For the first time in nearly 15 years, esteemed singer/songwriter, producer and musician Jeff Lynne will release a new Electric Light Orchestra album. He’s renamed the band—it’s newly minted as Jeff’s Lynne’s ELO— for the forthcoming LP titled Alone in the Universe. But when I ask Lynne about returning to ELO, he denounces it as a comeback. Rather, he says that he’s not really restarting the band, but picking up where he left off.
Since he was a boy growing up in Birmingham, England, Lynne has felt the powerful tug of music’s lure time and time again. According to Lynne, it began one day in the early ‘60s as he was listening to the radio and the first verses of The Contours’ “Do You Love Me” began filling his ears. As he heard the line “now that I can dance,” he was left awestruck and full of excitement of what music’s potential could mean for him.
“Believe it or not, that line was the thing that opened up my eyes to music completely because I thought it was F major all through that line but it’s actually F to F minor and then back to C,” says Lynne. “So that really knocked me out when I discovered it. That’s one of the most important moments I had in the early, early days when I just started playing.”
Lynne soon found himself looking for musical outlets in the area. He eventually began playing with The Idle Race and The Move. When the latter morphed into Electric Light Orchestra around 1970, he experienced his first brush with commercial success as the band had numerous radio hits like “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Evil Woman” and sold more than 50 million albums worldwide through the ‘70s and early ‘80s. With ELO, Lynne melded pop and rock songs with classical and string arrangements into a potent mix.
When the band broke up in the mid-’80s, Lynne decided to try his hand at producing albums from other artists. Over the next 30 years, he became an in-demand producer, working with many notable acts like Tom Petty, George Harrison and Roy Orbison. Recently, he even produced Bryan Adams’ latest LP. While fulfilling producer duties, Lynne also took time to join the all-star band The Traveling Wilburys with some of his musical heroes like Bob Dylan and fellow collaborators like Harrison, Petty and Orbison.
Throughout Lynne’s career, music has connected him to the world around him. Similarly, his music has been a connecting force for fans of his music.
“It’s a really good way of communicating. A good tune will always keep you company,” Lynne says. “People always tell me that my music helps them in some way, and it’s amazing because I don’t set out to do that. I’m just trying to write a regular song that doesn’t have to lift anybody up particularly but they always say it gives them a lift. If they’re feeling bad it makes them feel better to hear one of my tunes.”
Lynne first revisited ELO in 2001 with Zoom, the band’s first album since 1986’s Balance of Power. Lynne played nearly all the instruments on the album, with help from some of his friends. The only original ELO member that was involved was keyboardist Richard Tandy, who is still a fixture in the live band.
“We’ve always been pals. He’s a great piano player and a great musician and I respect him very much,” Lynne says. “He’s always been my right-hand man in the studio in the old days. He was the guy who would always hang out with me in the mixing and stuff.”
An ambitious arena tour was planned but fizzled out due to poor ticket sales and so did ELO. For a while it seemed like things would go back to normal, with Lynne resuming producing full-time.
That changed last year when he was asked to bring back ELO for its first major concert in 28 years at BBC Radio 2’s “Festival In A Day” in London’s famous Hyde Park. Lynne had some nervous moments before the show, wondering if anyone would show up. But an excited crowd of 50,000 people soon changed that.
“It was really scary at first because I hadn’t done it for so long and wondering if they were still going to be there as it was the end of a festival. So I was really nervous going up the stairs and onto the stage,” he says. “But I shouldn’t have been as it was just magnificent when we got up there and they went mad and they were great.”
The ecstatic reception he got (and subsequent performance at this year’s Grammy award show) convinced him to go into the recording studio and make another ELO album.
“It was a real thrill to play a full set for all those 50,000 people. It encouraged me to make another album and I have done it,” he says.
Once Lynne got home from the show he immediately started writing songs and finished the album’s eventual first single, “When I Was a Boy.” He once again took on most of the songwriting and recording duties. This time around he named the band Jeff’s Lynne’s ELO to be more direct and avoid any confusion. In 1989 original drummer Bev formed a group called ELO Part II and in 2000 The Orchestra, forcing Lynne to take legal action.
“I named it that because it’s always been my ELO,” he says. “I thought it would be good to shorten it for a change, as I was getting fed up with the longwinded Electric Light Orchestra name. It was a bit too long and cumbersome. There are other groups pretending to be ELO. I think this makes the distinction between the real one and the ones who pretend.”
He spent roughly 18 months at his Los Angeles home studio meticulously putting the album together one instrument and vocal take at a time. While playing all the instruments is a lot of work, he says it’s something he really enjoys. This album gave him another stab at making an ELO album, and he thinks his prior experiences helped him make a better album.
“It sounds much better and it’s more powerful than Zoom,” he says. “Some really good sounds on it. I’m really pleased with the drum sound because I play the drums and it’s all recorded at my studio at home.”
“I think it’s a good representation of where I’m at musically,” he continues. “I just love pop music and try to write nice, good-sized, pop tunes. That’s all I really wanted to do. Not write outrageously long and drawn out and all that kind of stuff. I like quick, nice tunes that get in and get out and it’s over with.”
Lynne took advantage of many of the rooms at his house to achieve the best sounds he could, including a den where he keeps the drums. Engineer Steve Jay also joined him in the house to find the sweet spots.
“All the instruments are done in different rooms but I like to have the rooms sing with the instruments, so I like to turn up the room up a bit,” Lynne explains. “So that means moving the mic back from what you’re recording and putting a little bit of compression on and making the room come alive with the sound of the instrument. When you do that it gets to feel live. It feels like a live recording. I know it’s not a live recording as it’s me playing everything, but it gives you a feeling that it’s all being played at once. That’s why I like doing it that way.”
Lynne used his analog recording console that he’s had for 30 years to record all the sounds.
“I can make the sounds I really want to hear and it doesn’t take me days to search for it,” he says. “It’s already worked out and what will sound good in what place.”
He added that he enjoys the luxury of taking his time as in the past he might only get six weeks to write, record, mix and hand over an album to a record company.
“There was never time to second-guess any of the songs in those old days,” he says. “It was crap really because I didn’t get to go ‘Oh I just have to fix that bit there.’ Whereas this way I can get it exactly the way I want it.”
As for the songs themselves on Alone in the Universe, Lynne acknowledges that his songwriting process has come a long way since he started playing music. He says that when he was in The Idle Race that he would make up silly little ditties and write the words at the same time as the song. But when he got serious about music, he started spending more time on making songs more naturally.
Now, he says, “I spend a lot more time on the chords and the chord sequencing and the melody.”
While many Electric Light Orchestra songs may seem complex, he says the songs are usually simple at their core. When he was making his second solo album Long Wave, a collection of covers of songs from the ‘50s, he learned through playing along with the record that although the songs had flowery arrangements, peeling it back to the core revealed pretty straight-forward pop songs.
“It was hard to tell what the chords were until once I learned it correctly and played my backing track again it was quiet and so simple,” he says. “The songs sounded so complicated. Once I broke them down into what they really were and left the arrangement off they were great. They were like regular pop songs. It taught me a lot more about concise songwriting than I knew before from just studying these songs and hour after hour learning it. But it was worth it as I actually educated myself a little bit.”
For the new album, Lynne found that the songs each had a life of their own, some coming quickly and some taking time. He says “When I Was a Boy,” a song he says is about “getting the urge to play music when you’re really young,” came to him almost as quickly as he played it.
“It was one of those great moments where the song writes itself,” he recalls. “That’s the nicest song to do as you don’t have to strain over it, you let it come naturally which is a lovely thing that doesn’t happen that often. And it’s important to be thankful for those types of things as it’s rare for me.”
Lynne continues, “I usually have to do a bit of hard work to get a song to be what I wanted. But that one was really smooth and just came quick. Some of them took a while and took me eight years and I couldn’t get the words to it for a long time and some of them came really easily and some are medium and hard to do. They have their own life when you start them. They take you with them. You don’t actually take them places. You find them steering you in certain directions.”
The album’s title and song came as a result of hearing about Voyager 1 going out of the solar system and Lynne thinking how lonely that would be.
“I liked it as I couldn’t anything more lonely than Voyager 1, the spacecraft, leaving the solar system and actually going into interstellar space,” he says. “That’s the loneliest anybody or anything’s ever been that came from Earth. And of course I couldn’t write about a piece of metal hurtling into space so I made it about people instead.”
One of the album’s most personal numbers is “I’m Leaving You,” a song he wrote in tribute of his close friend and fellow Wilbury, Roy Orbison.
“I tried to write a Roy Orbison song like he would have written with his pal Joe Melson…That kind of style,” he says. “Obviously not the singing. But the tune could’ve been a Roy Orbison song. It would have been a great one if he had sung it. But of course, I’m a bit late for that by about 28 years.He was a lovely guy anyway that I wanted to give him a nod on this album. He’s the best ever for me. That’s why I always want to pay tribute to Roy.”
Lynne turns 68 in December, but his passion for music is shining as brightly as it ever has, always striving to find new corners of the musical universe he has yet to discover. With ELO, he’s planning some big concerts in England in the spring and possibly shows in the U.S. depending on how things go. Whatever happens, Lynne’s still dancing to the music.