NEW YORK – Billy Joel’s first new pop song in nearly two decades was sparked by someone far from being in the record business: a Long Island doctor.
The 74-year-old American singer has long made it known that he is not 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 in January 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 any more.”
Joel’s influence as a songwriter has endured, drawing in new generations.
Over the years, the list of people who had 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 knew a lot about Joel. He had 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 any more or that you won’t write songs any more.’ And he said something like, ‘Okay, believe whatever you want.’”
Wexler pivoted, asking if Joel had any unfinished ideas from the 1970s or 1980s.
Joel was intrigued enough to meet again to hear some of Wexler’s music. Convinced he was the real deal, Joel later sent over a CD.
The younger musician was briefly stymied: “I didn’t have a CD player, so that wa...