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How Freddy Wexler Got Billy Joel to 'Turn the Lights Back On' When the Legend Had 'Nothing to Prove' (Exclusive)

The Grammy-nominated songwriter shares the unlikely story of how he helped his childhood hero and songwriting legend find "a little bit of that joy again"

Flipping the page to a blank slate can be incredibly intimidating for any songwriter. Even the most versed of artists can sit paralyzed in fear, unable to move past the expectations in their heads.

For Billy Joel, that bundle of anxiety might be even more palpable after a 17-year-long hiatus. Even as his hands waver over a grand piano, there’s a slight moment of hesitation before he lets their weight fall to the keys. His mere presence may not only be defying expectations of long-time fans, but even of himself. After all, the “Piano Man” singer believed he had already written those “Famous Last Words” in his songbook before retiring — a track from the last album he made back in 1993, River of Dreams.

However, with the pounding of the first chord in “Turn the Lights Back On,” the now 74-year-old is proving that the river can indeed flow again — but not without some help. Indeed, the “Uptown Girl” singer would have perhaps never found the courage to start again, were it not for the tenacity of one songwriter, producer and long-time Joel fan.

<p>Myrna Suarez</p> Freddy Wexler and Billy Joel

Myrna Suarez

Freddy Wexler and Billy Joel

Freddy Wexler, one of Joel’s collaborators and songwriters of the new hit single, had always known what it was like to experience the downsides of being an artist — the “tragedy” of how any creative, whether they admit it or not, are always on an “unending” quest to keep believing in themselves.

For a while, he knew that his childhood hero had lost the joy of writing and performing pop songs. In the two years they’ve collaborated since they first met in an unlikely encounter, finding that spark again was key.

“My goal was to just remove the expectation, have no real goal or business plan, but just say, ‘Hey, let’s ski. It could be fun,’” Wexler begins to tell PEOPLE.

<p>Ashley Osborn</p> Freddy Wexler and Billy Joel

Ashley Osborn

Freddy Wexler and Billy Joel

Related: Billy Joel Drops 'Turn the Lights Back On,' His First New Song in 17 Years — Listen!

Getting together in the first place would have never happened had Wexler not known what it was like to doubt himself before. That may be surprising given how two years ago, the then 35-year-old felt he was at the “pinnacle” of his career. Any quick online search would’ve revealed how the Grammy-nominated songwriter had already worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, like Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Celine Dion, Kanye West and Laufey.

Yet even at that level, he still wasn’t immune to the nagging of imposter syndrome — the all-too-familiar feeling that leaves anyone questioning their own abilities. Despite the “big cuts” coming in, he still wondered whether he was actually “good enough” to be a songwriter, or to completely take a different route. One question lingered around: What would his childhood inspirations like Billy Joel, Paul McCartney or Stevie Wonder think of his music?

The “New York State of Mind” singer especially stood out from the rest. Joel wasn’t just Wexler’s ultimate muse or the reason he became a proud New Yorker, but the very reason he became a songwriter.

“Listening to Billy growing up was like listening to the smartest, realest friend you’ve known your whole life,” Wexler says, swept up in a moment of nostalgia. “The guy who knows your stories because he lived through them himself, the guy who always knows the right advice to give even if it hurts, and who gives it in the most profound, poetic, yet impactful way possible.”

<p>Ashley Osborn</p> Freddy Wexler

Ashley Osborn

Freddy Wexler

Although Joel released his last album when Wexler was just a 7-year-old, that little kid would still grow up with Joel’s songs blasting in his ears. Joel’s advice was always timeless for Wexler, and especially on the hardest of days. One such moment came when Wexler was dropped from his first major record deal, which kicked off a string of panic attacks. At the prospect that time was running out for him to accomplish his dreams, Joel’s “Vienna” found him when he needed it most.

“Slow down you crazy child / You’re so ambitious for a juvenile” Wexler begins to hum the lyrics.

“It felt like they’d been written for me,” he says thoughtfully. “I worked through that period quickly and realized my life was just beginning.”

Related: Billy Joel Explains 17-Year Wait for New Music: 'It Wasn't Fun Anymore'

That wouldn’t be the only fateful encounter with Joel that would forever change the course of Wexler’s life. The next one, however, didn’t come in the form of a track. It came through an unlikely birthday gift.

While Wexler was dealing with feelings of imposter syndrome, his wife, Olivia Wexler, was brewing a special surprise. She wanted her husband to meet one of his childhood inspirations, but couldn’t reach one of them through traditional music industry avenues. That forced her to get creative, and eventually, she learned that a Long Island doctor friend used to know Joel.

The rest is history, and just a few months later, Joel and Wexler sat down for lunch at Dockside Restaurant in Long Island. Yet, when Joel ordered his clams and a BLT to go, Wexler knew he only had mere minutes to change the course of a meal. Rather than spend those precious minutes being a fan, he skipped the small talk.

“‘Have you ever imagined you were another artist when writing a song?’” Wexler recalls the question he asked.

Joel might have expected to sign an autograph, but certainly not to hear that question. However, it was the breakthrough moment that led them to common ground. Despite entirely different life paths and ages, they learned that they would imagine they were different people when writing songs. While Joel might have channeled Ray Charles or any of the Beatles members, Wexler would channel any artist he was writing for, including that of his pseudonym, Jackson Penn.

A 10-minute meeting stretched into two hours. Somewhere in the middle, Wexler hardened his resolve and gathered the courage to ask Joel about his unfinished songs. He even pulled out his voice memos of all the unfinished melodies he heard in his head when inspiration struck.

“‘Do you have anything like that?’” Wexler recalls of that fateful conversation.

When Joel mentioned all his own unfinished songs from the '70s and '80s, a light at the end of the tunnel suddenly appeared for Wexler.

"'Why don’t you let me finish them?’” he quickly suggests.

Despite Wexler’s accolades, Joel wasn’t going to entrust the younger songwriter right away. Rather, he came up with his own test. While they were both situated in his home around his grand piano, he told Wexler to play for him the “best songs” he’d ever written. Along the way, they unexpectedly began to laugh and bond over a topic so uncomfortable for many: Insecurity.

“‘You should put that out,’” Wexler recalls of what Joel said to him.

“‘No, sorry,’” Wexler replies.

“‘Why don’t you put that out?’” Joel asks.

“‘Why don’t you put it out?’” Wexler counters.

“‘I don’t want to put it out. You should put it out.’”

“‘No, I don’t really want to, but I think you should.’”

“And we started laughing because it was just ridiculous,” Wexler concludes.

Just two days later, a FedEx arrived at Wexler’s front doorstep. It contained CDs of some of Joel’s unfinished songs.

Related: Billy Joel to Perform at the 2024 Grammy Awards

It’s rare that insecurity becomes the foundation for something larger, but the following two-year collaboration proves that it can. Despite the push and pull throughout, Wexler was determined — relentless, even — to get Joel back in the studio.

The turning point came when he presented the start of a song he worked on with his collaborators, Arthur Bacon and Wayne Hector, which painted out a conversation Wexler wished his father would’ve had with his mother during a tough time in their marriage. Joel offered to help him finish it, and “Turn the Lights Back On” became the final product.

<p>Ashley Osborn</p> Billy Joel and Freddy Wexler

Ashley Osborn

Billy Joel and Freddy Wexler

Although the lyrics can be interpreted in many ways, there’s no question how deeply personal they are. Everyone has relationships of their own, whether that’s with other people or with their crafts. Some may have grown distant, but it may never be too late to close the gap.

“Maybe I was blind / But I see you now / As we’re laying in the darkness / Did I wait too long / To turn the lights back on?” Joel sings of the chorus.

The notion that an artist as successful as Joel might stay in the dark for so long could be unthinkable. Why might there ever be a reason to stop, especially when things may seem to be going so well?

Wexler counters that thought, believing that music can “stop being fun” for many reasons. Out the outside, there are the stream counts and the numbers, which can make music lose its magic. Great songwriting also requires “baring your soul” — an intensely vulnerable feeling that might never go away. Combine that with a scoop of ambition and perfectionism for the perfect self-critical recipe — something that Wexler says both he and Joel have always followed to the tee.

“None of us, whether we admit it or not, have total confidence in ourselves, and so it’s quite natural that songwriters and musicians can be insecure,” Wexler explains. “The thing I’ve learned most from Billy in working with him is that even the greatest songwriters and artists of all time can forget how great they are. We are all our own worst critics and we can’t give that inner critic too much power.”

Related: Billy Joel Says Songwriting Is 'Torture' at 2024 Grammys: 'It's Not a Fun Process for Me'

Remembering the nature of being human and how fleeting inspiration can be is what helps him forgive himself more often. He also reminds himself that his greatest memories of music magic have never come from breaking records, but from the sheer act of creation.

“In the moment of creation, I was 16 again — happy, inspired, euphoric, grateful for the gift of having created something that an hour ago didn’t exist,” he says.

This hard-earned wisdom is what has not only allowed him to understand, but even respect, why Joel went on hiatus.

“He had nothing that he needed to prove,” Wexler explains. “He didn’t need to make any more money, he didn’t need to have more hits. So, if it wasn’t fulfilling him and it wasn’t fun, why do it?”

“There’s something weirdly inspiring about that too, and I’m extremely humbled and grateful that I have been able to play a small part in helping him find a little bit of that joy again,” he continues.

Knowing when to play that part has also shaped Wexler to become a “gut and instinct” kind of person. When choosing to work on a new project, he tries to rise above the hyped-up trends by following a motto similar to that of Margot Robbie's production company, LuckyChap Entertainment, where “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a hell no.”

“As a creator, for me to do my best work, I need to be blind to all of that and just look at my arm,” Wexler explains. “When a song is playing and if the hairs on my arms are standing up, which they normally don’t, I need to work on that, I need to work with whomever is on that track.”

Related: Billy Joel Is Back! Crowd Rewards Grammys Performance of 'Turn the Lights Back on' with Standing Ovation

His subconscious might not only spout moments of genius through his arm, but in his dreams as well. Such a moment came to him when he dreamed of a 25-year-old Joel singing the opening lines of “Turn the Lights Back On.” When he woke up and didn’t forget his dream, he knew in his gut that he’d found the seeds of the next big cultural movement.

That seedling grew into what would become the music video, in which Wexler harnessed the positive powers of AI to create four generations of Joels that would pick off after another.

Perhaps when you watch the video, you might also “feel a whole lot of things,” just as Joel did. Maybe it’s the self-doubt that feels most relatable, or the inner soul-searching that Joel embarks upon when he sings the lyrics. Whatever it may be, one poignant question rises to the surface: Can you wait too long to turn the lights back on again? Maybe so, and some critics might agree as well.

But against all odds, Joel shows up anyway. With the unwavering support of those like Wexler, the “Captain Jack” singer is proving that you can flip the switch at any age. That might be all the more evident in his 2024 Grammys Awards performance, where he sings while dressed in a leather jacket and sunglasses. As he plays the grand piano, a full band behind him envelopes his voice into a larger-than-life experience — one that lets audiences experience a nostalgic ride to the past, the presentness of his spirit and the reassurance to never give up.

Related: Watch Billy Joel's Long-Awaited Music Video for 'Turn the Lights Back On' (Exclusive)

In a similar spirit, Wexler hopes he can always continue to inspire others in future projects. Whether that’s with Joel or not, you might just have to pay attention to the hairs on his arms to find out.

“Inspiring people, as cheesy as it may sound, is honestly my mission in life because anytime I’ve been successful, it’s a result of having been inspired,” Wexler says. “Anytime I have gotten out of a rut, it is the result of having been inspired. That is what I would like to do.”

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