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From the Archive: Eric Clapton Discusses Songwriting and the 'Pilgrim' Album

From the Archive: Eric Clapton Discusses Songwriting and the 'Pilgrim' Album

Here's an interview with Eric Clapton from the May 1998 issue of Guitar World. To see the cover of the issue, and all the GW covers from 1998, click here.

It was in the early 1960s that Eric Clapton first grabbed people with the scream in his sound. People called it the "woman tone," but that was no woman -- that was his life. On songs like "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "Crossroads," he used his guitar to give voice to the emotions he couldn't, or wouldn't, vent as a singer or songwriter.

The young Englishman who so understood the "low-down shakin' chill" of the blues described by his hero, Robert Johnson, did his chill in' with his blazing solos, his intense vibrato, his piercing bends.

More than 30 years have passed since Clapton's passionate guitar first inspired devotees to proclaim that he was God. As the world inches ever closer to the Millennium, it is reasonable to ask, "Where is God now?" The answer is that he has just released Pilgrim (Reprise), his first full album of new material in more than eight years.

More notable is the fact that the record contains mostly original material -- 12 of the disc's 14 tunes were written or co-written by Clapton -- something that says much about his development as an artist. For even in his heyday, he preferred filling his albums with cover songs because, as he says today, he was unwilling to reveal himself beyond what could be determined from the music and his guitar playing.

Not anymore. Compared to much of Clapton's past work, Pilgrim is practically a Book of Revelations. Not in any sort of lurid, tabloid sense, but in the sustained openness that characterizes every song on the album. He stands up to some powerful ghosts on Pilgrim and, unlike in the past, does not rely on his guitar playing alone to do the dirty work. There is plenty of memorable guitar playing, of course -- everything from scorching blues to smooth r&b to melodic slide to delicate acoustic fingerpicking. Also present, however, are some fairly out-of-character elements, like the straightforward, sometimes harrowing lyrics.

Even more surprising are the vocals. Anyone who's ever heard "Layla" knows Clapton is capable of intense, even hysterical singing. But there is something different about Pilgrim. On the new album, he rises to the challenge posed by his uncommonly revealing lyrics by taking some uncommon risks vocally. From the raucous bluesy shouting of "Sick and Tired" to the technically demanding ornamentation of "Broken Hearted," he sings with the same controlled abandon once associated only with his guitar playing.

The openness which so characterizes Pilgrim was foreshadowed by Clapton 's 1992 triumph, "Tears in Heaven," which he wrote after the tragic accidental death of his four year-old son, Conor. Without being maudlin, he succeeds in expressing his love for the child and pain at his loss-and with no electric guitar solo. He repeats his feat on Pilgrim with another song about Conor, the acoustic guitar-driven "Circus," which manages to be moving without sounding at all like "Tears in Heaven, Part II."

Clapton addresses another painful topic on the album. He never knew his father, who abandoned him and his teenage mother before he was even born. On "My Father's Eyes," he pulls off a play on words that enables him to unite, as it were, himself, his father and his son -- all in the same song. The clever, sensitive lyrics, combined with a very strong vocal, do fitting justice to subject matter that would daunt most singers.

"’My Father's Eyes' is very personal," says Clapton. " I realized that the closest I ever came to looking in my father's eyes was when I looked into my son's eyes."

The guitar hero par excellence, Clapton has always paid explicit tribute to his own heroes, whether by quoting an Albert King solo verbatim in "Strange Brew," referring to Robert Johnson's " Love in Vain" in "Layla," or recording a number of songs by Bob Dylan. He remains in the homage business still, as Pilgrim strongly indicates. Besides covering Dylan's " Born in Time, " Clapton honors Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan on the upbeat shuffle "Sick and Tired" and Curtis Mayfield, whose falsetto voice and guitar style he emulates on "Pilgrim" and "You Were Gone."

There is a certain irony that an album so filled with echoes of musicians who've influenced Clapton in the past should be so technically and musically rooted in the present. For this is one hip Pilgrim. The arrangements are very modern, as old-time Clapton fans will no doubt immediately perceive.

Inspired by the high-tech sounds coming out of the British electronica movement and contemporary American r&b, Clapton and co-producer Simon Climie used drum machines, sequencers and funky sample loops with abandon. Just as he woodshedded the blues until his fingers were raw back when he was a guitar god in training, Clapton immersed himself in this music for the last three years, working with r&b kingpins Babyface and Tony Rich. Last year, the guitarist and Climie, under the name TDF, released the electronica album Retail Therapy (Reprise). While the record was no barnburner, saleswise, it served as an excellent proving ground for his latest venture.

It is true that Pilgrim is not bursting at the seams with classic Eric Clapton woman-toned, Albert and Freddie King-fueled flights of Stratocaster or Les PauI fancy. But there's plenty of guitar, nonetheless -- full-fledged screaming moments in "One Chance," blues heroics in "Sick and Tired" and even a beautiful, Curtis Mayfield-like cascading solo on "Pilgrim." Most of all, though, in keeping with the album's strongly integrated aesthetic, the guitar is primarily an important function of the whole. Elements like the lyrical, muted solo in "River of Tears," the melodic intra riff in "Broken Hearted" and the running commentary provided throughout the record by various slide guitars may not provide the orgasmic satisfaction of "Little Wing" or "Crossroads," but they're not supposed to. This is a family album, and the guitar is an important, albeit not dominant, member of that family.

"It's all about perspective and proportion," says Clapton. "I felt going in that the guitar should never be allowed to overshadow what the song was about."

GUITAR WORLD: Your new album is called Pilgrim. What significance does that word hold for you?

ERIC CLAPTON: I think everybody has their own way of looking at their lives as some kind of pilgrimage. Some people will see their role as a pilgrim in terms of setting up a fine family, or establishing a business inheritance. Everyone's got their own definition. Mine, I suppose, is to know myself. That's probably as close as I can get to it -- my goal is to really come to identify who I am to myself.


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