Sir Elton John is a big fan of Whitney, the Smith Westerns offshoot that released their debut album Light Upon The Lake back in June. After a friend recommended it to him, John says he “just fell in love with the music. I went on the website and I saw the video for ‘No Woman.’ It was fantastic. I thought it was so wistful and so plaintive and no one else sounded like that.”
And so, of course, The New York Times has facilitated a conversation between John and Whitney’s Julien Ehrlich, in which they interview each other and talk about their favorite music. First, they find common ground in their live performance styles:
John: Well the thing is, I love making records, but the greatest thing for me is to play in front of an audience. When you have a really good night on stage, nothing else beats that feeling — that contact between people in the audience and yourself. That’s why I still work as hard as I do, because I’ve never lost that love of it.
Ehrlich: We try to smile on stage, because not a lot of 2016 indie bands necessarily go for that vibe. A lot of people try to be goth or something. They’re too cool. I think that’s something that you do so well, it’s just whatever feeling that you’re experiencing at the time. I feel like you like express it on stage and we aren’t really afraid to do that as well.
John: I’m not one of those artists that really feels a lot of pain on stage. I find joy. That’s what I get about you. That’s why I was attracted to your band, plus the fact that I think Max is absolutely gorgeous — but please don’t tell him that.
Then they get into more personal territory:
Ehrlich: When did you start feeling like you wanted to start a family?
John: You mean have children? I’ve been with David for 23 years, and we had a civil partnership and then we got married. We discussed having children, and I always said, “I’m so set in my ways. I am a working musician; I’m pretty much playing nonstop.”
Then one day we went to Donetsk in the Ukraine. We went to an orphanage and this little boy followed me around. I picked him up and he was so beautiful and so, so touching. He just clung to me. I did a press conference and the last question was, “Would you ever think of adopting a child?” And I said, “Well, little Lev, who had been following me around, I would love to adopt him.” Of course that went viral. That went round the world in a nanosecond.
We did try to adopt him, but the laws in the Ukraine are so draconian. It’s an ex-communist country and I was a gay man, David was gay. So that meant we couldn’t adopt him. After a year and a half of trying, it looked like the person that wasn’t getting thought of was the child. It became a drama about David and I trying to adopt a baby. I said, “We have to get this boy out of the orphanage.” We got him out, and his half brother, to his grandmother. David said, “Well, what do you think about children?” And I said, “This little boy was telling me something. I would say it’s kismet. He was saying, ‘You can be a father. This is a challenge that you’ve never faced, and you should face it.’”
We decided to go the surrogacy route and have children of our own. The dominoes fell very quickly. We had Zachary 6 years ago in December and then Elijah 4 years ago in January. It was only through fate, really. This little boy, if we hadn’t have met him, we’d never have had children. You’ll look back on your life and you see a lot of things come into your life through fate. You can’t plan the future — the future plans itself.
And finally, they conclude by recommending some music to each other:
Ehrlich: Can I ask, what’s your favorite record of 2016?
John: My favorite records of this year are your album —
Ehrlich: Thank you.
John: — Parker Millsap, who’s from Oklahoma. Sarah Jarosz. Nao — she’s fabulous. Jason Isbell came out last year, so that doesn’t count. I love the Sturgill Simpson record. The Lemon Twigs, I’m crazy about that. They crack me up. Have you seen them at all?
Ehrlich: I’m actually decently good friends with them, yeah. They opened for us a couple of months ago.
John: Then this girl in England called Rosie Lowe, who I love, and then another girl called Laura Mvula who’s made a record in England that is amazing. I love Christine and the Queens.
Ehrlich: Have you gotten into Blonde, the new Frank Ocean record?
John: Yeah, I like that a lot, too. Is that your favorite record of the year?
Ehrlich: It definitely is at this point. It will always induce tears.
John: Isn’t that great, when something can do that to you? I love sad music. When I was doing a lot of drugs, I would hate what I was doing. I would be on my own doing coke and just hating myself. Then I’d be listening to Kate Bush and it would make me cry. Peter Gabriel would make me cry. I knew that one day I would get well, but if I hadn’t had the music with me during that period I would probably not be here. I would listen to Nico — she was the most depressing person to listen to with the most wonderful voice. I would listen to her and I’d think, “I’ll get well one day, I’ll get well one day.” That’s what music does to you.
Ehrlich: Can I point you toward a beautiful voice, actually? Her name is Weyes Blood. She has this song called “Generation Why” that you should listen to. I listened to it like six times today.