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

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.

Billy Joel, backstage at Madison Square Garden in New York, on January 11, 2024.

(Thea Traff/NYT)

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, N.Y. “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. 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, now 37, a Los Angeles-based songwriter and producer who grew up in New York and sure knew a lot about Billy 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 — 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. When I say I don’t hate it, that’s a big deal,” said Joel, who comes to San Diego’s Petco Park April 13 for a concert with Sting.

Though 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.”

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.

“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.”

Billy Joel performing at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 4, 2024.

Billy Joel performing at The 66th Annual Grammy Awards, airing live from Arena in Los Angeles on Feb. 4.

(CBS Photo Archive / CBS via Getty Images)

“Turn the Lights Back On,” which Joel premiered live at the Grammy Awards on Feb. 4 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.)

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.”

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.”

Ganz writes for The New York Times.

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