11:44 AM GMT 21/05/2013
Eric Clapton's 19th solo studio album emerges on September 27. Pithily entitled Clapton, it'll have anyone who thought the guitar maven washed up and dried out performing a neck-snapping double-take. With collaborators including J.J. Cale, Wynton Marsalis and Allen Toussaint, Clapton mines vintage blues and jazz styles plus standards including Hoagy Carmichael's Rocking Chair and Irving Berlin's How Deep Is The Ocean?, while delivering his first Clapton original - Run Back To Your Side - since 2005. But as he reveals here to MOJO pal Johnny Walker, this startlingly intimate and joyous record grew out of stalemate on the album he thought he was making. "If it's a surprise to the fans," says Clapton, "that's because it's a surprise to me as well..."
Johnny Walker: Do you think Eric Clapton fans will be surprised by the choice of songs on the new record?
Eric Clapton: Sure they will. [Laughs] I hope not unpleasantly, but we'll see.
In a way, it was a happy accident, wasn't it?
Yes, it's not what it was meant to be. And it's probably better than it was meant to be, because I let it happen in a way. So it's an eclectic collection of songs that weren't really on the map. You know, I had other ideas. And that's why I like it so much, 'cause if it's a surprise to the fans, that's because it's a surprise to me as well.
There's a song you do with J.J. Cale: That's No Way To Get Along.
Yeah. That's ancient that song. It's by a guy called Robert Wilkins from the '20s, '30s. I think he's from the Delta, he's a Mississippi player [Hernando, MS, just south of Memphis - Ed]. But it's kind of got a bit of a country feel to it, you know. When I started singing it, J.J. started to repeat [what I sang], and I thought, What's he doing? I thought he'd sing with me, do you know what I mean? But then this was J.J. putting the New Orleans thing into it, and it was perfect, you know? And [pianist] Walt Richmond's interpretation of a New Orleans second line feel is perfect. It actually astounded me that we got a result on that, 'cos it's a very difficult song to interpret.
When you take standards by people like Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael - these sorts of absolute classic standards - what's in your head?
Well first, I pick up a guitar, and I've got to figure out how I can play those chords, since they are piano chords a lot of the time. How do they sound on the guitar? How can I apply what I do to them? I play them with a blues sensibility I suppose. I play them the way, say, I imagine Big Bill Broonzy would play them, like he did [Billy Hill's '30s tune] The Glory of Love. He makes it a blues. So when I started on How Deep Is The Ocean?, first I learned to play that on the guitar. Sitting there playing it, entertaining myself, it comes across as a blues that way.
And what do you think of your singing?
I hate my singing. I don't like the way I sing. It all sounds like I'm 16 years old from Surbiton. I do my best to try and feel it. You know, when I watch Ray Charles sing, I think, That's it, that's how it's done. He remembers thousands of songs and he sings them all as if they're the most important song he knows. It's not like reading it, or doing it like somebody else. He does it from the bottom of his heart, every time, every song. And that's, that's the inspiration. That's my influence. But I'm, I'm imbued with so much self-doubt about my singing, that it's very difficult for me to get to that freedom that those kinds of singers have.
But you sound like you've got something like it on a lot of these songs. On How Deep Is The Ocean?, it's just very relaxed.
Yeah. That's almost like I'm not having to try to sing. I can sing very quietly and it's going to be OK. I learned that from J.J. See, you can have Ray Charles at one end of the spectrum, who can do all kinds of things with the voice, and go up and down in octaves and registers. And, you've got J.J. at the other, who creates exactly the same amount of emotional capacity in a very minimal way. And he's still just as riveting to listen to. So there are different ways to do it.
You've waited a long time to do some of these songs.
That's the way it is. You know, when the time comes to make a record, it's usually two years, say, after the last record. I've either got something pressing to say, or I haven't. And if I haven't I'll create some subterfuge. But then some things come in "underneath". I think, from my experience, they've often been the most significant albums for me.
Funnily enough, Unplugged was a bit like that. Because we were just going to create an evening of music. It was very, very relaxed and no pressure, and this was like that. I mean, I thought, Well this [album's] gone down the swanee, we might as well just have some fun. We've got the time, what can we fill the time with? I mean, how better to approach it? You know, there was no calculation in it. It was all just what came to the surface.
Do you believe in fate?
Does this give you the freedom to experiment even more for the next one...
Yeah. There is no limit. There's two things [I'd really like to do]. Play with some Latin stuff, or go into that New Orleans jazz thing. And that, that intrigues me. Can I play electric guitar as if I was with Louis Armstrong, with The Hot Five, you know? Wouldn't that be great?
And no plans for slowing down? I mean, back when you were growing up in the '60s, the idea of still playing at 65, 65-plus, would have been laughed at. But the blues offers plenty of examples to the contrary.
Well I never liked young kids' music. I like old people's music. When I look for what I'm gonna listen to, I go backwards. Most people are trying to figure out, How do I get in the fast lane going that way? I'm going in the [laughs] other direction. I wanna find the oldest thing I can do.
Does that mean fewer new songs from you?
No. I mean, I don't know what prompts 'em, you see? The only technique that works for that, as far as I know, is what Dylan does, or Diane Warren, where they sit at a typewriter. And it's a 9 to 5 job. But if a song happens to me it's gonna happen. It's another fate thing. You know, when the time's due for that, and I've got something to say, it'll come out. But if it doesn't come out, I'll use someone else's. I'll climb on someone else's song.
Tell us about Autumn Leaves...
It was written by a French poet called Jacques Prévert, and it was turned from a poem into a song by Joseph Kosma. And then Johnny Mercer got hold of it, and translated it from the French into the English. The version I was intrigued by was the Yves Montand version, which was used in a movie [Les Portes De La Nuit, 1946].
Did it take a lot of courage to attempt it?
Yeah. Because you can't muck around with that melody. I had to do it with respect and restraint, and feeling. Really feel it. But having done that it opened the door for all kinds of possibilities. After that we asked, Well, what else can we do? We did [the Gershwins'] Love Is Here To Stay after that, which is still in the can. There's nothing that's too schmaltzy if you play it right, with a little bit of funk.
When did you first go to New Orleans?
In the '70s. But I always liked the style: you know, Huey "Piano" Smith, and Frankie Ford. Remember Sea Cruise? I mean, that second line way of playing was extraordinary too, because it's somewhere between a shuffle and straight time. It's an odd rhythmic concept. But they all play like that. The Meters and Alan Toussaint and all those guys from down there play like that. It comes from New Orleans jazz - it's the tree of life down there. So I've become big friends with Wynton Marsalis. He plays on How Deep Is The Ocean? on this record. And he plays on the Fats Waller tunes [When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful and My Very Good Friend The Milkman].
What is it about that special essence of sound down there?
It's who they are. It's their identity. You open the door and it's there on the street. Um, and it's old, you know? They have a different thing about what's old than we do. I've always found that this country has a slight shame about its heritage. You know, it shouldn't be hard to accept that you might like George Formby or Gracie Fields...
Interview by Johnny Walker
Posted by Ross_Bennett at 12:02 PM GMT 26/08/2010