How Elton John and SG Lewis Found Friendship in 'Orbit'

How Elton John and SG Lewis Found Friendship in 'Orbit'

by Bradley Stern

Sir Elton John didn't mean to make an entire album when the world stopped. It just sort of... happened.

Forced to put his final, massive live spectacle on hold as venues shuttered globally in March of 2020 — Farewell Yellow Brick Road, his years-long last lap around the world before officially retiring from touring, set to conclude in 2023 — the enduring "I'm Still Standing" icon didn't need to do much of anything at all once he settled back in at home with his family.

Then again, try telling one of the world's top-selling solo acts of all time — more than 30 studio albums and five decades deep into an unimaginable career — to slow down for long.

Sure enough, thanks to a chance encounter in a restaurant, impromptu studio sessions and new friendships forged through his Apple Music radio show Rocket Hour, the first pieces began taking shape of what would eventually become The Lockdown Sessions: an eclectic, superstar-filled 16-track set of collaborations that sonically subverts the expectations of a traditional Elton John album, out now.

Unlike the bulk of his discography, largely penned solely by lifelong collaborator Bernie Taupin, Elton opted to do things differently this time: as if to combat the loneliness of the past 18 months of isolation, he invited a slew of hit-making songwriters, artists and producers into his orbit, literally, via Zoom calls and COVID-safe studio sessions behind glass screens.

Guests include established icons and promising superstars of the moment alike, from Stevie Nicks to Lil Nas X, as well as one of lockdown's greatest saviors: Sam "SG" Lewis, the Reading-bred producer-songwriter responsible for carving out smashes for the likes of Dua Lipa, Mabel and Jessie Ware, plus his debut Times, an optimistic ode to a future dance floor.

Aside from producing the instant rush of euphoria that is "Orbit," a sparkly, spacey, string-laden bout of seduction that struts its way into the past year's ongoing pop-goes-disco wave, those first sessions between SG Lewis and Elton proved to be the start of something even more substantial: a real friendship and a collaborative relationship set to supply even more incredible dance music together in the very near future.

Elton, you're an unstoppable force in the industry, but last year all of us were forced to stop. I'm curious about your ability to push past the pandemic blues and begin the process of an album.

Elton John: It really started as an accident. I came back from Australia on March 8, 2020 and I was in Los Angeles in a restaurant. Someone introduced me to Charlie Puth, who I hadn't met before, but who I was a fan of. We found out that we lived four doors away from each other. He said, "Well, we can't go anywhere, but if you like, I've got a studio if you want to come and try and write something." So I went up there and wrote something called "After All" with him, which is on the album. I thought it was going to be on his record. I had no intentions at that point of making any music during lockdown whatsoever.

The next day, I was asked to play for Surfaces and sing on that via Zoom, which I'd never done before. I came back to England, and was asked to do Gorillaz, Metallica and Miley Cyrus. I did Olly Alexander and the Pet Shop Boys' "It's a Sin" for the BRITs. Then Glen Campbell and Lil Nas X. I became a session musician again, which I had done 54 years before that. I thought, "Yeah, I have a germ of an album here. Who would I like to work with?" PNAU gave us "Cold Heart" and we got Dua Lipa to do that, which was a great start.

How did you connect with SG Lewis?

I was such a big fan of Sam's for a long time. As an artist, I write songs, but I love electronic and dance music. I'm interested in the way they're put together. I have no idea how they're done. I thought, "Well, I'll ask Sam if he's interested in doing something." He said yes.

So we went into a studio in London called Metropolis with his lovely lady who writes his lyrics [Frances]. She'd written a song. I wrote the song and said to Sam, "Do what you like with it." Basically, it was just like a proper Elton John song. It was really kind of boring in a way. He came back with the song, and I thought, "No, it's not going to work." I said, "Sam, I want it to sound like you, not me. Do what you like with it because I want you on it rather than Elton." He came back with the end product which was "Orbit," the original title. And I just said, "Yes, that's what I want. I want it to sound as if I'm at a club, dancing." He was probably a little intimidated to carve my song up, but I didn't give a shit because I just wanted his sound. What he came up with is exactly what I approached him to do.

The trouble with me is, because I'm not used to writing electronic music... people write little bits of melody. It's a whole different ball game to me. I'm a songwriter, so I'll write the whole fucking song. There's another one on the album called "Always Love You" with Nicki Minaj and Young Thug... they just cut the song up and use the best bits. That's what happened with this song. He did a wonderful job.

When Times came out, I had him on my Rocket Show, because I'm interested in how this lot work. I love people like Disclosure and go back to New Order, Pet Shop Boys, all that kind of stuff. I don't know how to do that kind of stuff. I'm a Luddite. So I asked Sam to see what he could do and he came up trumps.

The song also fits in perfectly with the vibe of some of my favorite projects of the pandemic era. Times, What's Your Pleasure?, Roisin Machine, Chromatica, Future Nostalgia. How did the song come together with Frances?

SG Lewis: Frances is really like a musical sister to me. We've written lots together and we went to university together, so we've known each other a long time. When Elton interviewed me on his show, you can find the clip where he said at the end, "Hey, I'd love to get in the studio." It's pretty clear on my face how incredible that sentence was to me. A lot of my friends sent me the GIF and were laughing. You can see this moment of disbelief. Elton's process is quite famous for how unique it is in terms of his ability to take lyrics and turn them into classic songs, so I knew that I wanted to bring Frances in because, especially on the lyrical side, she's someone that helps me massively.

We'd gotten the studio at Metropolis and I got to witness Elton doing what he does best. It is truly a completely unique thing that comes from what appears to be some level of divine intervention. This song just appears in front of him from these lyrics. I've worked in a lot of studios. I've worked with a lot of people, but it's a process I've never seen anywhere else that is truly incredible to watch.

The fun thing about it, as Elton was saying, was that initially I probably treated the studio demo with too much respect. Elton phoned me and said, "Stop it. You've got to disrespect this. Do exactly what you would do with it if you were doing it for yourself." Once he gave me that green light and that confidence to break the song apart and approach it how I would with my own records, I was able to have a bit of fun with it. I was really grateful that's what he wanted to hear from me, and he allowed me to get creative with it and do what I would do otherwise. Initially I was kind of intimidated, just because I've been such a fan of for such a long time, but to have him validate what I do was just incredible.

Elton, you're known for the career-spanning collaboration with Bernie Taupin, but this album features a plethora of different songwriting credits, including this song.

Elton: Well, I've got the next albums with lyrics from Bernie, but I didn't really want to do a proper Elton album under lockdown. You mentioned Future Nostalgia, Chromatica and What's Your Pleasure? All those got me through lockdown as well, because they're so life-affirming, happy and brilliant.

I've become great friends with Dua. Gaga is godmother to my two children. Now I've got this relationship with Sam. I really want to do more with him because now he knows how I work, so he can move on from there. I think Sam is so talented. He's already quite a big name in what he does, but he's only just touched the surface.

I have the Elton-Bernie thing locked up. I could do that. I love doing it, but I love working with newer artists because I'm learning so much. We got on like a house on fire. There's no ego. It's like, "Sam, just tell me if you don't like it." When you go and work with someone new like that, like when I worked with Olly from Years & Years, it's great. You get the energy from these people. And Sam, we had a laugh. We had a real laugh.

SG: Elton's right. Once we had broken the ice of the initial meeting, we became fast friends. As we got further into the process, we were able to be really honest with each other and be like, "This works, this doesn't work." We spoke on Saturday on the phone and I said we've got to do more, because now that we really know each other. The musical possibilities are endless.

Elton: I can write lots of melodies, but they don't have to be in longform song form. That's what "Orbit" is all about. There's a melody from the verse that I wrote, and then the chorus, and they just go really well together. It's just about cutting my melodies up and choosing the best bits, which I love. I think it's so much fun.

You sing on your own album, Sam. Have you taken anything away from watching Elton recording his vocals?

SG: Absolutely. I think the singing thing is something I've been growing into. I always thought of myself as a producer and then started singing more. Elton sings with such power in his voice. There's such an emotional intensity to his delivery.

When I started, I would sing in a softer falsetto because I was scared of the commitment and putting all of yourself into a song. Watching the way that Elton performs at the piano... it's a live performance when you're in a studio with Elton. I definitely took that away. It taught me that the performance in the studio is as important as the performance on a live stage. That's the thing that you're capturing on a record. You're trying to deliver an emotion that's not just singing the notes right. That's something Elton does.

There's an interview of you in 2019 where you mentioned singing Elton's "Are You Ready for Love" at karaoke. Is that your go-to Elton?

SG: That's so funny. I grew up with Elton's music in the house. My mom had "Are You Ready for Love" on vinyl. We would play it in the house. It really is one of my favorite songs of all time.

We were in Lake Tahoe, a music festival up there, and we had a big group of friends. We'd been skiing all day because it was a snow festival. You'd ski in the day and play music at night. We skied into this tiny little dive bar. When we got there, there was like no one in there. The security guard was doing karaoke, just singing something to himself. We went in with about 15 people and started doing karaoke. By the time me and my manager did "Are You Ready for Love," the whole place had filled with people passing by. It was just a load of strangers having this massive party together, and like the last thing before COVID hit as well. It was New Year's before.

I have lots of amazing memories attached to Elton's music. That one always reminds me of my mother. It's really special to me.

Elton, Rocket Hour features a fabulous array of established superstars and up-and-coming acts. Since you're not necessarily spending your time on social media, I'm wondering about your artist discover process.

Elton: I get Apple to send me all the new releases coming out for the next month or so, and then I go through them with David [Furnish, his husband]. I used to go through them with my producer, Duncan Wallace, who unfortunately passed away — one of the saddest things that happened this year.

We go through those tracks, and I also write things down that weren't on the list. I buy CDs and vinyl every week. It's a mixture: you come up with people like Channel Tres and Teyana Taylor. I played Mabel in 2015 before she had a hit. Once I like somebody, I'll have them as guests on the show. You form friendships with these people. I was the first to play Khalid on my show.

I've said this 'til I'm blue in the face: new songs by young artists are really inspirational, and much moreso than the older songs that I know. All the older artists, I love them so much, but they're already in my head. When you hear something brilliant and danceable like Purple Disco Machine or something, you go "Yeah, I really love that." There's never an end to what you can discover. I try and make a point of interviewing those people.

I've become friends with Rina Sawayama, and Sam and Surfaces. I've become friends with Dua. I've become friends with Lil Nas X and Young Thug... Olly Alexander. You'd probably think I wouldn't become friends with them because of who I am. It's the greatest thing. I went to Paris to do the Global Citizen Concert, and I saw Christine from Christine and the Queens who I played so early on in my show. We've become great friends. I love her so much. It just makes my life so much better. I just had Sam Fender on Rocket Hour. I've been playing his music for so long. We've become great friends. He's a friend of the family. Charlie Puth is now a friend of the family.

One thing I love about Sam is that, at his age, I was just a naughty boy. And he's a naughty boy. I don't even want to go there, but I know he is. I FaceTimed him in Las Vegas the other day. I just know he was up to absolutely no good whatsoever. I went, "Yes, buddy, you go for it."

SG: It was the best. I was in Vegas, probably up to no good and he phoned me. It was the morning. I was by the pool and had quite a big night, and I answered the phone. He was just immediately like, "You're up to trouble, aren't you?" And I was like, "Maybe I am." He just knows.

Since meeting Elton, there's a couple of things to take from it: the first is he has the most insanely impressive knowledge of new music of anyone I know. Whether it's A&Rs, musicians... there's no one I know of who knows more new music than Elton. He's so tapped in and gives so much of a shit about what's going on. You can't fake that. That has to come from an undying passion for music. It's not something you can replicate. He'll call me up and we'll just chat. He'll ask me how everything's going, because he cares. To have Elton not only as a friend, but as a mentor, someone who's been through everything the industry has to throw at you, it's really reassuring to know I can bounce things off him, because he's experienced most of those things.

Elton: I said to Sam, "Right, you're on my album. Now I want to be on your record." I've got plenty of time to go in the studio and do something with him. I'm looking forward to that because I think we can write something great, as well. We know each other, we're comfortable with each other, it'll be much easier the next time around.

SG: Definitely, 100 percent.

Elton, regarding your love for new music, you wrote in your book about collecting things like art and vinyl records. Do you have certain artists' vinyl on display, or is there a rotating roster? In college, my whole wall was Grace Jones.

Elton: I have a whole vinyl room with, I think, I have 15,000 vinyls in there. And then I have a listening room downstairs in a breakfast room where the newer vinyl is from the new releases. I also buy CDs, because in the car I can't play vinyl. I don't stream from a phone. I don't have a phone! I'm so old-fashioned. But I listen to CDs in the car, and I play vinyl at home. David streams. Every Friday is New Music Friday on Spotify, so we just sit there and listen to what's coming out. It's always music on in our house.

Every time I shower, it's always dance music, because that's what makes me happy. During the day I'll listen to other stuff, Brandi Carlile and other beautiful things that come out. But when I'm in the mood to get ready and get up, it's always dance. We were talking about remixing "Orbit" the other day, and he was saying about Dimitri From Paris, and I went, "Fucking great." And then I went, "Do you remember Jack De Marseille?" And he said, "Yes, I do remember Jack." He was fantastic. There are so many great remixes around. Futureheads were great. I loved Futureheads. So...

SG: That's what I mean about Elton's knowledge. I've never brought anything up that Elton hasn't listened to or isn't a fan of. His taste is so eclectic, and his knowledge is so vast. It's really, seriously impressive.

"Once we had broken the ice of the initial meeting, we became fast friends. As we got further into the process, we were able to be really honest with each other." –SG Lewis

It is. Has the art of making music evolved for the better in any way to meet this present moment? Or is it mostly just an added challenge?

Elton: I think it's been very hard for young artists, because they can't go out and play their music. It's beginning to open up a bit now, but in Britain, the young artists can't go to Europe because of Brexit. I'm trying to help with that. There've been great albums coming out. Weather Station came out. Arlo Parks came out. RAY BLK just put an album out. Little Simz just put an album out. There's a group called Yard Act who I just heard yesterday because The Observer did a big article on them, called "Fixer Upper." There's so much good music, I can't play it all on my show. As far as people in lockdown, if they were making music, they were making really good music. Now it's a matter of them getting out and promoting on the road, which is a different matter.

And you're back on the road now, Sam.

SG: Yeah, it's been pretty overwhelming. Those moments of connectivity and euphoria in a crowd, it's what a lot of us live for, especially with dance music. So much of dance is about inclusivity and connectivity. It got to a point where you really started to forget how that felt. You feel this energy from people, this elastic band theory almost, where people have been waiting to release this energy. The shows have felt amazing in that sense.

I wasn't sure whether people would feel hesitant given the virus, and that we'll just be conditioned to be scared to be in those rooms now, but it does seem to be that once people are back together in those environments, their pursuit of that euphoria and celebration almost outweighs the fear.

I'm flying tomorrow to go to LA to play a show there. That's one of the strangest things: playing shows in places you haven't even been able to go to in years due to the virus and seeing that the music has reached there. It's been really cool to see that people have connected with those records.

Elton: I just played a song by a girl called L Devine. She wrote this fabulous song, "I want to die on the dance floor." She said, "I couldn't go out in the last 18 months, and this is about being bummed out that I couldn't. I can't wait to go out." I think people in general, no matter what kind of music, are just hungry for live entertainment, and to let their emotions go. They haven't been able to. Dance is a huge part of that. People haven't been able to go to the club or see their friends and dance every weekend. That's a huge release. Dance is so important to people's lives. It's part of who they are. Where are you playing in LA, Sam?

SG: It's a venue called The Shrine.

Elton: That's where they used to have the Oscars. The Shrine is a beautiful old theater.

SG: Oh my God, I didn't know that.

Elton: And then where do you go from there?

SG: I have a New York show, and then there's a Chicago show and a San Francisco show. Then I'm sort of back and forth a little bit between now and Christmas. There's a few festivals and stuff.

Elton: All right. Well, don't forget to get in touch with me about coming in to write and doing something in London, okay? I really want to do that.

SG: Absolutely. Yeah, me too. I'm desperate to do some more. So that would be absolutely wonderful.

Elton: You can see from the interview how close we've become. That's one of the joyous things of having him on our show, listening to Times, and then asking if he'd do something for the record. It's how relationships in music start. And ours is only just starting. It's just lovely. Safe travels, Sam.

SG: Lots of love, Elton. Speak to you soon.

Elton John photo courtesy of Gregg Kemp
SG Lewis photo courtesy of Harvey Pearson