Elton John talks about the magic of collaboration and his new album The Lockdown Sessions

By Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

Sometimes no plans are the best plans. 

According to British pop superstar Sir Elton John, his star-studded, upcoming 32nd studio album, The Lockdown Sessions,  out October 22, wouldn’t have happened without an invitation from Charlie Puth, the L.A.-based singer and songwriter of the hits “Marvin Gaye,” “Attention” and “How Long,” to write in his studio.

 “I had no plans to make any music at all, during lockdown,” John admitted during a 25-minute virtual press conference a few weeks ago that was held in an undisclosed London studio and hosted by BBC Radio 6 presenter Matt Everitt.

“But I met Charlie Puth in a restaurant in Los Angeles. I’d never met him before. He actually lived only four doors away from me in L.A., and he said, ‘I have a studio, if you feel like coming out and writing something.’ So, I did.”

The song was “After All,” one of 16 tracks on the collaborative Lockdown Sessions that’s a hybrid project of sorts: John co-wrote nine of the album’s songs with relative newcomers and seasoned veterans, and the rest  of the songs are authored by others and appear on their projects.

The day following the Puth session, the Oscar, Grammy and Tony-Award winner engaged in a Zoom recording session with the Texas duo Surfaces for piano and vocal on the track “Learn To Fly,” and then flew to England to assist Damon Albarn with the Gorillaz track “The Pink Phantom,”  before teaming up with Japanese singer and model Rina Sawayama to duet and play piano on “Chosen Family.”

The laundry list continued with John hooking up with Grammy-winning producer Andrew Watt,  Miley Cyrus, classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith and Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo for “Nothing Else Matters,” which also appears on the various artists tribute album The Metallica Blacklist; performing on the Brit Awards with Years and Years on a duet of The Pet Shop Boys‘ “It’s A Sin” that is also part of The Lockdown Sessions album; recorded a posthumous duet with the late Glen Campbell on the Campbell song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” and also duetted with gay icon Lil Nas X on “One Of Me” before coming to a sudden realization.

“I’ve got the germ of an album here!” he admitted.

The cavalcade of stars continued, as John teamed up with Brandi Carlile, Stevie Wonder, Stevie Nicks, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, rappers Young Thug and Nicki Minaj, country singer Jimmie Allen and deep house musician SG Lewis for the remaining tracks.

There’s also the P’Nau remix of “Cold Heart” that has landed him his first Billboard Hot 100 hit in almost 20 years: a mash-up of the hits “Rocket Man,” “Sacrifice,” “Kiss the Bride” and a deeper “Blue Moves” album cut,  “Where’s the Shoorah?”

When he heard the P’Nau concoction, John realized he didn’t want to sing it solo, so he called up a new friend.

 “I thought, ‘I don’t want to sing the ‘Rocket Man’ bit; we’ve got to get someone else to sing that,'” he told his virtual press audience. “This year, we took Dua Lipa to dinner in Los Angeles. I’ve become friends with her, and my manager (Elton’s Toronto-born husband, David Furnish) said, ‘Listen to the track and see if you like it and play it by the pool very loudly – and then give us a call.’ 

“And she did play it by the pool very loudly, and she called us and said, ‘I’m in, I want to do it.’ So, gradually, I’ve got an album coming together and I’m going to continue on with it.”

As far as virtual press conferences go for a superstar who has sold almost 400 million records, filled concert stadiums around the world and has provided more than a lion’s share of hits like “Daniel” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” this one wasn’t flexible in terms of subject matter. 

Participants were asked to submit questions prior to John’s appearance, and host Everitt cherry-picked the ones he wanted to ask, keeping things laser-focused on John’s upcoming album and his love for music. 

There was no live interaction with those watching him on their computer screens, so therefore no opportunities to ask him about his health (presumably, he had his right hip surgically replaced on October 9, he later disclosed to Billboard, and is currently in recovery) or whether he was frustrated that his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour – which began in 2018, has enjoyed four sell-outs in Toronto and was scheduled to end in 2021, has now been stretched to 2023 due to the pandemic and other delays (a.k.a. surgery.)

There was no chance to ask him whether this recuperation would put his already previously re-scheduled Scotiabank dates of February 14-15 in jeopardy or about the progress of his Broadway musical adaptation of the film The Devil Wears Prada or even about those silly Uber Eats TV commercials he’s appearing in with Lil Nas X.

Nope – it was all strictly about The Lockdown Sessions and hardly revelatory,  because it basically confirmed a well-known fact: Elton John loves and champions music..especially young artists and new music.

He’s hosts his own “Rocket Radio Hour” on Apple Music, and says it helps keep him in touch with all the new music coming out as well as the up-and-comers.

“I’ve done a radio show for six years and I’ve created and cultivated friendships with young musicians,” he says. “That’s really spurred me on. It excites me when I hear something new from somebody new – a Billie Eilish or a Lorde or Khalid. Billie Eilish just astonished me when I played that first record by her.

“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 in Europe – it doesn’t matter because it’s important to me to offer a hand of friendship and offer a hand of authenticity to what they’re doing.”

He recalls the kindness shown to him when he played that legendary gig at the Troubadour in Los Angeles that made him an overnight sensation this side of the Atlantic.

“When I first came to America, Neil Diamond, The Beach Boys, Leon Russell, The Band, George Harrison, they all got in touch with me. Leon Russell took me on tour and it made me feel very, very happy that they liked my music and it validated what I did.

“So, you must always try and pass those thoughts onto younger musicians because it helps them.”

John says that despite his accomplishments, he remains the eternal student.

 “I learn something from each artist that I’ve worked with that I normally wouldn’t have learned,” John explains. “From Stevie Nicks and Stevie Wonder; from Sam Lewis, to Lil Nas X – I’ve learned something from each of them. And if you’re at my age – 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 a dead end. I’m more excited now about music than I’ve ever been.”

 John says the biggest reward of The Lockdown Sessions were forging “a lot of friendships, a lot of magic and a lot of happiness.”

The biggest twist? Taking direction from the artists he’d partnered with – and feeling like he had come full circle.

“I’m playing on other people’s records and you have to fit in with what they want, and what they tell you to do, which was great – because in the early days, I was a session musician before I became Elton,” he explained. 

“When I did the Little Nas X track and Glen Campbell, I was in Studio 2 at Abbey Road (in London.) Fifty-four years prior to that, I was in the same studio playing on the Hollies, ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ track. 

 “So, I thought, ‘I’ve come full circle here and I’m really loving what I’m doing.’ It’s lovely to be able to play on another musician’s track.”