Elton John: “I’m not interested in the past – not even Elton John’s past”

The forward-thinking superstar has teamed up with next-gen icons Rina Sawayama and Lil Nas X for his bold new album ‘The Lockdown Sessions’. After all these years, he’s still outstanding

Elton John once said he couldn’t imagine playing rock’n’roll after the age of 35. “Ha!” the 74-year-old laughs via video call from his palatial home in Windsor, shaking his head and muttering expletives to his younger self. Bedecked in a regal red jacket and complementary pink shades, he eventually reflects: “Yeah, I know: we’ve all said shit things in the past, haven’t we?”

Behind him, ornate furniture and two enormous oil paintings look like a novelty Zoom backdrop, but are in fact extremely real. Having thankfully not taken his own advice 40 years ago, one of the world’s most enduring superstars is in the mood to talk up his collab-packed 32nd studio album ‘The Lockdown Sessions’. “The NME!”, he mock-marvels. “God, that’s how I found my career – by fucking NME! That’s the history of my career, the NME.”

It’s some 54 years since aspiring London songwriter Reg Dwight met Lancashire lyricist Bernie Taupin through an advert placed in the New Musical Express by Liberty Records. Within six years of that encounter, Reg had become Elton, the pair had well-established a world-beating songwriting partnership and would soon unleash upon the globe ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, their glorious, gargantuan seventh album, a 30million-selling ticket to all-time greatness that Elton has described as “an incredible time” in a life packed with them.

NME Cover 2021 Elton John
Credit: Gregg Kemp

Fast-forward to 2021 and, rather than resting on his legacy, Elton has ventured deeper than ever before into unchartered sonic territory. ‘The Lockdown Sessions’ is a sequined grab bag of sounds and styles, more closely resembling a fabulously experimental mixtape than a traditional studio album. Delve in for a rummage and you’ll be rewarded with an unruly collection of 16 wildly different songs, each boasting a big name, from the ultra-modern Young Thug and Nicki Minaj-assisted rap ballad ‘Always Love You’ to the massive ‘Finish Line’, a soulful team-up with his old pal Stevie Wonder.

“It was never an album I was gonna make,” Elton says, explaining that work began unexpectedly when the pandemic curtailed the Australian dates of his ongoing last-ever world tour in early 2020. He might have been named the most successful male solo artist in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, having shifted more than 250million records worldwide, but as he returned home from that tour, Elton Hercules John found himself at a loose end just like the rest of us. Like some of us, too, he got to know his neighbours a little better while he was homebound. It’s just that Elton was watching Tiger King in his Beverly Hills mansion and his neighbour was global pop star Charlie Puth.

“He had a studio at his house,” Elton says. “He lived four doors away from me, so he invited me up to write a song – and we did.” That song became the stadium-sized ‘After All’, a bombastic weepie that they performed to a combined IRL and online audience of over a billion at the Global Citizen Live concert in Paris last month. And the offers of work kept coming, he explains, as he wound up joining cult Texan duo Surfaces on the serene ‘Learn To Fly’: “The next day I did [that] song via Zoom – I’d never done that before, and I was playing and singing on their record. And then I came back to England and lots of people asked me to play on records.”

NME Cover 2021 Elton John
Elton John on the cover of NME

Cue this album’s collaborations with Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz (the ethereal ‘The Pink Phantom’), Miley Cyrus (an epic cover of Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’), the internet’s favourite rapper Lil Nas X (the woozy ‘One of Me’) and Olly Alexander of Years & Years (a fist-pumping rendition of the Pet Shop Boys classic ‘It’s A Sin’). Elton, who began his career as a musical gun for hire, enjoyed the sense of having come full circle.

“I thought, ‘I’m becoming a session musician again like I was 54 years ago,’” he beams, “‘and it feels good.’ I had no restrictions, and I actually loved playing on other people’s records. It was different sorts of music, and music and artists that I loved, so I was in my element. It was like Back To The Future.” He adds: “You have to go in there with no ego when you’re playing on someone else’s record and just give them exactly what they want. But also enjoy the process too.”

In-keeping with the collaborative spirit of ‘The Lockdown Sessions’, some of these tracks were also destined for other people’s albums, and there is an emphasis on newer artists such as the genre-shredding Rina Sawayama, who appears on a buffed-up version of her LGBTQ+ anthem ‘Chosen Family’. Elton’s love of new music has been well-documented during six years of his Apple Music show Rocket Hour, which sees him interview his favourite musicians and spin their tunes.

“With this album, I thought, ‘I’m becoming a session musician again like I was 54 years ago’”

“I’ve never lost the desire to hear new music,” he says, explaining that the show has introduced him “to a whole ballgame of new artists – music that I wouldn’t otherwise necessarily have heard because Apple send me a lot of stuff.” He adds: “However, I also scan the websites of the NME and places like that to find records that I wouldn’t have heard. I’m always on the lookout for new things. I’ve become friends with most young artists on the record, and I just love promoting new records.”

He currently stans Romford rapper and singer BERWYN, flamboyant singer-songwriter Jake Wesley Rogers (“He’s like an elongated, stretched version of me in the ’70s! Very tall, big glasses. He’s gonna be a huge star”) and Yorkshire post-punkers Yard Act. Of the latter he enthuses: “It’s that kind of talking with the music behind it – Channel Tres does that a little bit: he mixes hip-hop and talking with electronic music, and it’s a different ballgame… I can’t do it but I love it and I wonder how they do it. There’s a lot of that on the album.”

In fact, rappers such as Nicki Minaj have introduced Elton to a new style of songwriting altogether: “[They take] snippets of things and make them into songs. I’m a traditional songwriter but I’m fascinated with the way people write songs now… Don’t tell me these things aren’t valid. If it’s not your cup of tea, don’t write it off as rubbish. If you don’t understand it, fair enough, but don’t knock it. It’s fantastic stuff.”

That cut-and-paste style defines ‘The Lockdown Sessions’’ lead single ‘Cold Heart’, a glittery mash-up of timeless Elton tracks. Produced by the Aussie dance act Pnau, it sees Dua Lipa belt out the hook to his signature song ‘Rocketman’. “I didn’t wanna sing the ‘Rocketman’ part,” he says, “because I’ve sung it so many times… But I got so lucky with that being the first single off the album. It’s a Number Two single in Britain, which I never in my life thought I would ever have again.

“And so everything’s been a bonus with this record. Whether it sells one copy or a million copies, it doesn’t matter to me. I had so much fun and I learnt so much from doing it.”

NME Cover 2021 Elton John
Credit: Getty Images

Life wasn’t always so rosy for Elton John. As he points out in his sensational autobiography Me, which won Best Book at the NME Awards 2020, he was “the most high-profile gay rock star in the world” in the early ’90s; prior to this, he had faced a barrage of arguably homophobic abuse from The Sun (and successfully sued for damages in 1988). Lil Nas X, who came out in June 2019, when his trap-country hit ‘Old Town Road’ was US Number One for the 11th week, is similarly out on a limb as a queer rapper in a genre where that’s still vanishingly rare.

Rather than from the tabloid press, Lil Nas received rampant homophobic abuse on Twitter. Does Elton look at him and think: ‘I know a little bit about what you’re going through there’?

“Yeah,” Elton says somberly. “Absolutely. I was overjoyed that he came out when he put out ‘Old Town Road’, and his outfits and everything like that immediately endeared him to me. In a culture of hip-hop where it can be very homophobic, suddenly he was doing [the songs] ‘Montero’ and ‘Industry Baby’. You look at the videos and go, ‘FUCKING HELL! This is unbelievable!’ I just loved every second of it because it takes balls of steel, as I’ve said to him. He is not just a great recording artist and lyric writer – he is a great visual artist; there are so many ideas that he has. He will go on to do many, many different things. I just admire him so much; he was a breath of fresh air coming in. It was like, ‘YES!’

“I’ve never lost the desire to hear new music”

“And there are so many great gay artists around: Brandi Carlile, Troye Sivan, Perfume Genius, Olly Alexander from Years & Years. More people are feeling confident and there’s some great, diverse gay music around… It’s very encouraging. We need more people to do it and they are doing it. There’s a whole spectrum of music there coming from gay people, which there wasn’t in the ’70s.”

Elton’s cultural stock was already sky-high when Rocketman, his musical biopic, proved a critical smash in 2019. The film depicts his difficult formative years in the London suburb of Pinner, his success-enabled cocaine addiction and subsequent road to recovery (he’s now been sober for 31 years). It also features a scene in which he comes out to his mum, Sheila, who warns him: “I just hope you know you’re choosing a life of being alone forever. You’ll never be loved properly.”

The new album’s Rina Sawayama collaboration, ‘Chosen Family’, celebrates the communities that LGBTQ+ people can create when their flesh-and-blood are less supportive: “We don’t need to be related to relate / We don’t need to share genes or a surname.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, but is Elton ever despondent that we’re still having these conversations because, even in 2021, discrimination persists?

NME Cover 2021 Elton John
Credit: Getty Images

“We’ve come a long way,” he sighs. “In this country, we had civil partnerships and then we had marriage and that is something I never thought would happen in my lifetime.” Indeed, Elton’s tale took a happy turn when he met the filmmaker David Furnish in 1993; the couple entered a civil partnership in 2005, married in 2014 after the legalisation of gay marriage and have two sons who were born via surrogacy.

“On the other hand,” he continues, “you’ve got countries that don’t accept gay people or gay values whatsoever, so we have an awful lot of work to do.” He does this work through his charity the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which he founded in 1992. The charity has raised some $450million (£330m) to date and continues, as he puts it today, “fighting against the stigma in all these countries and trying to get people to change their minds.

“It’s a very, very uphill battle and you’ve gotta keep doing it. It may take a long time but by putting their foot in the water and making their songs, artists help gay people in these countries feel much better.”

“The Government didn’t make any provisions whatsoever for the arts during Brexit”

Elton made headlines when he toured Russia amid homophobic protests in 2013, and reasons today: “When I went, I said, ‘I will never stop coming to Russia. People say I shouldn’t go because of the homophobia there but if I stop going, all the gay people would think I’d abandoned them.’ And I didn’t want to abandon them. I will be abandoning them because after this tour I won’t be doing any more live dates, but I will always continue that work through the AIDS Foundation and my messaging. And it is encouraging and wonderful to see people like Lil Nas X breaking down barriers and saying ‘Fuck you!’ to everybody.”

In a sense, Elton’s other chosen family is comprised of the younger artists he supports in their careers, from Rina Sawayama to Geordie singer-songwriter Sam Fender, whose second album ‘Seventeen Going Under’ he successfully predicts to go to Number One in the UK: “Sam has become a friend of the family and a very close friend of mine,” he says. “He came down here a bit during lockdown, a bit depressed. You put your arm around people like that and say listen, ‘This is your time.’ You can feel it’s his time now. He knows that he’s part of our family and any time he wants to come down here and be with the boys, and with David and me, he can do.

“I think it’s really wonderful to be able to do that. Rina’s the same thing – she came down to the south of France and spent a couple of days with us. It’s just fantastic.”

NME Cover 2021 Elton John
Elton John with Dua Lipa (left). Credit: Getty Images

No wonder, then, that someone so supportive of young talent should be infuriated that, during Brexit negotiations, the UK Government failed to achieve visa-free travel for UK artists touring Europe. Such an undertaking could now be prohibitively expensive for a whole generation of homegrown musicians. Elton has even met virtually with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, in order to try and assuage the problem. What might Elton John’s career have looked like if he’d been faced with such a situation at an earlier stage?

“It would have been totally different,” he says. “As an artist, you learn your craft by playing live. I started out going to Europe; you’re in a different culture, which makes you a little fearful, but you embrace the culture, and the culture embraces you… [The current situation] is OK for Ed Sheeran and me, or The Rolling Stones – people that can actually afford to do this stuff. But for younger artists, it’s a crushing thing. We’re still trying to solve this problem; it’s a slow process because the Government is a slow process.

“The Government didn’t make any provisions whatsoever for the arts during Brexit. They’re more interested in fucking fishing! Now, don’t get me wrong – fishing is very important, but it brings in £1.4billion a year and the entertainment industry brings in £111billion. They’re taking away young artists’ livelihood, and the way they grow as artists – because nothing makes you grow than the experience of going and playing in another place. It’s so shocking, and it’s so fucking disgusting.”

NME Cover 2021 Elton John
Credit: Gregg Kemp

Elton’s own pandemic-delayed final jaunt, the Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour, should have been back on track by now. He fell and injured his hip in September (and will undergo surgery the day after our interview), meaning its recommencement was rescheduled to kick off in New Orleans early next year. When he announced his retirement from live shows in 2018, much was made of the fact that he’d threatened to hang up his sparkly spectacles once or twice before, but he insists that, this time, Jexit really does mean Jexit.

“It’s something I wanna finish,” he explains. “I’m looking forward to doing it and going out on the high that we were on – we were an express train that hit the buffers. At the moment I finish supposedly in 2023, in the summer, by which time I’ll be 76 – and that’s it, baby. I can’t wait to do it and have a great time, and I can’t wait to finish and say, ‘No more – I’ve had enough.’”

His songwriting soulmate Bernie Taupin has sent him lyrics for the next Elton John record, mind: “I will do records and I’ll do my radio show, but as far as schlepping and doing shows? I’ve had enough applause. I wanna be with my family. I wanna be with my boys. I’ll still be creative, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life flying here, flying there. I can’t do any more than I’ve done now and save for the odd charity thing that may come up, that’s it for me.”

“I’ve had enough applause. I wanna be with my family. I wanna be with my boys”

There is also the pressing matter of a new Christmas song with carrot-topped balladeer Ed Sheeran, who recently told Dutch radio station NPO Radio 2 that, excited to see his 1973 cracker ‘Step Into Christmas’ back in the charts last yule, Elton has asked him to help deliver a sequel. It beats another pastry-themed novelty song from LadBaby, who’s snaffled Christmas Number One for the past three years.

“Yeah, he let the cat out of the bag didn’t he?” Elton laughs. “I was sworn to secrecy and then big mouth fucking Sheeran goes to the Netherlands! It’s supposed to come out – we haven’t finished it yet, so there’s still work to be done.”

With a twinkle in his eye, he insists, “I can’t say any more than that because it’s in his hands,” but does reveal his true ambitions for the song: “We’ve got the sausage roll man to deal with, haven’t we? We’ve got LadBaby to deal with! Once we bump him off, we might have a clear path to a hit record. He seems to have the monopoly on Christmas records. And good for him!”

NME Cover 2021 Elton John
Credit: Getty Images

And that’s Elton John in 2021: he’s still rockin’ and rollin’, 40 years later than planned, and – with an insatiable desire for the future – his only competition is himself and “the sausage roll man”. The week after our interview, ‘Cold Heart’, which he was so delighted to see in second place, reaches Number One; thanks to that song, Elton is the first act to score a UK Top 10 single in six different decades.

He sounds utterly content, inadvertently summing up his secret to longevity, when he waxes lyrical about his love for new music: “I just think: I know all the old stuff; I love the new stuff. It’s the future I’m interested in. I’m not interested in the past – not even Elton John’s past. I know I have to sing what I do onstage but I very, very rarely go back and listen to my own records. I’m more interested in hearing something new.”

Elton John’s ‘The Lockdown Sessions’ is out now via Mercury Records