lockdown album with Dua Lipa, Stevie Wonder and others

The 74-year-old was in fine form in advance of his visit to Cork next year, as he spoke about his ongoing love affair with music
Elton John on his lockdown album with Dua Lipa, Stevie Wonder and others

 Elton John regularly used Zoom to work on the collaborations for The Lockdown Sessions. 

When lockdown hit, Elton John could feel life becoming smaller. The 74-year-old had been in the middle of an expansive farewell tour (a big soppy, drawn-out goodbye that will include a stopover at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork on July 1, 2022). But then along came Covid and he did the same as the rest of us. Stayed in doors and waited for the storm to blow over.

“I never ever thought I was going make [music] during lockdown,” Elton says over Zoom from London. “I had no plans to make any music at all.” 

But then, little by little, the world opened up. And without having quite intended too, Elton found himself making an album. The results can be heard on The Lockdown Sessions – a series of collaborations between pop’s eternal Rocket Man and younger artists such as Olly Alexander of Years and Years, Miley Cyrus, pop sensation Rina Sawayama and Blur/ Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn.

“This really came together as an accident,” says Elton, adjusting those familiar over-sized spectacles. “It started when I met [Gen Z crooner] Charlie Puth at a restaurant in Los Angeles. I’d never met him before and he actually lived only four doors away from me in LA and he said, ‘I’ve got a studio if you feel like coming up while you’re here and writing something’. So, I did.” 

The song that resulted was After All – a winningly heartfelt mash-up of FM pop and Elton’s grandiloquent balladry. And from there, he was off to the races.

“The next day I went next door to my music publisher’s house, who lives three doors away from me, and I worked on the Surfaces [a soul trio from Texas] track via Zoom, the first thing I’d ever done via Zoom,” he says.

“They were in Texas and I played piano on some of that track. And so the first two things really were those two things. And I came back to England and then Damon Albarn asked me to play on Gorillaz [on the Pink Phantom], Rina Sawayama asked me to do a duet and play piano on Chosen Family.” 

 He communicates animatedly and with a visible passion. John is speaking to the Irish Examiner and a number of other publications, with questions submitted in advance and presented to him by BBC presenter (and former Menswear drummer) Matt Everitt. Off camera is his husband David Furnish, who chimes in when John is grasping for a piece of information just out of reach.

 Dua Lipa and Elton John. 
 Dua Lipa and Elton John. 

Elton looks healthy. This will come as a relief to fans. In September, he suffered a fall which forced him to postpone a winter run of dates for his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road tour, including a show at Dublin’s 3Arena. All going well, however, it looks as if he will be fighting fit for Cork this summer.

But, to return to the new album, Elton says it has long been a priority of his to support up-and-coming artists. Which is why he was so thrilled to work with Sawayama, whose music Rolling Stone has described as “the type you dream of hearing at an unbearably cool party”. And it’s why he has been out front championing singers such as Billie Eilish.

“I do a lot of radio shows. I’ve done a radio show for six years in a row now on Apple and I’ve created and cultivated friendships with young musicians, and that’s really spurred me on,” he explains. “It excites me when I hear something new by somebody new, a Billie Eilish or a Lorde or a Khalid.”

 He has been particularly struck by Eilish and her melodramatically gloomy pop. “Billie Eilish has just astonished me, when I played that first record by her,” he says. “So, it gives me an access. And when I love a record by someone new, I interview them on the show, or I phone them up. Even if they’re in Australia or they’re in Europe, it doesn’t matter, because it’s important for me to offer a hand of friendship and offer a hand of authenticity to what they’re doing.” 

He sees such support as his way of giving back. As a wide-eyed young man from Pinner, Middlesex trying to break the US in the early Seventies, he was grateful to have the support of established American artists. He’s just passing a good deed on.

“When I first came to America, Neil Diamond, the Beach Boys, Leon Russell, The Band… all got in touch with me and Leon Russell took me on tour and it made me feel very happy, that they liked my music and it validated what I did,” he says. “So, you must always try and pass those thoughts on to other young musicians, because it helps them.” 

 As was the case for musicians everywhere, working over Zoom was a new experience. Still, he wasn’t dissuaded and was soon sprinkling Elton stardust over a cover of the Pet Shop Boys It’s A Sin recorded with Olly Alexander. And on a version of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters made with Miley Cyrus (and originally featured on the Metallica Blacklist LP).

“It was a lot different via Zoom. I’ve never recorded via Zoom before, so that was a little different. But if the person you’re working with, the producer or the artist, knows exactly what they want, and tells you what they want, then it really makes things so much easier,” he says.

“If people are vague and say, I’m not sure about that, you don’t really know what they want. Sometimes, when I’m playing on something, I can be a little too Eltonish and they say, can you cut back a little bit on that, you’re playing on my record, you’re not playing on your record. And so it’s really helpful and it’s really interesting, to see what they want rather than what I would have played. I end up playing something different.” 

 Elton John includes Lil Nas X, Stevie Nicks and Gorillaz on The Lockdown Sessions.
Elton John includes Lil Nas X, Stevie Nicks and Gorillaz on The Lockdown Sessions.

He gives as an example his work with Cyrus on Nothing Else Matters. The Metallica original is a big, gusty gale of a power ballad. The new version is more playful, thanks in no small part to the presence of Elton’s piano.

“On the Metallica track with Miley Cyrus, Andrew [Watt, the producer] wanted me to start the song on piano and finish the song on piano. On the Metallica track originally, it was just guitar. So, it was another way of looking at things. So, if someone knows what they want, it gives you a direction. It’s fun. And I have to say I never ever thought of making a record during lockdown whatsoever, and it’s become a joyous thing for me.” 

Even over Zoom, his love for music is obvious. His passion for recording and touring has been kept fresh, he explains, in part through his willingness to seek out artists with whom to write and record. He sees collaboration as an opportunity to expand his horizons and keep the cobwebs at bay.

“From Stevie Nicks, from Stevie Wonder, from Sam Lewis to Lil Nas X. I learnt something from each of them and if you’re at my age, which I’m 74 now, and you can still be learning from other musicians, that’s the greatest gift of all. You can never stop learning as a musician. If you shut your mind off and say, I’ve done it all now, I can do everything now, I don’t need to hear anything else, then for me that’s the dead end. I’m more excited now about music than I’ve ever been.”

The Lockdown Sessions is released Friday, October 22. Elton John plays Páirc Uí Chaoimh July 1, 2022

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