Your collaboration on The Road To Escondido came relatively late in the day. How well did you know each other by that point?
Not very well. I’d only met him a couple of times, partly out of respect. I didn’t want to intrude. He did a lovely thing. After I’d covered “Cocaine” he covered “Golden Ring”. That was it, I knew then he was aware of me and that he was grateful or whatever you might call it. I thought, ‘That’s fantastic, and maybe that’s all, really, that we need to do.’ Sometimes I’ve met musicians that I admire and it can be a disappointment. You can feel it’s a bit forced, you don’t know what to say, and it can put unnecessary pressure on you. What happened for me was that over time a desire to work with JJ built up, to the point where I thought, ‘Well, you’ve fulfilled a lot of other ambitions with other great musicians, why don’t you just come right out and ask him?’ When he came and did the Crossroads guitar festival in 2004, I said, “I’d really like to make a record with you, I’d like you to produce it – I want to sound like you!” He said, “Yeah, OK.”
It might seem strange to some people that you would have doubts over whether he would want to work with you.
Yeah, I don’t know what that’s about either. I held him in high regard, I think that’s what it was. I was aware that he might say yes out of politeness, and I didn’t want that. I wanted to know that he genuinely wanted to do it, you know. And I think he did.
Did it become a close friendship?
Yes, it was close, it was close. As close as it can be with musicians, I think. He was a very private guy, I’m a very private guy. We’d call one another on the phone occasionally to catch up, and I’d go and see him when I could.
Were you in touch before he died?
I knew he was ill. I would call him and he was shutting down. He was withdrawing. We tried to do something together after Escondido – we did a couple of tracks and he said, “I want to go home now. I’ve had enough, I don’t feel very well.” Checked out of the studio and went back to Escondido, but I stayed in touch with him. I would also get reports from friends we had in common, saying, “Yeah, he’s got this or that going on” – there were a lot of different things he was suffering from that all seemed to be building up. Then I got this great bit of news that he had gone on some kind of health diet, he was trying yoga and his spirits had lifted. Great! So the last time I was in LA at the time all this was happening, which was early spring of last year, I called him and said, “I’m going to be in town, can I come down and see you?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, come on down.” Then when I got to LA he called and said, “You know what? I’ve got to go into hospital for a couple of days to do a biopsy” – which was true – and that was the last time I heard from him.
At what point following his death did you decide to do this record?
I think a couple of days.
Really? That quickly.
I had planned to go to Columbus, where I’ve got a little private studio, and go in there with Simon Climie and just cut tracks with no agenda. I got the news, I woke up to find a text on my phone, and I got on a flight a little earlier than I had planned and flew to LA, and on the way there I thought, well, I have to do something. I can’t let this thing just go off into the quiet distance, I want to make some statement for myself, about the effect he had on my life, not just with his music but the kind of guy he was. I started planning it. By the time I got to LA to go to his funeral – which was a great privilege – I had the album cover, and all the songs I thought I should do. I made a list on the plane and it was quite long, about 30 songs, and we just started a little process of elimination.
The album is billed as “Eric Clapton & Friends” and features contributions from, among others, Mark Knopfler, Willie Nelson and Tom Petty. How did you round them all up?
I was just going to do it on my own, but then I met someone at the funeral called Don White. There were very few people there: Jim Keltner was there, and [Cale’s wife] Christine, and this guy Don White. He said, “You wouldn’t know about me, but I gave John his first job as a guitar player.” So I thought, ‘I can’t do this on my own, I have to let people like this into the project.’ He was the first person I asked and it just gathered momentum from there. I talked to Christine and to [Cale’s agent] Mike Kappus about the people they would nominate. We started with Tom [Petty]. He had really been instrumental in their lives for a few years, hanging out, and he made it really clear to Mike that he wanted to do something. Then I heard that John Mayer was on YouTube doing “Call Me The Breeze”, and so we asked him. We had made tracks in Columbus on the computer with me playing guitar and singing guide vocals, and we took it to LA and then put live musicians on. Then afterwards we thought about Willie [Nelson] and so Simon went to Nashville and recorded Willie on site. We got Reggie Young to play, Derek Trucks to play, Albert Lee – anybody that I thought of who had a feeling for JJ. Then when we came back to England I thought, ‘Well, there’s one person we have to ask, we’ll need to go to his studio.’ We went to British Grove, where Mark Knopfler has his place, and I asked him to sing two songs, and that was it. I thought, ‘We’ve got it now.’