One of pop music’s living legends, Sir Elton John, has sold more than a quarter of a billion records and enjoyed more than fifty Top 40 hits over his five-decade career, reaching a kind of commercial success that has dwarfed his art. Some industry calculations estimate that his music once accounted for as much as three percent of annual sales worldwide.
Until this day, the 63-year-old singer, composer and pianist remains a formidable live draw, attracting young and old alike.
“I learned from the young,” he exclaims. “A lot of my contemporaries don’t listen to new music. They don’t get that energy that you can get from the young. I still want to hear the next thing that’s going to inspire me. Of course, I am inspired by the past. Who wouldn’t be? If you want to remain, why would you want to keep listening to the same music? I keep my eye on the ball and I still have fun with it. That’s why I’ve been around for 40 years.”
Since his early twenties, every week, the timeless musician has bought new releases, amassing a collection of over 70,000 CDs. He listens to new music, goes to the movies and visits new art exhibitions, constantly searching for inspiration.
“There is always something around the corner that you didn’t expect to find, someone who will inspire you and whenever I am inspired by an artist, whether it be a singer, an actor, a dancer, a painter or a writer, I phone them or I write them a letter and say thank you because I remember when I was young and getting a telegram from George Harrison and being introduced on stage by Neil Diamond meant so much to me. It validated what I did and if you validate the young and you give them encouragement and you say, ‘listen you’re doing really good work at your age,’ it inspires you and it inspires them.”
Conscious of the difficulties and hardships young talents face in the early stages of their careers, Sir Elton has established a management company that is dedicated to guiding and nurturing such talent, encouraging them to play live without rushing them.
“Records aren’t selling,” he exclaims. “Sales figures in the last weeks on Soundscan and Billboard have been the lowest that they’ve ever been. The number 1 album this week sold 44,000 copies, which is unheard of. It’s quite scary, but live entertainment is doing very well.”
“Don’t put out the first album just for the sake of it. You have to know, you have to tour, you have to play in front of three people, you have to play in front of 100 people, and maybe it’s not so good and you’re disappointed, but that gives you the necessary resolve and experience, so you’re ready when you become successful.”
Although he finds instant television shows entertaining, Sir Elton believes that they don’t give an artist any stability for the future. “You’re just as good as that series and then the next series comes along and there’s someone else so I worry about the artist in that sense.”
A technophobe, who doesn’t have a phone, a computer or an iPod, Sir Elton laments the closure of many book and music stores. “It’s going to get very depressing because I like the tangible feel of a CD, a book or a record. That’s gradually disappearing from landscapes.”
But he is upbeat about the future of the music industry. “Music will always be okay because people will want to see live entertainment and that’s where, as an artist, if you can’t play live, you’re stuck now.”
Sir Elton’s career is not confined to live music. The 9 times Grammy award winner has also scored major motion pictures, such as Days of Thunder, Four Weddings and A Funeral and The Lion King, for which he won an Academy Award for the song ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ in 1995.
In the 90s, he formed his own production company ‘Rocket Pictures’, whose latest production is the animated comedy ‘Gnomeo and Juliet’, which retells Shakespeare’s tragic love story of two teenagers in the world of garden gnomes and gives it a happy ending.
Composed by James Newton Howard, who used to be in Sir Elton’s backing band, the film is graced by a soundtrack featuring both new songs and classics from the Elton John-Bernie Taupin library, including ‘Tiny Dancer’, ‘Rocket Man’, ‘Bennie and The Jets’ and ‘I’m Still Standing’.
Each song has been fitted to an appropriate scene, lending it an emotional depth and enhancing its comedy.
“I suddenly become the gnome,” he laughs. “We just sifted through the lyrics and even though the lyrics aren’t in there, the songs that seemed appropriate for each scene we gradually got them and worked them out.”
“I never ever envisaged doing a film about gnomes, but one of the funniest things in my life was when Tim Rice gave me a lyric for The Lion King and it started off ‘When I was a young warthog’. I thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing? I’m writing songs about warthogs.’ But gnomes are funny characters and they’re great.”
Dressed in a dark navy suit and crew-necked shirt and wearing rimless blue glasses and making jokes about himself and his work, Sir Elton believes that artists should not take themselves too seriously. “We’re blessed to be who we are. We’re not more important than anybody else, and if you can’t take a joke, then you’re a sad person. I hope I’ve always had the capacity not to take myself too seriously and I think being able to send yourself up in visual ways as well as verbal ways is great. That’s why I do things like Gnomeo.”
Sir Elton’s creativity is always sparked by the written word. He began his career collaborating with Bernie Taupin, who has written many of his songs, and in the 1990s he teamed up with Tim Rice, producing awards-winning soundtracks for Disney’s animated smash ‘The Lion King’ and Verdi’s opera ‘Aida’.
“I don’t really create until I have a project in front of me. It’s always been lyrics first. When I get a written lyric from Bernie Taupin or Lee Hall or Tim Rice, that inspires me to write.”
Without changing a word and rarely consulting the lyricists, Sir Elton fits his tune to the words almost effortlessly. He seldom spends more than an hour writing a song, and he never thinks about what he’s going to write until he goes into the studio to record.
I have met Sir Elton John in the past at social events; he is amiable, engaging and a lively conversationalist. However, I have never seen him beaming with so much joy and vibrancy as he is today. He is known for his profound love for music, but that love seems to have paled next to his love to his recently-born son, Zachary.
It’s evident that everything in his world now spins around Zachary.
Zachary was born in Los Angeles on Christmas Day to a surrogate mother. Sir Elton and his partner, David Furnish, whom he married in 2005, contributed equally to the conception. On the birth certificate, Sir Elton is listed as the father and David as the mother.
“I just saw him this morning and he’s something that’s brightened our lives tremendously in the nearly four weeks that we’ve had him. I’ve had amazing things that have happened to me in my life, career wise and personal life, but this is the icing on the cake. ”
Running into his 60s, Sir Elton is not concerned about fathering a child. “I am 60 going on 40,” he laughs. “I have just thought this is the right time for David and myself to have a child.”
“I am young at heart. I work hard and I do more shows now that I ever did before. I will try and be as young for him as I can.”
An exciting life is awaiting little Zachary. His proud father, who own homes in England, Los Angeles, Nice, Venice and Latin America, is planning to take him everywhere he goes, whether it’s business, pleasure or music tours. And unlike his technophobe father, Zachary has already got his own iPod, playing Mozart, Chopin, Carole King, the Carpenters, James Taylor and Sir Elton John, to his tender ears.
“I’ll have to enter the world of technology,” Sir Elton sighs. “They are coming out with a Skype iPad in April and I’ve got to get one because I want to see my son when I am not there.”
The arrival of Zachary has relaxed but also energised Sir Elton. He is currently involved in the development of a musical adaption of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. He is also planning to produce a film about himself.
“We’re talking about maybe three to four years’ time, so I think Robert Downey Jr. could definitely play me at one point in my life because he’s musical and he sings. He’d be wonderful.”