John: West Coast Dreaming
says when the world is a mess, he's still got his songs.
di Rebecca Rankin
John tried the clubby, techno thing, but it didn't stick. This is a guy
who doesn't even own a cell phone because he finds the technology annoyingly
slow. Which is why you won't find him busting any dance moves on his latest
Songs From the West Coast.
to his more traditional piano man setting, the album has already notched
John's umpteenth chart hit with the introspective first single, "I Want
Love." And, never one to shy from controversy, John suggested that the
one-shot video star troubled actor Robert Downey Jr. The album also features
John's reaction to the 1998 murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew
Shepard, "American Triangle."
Elton tickled the ivories for VH1 News' Rebecca Rankin and told her why
he thinks this is his best album in ages, why he continues to defend Eminem's
right to speak his mind, and why when the world is a mess, he's still got
his songs. And he'll play them for you.
You've said you are really happy with this album. Your voice shines through
in a way it hasn't in a while.
John: I don't think I could have made a better album at this stage
in my life. When [songwriting partner] Bernie [Taupin] and I talked about
doing it last year, we wanted to do a much more simple album — piano, bass,
drums, guitar, a little bit of organ, and some orchestra. It's the same
lineup as all the early albums. Because of technology, I've been diverted
musically on the last few albums. There hasn't been a flow from track to
track. On this album, there is. It starts with piano and finishes with
piano. A lot of my vocals on this album don't have any echo on them. I'm
used to having a lot. I was kind of shaky at first, like, "Where's the
echo?" They said, "You don't need it." I don't. I'm singing better than
ever. Technology slows things down … [especially] in the studio. We tried
to stay away from that [technology] on this album. We used just our musical
skills, and we recorded on analog tape.
Why did you want Robert Downey Jr. for the "I Want Love" video?
I wanted to do a video that was mature. And [director] Sam Taylor-Wood
said, "I've got an idea of just doing it very simply, one person, not you,
lip-syncing to the song. An actor, maybe." I came up with the idea of Robert.
I thought, "God, the lyrics are very close to home. I wonder if he'll do
it?" He was very interested. It all came together in five or six days.
We sent him the album, and he said, "Yes." I'm thrilled with it. I don't
necessarily think an artist has to be in a video. On the other singles
that we do videos for, I'm going to ask people that don't normally make
videos to interpret the songs, whether they use me or not. This one worked
perfect, because I was able to stay in France on holiday while Robert was
doing it. I love the fact that it is a one-shot video. He did 16 takes.
They used the very last take because he was completely relaxed by then
… It's so pertinent to what he's going through, and the way he underplays
it is fantastic.
When you make an album, are you competing with yourself and your past?
In recent years I've been too influenced by what I've been hearing. I've
been trying to do an ambient track or a dance track, and that's not really
what I do best. I'm a musician, I'm allowed to experiment. I'm not competing
against myself, I'm competing against the influence of so many other people
and trying to be like so many other people I can't be. You can only be
like yourself. On this album I have been competing with myself.
One of the people this album is dedicated to is Matthew Shepard. You wrote
the song "American Triangle" about his 1998 murder.
When Matthew was murdered I was so outraged and shocked that there could
be someone out there that could do something like that. I went to Wyoming
and did a concert at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, and I met Matthew's
parents. I set up a scholarship in his name. I did a fund-raiser for anti-hate
groups. I'm a gay man, and whether it had been a girl [or a boy], I would
have done the same thing. It's the first song we wrote on the album. When
Bernie came up with the lyric, I thought, "God, if I can't write a good
song to this lyric, I'm going to be in real trouble." I wanted desperately
to write something about this. It's not a hateful lyric, it's sensible
At the same time, you are dedicating a song to Matthew Shepard, you went
onstage at the Grammys last year with Eminem, whose lyrics some have called
homophobic. Is that a contradiction?
No. I don't think he's homophobic. I wouldn't have done it if I thought
he was, and he wouldn't have asked me to do it. We ended up hanging out
for three days. He's a brilliant lyricist. If a person writes a novel and
there's a homophobic scene in it, you don't say that the novelist is homophobic.
I thought he had a bad rap, and because I'm gay I came out and defended
him. I'll defend his right to say what he wants to. I don't think he's
You've been talking a lot lately about ex-Whiskeytown singer Ryan Adams.
What is it about his songs that appeals to you?
I listened to [his solo debut,] Heartbreaker, last year. I just fell in
love with that album. I bought it for a bunch of people and gave it to
Pat Leonard, who produced my album. I tracked him down. I went to see him
[in concert] and he was fantastic. He's like a rough diamond. He's 25,
a bohemian, sharp, intelligent, witty, and a brilliant songwriter. It really
moved me like I haven't been moved since I heard the The Marshall Mathers
LP or Nirvana's [Nevermind] album.
The album doesn't have a very reflective mood, but in light of the recent
terrorist attacks, do you think there's something in there that people
can relate to?
When something bad happens, the music at the time is always a healer. Bands
like U2 go out and bring people together when they're playing. That's what
I do when I'm in concert. I don't go onstage and think, "Is there a Catholic
in the room or a Muslim?" It's just a bunch of people listening to my songs.
I think music will help people get through this. Whether they're going
to like the album, I don't know. I don't know if it's fitting enough …
All I can do is to bring people together and say, "Come to my concert and
let's have a good time."