This July, in a small basement studio in Beverly Hills surrounded by candles, coloured lights, keyboards and her new husband, Britney Spears rebooted her music career. Six years since her last album, and nine months since she was freed from the conservatorship that had ruled her life for 13 years, she was at the home studio of producer Andrew Watt, recording her parts for Hold Me Closer – a duet with Elton John which mashes up perhaps his defining hit, 1971’s Tiny Dancer, with his 1992 song The One (and a dash of 1976’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart).
Spears arrived with her vocals warmed up and determined ideas about her contribution, and nailed the performance in less than two hours. “She sang fantastically,” says John from his house in the south of France. “Everyone was saying they don’t think she can sing any more. But I said, she was brilliant when she started so I think she can. And she did it, and I was so thrilled with what she did.”
Released today, the euphoric Hold Me Closer follows Cold Heart, John’s 2021 duet with Dua Lipa, which combined his hits Rocket Man, Sacrifice, Kiss the Bride and Where’s the Shoorah? and made him the first solo artist to score a UK Top 10 single in six different decades. “I want to do one every year for a fun, happy summer record,” says John. After he and Watt created the new Tiny Dancer remix, they weren’t sure who to invite in as guest vocalist. Then John’s husband, David Furnish, had an idea. “He said it would be wonderful for Britney Spears to do it,” John says, as the pair sit side by side the day after he surprised diners in a Cannes restaurant with an impromptu performance of the song. “I said, that’s a pretty amazing idea. She hadn’t done anything for so long. I’d been following what’s been happening to her for a long time.”
John had been an admirer since day one. “She just put out incredibly brilliant records,” he says. “She sang and danced so beautifully.” They first met at his Aids foundation Oscars viewing party in 2013, and she was “lovely – adorable”. And they had their respective Las Vegas residencies at the same time, her at Planet Hollywood, him at Caesars Palace. But even though they often stayed in the same apartment block, “we didn’t really see each other”, says John.
Given what we now know, it’s hard to imagine many people saw Spears at that time. In her fearsome testimony to a court hearing on her conservatorship in June 2021, Spears said she was punished and put on lithium for rejecting some new choreography during the residency, and likened herself to a slave, earning millions for the controllers of the arrangement, including her father, Jamie Spears, while being allocated a $2,000 weekly allowance herself.
In January 2019, she cancelled the residency and announced an “indefinite work hiatus”. Soon after, the #FreeBritney movement went mainstream, convinced – accurately, it would transpire – that Spears was being exploited and abused. In September 2021, the New York Times released the documentary Framing Britney Spears, detailing her fight with her father. John watched it. “You forget she was the biggest star in the whole world at that time. And to see what happened to her makes me so angry. What happened to her shouldn’t have happened to anybody.”
Spears was freed from her conservatorship by a judge in November 2021. The following month, she said that her experiences had left her scared of the music industry, with no intention of picking up her career. “Not doing my music any more is a way of saying ‘fuck you’,” she wrote on Instagram. But she didn’t need any convincing to join John for the duet, he says.
Spears was going to fly to London to record with John, but she was in the middle of her honeymoon after her wedding to the Iranian American model and actor Sam Asghari – having been restricted from marrying or managing her own birth control under the conservatorship – and so recorded with Watt at his studio in Los Angeles. He had never met her before. When she arrived, they talked about music they loved. “She asked me who my favourite artists were – Prince – and I asked her who hers was. She said Elton John,” says Watt. “The song meant so much to her, and you can hear it in her vocal performance. She’s singing her ass off.”
It was as if no time had passed since Spears last stepped inside a studio, Watt adds. “She was so prepared. She had spent time with the record and knew how she wanted to do it.” To construct the song, he explains meticulously, he took the guitar from Tiny Dancer, originally buried so low in the mix you could hardly hear it, and fiddled with the tempo. Extracting the original bass and strings and speeding them up gave it a disco feel. To amplify that sense of transcendence, he punctuated the song with a scale-climbing, heaven-bound sample of “hold me closer”. And John played new Rhodes piano (those are his original vocals).
Watt is 31, the prime age to have been a huge childhood Spears fan with her posters on his wall. He was now faced with one of the biggest pop stars of all time recording her instantly identifiable, strobing, rasping vocals in the same room. “She’s unbelievable at layering her voice and doubling, which is one of the hardest things to do. She really pushed herself, vocally. Sometimes when you produce, the greatest thing in the world you can do is say nothing, so I just let her do her thing. She’s so good at knowing when she got the right take. She took complete control.”
Spears recorded the falsetto parts first, then the lines where she belts. Watt never had to ask her to do anything, and watched as she exacted her own high standards. “She kept going: ‘Nope, again, again, again.’” Then she had an “amazing idea”, he says. “She wanted to listen to the music a bunch of times and she started doing all her incredible ad libs that make the record so her. Tiny Dancer with her voice is special enough, but then she went through and did all these amazing runs.”
Once they had recorded, Spears was “incredibly specific” about how she wanted her vocals and levels mixed, he says. “She was really collaborative and had really good ideas about the production. She’s an expert in music to make you dance.” (Spears’s primary form of performance in recent years has been posting self-choreographed dance videos to Instagram.) “So many of her records are pop perfection, she worked with the greatest of all time and made timeless pop. We experimented with speeding the record up and turning certain elements of the sound up to get it pumping and make you wanna dance.”
Given how disempowered Spears has said she was in the process of making her own music during the conservatorship, she must have felt liberated to wield her expertise in the studio, I suggest. “We didn’t really get into that,” says Watt. “She came there to sing and record. She’s so pro. And if that was something that she was thinking about, she put it all into the record.”
It was afterwards, John admits, that Spears needed some convincing that releasing the track was the right thing to do. (On 25 August, she tweeted about being “kinda overwhelmed … it’s a big deal to me !!!”) “We had to get her to approve what she did,” he says. “She’s been away so long – there’s a lot of fear there because she’s been betrayed so many times and she hasn’t really been in the public eye officially for so long. We’ve been holding her hand through the whole process, reassuring her that everything’s gonna be alright.
“I’m so excited to be able to do it with her because if it is a big hit, and I think it may be, it will give her so much more confidence than she’s got already and she will realise that people actually love her and care for her and want her to be happy. That’s all anybody in their right mind would want after she went through such a traumatic time.”
John is no stranger to helping musicians experiencing difficulties whether in their personal or professional lives, from George Michael, Robbie Williams and Geri Horner (Halliwell) in the 90s to contemporary artists such as Lewis Capaldi, the xx’s Oliver Sim and Sam Fender. He’s motivated by his memories of his own struggles, he says. “It’s hard when you’re young. Britney was broken. I was broken when I got sober. I was in a terrible place. I’ve been through that broken feeling and it’s horrible. And luckily enough, I’ve been sober for 32 years and it’s the happiest I’ve ever been. Now I’ve got the experience to be able to advise people and help them because I don’t want to see any artists in a dark place. A lot of artists, you’d think they’d have a lot of self-esteem but they don’t, and that’s why we go onstage and we get the applause, and then we come offstage and we’re back to square one.”
He wants musicians to “enjoy what they’re doing and feel that they’re worthwhile”, he says. “They deserve to be happy and to be loved and to have an affirmation from someone like me. When I first went to America, I had affirmations from Leon Russell, George Harrison, the Band, Neil Diamond – it made me so happy. It makes you realise they cared and it gave me validation that what I was doing was OK.”
Peer support is one thing: should the industry be better regulated to support musicians and prevent exploitation? “It’s down to having a good manager for a start,” says John. “Someone who’s with you 24/7, who believes in you. It’s all about reaching out. I never reached out and asked for help because I thought, I’m too proud – it will make me feel weak. A lot of these artists don’t reach out for help, so I find out and ring up and then we get together.
“I don’t really know about the music industry. Everyone’s got a different case. It’s very hard for young musicians today to jumpstart a career. Sam Fender has done it with his second record. Little Simz has been fantastic, but she couldn’t go to America because she didn’t have the money to do her tour, which is a disaster for her because the record is doing quite well in America. So there’s a lot of pressure. It is what it is. But I’m Uncle Elton. They can phone me.”
As for Spears, she tweeted before the release that she’s learning “every day is a clean slate to try and be a better person and do what makes me happy … I want to be fearless like when I was younger.”
“Rehabilitation is such a wonderful thing for anybody,” says John. “And I’m just crossing my fingers that this will restore her confidence in herself to get back into the studio, make more records, and realise that she is bloody good.”
• Hold Me Closer is out now.