Billy Joel says Taylor Swift is like the Beatles of her generation: 'She knows music'
Billy Joel was always a morning guy.
Even before entering a new round of fatherhood with daughters Remy, 4, and Della Rose, 6, and their requisite shuttling to school, he’s relished “the quiet, peaceful time before all hell breaks loose.”
Calling mid-morning from the Palm Beach, Florida, home he shares with his kids and wife Alexis Roderick – his Long Island, New York, property has been under renovation for three years – Joel launches into an easygoing banter, quickly making you forget that he’s one of the most lauded musicians in history.
The bona fides are staggering: Six Grammy wins including the Grammy Legend Award; the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize and selection of “Piano Man” into the National Recording Registry; the ASCAP Centennial Awards winner; induction in the Rock and Roll and Songwriters halls of fame; Kennedy Center Honors accolades; a Tony Award (for “Movin’ Out” in 2003) and 150 million records sold since his 1971 debut.
And don’t forget the regular stadium sellouts. He just announced Feb. 26 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas where he'll show off his voluminous hits list, such as “Big Shot,” “Movin’ Out,” “My Life,” “You May Be Right,” “Uptown Girl” and “Piano Man.”
“We never expected to still be doing this job at our age,” Joel, 72, tells USA TODAY with a hint of awe. He still practices daily on his Steinway piano, where Della Rose might wander over to share the keyboard, and absorbs the adrenaline rush that greets every step onto the stage.
On Friday, Joel returns to his cathedral – Madison Square Garden – where he's sold out more than 70 concerts since his unique residency commenced in 2014. The concert is rescheduled from March 2020, when the pandemic ended his streak of shows there, and revives his monthly appearances that are currently scheduled through April.
Also Friday, a new package of Joel’s sonic history arrives with “The Vinyl Collection, Vol. 1.” The nine-LP celebration of his 50 years of recording includes his first six solo albums, his inaugural live album (“Songs in the Attic”) and a double LP of the previously unreleased concert, “Live at the Great American Music Hall – 1975.”
In a candid chat, Joel delves into his homecoming at The Garden, the challenges of crafting a set list, the surprising respect from young artists such as Olivia Rodrigo and the musical acumen of his children:
Q: So you’re heading back at The Garden. Does it feel like going home?
Billy Joel: Yeah, The Garden is our home. The crowd is always great; it’s New York. The acoustics are great. It’s just everything good about playing live. I never dreamed I’d have a residency at Madison Square Garden. We can’t believe people are still buying tickets to see us. I remember the first time I ever went there, I was a little kid and my parents took me to a Christmas show with Gene Autry. He had a big hit with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at the time, and there I am in the top row, probably the worst seats in the house. It seemed like the biggest place I could ever imagine. And Gene comes out and people start singing along and, he takes out his six guns in the air to get the crowd to sing along louder, so I start singing because I didn’t want to get shot!
Q: Did you have any moments during the pandemic where you worried if you’d ever get back on stage again?
Joel: The last gig we played before shutdown was in Mexico and that was outside. All of a sudden, everything stopped and it felt like it was the end of the world. No one knew when it would go away – when we could work again. It was very scary. I had hoped it would pass, but nobody knew. I talked to Don Henley – “What do you think?” “I don’t know.” I talked to Springsteen – “What do you think?” – and nobody knew. Nobody was the voice of authority and (then-President Donald) Trump just made it worse. It was a scary time.
Q: I’m curious why you don’t do (1974’s) “Streetlife Serenader” in concert or make it one of the “fan choice” songs?
Joel: That’s a good question. There are a number of songs like that and we take them out and give them a spin and try them out for the hell of it, but they don’t get a good response … “Streetlife” is a very atmospheric song to play live and we can hear it well in The Garden, but every time we play it, it lays flat. You never know how some songs age.
Q: What do you think of some current artists, such as Adele?
Joel: Adele is a phenomenal singer, kind of a (Barbra) Streisand throwback. Taylor (Swift) is also a very talented girl and she’s productive and keeps coming up with great concepts and songs and she’s huge. You have to give her high marks. She knows music and she knows how to write. She’s like that generation’s Beatles.
Q: Let’s talk about your new album collection, specifically the live show from the Great American Music Hall in 1975. What do you remember about that concert?
Joel: I remember the gig. I remember being in San Francisco, and we didn’t play the West Coast very often. I remember what the venue looked like; a bordello on steroids, like, this is where Abraham Lincoln would be shot. It was a good gig. The audience was good. We were eager to do the gig and we were good as a band. I don’t know why (the label) picked that particular show, but I’m glad they did.
Q: I always listen to your SiriusXM “The Billy Joel Channel” when available (the “limited edition” channel appears periodically). Why don’t they just make it a permanent addition?
Joel: The problem is content. I only did a dozen albums and (the label) has put out 50 variations of them. The Beatles did the same amount of albums so I thought that was a good number to stop at. So with the channel, the content would need to be fleshed out and eventually, you run out of content. I didn’t want people to be banged over the head, so I thought less is more. For me, the true recordings are on the albums. We don’t jam in the middle of songs; we don’t change them that much. We’ve lowered some of the keys because of my age. I wish I had known I’d be doing this at my age. When I was doing this in my 20s and 30s, I was able to hit notes I couldn’t imagine now. It’s a struggle to sing this stuff now. By the end of the show, my voice is shot and I’m unable to speak.
Q: Speaking of youth, when you hear artists such as Olivia Rodrigo (“deja vu”) and BTS either mentioning you in song or giving you credit as an influence, do you shake your head like, who would have thought? This is a generation that wasn’t alive when you last recorded a pop song (Joel’s last mainstream album, “River of Dreams,” arrived in 1993).
Joel: When I was a kid, my generation didn’t take to my parents’ music. They liked classical but also Sinatra and probably Perry Como and those kinds of singers. We kind of left them in the past and moved on to the new stuff, the Elvis generation and the Beatles generation and disco and the ’80s. We weren’t a back-looking generation and there are a lot of younger people now looking backward and they like their parents’ music, which is a strange phenomenon. I look out (in the crowd) and see so many young people. I’m grateful for it, especially because they make more noise. It’s a great mix.
Q: Do you have any idea how “Zanzibar” became a thing on TikTok?
Joel: Yeah, what the hell was that about? I have no idea.
Q: Have you heard some of the songs that name check you?
Joel: I get sent these things. This guy AJ Smith has a song called “Billy Joel.” My kids listen to pop music – I really don’t too much – and I’ll be in the car with them when they make me turn (the radio) on and I might hear a reference to me. Della came home from school one day and said, “Daddy, everybody knows who you are!”
Q: I’ve been to a few of your shows when Della Rose has come out on stage. Do you think she has some musical genes, like Alexa Ray (Joel’s 35-year-old daughterwith ex-wife Christie Brinkley)?
Joel: Yeah, I believe it must be inherited. Alexa has it; she’s a good pianist and songwriter. But Della, who is 6, learned on her own by going to the piano and playing “The Planets” by (composer) Gustav Holst. She plays the “Jupiter” theme, picks it out note by note. It was on this kids show, “Bluey,” and one of the kids was dreaming they were floating through space and they played “The Planets” (suite) and she went to the piano and picked it out, and I went, “Oh my God, another one.” Remy, the youngest, has already expressed an interest in learning to play at the piano, too. So, yeah, it’s going to be one of those families.