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Elton John: Rocket man on a new mission

After serious illness, the star is back with his best album in years. He tells Andy Gill how he found a new lease of life

At his home in the South of France, Sir Elton John is recuperating from his recent operation. He's due to play tennis tomorrow, and his manner is as ebullient as ever, the rapidity of his conversation confirmation that it will take a lot more than a pesky appendix to blunt his enthusiasm for life. An inveterate workaholic, he had at first ignored the pain and just got on with business.

“I had a burst appendix for six weeks, but for two weeks I didn't know I had it,” he reveals. “I had this pain that everyone thought was my colon. I did nine shows, 24 flights, and the summer ball at our house, feeling like I'd been hit by a truck. Then I had a scan, and they said, 'no, it's your appendix, but it's gone up behind your intestines, that's why it didn't feel like your appendix'. I was really lucky – if I'd have been on a plane and it burst, I could have got peritonitis and died. So I went on antibiotics for about two weeks, came down here to rest, and I was going to have it done in England on 19 August, but then I thought, 'Bugger this, I just want to get rid of it', and went to a doctor in Monaco who did it, and now I'm recuperating from it. Thank God.”

Typically, it wasn't the illness itself but the inconvenience that caused him the most irritation, this most flamboyantly industrious of modern knights.

“It wasn't so much the pain of the appendix, it was the fact that I had no energy,” he says, adding that from now on, he's aiming to take things a little easier. “It gave me a wake-up call, I won't be working so hard in the future. I'm 66, and enough is enough: I will still play live, I'll always enjoy it, but I just want to take some time off for a while.”

A few days later, he's back on the horse, accepting an inaugural Brits Icon Award at a specially-filmed show at the London Palladium. A few days after that, he's onstage again at the Isle of Wight, closing Bestival. As resolutions go, this one must have lasted all of about a week.

There is, of course, another agenda here, concerning John's new album The Diving Board, his most significant release since his 1970s heyday. Recorded under the watchful ear and Midas touch of producer T-Bone Burnett, it features his and Bernie Taupin's most potent crop of songs in decades, a series of tales and tableaux brought to vivid life by the singer's maturely expressive vocals and adhesive melodies.

He knows it's the best thing he's done in years, and it was doubtless the desire to promote it properly that led to his bringing forward that operation. He's still somewhat bitter about the way he considers his record company “dumped” his 2006 album The Captain and the Kid, after which he became disillusioned with the business of recording. But not for too long: hearing Bob Dylan's Modern Times got John's creative spark firing again.

“It floored me, that someone of Dylan's great output could come across and make an album like that at his age, which was for me timeless and sounded so brilliant,” he says. “I thought, 'well, if I'm going to make a record again, I've got to make it sort of sounding like that, because that's how I like my records to sound'.

“I talked to T-Bone about doing a solo record, and he said, 'well, I think you were always a piano, bass and drums act, and you never made an album like that – I want you to do a basic piano, bass and drums album, and we'll embellish it with a few things, and see how we go from there'. I liked that very much, and I chose Jay Bellerose as drummer and Raphael Saadiq to play bass, and it went very well. It all happened very quickly. It was like kismet.

“I think having the opportunity to record with just three people, which I'd never done before, made me play in a completely different way: you have more space, you don't need to be as aggressive to overcome the other instruments, and once we'd put down the basic tracks, we didn't do that much to them. A lot of the takes were first takes, and the first track on the album is a solo piano track, which I've never done before. So I'm breaking new ground, and yet I've been playing the bloody piano for so long I didn't think about it, y'know?”

Written in two sessions in 2012 and earlier this year, the songs on The Diving Board mine some familiar veins – Bernie Taupin's fascination with Americana comes through in tracks like the Dust Bowl narrative “A Town Called Jubilee” and “The Ballad of Blind Tom”, while “Oceans Away”, “Voyeur” and “Home Again” offer thoughtful reflections on things such as ageing, the solace of companionship and the interplay of wanderlust and homesickness. As ever, John's settings for Taupin's lyrics are instinctively right, in a manner which baffles even him.

“It's a silly old thing, but we've always written the same way,” says John. “He gives me the lyrics about a week before we go into the studio, I don't look at them, I go into the studio, put them on the piano, think which one sounds most exciting to do first – which was 'Oscar Wilde Gets Out', because the title made me think, 'what the fuck is this about?' – and I just go from there. It's very odd. I've never questioned it, it works, and it is rather Twilight Zone stuff, because he's not there.”

“Oscar Wilde Gets Out” is one of the stand-out tracks on the album, a sketch of the writer being released from Reading Gaol and immediately heading for France. It's brilliantly rendered in a piano setting which manages to combine furtiveness and decisive momentum, as if John had tapped into the very soul of a song which clearly means a great deal to him. Things, I suggest, have clearly changed a great deal since Wilde's persecution – but does he find the UK much more or less tolerant than other countries now?

“Oh yeah,” he confirms. “That's why I love living there. It's still got a long way to go, but I'm living in an era when my government has let me have a civil partnership, which I had never dreamed of, and it's let me now, as of next year, be able to wed my partner if I so choose to. When you look at the world, at places like Russia in the current climate, at the things coming out of some of these countries, especially in Africa, you just shudder and think, 'thank God I live here'.

“We've got a long, long way to go, but the world is gradually changing. For example, in America the Republicans can moan all they want, but they didn't get elected, because they're out of touch. The world has changed. It's all about communication, about people talking to each other and becoming more tolerant.”

Another stand-out is the title track, which closes the album in a tone equal parts sad, soulful and cynical, like a cross between Ray Charles and Randy Newman. It's a rueful rumination on the precipitous and two-edged nature of fame and celebrity, the way that those at the pinnacle are always in open sight, and always on the verge of plummeting.

“Well, it could be Lindsay Lohan, it could be whoever, y'know?” says John. “That's what I was thinking about when I was writing it. Or Day of the Locust – it's very indicative of what the hideous celebrity culture we live in now has become, which I abhor. It's a sad indictment of the way we live now, what we watch now, what we take into our brains and let ourselves look at. Well, I won't let myself look at it, I fucking hate it so much. Years ago, when I became famous, I loved going out and doing things, and now it's just become so banal and vacuous, I can't bear it.” This distaste for celebrity culture is one of John's most ironically appealing characteristics. A few years ago, at his O2 show The Red Piano, he admitted he'd “rather have my cock bitten off by an Alsatian” than watch The X Factor. So how does he think he might have fared had he, back when he was starting out, appeared on such a talent show?

“I don't know,” he ponders. “I probably wouldn't have done it. I mean, thank God there weren't those things around back then. You had to get in the back of a Transit van and go up and down the motorway and earn your living that way and get all the experience. I have a management company, and every single artist we sign, I say, 'unless you can play live, I don't want to sign you, you need to go out and play to 20 or 30 people at the start of your career, because it's the only way you're going to have a lasting career, and the only way you're going to improve as a musician and a songwriter'. I don't hate those programmes, I just think that it's hard for the artists that come through them, because they're reliant on other peoples' songs, and they're only good until the next series of the show, and we're on to someone else.”

As a manager, John offers both the experience of a lifetime in the music business, and a lot more besides – little things that come from his personal investment as a music fan, first and foremost. He arranged a low-key show in Canvey island for his latest charges, young Irish blueshounds The Strypes, so they could meet and play with one of their heroes, Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson, before he succumbs to pancreatic cancer; while another of his clients, Australian duo Pnau, received not just the blunt advice to leave Australia, but also his entire back catalogue to play around with, from which they collaged together the extraordinary Elton John vs Pnau “remix” album Good Morning to the Night, which unexpectedly furnished him with his first No 1 album in years.

“I thought they would do a mash-up,” he admits, “but what they did was make new songs out of five or six other songs. It was someone interpreting your work completely differently, like giving it to Jackson Pollock and saying, 'paint this a different way, will you, and see what you can come up with?' There's not a record out there like it. And that's what I wanted.”

This, at John's time of life, is what most interests him: to make the kinds of records he's never made before. He remains a fanatical music man, completely obsessed by hearing new things. He becomes every bit as engaged and effervescent about new records by James Blake and John Grant and Disclosure and Laura Marling as he does over his own album, and it's clearly this deep seam of music fandom that keeps his own muse so well-oiled.

“I figure, if I'm going to make records, let's make something different,” he says. “I don't want to do the Great American Songbook, I don't want to do a Motown covers record, I don't want to do a Christmas record, because it's so easy. It's not my scene. Rod does it very well, and good luck to him, but I've got more in me than that, I want to continue to write and create. I'm still trying to knock down a few barriers and surprise myself. I'm not a man who looks back, I don't get melancholy and listen to my old records and wish I could do that again.”

For the time being, though, those barriers may have to remain standing a bit longer, while this busiest of British knights takes a well-needed break from work.

“Life's too short,” he says. “I wanna be with my kids, I wanna be with my partner, but I'm addicted to working, like I was addicted to coke, like I'm addicted to eating and drinking. I'm an addict, and now I'm addicted to work, and it's got to stop.”

'The Diving Board' is released on Monday