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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Billy Joel said he’d retired from pop. Here’s what brought him back.

Billy Joel, backstage at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he’s played a monthly residency since 2014, on January 11, 2024. Joel debuted “Turn the Lights Back On,” his first new song in nearly 20 years, at the Grammy Awards. “What are the critics going to say? Are people going to like it? I don’t have any of that now. I just sang a song. That’s it. If they like it, great. If they don’t, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t good.” (Thea Traff/The New York Times)

By Caryn Ganz

Billy Joel’s first new pop song in nearly two decades was sparked by someone miles from the record business: a Long Island doctor.

Joel, 74, has long made it known that he isn’t interested in making more albums. He released 12 studio LPs between 1971 and 1993 — most platinum several times over — and retired from the format, though he never stopped tinkering with classical music or playing live.

But new songs? “I have this fear of writing something that’s not good,” he said in an interview last month at his estate in Oyster Bay, New York. “I have a very high bar for myself. And the work to get there is intimidating. I don’t want to go through it anymore.”

Joel’s influence as a songwriter has endured, drawing in new generations. (“He is everything,” Olivia Rodrigo, 20, who referenced him in her song “Deja Vu,” said last summer.) Over the years, the list of people who’d tried to cajole him back into writing and recording grew legion: Clive Davis, Rick Rubin, Elton John. Yet when Joel’s family doctor urged him to meet “a kid” interested in discussing music near his place out east in Sag Harbor, he agreed to a lunch.

The eager man across the table two years ago was Freddy Wexler, 37, a Los Angeles songwriter and producer who grew up in New York and sure knew a lot about Joel. He’d been trying to track down his idol via industry channels with little luck, but his wife — secretly devoted to keeping this dream alive — found an improbable connection.

Joel ordered clams on the half-shell and a BLT to go, Wexler recalled, so he knew he had to move fast: “I said, ‘I don’t believe that you can’t write songs anymore or that you won’t write songs anymore.’ And he said something like, ‘OK, believe whatever you want.’”

Wexler pivoted, asking if Joel had any unfinished ideas from the ’70s or ’80s. Joel was intrigued enough to meet again to hear some of Wexler’s music; convinced he was the real deal, he later sent over a CD. The younger musician was briefly stymied: “I didn’t have a CD player, so that was a thing.”

The two went back and forth working on the material, growing close in the process, and Wexler eventually revealed he had a song he’d started with a few friends that he wanted Joel to hear: “Turn the Lights Back On,” a slow-building track in a waltzing 6/8 meter with a reflective narrator hoping to save a flagging romance. (One of Joel’s most famous songs — the one that provided his nickname, the Piano Man — is also in that atypical pop time signature.)

To Wexler’s relief, Joel approved of the music. When he finally roped his hero into a recording session and persuaded him to take the mic, Wexler excitedly burst through the studio doors and asked how it felt. “Like singing, I guess,” Joel told him.

Joel, direct and low-key, sat at a long table in his gatehouse overlooking Oyster Bay Harbor and took occasional puffs of a fruity vape (a replacement for cigars). Listening back to that first

take, he explained, he’d actually had a very significant reaction: “I don’t hate it.”

“I don’t know what that meant to him, ’cause it must have been very underwhelming,” Joel said. “When I say I don’t hate it, that’s a big deal.”

Although nearly 20,000 people have packed Madison Square Garden monthly (minus the height of the pandemic) since 2014 to hear Joel croon his catalog at his Manhattan residency, “I don’t think of myself as a singer,” he said plainly. “I’m a piano player.

“I don’t like my own voice. So I usually come back and listen to a recording with my voice on it, and I’m always disappointed that I’m singing it,” he explained. “I’m always trying to sound like somebody else.”

In a twist of fate, that admission was probably crucial to bringing “Turn the Lights Back On” to life. During the pair’s first meeting, Wexler posed a question about Joel’s process: “I said to him, ‘Have you ever imagined you’re someone else when you’re writing?’ And he kind of looked at me and goes, ‘I’ve always done that.’”

When Joel was younger, he would step to the microphone picturing Ray Charles, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding. “If you think you’re not you, you’re somebody else that can pull this off,” he said.

Wexler could relate. He started out as an artist and shifted to songwriting after the label that signed him folded. He went on to write on tracks for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Blackpink, but when he wanted to reclaim his own voice, he found he didn’t have the self-confidence. So he created a character — a guy named Jackson Penn.

Collaborative writing had never clicked for Joel in the past. He’d tried with Burt Bacharach and John Oates, he said. Looking back at his most fruitful recording years, he has few happy memories of the creative process. “Writing was hell. Unless it came really quick. Like ‘New York State of Mind’ just came bang, like a bolt out of the blue,” he said. “I had it in my head before I even got home.” (He was on a Greyhound bus at the time.) “Allentown,” on the other hand, “hung around for years,” he recalled. “Originally, it was called ‘Levittown,’ and I really didn’t have anything to write about.”

After his “River of Dreams” album in 1993, Joel’s only pop releases were “All My Life” (which he wrote for Tony Bennett) and “Christmas in Fallujah” (which was sung by Cass Dillon), both from 2007. “I haven’t really made a recording that I thought about releasing as one of my own records for 30 years,” he said. Bennett, for the record, had a different reaction to Joel’s insecurities when they were preparing to duet: “He goes, ‘Well, do that Billy Joel thing.’ I said, ‘I don’t really know what that is.’ And he goes, ‘Well, maybe you should talk to a psychiatrist.’”

Much has changed about recording and releasing music since “River of Dreams,” which came out 10 years before the iTunes Store opened, but past experiences have left Joel wary. “I’ve been taken advantage of by the music business 50 ways from Sunday,” he said. When he talks about getting to work recording, one word comes up a lot: harness.

“If I get back in harness, it’s not just about singing. It’s about promotion. It’s about playing. It’s about the radio, politics, business, blah, blah, blah,” he said, with a wave of his hand. “I didn’t want to be back in harness, but if you’re going to commit, you’ve got to commit a hundred percent. So I said [expletive] it.”

“Turn the Lights Back On,” which Joel premiered live at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night in Los Angeles and was released on his longtime label, Columbia, drew him in with its lyrics about a relationship teetering on the brink. “There’s always an insecurity about, you know, am I going to hurt this relationship? Am I going to do something to screw it up? ’Cause I’ve done it in the past.” (Joel is married for the fourth time and has two young daughters; his eldest daughter, Alexa Ray, is 38.)

As the recording process went on, Joel had ideas — about percussion, strings, an acoustic guitar providing a pulse. The heart of the track is his crystalline vocal, which carries over his steady piano work, with a few splashes of filigree on the bridge. Part of the freedom he felt collaborating on the song was that “the focus of it was the music, not the music business.”

Some of the old concerns have faded with age and time. “I remember stressing when I would release a recording. Is this going to be a hit?” he said. “What are the critics going to say? Are people going to like it? I don’t have any of that now. I just sang a song. That’s it. If they like it, great. If they don’t, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t good.”

Joel is ending his Garden run in July with his 150th performance at the arena, which will offer him more flexibility in booking shows inside and out of New York. He’s not counting out further writing with Wexler (“Anything’s possible”), and for the first time since the residency’s start, he has a new song to add to his set lists.

“It took somebody who believed in a new Billy Joel record to get Billy Joel to make a record,” Joel said with a touch of awe, “’cause I wasn’t like that. I wasn’t a fan of Billy Joel. He was. And I really didn’t recognize some of the things he wanted from me until I heard it back.” He returned to the understated reaction that made the whole thing possible: “And I went, ‘I don’t hate that. It’s not bad.’”

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