Inside the mind of Elton John

Our guest editor's latest album is a collaboration with his longtime hero, Leon Russell. The project has inspired him to consider his past, present and future, as he tells Jimmy Carr

Jimmy Carr:

This album struck me as though it could have been recorded at any time. If someone had said to me: "This is one of Elton's early albums that you've never heard," I'd have believed them.

Elton John:

That's what I wanted it to be. The template for this record was Bob Dylan's Modern Times. That album could have been recorded at any time. We recorded it on analogue tape which, as Neil Young's been saying for years, makes it sound so much better. My voice has changed because of the operation I had on it in Australia and it lowered the timbre, which I much prefer 'cos I did sound like one of the King's College Cambridge Choir on Yellow Brick Road. I just wanted to make a record that sounded like a 60-year-old man singing and that's what I think I sound like. That's what I wanted for this record – for it to be timeless.

It's got a feeling of gospel about it.

It's a very Southern record, very Americana. There's no singles on it. I thought I'm just gonna write and see what happens. The pressure not to make a hit record was so fantastic. And of course Leon wrote as well. It was a very collaborative effort. I wrote with Leon, I wrote with T-Bone [Burnett, another legendary American musician who produced the album], I wrote with Bernie [Taupin, his longtime lyricist], and Bernie wrote with Leon.

I knew it would be good but it came out so much better than I ever thought. And that's really down to the fact that Leon came alive in the studio. He'd had a big operation – a five-and-a-half-hour brain operation – a week before, so he wasn't in the best of shape. He's a frail 68, he's had a hip operation, he's had a shunt in his heart, he's had a brain operation. But he would come down to the studio for, like, two hours and do his bit. Then gradually he got stronger. Music helped him through this operation.

I'm 38 and I confess I'd only vaguely ever heard of him ...

[Elton sings] "I've been so many places in my life and times." Who wrote that?

[Sings again] "I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhyme, I've acted out my life in stages with ten thousand people watching. But I'm alone now and I'm singing this song for you."

Leon Russell wrote that. "This Masquerade" he wrote. "Delta Lady". He was a big deal in the late Sixties and early Seventies. [He played with Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Glen Campbell, BB King, The Beach Boys, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Willie Nelson, The Rolling Stones]. That's why I wanted to reintroduce him to people 'cos nobody realises what great contributions he's made to popular music.

Early on, he took me out on tour with him. When I played in America I did dates opening up for him. Then we'd play at the end of the show together. The first time I met Bob Dylan was when Dylan came to see Leon. Afterwards Leon introduced me to him and I was so overawed I couldn't say a word.

It's a lovely thing, you've kinda repaid a personal debt. One day, out of the blue, you just decided to give this guy a call? It's almost like a lottery advert.

There was a series of odd events that linked together. I played a Leon Russell song on the Elvis Costello [TV] Show. Then David [Furnish, Elton's partner] put some Leon Russell on his iPod. Then I heard it. It was like fate, which has had a big hand in my career. There was something telling me it's more than just a making a phone call to Leon saying "let's have dinner".

What d'you say when you haven't seen someone in that long?

I said, "What have you been doing?" and he said, "Oh I've been driving around my bus doing gigs ... "

There are some extraordinary lyrics on the album. "You came to town in headlines, and 800-dollar shoes." It felt autobiographical, like that was him talking about you, coming back into his life.

Kind of, and it could have been. The lyrics on the album are absolutely fantastic. Bernie Taupin is quite honestly one of the best lyric writers that have ever ever lived. He tells stories in his songs like nobody else does. He's always been so underrated. When he wrote "Your Song" he was just 17. Every time I sing that lyric I think how can a 17-year-old kid have written something so mature and incredibly beautiful? The thing about this record is it's everything we've planned to do has come to fruition. I just wanted to see Leon in the Top 10 and the album got to No 3 in the American charts, which is the biggest album that I've had for years. It's astonishing. So now Leon's got some money in the bank and a new publishing deal so he won't have to work so hard, and he can pick and choose when he'll play, and do another solo record and there's a very good possibility he'll get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Leon is due these accolades, you know.

And I suppose there's a redemptory feel to it, because in a sense he represents the other way you could have gone, through all those crazy years when it was only music and that work ethic that kept you going.

It was just I got lucky and he didn't.

Is it as simple as that? I mean this is your 30th album.

Leon wasn't a pop star. I happened to hit the commercial vein with "Rocket Man" and "Daniel" and Yellow Brick Road. My writing went off in a different way and he stayed the same writer that he is now. He's just interested in writing about the gospels, like soulful psalms. I just went soaring into the stratosphere and he went on in a different direction.

You have to constantly be able to reinvent yourself.

If it was just me and the band and nothing else I'd probably throw myself off a cliff. But I'm playing with Leon, with my band, with Ray Cooper, then on my own. So it's never boring. The Lion King opened so many doors for me. I've written four musicals on Broadway. I've done film music. My life is full of different things.

I feel really confident about my career now. A friend once said, "What happens if it all ended tomorrow?" I said, "It's not gonna happen." You've got a whole catalogue of songs you can rely on and I'm driven and I'm ambitious and I don't wanna stop there. Billy Joel hasn't written a song since 1993 and is quite happy to go around singing his old hits time after time after time. I've toured with him and it's been great fun. But I couldn't do that.

Looking back on your story – the addictions in the Seventies, the drugs and the booze, and getting off that and then being in recovery, and getting involved in your charity – I wonder is charity the addiction now?

I wouldn't say it's addiction. I've just got enough time in my life to do some good things for people. I pick and choose. I probably do about 30 charity things a year, but then are 365 days in a year so 30 doesn't seem that much. And a lot are for my charity [the Elton John Aids Foundation].

It takes a lot of your time ...

It does take time but it's worth it – especially if you go and see the end result. We go without having a camera along with us usually – we're not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – but we go and we find that the money's changed people's lives. I was in Cape Town earlier in the year. It was my birthday and I was due to go and open a centre that Annie Lennox had given us the money for. She did a show in Germany and raised £750,000 to open another centre for people with HIV/Aids.

I'd done a lot of shows and I got up in the morning and I said: "I'm running on empty. I haven't got anything left." David was really worried about me 'cos I was just exhausted. But then we arrived at this place and you saw the kids and what they'd done and within 10 minutes I was replenished. You can't fail to soak up their energy and their spirit, when you see what they're going through and their courage and their dignity in the face of it. It just fills you up. It fills you up. And I did a show that night and it was fantastic. It makes you so happy to see what these people are doing with their lives in the most incredible circumstances that you and I can only imagine.

They'd built a centre, with their own hands, on this wasteland. They take people who have no skills, teach them how to bricklay, plumb, carpenter, so when they finish this project they go out and can get a job because they have the skills. There were women there making clothes and gifts. Then upstairs there were these kids, aged 15 to 18, saying, "We don't wanna go out and do something else, we wanna stop the Aids thing in Africa in this generation. We don't want the next generation to have to go through this." They were so amazing. Most of them had lost their parents, most of them had lost brothers or sisters and they were so inspiring.

When you go and see things like that, in Africa, Ukraine, India, and you see the difference we've made it's uplifting so you continue to do it. It might sound hokey but the courage of the young people and the women in Africa is just so amazing.

So what is it that fundamentally motivates you in life? What it is you want?

I just want my life to be as good as it is. I mean, I don't want for anything. I want to remain as happy as I am in my personal life and to try and do as much as I can professionally, to do more creative things that are great.

So are you already moving onto the next album– or are you luxuriating in this one?

No, I have an idea ... two ideas of what I'm gonna do on the next two albums. What I'm on concentrating on next is the release of Gnomeo and Juliet in February. Then there's another idea in the offing; if I go back to Las Vegas what kind of show is that gonna be?

When you talk to a pilot they never say how long they've been a pilot, they tell you hours in the air. I think it should be the same with performers. How many hours on stage do you think you done?

Oh I don't know.

It must be a year now and you've done it, like, solid.

Easily. I played 250 shows in Vegas ...

It's three years.

Three years of my life has been spent entertaining!

Solidly on stage.

I'm proud of the decisions I made, which turned out to be the right decisions. And I'm very proud of this record. This is the icing on the cake. My career's been so wonderful. It's had its ups and its downs, and periods of self-doubt like any creative artist, but at 63 years of age I hope I can now look forward to making other records that are as good if not better. It's insidious, this record, it really just gets under your skin. I'm listening to it in the car and I'm thinking, "I can't believe I made this record." It's so extraordinary. But then Leon Russell is an extraordinary musician and an extraordinary man.

Elton John/Leon Russell, 'The Union', is out now

Click here to donate to HIV/Aids charity EJAF

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