Billy Joel talks 100th MSG show, getting to 'hang out' with Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran

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With his first new song in 17 years, a performance at the Grammy Awards and his last Madison Square Garden residency show approaching in July, Billy Joel has been unusually ubiquitous of late.

Ask him how he’s feeling after this thrust back into the spotlight and he laughs.

“A little overwhelmed. I’m not used to the whole megillah that comes with releasing a new record,” Joel says.

He’s talking about “Turn the Lights Back On,” the single released in January that was his first to hit the Billboard Hot 100 since 1997.

Along with those accomplishments, he’s winding down his record-setting run at Madison Square Garden, which began in January 2014 and will conclude July 25.

Even though Joel has played the storied New York arena close to 150 times in his six-decade career, his March 28 concert marked the 100th show of his residency, a milestone commemorated onstage with pals Jerry Seinfeld and Sting.

That whole megillah is now known as "Billy Joel: The 100th – Live at Madison Square Garden," a two-hour event that will air at 9 p.m. (ET/PT) April 14 on CBS.

But even without a monthly appearance at The Garden, Joel will still continue to trot around the country, filling sold-out stadiums with his sometimes-acidic, sometimes-introspective, always-vivid anthems such as “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” “Pressure,” “Uptown Girl,” “My Life” and the immortal “Piano Man.”

Joel – laid back, self-deprecating and quick-witted – chatted with USA TODAY about singing with Sting, making mistakes and why he actually likes his new song.

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Question: How have you felt these past few months with everything swirling around you?

Billy Joel: I forgot how much work it is. I used to do this on a regular basis: You go on the road, go back home and write, record the songs, then make the video, promote it, yadda, yadda, yadda. I hadn’t done it in so long. It’s head spinning and different from what I remember.

How was your Grammys experience? (Joel performed “Turn the Lights Back On” and “You May Be Right” to close out the awards broadcast.)

That was a unique experience. I wasn’t a nominee, I was just there to play my song and there was a whole generation of musicians I wanted to meet.

Such as?

Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo – a bunch of people I respect. I met them under completely different auspices. I just wanted to hang out.

Billy Joel is not only breaking out his well-known hits, but has included his new song, "Turn the Lights Back On," into his setlists.
Billy Joel is not only breaking out his well-known hits, but has included his new song, "Turn the Lights Back On," into his setlists.

You filmed the concert for the CBS special at the end of March. Did show 100 feel any different than the other 99?

Well, yeah because there were a bunch of cameras on stage! I’ve been playing (Madison Square Garden) since the ‘70s. The 100 just happened to be a round number and happened to coincide with a Garden show I was already doing.

What’s your history with Jerry Seinfeld, who was there for the banner-raising of your historic night?

I wasn’t aware he was going to be there until the last minute. They said, we’ll have a banner-raising thing and Jerry is gonna do it. I said, "Wow, great." He bought my old house in the Hamptons in 2000. We made a deal, no brokers, just us. He said, “How much?” and I said a number and he said, “OK.” It was really serendipitous. He’s a good guy, a fellow Long Islander. But also, Sting, he bought my apartment in New York City.

I sense a theme here.

I know. All of my real estate clients were at the show. It’s like Joel Realty.

Billy Joel had some guests at his 100th Madison Square Garden residency show - Sting and Jerry Seinfeld. A CBS special from the event airs April 14, 2024.
Billy Joel had some guests at his 100th Madison Square Garden residency show - Sting and Jerry Seinfeld. A CBS special from the event airs April 14, 2024.

You’re doing some stadium dates with Sting, but you also did a lot with Stevie Nicks last year and you have some with Rod Stewart this year, so what made Sting the right person to be part of this show?

I’ve known him quite a while, since he was in The Police. We became friends right away and I always admired his musicianship. We respect each other as musicians. It’s very easy for me to work with him. It doesn’t require a long rehearsal process. I hate rehearsal. I’m OK with making a mistake. A lot of the fun of it is in the spontaneity of the recovery. He and I have great bands, and if you’re working with good musicians it makes life so much easier. I’ve written songs with Sting in mind, like “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” which we do in this show.

You rarely play that song live.

It’s such a high key, but Sting has this wonderful tenor that he’s been able to maintain.

Probably from all of his yoga.

Or from that tantric stuff. He can hit those notes and nail them because it’s jazz. It was a lot of fun to do.

You also play (The Police hit) “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” with him in this show and you came out for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around" while on tour with Stevie. What do you enjoy about those duets?

I always enjoy mixing it up. God knows how many times I’ve done Billy Joel songs. That’s why I loved touring with Elton. I could play a lot of Elton John songs. Since we’ve been at The Garden, all kinds of people dropped in – Miley Cyrus, Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, Olivia Rodrigo, it goes on and on. And the band gets to have fun.

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Let’s talk about “Turn the Lights Back On,” specifically the video. What did you think when you were first approached with, hey, let’s use artificial intelligence to morph you into ‘70s-era Billy and then the ‘80s and ‘90s?

I was open to it. I’m not a big fan of doing videos. I don’t like them. I didn’t sign on as an actor – I’m a piano player. I’m not comfortable in front of the camera. When I’m singing, I think I look like Cary Grant and then when I see (the video) I go, oh, it’s me. (Song co-writer) Freddy Wexler had the idea, and I thought, I don’t have to be an actor, this is great.

What did you think of the final result?

I liked it. I said, "Hey, I remember that guy!" I don’t know how they do it technically, but it was fascinating. It was sort of an out of body experience, like wow, that was cool.

Has it been weird being back on the charts almost 50 years after you first did so with “Piano Man”?

It’s a totally different world. I don’t how the charts work. There’s the streaming, the lite rock, the AC, AOL, AOR, rock, urban, hits, I don’t know what it is anymore and I don’t keep up with it. But I didn’t hate the song. Back in the day I’d record a song and come back into the control room and I hear my voice. I never liked my voice and wanted to sound like someone other than me. I’ve found out that’s how a lot of recording artists think. Everyone is trying to copy Ray Charles or Mick Jagger. But my first reaction to hearing the song was, “I don’t hate it” because my normal go-to is, “Jeez, it’s me.” Now when I sing (1974's) “The Entertainer” (with the lyrics) “I won’t be here in another year if I don’t stay on the charts” and “You heard my latest record, it’s been on the radio.” Normally, I shake my head “no” when I sing those lines. Not any more.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Billy Joel talks Madison Square Garden concert special on CBS