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Elton John / AP

Elton John: Back to the beginning

The pop-rock icon strips down his sound in a revealing new album with producer T Bone Burnett

By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music

For his newest album, "The Diving Board," Elton John looked to his past. The album, John's 30th studio effort, features mainly a trio: John on piano, Raphael Saadiq on bass, and Jay Bellerose on drums, and was shepherded by roots-savvy producer T Bone Burnett.

"T Bone said, 'Go back to what you did in the beginning [of your career] and never put on record, which was a piano, bass and drum lineup with me, Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray," recalls John.

Recording in such a spare context allowed John to stretch out on the piano in a way he seldom has on record before. "I've never played a piano solo like 'My Quicksand,' for example, and I've never written a song like 'The Diving Board' before," he says. "You can hear every note."

With a legendary career that spans more than 40 years, John remains as driven as he was when he and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin first started, but this summer's scare with a burst appendix, as well as becoming a father, has led John to reconsider spending so much time on the road. He plays more than 120 concerts a year, but tells MSN that it's time to cut back and devote time to his family, as well as other musical pursuits.

Bing: More on Elton John 

In a wide-ranging, amusing conversation, John discussed his magical relationship with Taupin, told us which band he wants to make an album with (shhh ... they don't know it yet), and shared why you will never, ever catch him downloading music.

MSN Music: You talk about how this album recalls how you began, as a trio. But do you think you could have made this record 40 years ago? There's a gravity and a weight not only to Bernie's lyrics, but to your playing here.

Elton John: No, I don't think we could. We were playing in a different way. We were rocking out far more in those days and I was younger. There's a certain kind of energy. This one has a different sort of energy. This one has gravitas. It's got the experience that we've had as writers together for 46 years. The fact that we are old, getting older, and reaching the end of our lifespan, I think affects us.

So many of Bernie's lyrics are cinematic and expansive here. What did you think when you received them?

The lyrics are so beautiful on this record. It was so easy to write to. I don't know what it is with him, but he seems uncannily in sync with what I want and always has done. That's the beauty of our relationship. We certainly don't talk about it. There's a sixth sense between us. If you think about it too much, it's kind of eerie, but it's really beautiful, so I don't think about it. I don't take it for granted, but I don't think about it too much and I don't dwell on it and I don't tell him what to write; I just look forward to what happens and what comes down.

More about 'The Diving Board': New song is about Lindsay Lohan and Justin Bieber 

This album includes three piano interludes. Would you ever make an instrumental album?

Yes. It's just when and where. There are so many things I'd like to do now and I can do them because I don't have to chase the charts anymore. I want to make a record that sounds like Fairport Convention using the Punch Brothers. I just want to add my piano to their sound and come up with a Fairport kind of record or a Band kind of record. T Bone is so up for it. They don't know anything about it yet, but we'll have to see about that. They're my favorite band without question because their musicianship is just astounding.

You talk about not getting played on radio anymore, yet "Home Again" become your 69th song on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart this summer. That's more than any other artist. Do you still get satisfaction when something new gets airplay?

Yeah!!! That will never change. I have a management company that manages people like Ed Sheeran and Lily Allen. I write their chart positions down! We have this band called the Strypes in England. Their record came in at No. 5 this week. I write all their chart positions down. I'm very excited that ["Home Again"] is doing well at AC radio. AC is basically the only radio formula that might play me. Triple A might play a couple of tunes. If I play on someone else's [album], like Fall Out Boy or Queens of the Stone Age, I'll probably get played on something else, so I do that. I play on other's people's records for enjoyment and to get out of the Elton John Syndrome.

Photos: Elton John in focus

I've never heard you reference Elton John Syndrome. What's that?

(Laughs) It's, you know, having a career that's so long. You won't get played on radio. Radio is ageist and you're not going to find me on pop radio. I'm not going to be able to compete with the Katy Perrys, and nor do I want to. I've done that in my life. I want to play music that a 66-year-old wants to write, and if people love it and they buy the album, that's fantastic.

You told The Guardian that you're cutting back on touring because of your health scare and to spend more time with your children. How much are you cutting back?

You know I'm a nutcase. I'm an addict, so if I do 120 shows one year, the next year I want to do 130. I don't know, but it's just my mentality. I'm stupid. And it's just like I want to play 100 countries. Why? When you die you're not going to get an [award] for playing 100 countries. But having had the appendicitis and having the children who are small, I don't have to work 12 months a year. I want to spent time on other projects, like writing musicals, producing films and being with my children. It's a no-brainer. But until the illness happened, I would have never thought that would happen. [John's husband] David [Furnish] and I sat down and he said, "You know, you're killing yourself. Why?" It's because of my addiction. I'm addicted to working. It's ludicrous, but it's true.

News: Elton John to slow work schedule after appendicitis scare

"The Diving Board" is coming out on vinyl, in part because that's how you feel music should be listened to, as opposed to downloaded onto one's mobile phone, right?

Kids are rediscovering the tactile feel of an album, getting up and changing it to hear to side two, putting the headphones on and listening to the lyrics. It's a joyous experience. Listening to music on a phone is not joyous; it's f---ing horrible. It's disgusting and it's disgraceful, and people should not be allowed to listen to music on a phone, I'm sorry. I've never downloaded anything in my life. It's disgraceful. I hate it. I loathe it. I don't see any pleasure in downloading or looking at anything or listening to music on a phone. It's crazy and it's stupid and it's moronic.

You played Bestival, which was the first U.K. festival you've ever played. Did that whet your appetite to play Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza?

You're not going to see me at any of those. I was talked into Bestival and I loved every second of it, but I won't be doing any more probably. I might do Bestival again in a couple of years if they want me, but I'm not a festival act. I think they're great for kids to go. For me, I'm not interested.

Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.

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