April 12, 2013 4:30pm PT by Shirley Halperin
Elton John Previews New Album: 'I Won't Be Kicking Nicki Minaj Off the Charts'
Sir Elton John has a new album, The Diving Board (due out in September), a new label home -- Capitol Music Group, now owned by Universal -- and a new musical partner: T Bone Burnett.
The legendary singer and veteran producer came together on Thursday night to host a private listening party for the album at Capitol’s equally famed Studio A. Attendees included UMG chairman Lucian Grainge along with a slew of CMG executives, among them chairman Steve Barnett, EVPs Michelle Jubelirer and Greg Thompson and Virgin head Ron Fair (with wife Stephanie).
The playback portion of the evening consisted of a five-song introduction to Diving Board, which Burnett noted was a return to form for Sir Elton featuring the simple arrangement of piano, bass and drums. Indeed, in the Q&A that followed, conducted by Grammy Museum executive director Bob Santelli, Sir Elton boasted about how much piano he plays on the album. "The piano is my friend ... and, at the moment, I've never enjoyed it more."
Read on for more highlights from the half-hour chat.
On the "template" for Diving Board... "I wanted at 66 years of age to make records that I think befits a person of my age. Like Modern Times by Bob Dylan. When I heard that record I went, 'My God, this record could have been made any time in the last 50 years!' It's brilliant and I want to try to make records as good as that. And [Dylan] is the person that we look up to. He's the person that we aspire to be as artists because he's always changing, he's always mercurial, he's always like a chameleon. And his quality control is pretty damn good."
On working with T Bone Burnett... "His set of engineers and the way he records led me back to recording in analog, which is very important. The musicians that I played with on this album, which include drummer Jay Bellerose and Raphael Saadiq ... There's not much -- there's piano, bass and drums, two tracks with guitar, horns and two tracks with two cellos and vocals. And that's about it. ... It was just so much pleasure to make this record. And I think it shows. It was written very quickly, in the space of a few days, and recorded in three or four days last year, then I had nine months off and I came back to it and wrote four more songs and they all made the record."
On the importance of having the right producer... "Recording is a crap shoot -- it can be good or bad but it should always be enjoyable. I love going in the studio if I'm surrounded by great people who know what they're talking about. All the great artists and the great albums that have been made have all had great producers -- they've all had another ear, whether it's Brian Eno or whether it's Phil Ramone, bless his heart."
On the songwriting process... Having Bernie [Taupin] as a lyric writer, if you go back to the very beginning, he's a very cinematic writer -- he tells stories in his songs. So as a writer who hasn't got a clue how to write a lyric in his life -- I think I was responsible for 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart,' which I apologize for -- that doesn't compare to what Taupin writes. ... We've never had an argument, we've never disagreed on anything, and it's been an amazing privilege to have that kind of relationship in one's life, to write with someone for 46 years and not have an argument, it's pretty amazing. ... Yes, we've written apart from each other, we've given each other a break -- we had to let each other go to come back and be stronger than ever. ... I sit at the keyboard and something just comes out of it. I thank God, I don't know what it is. It's always very quick and as exciting as it was when I first wrote the first melody to his first lyric way way back in 1967."
On piano players he admires... "Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Fats Domino changed my life. And then Ray Charles, Billy Preston -- if you see Billy Preston in the Concert for Bangladesh and you don't cry or have chills, then there's something wrong with you. There's Bruce Hornsby, a brilliant keyboard player, Ben Folds, brilliant, there are so many great keyboard players playing in bands that are probably much better keyboard players than I am. Obviously I'm just a piano player. I'm hopeless on things like a synthesizer."
On choosing the title Diving Board... "I felt that it was a very perfect title for the album because I am on the diving board. I feel like I'm starting again, making records and trying to see how this one does. Sitting here tonight, I was so nervous, but that's good -- fear is a good thing. Without fear, you have nothing. Perfection is everything you chase, and I don't want to be perfect. I want to be imperfect because as human beings we should be imperfect."
On signing with Capitol... When I first came to America, I was lucky enough to be on Universal City Records with Russ Regan ... and I had the best time in my life. I've never had that since then. And I feel with this new team at Capitol, both here and in England, enthusiasm. At 66, all I can ask for when I make a record is for people to be enthusiastic about it and get it -- and they get it. I'm not gonna be kicking Nicki Minaj off the charts, but I'm just making records that are valuable to me. I feel good about them and I can sleep at night."
Update: A previous version of this story misquoted Sir Elton John.