From the Archive: Eric Clapton Discusses Songwriting and the 'Pilgrim' Album
From 1998: Eric Clapton discusses how there's more to salvation than a heavenly guitar solo.
You're right, because it sounds so righteous!
That's the point. As long as it sounds righteous.
Do you ever fear that you've crossed the line between homage and plagiarism?
I think it comes down to motive. I think if my motives -- to put it simply -- are good, then I would use that as a license to go ahead. If my motive is to say "thank you" to Curtis -- which it was -- I believe that's good. But if my motive was, "Well, he just had a hit with that sound, now maybe if I imitate him, I'll have a hit, too," that needs some examining.
Given your history as a blues scholar, part of you must really enjoy being a student.
It's definitely in my nature.
Then you've certainly been true to your nature, playing r&b over the last few years. Besides studying the music of Curtis Mayfield, you've worked with Babyface and Tony Rich, both of whom are in the forefront of modern r&b. It sounds like you actually took time out to learn something new, something that is rare for established artists.
You're absolutely right. Between recording and touring, From the Cradle was a three-year project. All I did during that period was play and explore various forms of the blues. And when I stopped, I looked around and discovered that the world had changed at an astonishing rate. I couldn't make sense of anything. I hadn't been listening to the radio, and I had only really been stocking up what I needed to keep this blues thing up in the air.
The only thing I could latch onto was contemporary r&b, because it has its roots in blues. It became a safe place for me, hanging on with one hand and poking other things with the other. I became particularly attracted to all the different forms of dance, which still is the dominant music in England at the moment. And I had to do a lot of learning. I also made a lot of choices in the process. It was all about that difficult process of putting your finger on a stove and getting it burned -- trying things out.
Was it particularly hard for someone as visible as yourself to do?
It's certainly hard to do in secret. It's impossible to do. For example, as an experiment, Simon and I tried to record an album of electronic dance music anonymously, under the name TDF. We felt we had a license to explore because we were going to make music for a fashion show. And even though we were simply trying to stretch, we hit a stone wall. I was roundly criticized in England for sticking my nose in where it didn't belong -- experimenting with things like drum and bass. And so I had to back off a lot of that stuff.
Given your history, it's hard to imagine that you would even stick your toe into that world, much less your heart and soul. What attracted you to electronica?
Some of the sounds, just some of the sounds. And I have to overcome my prejudices all the time. Don 't forget, I'm 53 years old, and this stuff is very threatening to me as a musician. It's a bit like I'm one of the old lions, and here come the young guys -- it's almost like they would like it if I didn't understand. They would prefer me not to understand because then I'm nothing to worry about. But the thing is, because I've had such a weird and varied experience with music, I can understand and I can enjoy it.
I remember going into a club in Japan to see a specific drum and bass DJ. An English guy who'd had a few drinks came up to me and said, "What are you doing here?" As if to say, "You're not supposed to like this. It's not really cool for you to like this." But the thing is, I do. And if I hear something I like, my thing is, I want to do it. And I don't understand this divisionist way of thinking: "This is our music, that's your music. You stay where you belong and we'll just stay here." For me, cross-pollination has always been the lifeblood of music. And that's what we were trying to do with that TDF thing. Some people liked it, I liked it. And you know, most importantly, it was the launching pad for this album, because I got to be friendly with using loops and sequences. Actually, I don't know how to program a sequencer, but I got to the point where I wasn't threatened by music technology, which I think is a good thing.
Did you use drum loops to help you write some of the songs on this album?
Yeah. It was random. We usually turned to technology when we ran out of things to do and needed a place to start. We would say something like, "Uh, well, um, have you heard the new Usher single?'' And from there we'd just copy the drum program, dicker with it, and play along with it. That's how the song "Pilgrim" was born. We came up with a drum program that was derived from a hit -- I can't remember which one -- we changed it a little, and then I wrote the words. "Needs His Woman," which is a song that I've had for about 10 years, was also built-up and developed in this way.
While this album represents a departure for you on many levels, you still managed to include one traditional blues song, "Going Down Slow," by St. Louis Jimmy. Just who is this St. Louis Jimmy?
I don't know much about him. I've never seen any photographs of him, I don't even know what else he's written. I've asked B.B. King and Jimmie Rogers about him, and though both knew him, they were sketchy with the detaiIs.
In any case, we recorded "Going Down Slow" primarily because I just wanted to include a blues, and that one has always been on my mind.
No doubt you've noticed that many important bluesmen, including Luther Allison, Jimmie Rogers and Junior Wells, have died over the past year. What do you think this means for the future of the music?
As long as we have their recorded work, I believe the blues is safe. For example, it could've been possible for me not to have any more experience of the blues than listening to albums by Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. And even though I've been fortunate enough to have known many of the great bluesmen, I secured a faith in the blues even before I knew them personally through records.
On the other hand, in terms of players coming along from that kind of experience, it's probably the end of the road. There was something about the nature of the way these guys played and the simplicity in their approach that could only have come from a very simple way of life -- a way of life that is gone.
Robert Johnson, for example, would 've seen another musician only every now and then, let alone heard one, so his experience was so vastly different from that of musicians today. And the music must have been profoundly affected by that.
You first heard Robert Johnson when you were very young, and it changed your life. Why do you think you connected so heavily to what was, essentially, an alien, remote music.
I think it has something to do with my not having a father. I sought my father in the world of the black musician, because it contained wisdom, experience, sadness and loneliness. I was not ever interested in the music of boys . From my youngest years, I was interested in the music of men.
And the remote element?
That would add to the appeal, wouldn't it?
Paul Simon was asked recently to name one of his contemporaries who still moved him, and he replied, "How about Eric Clapton?" He went on to cite your performance on MTV Unplugged, and how you used that outlet both to explore your musical past and find a direction for your future. Do you agree with that assessment?
When I was first putting that set together, I don't think I had any idea where it would lead me, but I think it's fairly accurate to say that I saw it as a massive opportunity to set the record straight about who I was and where I'd come from. I felt it was essential that people stop thinking about me as this one-dimensional character who should always just seriously consider getting a hold of Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker and putting Cream back together again.
I always felt that people were saying to me, "Stop fucking about, man! Plug into your Marshall 100-watt and let's get the show on the road. " And I went, "No deal. That's not what I'm about. I started my career playing an acoustic guitar in a pub by myself, and this is how simple it can be, and this is how enjoyable it is on that level." That's what Unplugged was about for me.
And it was funny because I had my band with me, and a lot of the time I had to think of things for them to do. I could have happily just as well done it on my own. And that was important to me to state, not just for the audience at large, but for myself as well.
That you were what? Not a guitar hero, but a songwriter?
Or a journeyman. Just someone who really prefers the whole rather than one element. I think I wanted to bring people back from labeling me or trying to pigeonhole me, or getting it wrong. Just simply getting it wrong.
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