Living legend Billy Joel talks about the staying power of his music, the alchemy and process of songwriting, the origins of his aesthetic, Beethoven and the Beatles, and what he’s trying to learn now.
By Ben Finane
Steinway Artist Billy Joel has sold more than 150 million records and is among the most popular singer-songwriters in the world. Joel, despite his myriad influences, now listens mainly to classical music. He hasn’t released an album since 2001, but he continues to compose at the piano. Ben Finane, our Editor in Chief, interviewed Joel in July on the eve of his hundredth sold-out show at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, where he has performed monthly since January 2014.
Downstairs [at the press conference] you said it was “a peak of your life” to have this hundredth show. Can you put it in perspective for me, the capstone of one hundred shows at Madison Square Garden?
I can’t even get my head around it still. I think it’s going to take a little time after I’ve done it to fully appreciate what it means. I’m just looking at doing the show today. It’s a show day. I gotta rehearse. I gotta sound-check. I’m going to make sure everything is running the way it should. Then afterwards, I’ll probably be able to get my hands around it.
As a hit maker, as a platinum songwriter, you’re in Lennon–McCartney territory right now. You’re in Sting territory. Could you talk a bit about what you see is the staying power of your music?
[Pauses.] I’ve never really been able to figure that out. I always wrote the songs I wrote for me. I wasn’t thinking about an audience. I wasn’t thinking about record sales. I wasn’t thinking about radio play. I was thinking about what I want to hear — and maybe I’m fortunate that other people wanted to hear the same stuff I did, but that’s really who I was writing for: I was writing for my own enjoyment. I wanted to hear what I wrote. I don’t know how that translates into the kind of success that I’ve had. I’ve never been able to figure that out, but I don’t know if I want to, either.
Something magical about the alchemy.
There’s an alchemy, there’s a sorcery, there’s a wizardry to it that musicians do. I think once you dissect it or postmortem it, you can kill it.
Tell me a bit about your aesthetic and what this alchemy comes from. There’s doo-wop, the Beatles, rock ‘n’ roll, and I know you’re a Beethoven guy! What else is it that all goes into that aesthetic for you?
I fell in love with music at an early age. My father was a pianist. He was German. He had taken piano lessons and we had a piano in the house, an old upright that wasn’t very good, but my father could make it sound good because of the way he played. My mom was always bringing home records in the library: Broadway shows, classical music, opera, Harry Belafonte records. And we always played the radio in my house. Fortunately, in New York, you got such a wide spectrum of different kinds of music listening to the radio — so I was exposed to it at an early age and fell in love with it. I started taking piano lessons at an early age. My mom brought me to a teacher who lived down the street, and I was fascinated with classical music for the first sixteen years of my life. I always refer to it as the sweet girl next door. Then, when I was a teenager, this rock ‘n’ roll girl came along, with fishnet stockings and smeared lipstick, smoking cigarettes — and she dragged me away from the girl next door, and we had a passionate affair for a good forty years. Now, I’ve rediscovered the girl next door. She looks really good these days. So I listen mostly to classical music now.
‘I gave Beethoven credit. I didn’t give him any money, but I gave him a credit on the album.’
Is Beethoven that girl next door for you, if you have to pick a classical guy?
I would refer to Beethoven as God.
Why is Beethoven God?
Because everything he wrote was exactly right. I can’t name all of Mozart’s forty symphonies, maybe name a couple of them, but I can tell you pretty much everything about the nine Beethoven symphonies. His quartets, his concertos, his sonatas, all of it is just… it’s perfect. He always wrote exactly the right note. Now, how do you do that? I’ve gotten copies of his original manuscripts, and I saw that in a lot of those manuscripts, he gouges out huge passages of music. He’s [saying], “No, no, I don’t like that. I hate that. I don’t want anybody to see that.” You could tell he was writing in fits and starts —
The opposite of Mozart.
The opposite of Mozart, who was... Mozart was like a talented athlete: born to it, every stride was just graceful and beautiful. But Beethoven was very human — and I hear that in his music, and that’s why I worship him.
When you write, you write music first, and lyrics come later as a songwriter. Do you write at the Steinway?
Could you tell me about that process? Do you sit down with a theme or a motive — or is there a grand scheme? How does it work?
Some days, I’ll wake up in the morning with a theme in my head or a melody or a chord progression or something rhythmic, and I’ll sit down at the piano and try to work out what that was that was in my head. Some days, I just sit at the piano and say, “Okay, let’s see what happens,” allowing the music to move me. I’m not thinking about words; I’m not thinking about the subject matter of the song. I’m waiting for the music to move me to want to finish a piece, to complete a piece. I still don’t even read music to this day. I should. I should’ve stayed with that part of my lessons because it’s a great tool to have in the toolbox, but I’m writing, I guess, as a naive artist. I sit at the piano and do it.
Sometimes do those ideas take a while to develop? Do you come back to them? Is there a catalog of half-finished or in-progress—
Yeah, there are a lot of fragments floating around. Sometimes, I’ll get an idea and I’ll need to get to a piano immediately. There’s a waltz on the instrumental album I did called Fantasies & Delusions [Sony Classical/Columbia]. The waltz is called “Steinway Hall.” This was in the old Steinway showroom on 57th Street in Manhattan. I was walking around in town and I said, “I got this idea. I got to get to a piano! I got to write it right now!” I went to Steinway Hall. I asked the people there: “Can I get to a piano? Can I play a piano right now?” “Okay, Mr. Joel,” and they brought me in the back, and I was able to write this thing pretty much in one sitting by being able to play the Steinway. So I named the waltz “Steinway Hall.”
What was your first encounter with a Steinway?
The piano teacher that my mom took me to had a Steinway. It was a Steinway B, the Model B grand — and it was so much better than the piano that we had in our house. I used to love to go to her house to play her piano, not because I liked taking lessons [laughs], because I just loved the sound of the piano that she had. It was set up in a studio and the acoustics were fairly ambient and that piano… I used to try to get her to… “Can we lift the lid up on the piano?” Because I wanted it louder. Sometimes she would and sometimes she wouldn’t, but that was my first exposure to a Steinway. I was about five years old.
Does the Steinway contribute to what you do? Does it help you do what you do?
Steinways, they’re such well-built instruments, that even if you’re not coming up with the original stuff that you want to, you tend to linger at the piano and spend more time working on it because it sounds so good. Now, almost every piano is different. Every Steinway that I’ve ever played is different, but they’re all good in different ways. Some of them have more top end. Some of them have a deeper bass. Some of them are more fluid to play. Some of them are more staccato. But they’re all good in different ways. I just know that when I’m playing a Steinway, I’m always going to enjoy what’s coming out of that thing — and I’m not a really good piano player. I’m no Ashkenazy or Horowitz or Lang Lang. Lang Lang came to my house recently.
‘I’m still writing music to this day. I haven’t done any recordings for a while because I’m kind of learning.’
What did he play?
He played the Steinway that’s in my house and he pronounced it “a very good piano,” so Lang Lang gave it the seal of approval. You’re always going to get a good sound out of a Steinway. It’s something to do with the handcrafting that goes into it — like a Matisse or a Bugatti. It’s one of a kind, but you know it’s going to be good.
Just as Dylan started as a folk singer and then exploded the boundaries of folk into rock, is it fair to say that that’s what you did as a lounge pianist, as a cabaret pianist? That you took that material and then became too big for those borders?
I wanted to get the hell out of the piano bar. I never wanted to stay there for too long. I think I brought a lot of my classical aesthetic into writing rock ‘n’ roll and pop music.
How does that manifest itself, your classical aesthetic, in your pop writing?
If I had a piano, I could give you an example of it. But you take a song like “Uptown Girl.” If you play the melody in the right hand, and you add an Alberti bass in the left hand: “Dah-dah dah-dah, dah-dah dah-dah, dah-dah dah-dah.” And imagine the right hand: “Dut-dut-daaaah, dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah di-di-daaah, pa-ra-pap….” It’s like a classical piece. The same with a piece like “The Longest Time”: “Di-da-da-ra, ra-ra, ra-ra….” It’s Mozartean. There are some pieces I stole from Beethoven. Which song is it? A song called “This Night.” I actually gave Beethoven credit. I didn’t give him any money, but I gave him a credit on the album. People say, “Oh, he stole it from Beethoven.” No, I didn’t steal it. I gave him credit, just didn’t pay him. But there’s a piece called “This Night,” which I lifted from the “Pathétique” [Sonata]. There’s a lot of that stuff in my music. I have a classical sensibility of chords and melody and dynamic. Because a lot of times in rock music, there’s one level of volume — and it never changes, and the chords don’t change. I find myself sometimes yelling at a band, “Change chords, will you?” Some people are very happy to just latch on to one chord. I like dynamics. I like differences and I like changes. I like variations — and you learn all that in classical music, how to develop.
Beyond the classical, we hear a lot of Beatles and Beatlesesque moves and harmonies in your music. As a singer-songwriter, how did they influence you and change the game for you?
When I first heard the Beatles, I was absolutely knocked out. They wrote their own songs. They played their own instruments. They weren’t a product of Hollywood. They were four working-class guys from Liverpool making their own music their own way — and this was a new thing. I was in love with the Beatles. I still think they’re the best band there ever was. They weren’t the greatest singers. They weren’t the greatest players. But it just worked. The combination of these people was perfect as an ensemble — and I don’t think there has been a band like that since.
Musically, are there things still left that you want to do and try and figure out?
Oh, yeah! I’m still writing music to this day. I haven’t done any recordings for a while because I’m kind of learning. It’s a learning curve right now — and I don’t know when or if I’ll record again.
What are you learning? What are you working on?
I’m playing and writing instrumental music — and I want to make it work to where I’m satisfied about it. The one instrumental album I put out, it did very well for a classical album. I think it was number one. I think we knocked Yo-Yo Ma out of number one… I’m sorry, Yo-Yo Ma!
I think I can be better — and so I’m continuing to try to rise above.
Is there a challenge to try to find a new level of creativity for songs that have become so familiar and to find a new way in? How do you do that? How do you keep it fresh?
We’re always trying to change the show, no matter what. Every night, we want to do something different than we did the month before, but you can’t always be completely unique every night. You’ve really got to work, come up with something new all the time. The songs that we do, I’ve enjoyed recording them and I thought they were pretty good when I wrote them. I don’t feel the need to have to change them too much. I pretty much stay true to the original recordings when we’re doing them now. Sometimes, I’ve had to drop the keys because my voice has changed.
We all become baritones in the end.
I’m a baritone now.