"This album wasn't what it was intended to be at all," says Eric Clapton. "It's actually better than it was meant to be because, in a way, I just let it happen. It's an eclectic collection of songs that weren't really on the map—and I like it so much because if it's a surprise to the fans, that's only because it's a surprise to me, as well."
On CLAPTON, his nineteenth solo album, the only person who has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three separate times explores the wide range of influences that helped to form his musical sensibility. From a glimmer of an idea—a wish to record some of the jazz standards that he grew up with alongside songs by his frequent collaborator and inspiration JJ Cale—Clapton created a collection that touches on everything from century-old traditional brass bands to little-known country blues to brand-new originals. The result is both relaxed and revelatory, and unlike anything the guitarist has done in his legendary career.
"When the time comes to make a record, I've either got something pressing to say or I haven't," says Clapton. "If I haven't, I'll create some subterfuge—but then something interesting comes in underneath, and those have often been the most significant albums for me. Unplugged was a bit like that. On this one I thought, we might as well just have some fun. There was no calculation, it was all just what came to the surface. And I feel that on the album."
In the years since his last album, 2005's Back Home, Clapton has been involved in numerous projects with other musicians, including a 2006 album with Cale, The Road to Escondido, and historic tours alongside Steve Winwood (documented on the Grammy-nominated Live at Madison Square Garden album) and Jeff Beck. This spirit continued on CLAPTON; starting with co-producer/guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and a remarkable core of other musicians—drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Willie Weeks, and keyboardist Walt Richmond—the sessions later added guests including Winwood, Cale, Wynton Marsalis, Sheryl Crow, Allen Toussaint, and Derek Trucks.
"The album was made over three states and two countries," says Bramhall. "It was a chance to live out a musical dream, and it was a very prolific time. We just let the music dictate where we were going."
Clapton's affinity for the blues has, of course, defined much of his musical life, from his early days with the Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers to his recent work playing with B. B. King and revisiting the songs of Robert Johnson. Less familiar, though, is the impact of rollicking jazz numbers and intimate pop standards that inform CLAPTON.
"I never liked young kids' music," he says. "I like old people's music. When I look for what I'm going to listen to, I go backwards. Most people are trying to figure out, 'How do I get in the fast lane, going that way?' I'm going in the other direction—I want to find the oldest thing to do."
At age 65, after more than four decades as one of the world's premier guitarists, Eric Clapton approaches these songs with familiarity and comfort, and finds a way to bring Texas bluesman Little Son Jackson's "Traveling Alone," JJ Cale's "River Runs Deep," and a moving, hushed "How Deep is the Ocean" under one roof. When he described the album to guitarist/musicologist Ry Cooder, Cooder said, "You can't do that, it'll give people whiplash!" (Clapton says with a laugh that after that discussion, he flirted with titling the album Whiplash.)
"A song like 'Autumn Leaves' is about where we are in our lives, really," he says. "We play rock & roll and blues and all that, but at the end of the day, we're all balladeers. That song opened the door for all kinds of possibilities. Nothing is too schmaltzy, because if you play it right, with a little bit of funk, it can work. If someone likes it, great, and if they don't, fine—it's me I have to entertain at the end of the day."
Midway through the recording of CLAPTON, Clapton had a medical emergency and was rushed into surgery. While he was recovering, he had a musical vision that added yet another element to the album's unexpected mix. "While Eric was in the hospital, these two Fats Waller songs popped into his head," says Bramhall. "So he thought he should probably record them, because it must have meant something."
Bramhall contacted New Orleans eminence Allen Toussaint, an authority on the virtuoso composer and comedian Waller. The resulting recordings of "My Very Good Friend The Milkman" and "When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful" feature two pianos, trumpet solos from jazz giant Marsalis, and a classic Crescent City horn section including Trombone Shorty and Dr. Michael White of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Though this Dixieland style resembles nothing we've heard from Clapton before, he notes that the tests presented by the vast musical scope of CLAPTON are issues he has been confronting throughout his career. "The challenge with these things has always been the same for me," he says. "How do you take, say, a Skip James song and transfer it to a contemporary blues, or rock, setting? The deliberate choice of who I play with is because I know and I trust what they're going to do, and they bring something to it that nobody else can bring."
It seems significant that this album is the guitarist's first studio effort since the 2007 publication of his best-selling autobiography, also titled Clapton. Following the introspection required by that project, the disc's fourteen songs play like the musical memoir of an incredible journey. It's telling, too, that Clapton says he recorded the album with a very specific audience in his mind.
"When I'm on stage," he says, "I need to focus on someone, not just me, so I find someone—it might be my wife, or one of my daughters, or a friend who I haven't seen for a long time. When I was making this record, I was thinking about my grandmother a lot, and my mother and my uncle. Those were the three chief influences in my life, and those were the people I was singing to, really."
Having tackled the material on CLAPTON, this master musician now seems most excited about the possibilities of what comes next. After starting this project on a whim, Eric Clapton found himself pursuing so many unexpected new directions that he sounds like a kid, exhilarated by the simple pleasures of making music just for the fun of it.
"There's no limit for what I can attempt to do," he says. "I think the next thing I'd like to do is to play some Latin stuff, or else go into that New Orleans jazz thing. That intrigues me, because what I do will fit in there—I can play electric guitar as if it were with Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five. Wouldn't that be great?"