The pop superstar, 66, talks about fatherhood, surviving a major health scare, and why he's going back to his roots on his new album, ''The Diving Board''

By Geoff Boucher
September 27, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

Is it a leap to call Elton John’s The Diving Board a key contender for the Album of the Year award at next year’s Grammys? Not really, when you consider the career subplots (shockingly, he’s never won a statuette in a top-tier category), the early reviews (good to glowing), and the Midas touch of marquee producer T Bone Burnett (the trophy magnet behind O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Crazy Heart). We caught up with the always bedazzling — and bedazzled — performer during a brief stop in L.A.

You have two young sons now. What surprises came along with fatherhood?
Everything I thought might be annoying about children turned out to be not annoying at all. I thought I would be temperamental with them, but if they misbehave, it’s just because they’re kids. I just love every second of it. It’s helped make me a nicer person and it’s helped settle me down. It’s helped me musically, too, because I’m so happy in my own skin.

You had a nasty health scare earlier this year with a badly inflamed appendix.
I’m lucky to be alive, and it was an awful experience. You feel you’re giving birth to an alien at any moment.

T Bone Burnett saw you perform in 1970 at the Troubadour in L.A., and his main advice on Diving Board was to start with the musical approach of those club days…
I’ve made 40 albums, but in all this time I’ve never put the sound that first made me famous [as a concert act] on any studio record. T Bone was the one who said, ”I want to go back to basics,” and with him I’ve actually fallen in love with making records again.

Your appetite for the next new thing in music could have made this album a collage of the latest beats and arrangements, but instead your restlessness led you to something that revels in tradition and simple foundations.
It’s the kind of album I think that, at my age, I should be making, because it is moving me forward musically. I don’t sit and listen to my old albums. I’m not interested in coasting. It’s frustrating when you don’t get played on the radio, because you have to work much harder to promote your record, but it’s worth it. We don’t get the platinum records and the chart position anymore, but it’s not about that. The world is different, and so are we.

A lot of people were surprised to see your name in the lineup for the iHeartRadio Festival — the giant Top 40 concert in September in Las Vegas that also featured Katy Perry, Drake, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, and Ke$ha.
I’m doing anything I can to promote the record because I’m so proud of it. It’s all hands on deck. And that one in Las Vegas also had Paul McCartney on it, so we’re the oldest two on that bill by a mile. We add a little bit of gravitas to the show. And I love to mingle with the younger artists — I was dying to meet Macklemore & Ryan Lewis because I love that record, and to see Drake again.

You’ve also got dates through October doing The Million Dollar Piano at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, based on your career arc and life odyssey. In it you sing ”Empty Garden,” your forlorn tribute to John Lennon. Is that hard some nights?
For two years John was a big part of my life, and it is difficult. I don’t look back when I’m playing that song — if I see the footage of John, I get choked up and it’s too hard to get through the song. I miss him so much. He was a force of nature, and you don’t get many of those. And you sure as hell miss them when they leave.