UNCUT: Is that primarily how you see yourself, as an interpreter?
ERIC CLAPTON: Being a writer is a full-time occupation. It requires a lot of discipline and it has to be the first thing in your list of priorities – you go into a room and you have to come out at the end of the day with something. Well, I write so sporadically and sometimes nothing at all for year after year – but I’ve got to play. So what do I play? I improvise on a blues framework. I sit down and play a 12-bar blues every day or every other day, and then if something becomes apparent that’s not a cliché – ’cos, you know, I’m the master of the cliché – I think, ‘That might be useful,’ and I’ll put it on my phone and try to develop it. But it often doesn’t get past the first stage. I’ve got dozens of voice memos that are never going to make it to the studio. So yes, I’m a messenger for the blues – still, I guess. If you look at any playlist on my iPod it’s interlaced with Leroy Carr, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Son House. It’s all like that, next to Nina Simone, next to Ray Charles, next to Rachmaninov or whatever it might be.
Are you actively interested in hearing new music?
Oh yeah. I watch Jools Holland a lot. I can’t just do the radio, because it’s all production, but the thing about Jool’s show is that you see people interpreting their stuff, on the floor, live. I saw this guy the other night, Nick Mulvey, and I immediately bought the album. But the LP – as good as it is – is produced, whereas on the show he’s just there playing with an acoustic, and I really loved that. I do keep my ear to the ground, but I don’t think it’s urgent. Most of the good stuff is still out there back in the past, and there’s a lot still for me to discover.
Old Sock and The Breeze are both covers albums. Neil Young has just released his covers album, and it looks like Bob Dylan is teeing up an old crooners record…
Is he? Oh, great…
…do you think it’s inevitable that artists look back to their formative influences more frequently as they get older, and perhaps have less that they want to say?
They’ve probably got tons to say, but I think we all know that we have a shelf life. I’ve started doing it, with “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” and “Autumn Leaves” and all those things. These songs are deeply ingrained in my head, and I always think, ‘Well, my version will be a blues version’, because I don’t really know how to play it. I don’t want a glossy version of these standards. I would love to have heard Robert Johnson sing “Blue Moon”, do you know what I mean? So my interpretation will always be an ignorant blues version, and I love that. When I heard one of Bob’s albums a few albums back I knew he was copping an old song. It was an old Bing Crosby song that he’d rewritten, but the chord pattern was identical! I thought, ‘I know where you’re going. You’re going back.’ That’s where a lot of it is – keep going back. Go back, go back, go back. Even as far as Purcell and Handel and Vivaldi, there’s stuff back there that’s so inspiring to rewrite and do versions of. Then again, I probably took on that messenger thing somehow to avoid being judged on my own merits. [Laughs heartily] “Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger! Don’t judge me, listen to what I’m trying to copy!” It’s deflecting, you see.
That seems perhaps overly humble.
I don’t know if it’s humility. It may be avoidance tactics.
Avoidance of what?
Of having to work too hard. But, I don’t know, it’s an illusion to a certain extent to think that covering a song is going to be the easy way out. When you actually get down to it, you’ve still got to learn that song. I tried to do a version of “That Lucky Old Sun” – great song. I thought, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ That’s always my foregone conclusion: ‘Oh, I can do that. I’ll just do it a bit like Ray Charles, but on the guitar.’ But then you get on the floor, with a piano player who knows how to play it. Then I’ve got to learn those chords, and they don’t sound right, and actually a whole other set of challenges come out that you hadn’t thought about having to deal with. Like being able to sing the words like they mean something to you. So I have to then go inside the song and figure out a way to interpret it in a way that doesn’t sound fake and just like any other old cover. Interpreting a song can be harder than writing one, is what I’m saying. To a certain extent I’m writing it off and saying, ‘Well, that’s the easy way out,’ and I often think it is, but it can be tougher to make an old song come to life.