“People say that I could sing the phone book and make it sound good.”
“Elton would say to me, “Why don’t you put out more albums?” I would say, “Why don’t you put out less albums?”
In this clip from 1997’s An Audience With Elton John, the actor Richard E. Grant asks Elton John if he can create a song out of his oven’s instruction manual. Elton obliges.
This might seem miraculous, but it’s, essentially, exactly how Elton John works in his partnership with Bernie Taupin:
[Taupin] labors for weeks on his horse ranch in Southern California and delivers the lyrics fully formed to Mr. John, who goes into a studio, props the papers on the piano and churns out melodies and harmonies to fit the words at breakneck speed. “It’s kind of spooky,” Mr. John said in an interview. “I get bored if it takes more than 40 minutes.”
John says he barely looks at the lyrics before he goes into the studio to write. He says he likes to go in fresh, and let the lyrics evince melodies and music out of him.
This way of working goes all the way back to their very first days of collaborating, including their first hit, “Your Song”:
“I wrote that song one morning when Elton and I shared an apartment in Northwood Hills just outside of London. And I remember writing it as I was having breakfast. The original lyric had tea-stains on it.”
“[Elton] wrote it the same day. We went into the room where the piano was and just hammered it out.”
In the second volume of Paul Zollo’s wonderful Songwriters on Songwriting, Taupin displays an unreserved awe for his partner’s “borderline genius”:
It’s ridiculous. He has written four songs in a day sometimes. Sometimes he doesn’t even write songs before he goes into the studio. He goes in the studio on the morning that they are going to start recording and writes a couple of songs, and when they come in he starts recording. Go figure.
It’s hilarious to me that Taupin works so hard on his lyrics and John is so casual with them:
I put them all in a folder. And he just goes to the piano, puts the folder up, and sees what catches his eye. He’ll skim through it. I’m sure he looks at titles too. Sometimes he won’t even read through a lyric. He’ll just start. [Laughs] He won’t even understand what the song’s about till probably it’s recorded, and six months later he’ll come up to me and say, “You know, just figured out what that song’s about.”
You could give him the phone book — or an oven manual! — and he’d write you a song.