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‘Iconic and Amazing’: Inside Britney Spears’ Comeback Duet With Elton John

When producer Andrew Watt first met Britney Spears to record her parts for “Hold Me Closer” — a club-ready duet with Elton John and her first new song in six years — he asked her who her favorite artists are. “She’s like, ‘Honestly, Elton John,’” he recalls. “She said, ‘”Tiny Dancer’s” literally one of my favorite songs, which is why I wanted to do it.”

Her passion for the song shines through on the three-minute reworking of the hit, which adds a springy disco beat, a touch of cavernous echo, and warm synths to the original. On the song, John and Spears sing the verses to John’s 1992 single, “The One,” octaves apart, as an elastic guitar line stretches around the vocals and enfolds them. It’s a feel-good moment thanks to Spears’ trademark adlibs (a “baby” here and there) and melismatic melodies. She sounds free, which is exactly how her fans hoped she’d sound after news broke last year that she would be freed from the constrictive conservatorship that bound her for years. The song became an immediate hit when it came out last week, shooting to Number One in the U.K. and becoming ubiquitous in the U.S.

“It’s pretty damn cool that I’m singing with one of the most classic men of our time … Elton John!!!” she wrote on Twitter. “I’m kinda overwhelmed. … It’s a big deal to me!!!”

“I am absolutely thrilled to have had the chance to work with Britney Spears,” John said in a statement. “She truly is an icon, one of the all-time great pop stars and she sounds amazing on this record. I love her dearly and am delighted with what we’ve created together.”

It was John and husband David Furnish’s idea to invite Spears to sing on the track, as the couple was considering artists for John to collaborate with following the success of “Cold Heart,” his blockbuster Lockdown Sessions duet with Dua Lipa. John had met Spears at the 2014 Oscars viewing party for his AIDS foundation, and she had tweeted the following year about her love of “Tiny Dancer.”

“It was a long shot because [Britney] had done a lot of press about how she’s done with music for a while,” Watt says. “Elton reached out, and she loved the idea and wanted to do it.” The producer — who first met John in 2019 when working on the Ozzy Osbourne song “Ordinary Man,” which featured the two singers together — had originally picked “Tiny Dancer” “not only [because it’s] one of my favorite songs of all time but one of the greatest recordings/songs/ballads literally ever.” But he mostly wanted to listen to the original multi-tracks. Getting Spears on the song was just icing for him, since she had the same ardor and attention to detail as he did.

Initially, Watt thought reworking the 50-year-old track would be a learning experience. “I was just like, ‘If this sucks, no one will ever have to hear it,’” he says, chuckling. He asked his friend, producer Cirkut, to work on it with him, and they eventually discovered a Hendrix-like guitar line, played on the original by Caleb Quaye, that even Elton John didn’t remember. “He was like, ‘I love that. Like, did you just record that?’” Watt says. “I was like, ‘Dude, no.’” They turned it into a 16-bar loop, played around with the tempo, and gave it a four-on-the-floor club beat.

“What Elton brilliantly said to me was, ‘Don’t put so much pressure on yourself,’” Watt says. “‘This isn’t the “New Tiny Dancer”; this is a fun, new version for people to listen to when they’re having a drink in Ibiza and dance to. It’s not serious.’ I was like, ‘All right, let me fucking put that hat on: I’m in Ibiza. I got a fucking tequila in my hand. What do I want to listen to, but what still feels Elton?’”

They played around with the strings, even interpolating samples from John’s first platinum duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” and highlighted John’s “Hold me closer, hold me closer” refrain in the outro. John liked that so much he asked Watt and Cirkut to make it the focus of the track, and they reworked it into a more danceable song structure. John added new piano lines, including a bit of Rhodes — duetting with himself, half a century apart — and played around with the verses to “The One” with a new melody. They felt good about it but knew it would become something else when Spears added her parts.

“She came up with her own ideas,” Watt says. “She wanted to speed up the record a little bit, and we did that. She’s such a pro with dance music and understanding that kind of stuff and what works for her.”

She was so prepared, all she needed was a day in Watt’s studio to get it right. “She knew exactly what she wanted to do,” he says. “She had spent tons of time with the record; she knew all the lyrics; it was, like, her thing. And it was really awesome to witness and see her be so powerful and crush it. She sounds incredible on the record, and she was involved all the way up until the final mix.”

Even though it was Spears’ first recording in six years, Watt says she showed no apprehension; she arrived at the studio with her manager and husband and was ready to go. The only thing that threw her was the way Watt’s studio is one spacious room since she was accustomed to singing in dimly lit isolated vocal booths. “She was like, ‘OK, where do I go to record?’” he says. “I was like, ‘The mic’s right there in front of you.’ She’s like, ‘I’m singing right here?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but I’m right here and that way we can communicate.’ She did it and she actually really enjoyed it being right there. We were all kind of there and it made it more fun. We were just talking back and forth, and I was getting so excited when she was putting her voice on the record. It just made it come to life and it was really positive.”

Spears spent a long time refining her vocals, asking for extra takes to meet her own standards. “She’s done it so many times, she didn’t need to be told,” he says. “She knows when she’s got the right vocal take.” For the outro, they played the music a few times so she could vibe along to it, which is when she closed her eyes and played around with the melodies. “She was so free and improv-ing over it,” he says. “That’s where all the adlibs came from; she was playing off of the drop and that melody. Those moments are so ‘her’ and so much of her personality.”

Watt and Cirkut then worked on a mix from her different vocal takes, which Watt calls a “treasure trove,” and blended them with John’s vocals. She collaborated with them throughout the process giving notes so they could make it exactly right for her.

Ultimately, Watt was excited to hear her falsetto on the song, which he likens to her singing on “Toxic,” and the way her voice harmonized with John’s. “That falsetto is so Britney,” he says. “That couldn’t have been on the song without her. I love that they’re singing together that their voices worked so good together. Once she sang that chorus, I threw my headphones in the air. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. It’s like Britney Spears’ voice singing ‘Tiny Dancer.’ It’s just iconic and amazing.”

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