On stage, Elton John is known for his fabulous and often outlandish persona; off stage, however, he's been remarkably guarded — especially when it comes to his family life.
With the release this week of "The Diving Board," his 31st studio album and first album of new material in seven years, Elton, 66, is making the media rounds again. Reteamed with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, the album is stripped down and reflective, something John attributes to the stability and peace he's found within his growing family.
He performed the album's lead single, "Home Again," twice over the weekend — on Friday at the iHeartRadio music festival in Las Vegas and on Sunday at the Emmys (in tribute to Liberace). And in a new interview with Terry Gross for NPR's "Fresh Air," the singer spoke eloquently about a range of topics, including why his husband, David Furnish, 50, is the perfect partner.
"[The album is] a reflection on where we [John and Taupin] are in our lives; it's a very adult album," Elton noted. "It's a very sparse album compared to the albums I've made before. And I'm very relaxed. I'm very happy with my personal life. When I started the album I had one son. When I finished the album I had two sons, and I think subconsciously all that played into the end sound and end product."
Of course, the other father to his children is Furnish, whom Elton's been in a relationship with for 20 years now. Not coincidentally, they met when John finally got sober, following 16 years of tumultuous drug abuse. "I had to learn how to function as a human being," Elton explained. "And I really enjoyed that process. When people go to rehab and come out, they go through a difficult period, but I never had that. I was so glad to be rid of all that crap that, for me, to learn again and to function as a human being and participate in the human race again was pure joy. And in 1993, I met my partner, David, and did 'The Lion King,' so great things came my way."
But it took some work to have a stable relationship. "I met someone who was willing to be in a relationship, but only if it was a 50-50 relationship," Elton shared. "Before I had the relationship with David, I tended to take hostages, because they had to fit in with what I did. You take them around the world, you buy them a Versace shirt or a Cartier watch and within six months they hate your guts because they have no life. And I did that repeatedly time and time again. I had to learn how to share, how to take part in a proper relationship. And since then — I've been 23 years now clean and sober — the most amazing things have happened to me."
It was David who helped him realize it might be time to slow down, which perhaps saved his life, both figuratively and literally. "I had the appendicitis happen to me [in August of] this year … and that was another sign. And as soon as that happened, David and I said, 'I don't have to work 12 months a year'…I ultimately said, 'I'm going to work six months a year and take my kids to school.' And the work became, like the drug addiction, like the clothes, like anything in my life, it became — it's become — an addiction…I'm addicted to working."
And so the Rocket Man now truly has come back down to earth. Eldest son Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John was born to the couple via surrogate in December 2012, followed by brother Elijah Joseph Daniel Furnish-John in January 2013.
"It's where I want to be at this stage in my life," Elton continued. "I want to be with my children and I want to be with my partner. It's just a sanctuary for me."
In the 46-minute interview, Elton also tackled a number of other topics, including:
How Stage Fright Lead Him to Drug Addiction: "I think performers are all show-offs anyway, especially musicians. Unless you show off, you're not going to get noticed. For me, music is so passionate, I have to give it my all every time I go on stage. On stage, it was always comfortable for me, because that's where I felt at home. Off stage, it was a different situation. I was still shy off stage. Unfortunately, my shyness and my inability to communicate and really have great conversations or be part of the gang led me to the drug addiction, which blighted my life for 16 years because I thought by doing that, it would make me join in. And I did. Cocaine made me talk forever. The most nonsensical rubbish that you could ever think of…I had no balance in my life. I was this one person on stage and this one person off stage, but [someone] who really didn't know much about living. I had progressed as a performer, but I hadn't progressed as a human being.
How He Learned About Sex: "I didn't sleep with anyone until I was 23. In the '50s, you weren't taught about sex whatsoever; it was never talked about. People used to sneak behind curtains and look at the neighbors, and if a girl became pregnant in your part of the world, she was shipped off to the countryside. I was never told a thing about sex, so I was very naive — as were my friends, as well, but me especially."
How He Discovered His Homosexuality: "I didn't really know what I was until I came to America and I had sex [for the first time] in San Francisco in 1970. It was with someone of my own sex. I suspected my homosexuality, but I had never acted out on it because I was afraid of sex. It was awful to be afraid of sex, but that's what the '50s did to people. It was, 'Sex is disgusting, it shouldn't be talked about, nudity is disgusting, we just don't talk about those kinds of things.'"
His Thoughts on the Russian Crackdown on Gay Rights: "On one hand, I want to say, 'I'm not going and you can go to hell, you guys.' But that's not helping anyone who's gay or transgendered over there. I've been going to Russia since 1979. I've been going quite frequently, and I've always had a wonderful rapport with the Russian audiences and with the Russian people. And you know there are a lot of great Russian people out there who are outraged by what's going on, but they don't have — I don't want to abandon them. Now, I'll probably get criticized for going, and I can understand that. It's just that I, as a gay man and a gay musician, cannot stay at home and not support these people who have been to lots of my concerts in the past. I'm aware of the situation and I will be diplomatic. I'm not going to go into Russia and tell [Vladimir Putin] to go to hell and things like that. That's not the way things are done. You chip away at something, and you hope there will be dialogue and that the situation can get better. You don't just go in there with guns blazing and say, 'Well, to hell with you.' Because they're going to say, 'To hell with you, and get out of the country.' That's not going to solve anything. But if I can go there, maybe I can talk to some people in the administration.
"You can make a statement and you can read it from the stage, but it would be nice, and it would be much more fulfilling to try and meet with people in Moscow and say, 'Listen, this is just, you know, this is silly. It's a reactionary knee-jerk thing. It's harming your reputation in the rest of the world. It's not doing you any good. There has to be some discussion here. What you're doing is outrageous.' [Pauses.] They can tell me to go to hell. I've gotta do it diplomatically, but I'm going to say what I think and what I feel."
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