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Nearing the end of his own yellow brick road, Elton John found himself a new and improved Oz, in the form of T Bone Burnett. They first worked together on The Union, a 2010 collaboration between John and old pal Leon Russell that Burnett was brought in to produce. But the Elton/T Bone pairing really came to return-to-form fruition on The Diving Board, a prime candidate to be a finalist in the Grammy balloting that just closed.
John got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about how he tracked down Burnett, the someone who saved his life in the studio tonight, as it were.
Burnett will be honored with the Maestro Award at the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference on Oct. 30.
The Diving Board is being heralded as an artistic comeback for you, but in truth, you had already turned a corner and were on a roll prior to meeting T Bone, when you did The Captain and the Kid [billed as a sequel to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy] in 2006. Was there something about T Bone that you thought would really get or keep you back on track?
Well, the Captain Fantastic follow-up was for me a really important follow-up, but it kind of got dumped by the record company [Interscope]. I didn’t expect it to sell a lot of records, but I expected them to do the best with it and they didn’t. So I became disillusioned with recording and putting records out. Then it all happened with T Bone because of Leon [Russell]. It was just getting in touch with Leon, finding out how he was, suggesting doing a record, him agreeing, and then thinking who I would want to do the record. And I had never met or spoken to T Bone. I just took a chance, phoning him. I loved the records he did with Elvis Costello, and that’s what first got me noticing him. But Raising Sand [by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss] was such a great-sounding record, that when I thought of who we were going to record with, I thought, let’s try T Bone Burnett.
He was in Nashville trying to do the second [Plant-Krauss] record, which really didn’t happen. I asked if he’d be interested in the Leon project, and he said yes. We met later that year, and got on like a house on fire. We started recording The Union in January 2010 with Leon, and that was the beginning of a relationship that I hope will remain as steadfast as it is already. I really loved the recording process with him so much because he went back to recording on analog, and it was a different group of musicians that he introduced me to, which was really necessary for me at that time. When I decided to make the new record, it was a no-brainer who I wanted to do it.
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You just did a piece with Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone where you said you couldn’t imagine working with another producer ever again. That’s a strong statement.
T Bone is the guy. We have so much fun. It’s a very easy process and so relaxed in the studio. He has the incredible knack of throwing the right musicians into the mix and has a huge pool that he uses. It was the Leon Russell album that really got it going. That’s the kind of music I want to make. I suppose I’m an Americana artist now! They categorize you so much. But T Bone is that kind of producer. All the people he produces, like Gregg Allman and the Secret Sisters, it’s all got that Americana feel to it. That’s the music I love, and that’s the music I want to keep making. We’re both cut from the same cloth. We both love the same kind of music. He introduced me to the Punch Brothers’ music and I just became obsessed with them.
I just did a thing with him the other day for American Epic, a six-episode program about the history of the blues. [The documentary miniseries about the recording industry in the 1930s is being produced by Robert Redford and the BBC; Burnett and Jack White are collaborating on a soundtrack, which will feature contemporary artists recording on rare equipment.] I got to use the original machine from 1934 that Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong recorded on, and I wrote a special song with Bernie [Taupin], and Jack White played on it. So it went straight to analog. That was a lot of fun. Recording sometimes can be stressful. But with T Bone, it’s really fun and I don’t freak out and I’m much more relaxed than I would be with anybody else.
What ideas for your new album came directly from T Bone?
I don’t think he was acquainted so much with my pop history, even though he saw me at the Troubadour [in 1970]. He suggested on this album going back to the piano, bass and drums that I made my name with — live, anyway — and I’d never done that on a record. That was pointing out something that was fairly obvious, but I’d have never thought of it in a million years. And that’s what you need a producer for—someone who picks out the best of what you do. Bernie and I write in a peculiar, very quick way, and he loves that. For me, recording shouldn’t take too long, and once you know the song, then just put it down. That’s the way he likes to work. When you have a producer, you always have to be prepared for them to say, “Well, actually this part of the song should go there.” You cannot see the woods for the trees sometimes when you’ve just written something. It’s so precious to you that you sometimes are blinded by it. And he’s about the same age as me. At the end of my career — or the twilight of my career — I’ve found someone I feel just as excited about as when I first met Gus Dudgeon.
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Was it beneficial to have someone around your age in with you, to understand the kind of music you want to make at the age you’re at?
It’s the most stripped-down record I’ve ever made, and the most piano-oriented record I’ve made, and that was T Bone’s idea. I would never have thought of that in a million years. And it was the same with the Leon record, even though there were a lot more musicians hanging around, and we had to deal with Leon’s illnesses and stuff like that. Leon was desperately sick when we were making The Union. But that was the whole point of it: to get him well again, get him back into shape, and we succeeded. The records I want to make at this time in my life aren’t the Yellow Brick Road albums. I’ve done that. I can’t re-create that anymore. It was when I was younger I did those. I’m not that kind of guy anymore. I can do odd things with other people for their projects [that are more up-to-the-moment and energized], like Queens of the Stone Age, and I enjoy that. But for an Elton John record now, this is the path I’m taking. And it’s not particularly the most commercial path in the world, but it doesn’t really matter to me. He encouraged me to be myself, which is so important.
He said he was thinking of what would last 100 years from now — which is not necessarily a record company’s first concern, right?
I don’t have any record company barking down my back saying “We want a top 20 record.” Those days have gone, and I’m kind of relieved that they have. Because there was a lot of pressure to perform and to come up with things. And we’re not necessarily that kind of writing team. We’ve had our day in the sun as far as hits go. What we want to do now.… When I heard the Bob Dylan record Modern Times, I must say, it was my template of how I wanted to make records as I got older, because I thought it just was a beautiful-sounding record. It still sounded incredibly relevant, and he sounded incredibly relevant. And I thought, this is what I must [go after]. I’m not about making pop records anymore. I’m about trying to improve as a piano player and as a singer, and he’s the guy that can help me do that.
All I want to do is enjoy my music. I still love playing live. What I do particularly on new records doesn’t translate to what I’m gonna do in an arena, because people just want to hear the hits. But as long as I’m trying to write better songs or trying to keep the quality up, and the vocal and piano are getting better, I’m not going to stop. And he’s reinstilled that love of songwriting and performing in the studio. And basically what we’re doing in the studio is writing the songs very quickly and recording them live, basically. I mean, that’s the way it’s done. That’s the way I did it on the Elton John album, because I had to do it with an orchestra and it was all written down. But it is far less stressful now, because just having the core of three people play on it made it so, so easy. And I thank him for that, because I would never have gotten to that. I mean, ever. In a million years, I would have never thought of doing that.
I think we’ll make another one pretty quickly. As I say, he got my love of recording back, and I thought I’d lost that. Just by happenstance, so many things in my life have happened [through] just little weird things — like playing an old Leon Russell album, thinking he’d been forgotten, ringing him, and then ringing T Bone. If I hadn’t been listening to that Leon Russell record, I’d never have met T Bone, so it’s weird how things work out. Thank God I did.
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