Elvis Costello: Interview And Music
by Brian Wise - 04/10/2004
Elvis Costello is interesting - both in his songwriting and in the way he talks about his music. It's hugely apparent in this interview with Brian Wise that Costello has an almost gramatical understanding of modern music. That's not to say he's formulaic in his writing - it's more a case of his ability to parse both the music that he makes and the music that's developed in the 20th century.
There's two ways you can get this interview into your brain; we've transcribed the full interview below, but if you'd like to hear how some of Costello's latest album The Delivery Man sounds, we've mixed exerpts from the interview with a few tracks from the disc. Check out the Audio links section of this webpage.
Brian Wise: I was thinking the other night when I was watching Solomon Burke out here at the Austin City Limits festival that probably, apart from all the accolades you've had in your career, and everything you've done, two of the biggest thrills for you must have to be Solomon recording one of your songs and Howard Tate recording a song that you co-wrote with Jerry Ragovoy.
Elvis Costello: Absolutely, yes. I've been very fortunate. I haven't had too many covers over the years for all the songs I've written. But the ones that have been done have been by people that I really, really love; like George Jones and Johnny Cash and Chet Baker and Dusty Springfield-and obviously Howard and Solomon, most recently. I was actually in the studio when Solomon cut 'The Judgment', so that was a pretty wonderful experience. I helped him run down the song before he did it, so I was actually there in the room when he did it.
BW: He's an amazing character, isn't he?
EC: He is, absolutely. And actually I got given a very nice tribute, which was-ASCAP, you know, the publishers' organisation gave me an award, and those things ... if you stick around long enough they're going to give them to you, but this one, I have to say, was quite touching, because a number of people I really admired took the time to send me greetings: Bert Bacharach and Tom Waits and Paul McCartney. But then Solomon came out and sang 'The Judgment', which was the topper, really. He came out and sang on the show, so I've heard him do it. It's really great.
BW: One of the features of your life, as opposed to your career, is the fact that you are a real music fan, and okay, you've worked with Bert Bacherach and Paul McCartney ... but or you, I guess, the American soul music scene would have to be one of your biggest influences, wouldn't it?
EC: Certainly, the age I am is-I just turned 50-so I grew up right in the time of what we call beat music in England, and probably had more to do with R&B than original rock'n'roll. Obviously the people that I admired, like the Beatles, were really into rock'n'roll, but it was already a little past rock'n'roll when I started listening and making my own choices about music. I've been lucky to listen to lots of different types of music. But certainly, as a teenager, you could have a pretty good party if you had Motown Chartbusters Volume 3 and This is Soul-which was an Atlantic Soul compilation, you know, had a lot of Stax stuff on it. And that was probably as much of R&B as we knew, because it didn't get over on the radio that much. We mostly heard the R&B songs covered by the English acts, you know, the Rolling Stones or the Animals, or Georgie Fame.
BW: Even the Beatles ...
EC: Even the Beatles, yes. And obviously, when I started out, I had a little bit more curiosity than some, and went seeking out the original artists, or in some cases searching up country music. I followed The Byrds a lot, and then when they did a country styled record it made me curious to know who these people were that they liked. It hasn't been like a 'cause' for me, but it's a side effect of my own curiosity that I know that there are people who've discovered artists through listening to my version of songs that I've covered, or people that I've talked about as being special to me-and having some influence on the writing I've done.
So I'm happy to do that, because I don't subscribe to this idea that it's all brand new and has no reference to the past. You can't live in the past, and I don't. I'm not nostalgic about my own work, at all. I sing old songs of my own-some of which are 25 years old-because I still like singing them and people want to hear them. I don't feel I'm riding on that at all. And my sense of history in music is much greater than a lot of people's. I listen a lot further back in the whole history of music. It's not just pop music of the last 20, 30, 40, 50 years. I'm listening to stuff from hundreds of years ago as well, because you can learn from everything.
BW: I know that when I was in Memphis earlier in the year, you'd just been to the Stax Museum of American Soul, probably the day before I dropped in there, and it must have been around the time that you started recording the album. It is an incredible place.
EC: The way we worked it out was we were going to go and travel to different southern towns, because I'd enjoyed-in 2002 we'd returned to Alabama for the first time in 25 years. I had the feeling that maybe the next record should be recording in the south, and I was going to do dates alternating with recording sessions. But when I worked out the economics of it, I realised I couldn't afford to do that and have a truck full of gear sitting outside a studio for a week. So I looked for a place where I could get the job done, and Oxford, Mississippi suggested itself, because Pete Thomas and David Faragher from the Imposters had played on a record by Buddy Guy which is named after the studio, Sweet Tea.
So we pitched up in Oxford, got a great welcome, played a couple of shows in the local tavern; that gave us the fire in the songs that you're always looking for; cut the album in the studio and we were scheduled to go up to Memphis to record for a week up there, and truthfully we'd done the record before we could get to Memphis. So we just went up to the Hi-Tone and played some shows and we had a little time to take in the Stax Museum, and drive around and get a feel for the place. Met some nice people there that showed us the way. I'd been to Memphis before, but we stayed out of Memphis early on in the late 70s for obvious reasons. People were very sensitive about Elvis Presley, and my stage name obviously would be provocative to some people in that area at that time. So we didn't visit Memphis until about 1984. And I've only been back three times to play since then, other than recently. And now we've just played, in April, and we played the other night in the Hi-Tone again, we played the same club, and filled it. So we liked it so much that we went back and we filled it for a DVD.
BW: The recording kind of returns you to the American location-almost to a musical home: musically, not geographically, obviously, but in terms of the inspiration for a lot of your music, doesn't it?
EC: Well, the first song that most people picked up on, particularly in America, of mine, was a ballad, not a rock'n'roll song. It was 'Alison', and that's an R&B ballad. I don't think there's any other way to describe it. It's not really a rock'n'roll ballad and it's not a country song. Obviously I got known for some other songs early on, and some of those were rock'n'roll songs. Some of them were melodic pop songs. And I've done lots of different things, as you know, but every so often I get drawn back. The music that I really love, underneath everything else-and that's not to say that it's superior, sometimes you've got to dive headlong into other possibilities of music, as I've done with the Brodsky Quartet, or Bert Bacharach or recently writing this orchestral score, which was also released at the same time.
These are the sort of things that push you on in music-the curiosity, a passion for new ideas. It's important to keep restoring that, and at the same time, hold on to the core things about music that whenever you pick the simplest form of instrument; guitar or piano, you can find a song that's worthwhile. If I did it all the time, I think I would have worn it out by now; but because I go away from it for a little while and then come back, when I come back it's new to me again. In 1981 I went to Nashville and recorded an album of country songs at a time when I felt that my own writing had kind of done everything I could do up to that point. I wasn't feeling like I could speak any more clearly in my own words than I could in other people's.
In 1985 I went to Hollywood and recorded an album called King of America, which used country and R&B styles as the foundation for my own composition-that was the first record I recorded of original compositions in America. And I used mainly musicians who were a little older than me, some of whom actually who had worked with Elvis Presley. And some of whom, people like Ray Brown the great jazz musician, worked with Ella Fitzgerald, worked for years with Oscar Petersen. And I was drawing up a lot of-the thing that they could give you, you were playing a simple song but they had all that wealth of experience. They could lend something different to it. Jim Keltner, who's worked with countless people: Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan. I knew that it could get it some different feel, and of course-you know, different times I've referred to this form of music that you find on The Delivery Man. Sometimes just one song in an album, sometimes it leans more that way for a whole record. But I always nametrack Dan Penn as the person who epitomises that kind of music to me.
BW: Well you call him the leading light in the...
EC: Yes, well I don't know what he'd think about that, because he had nothing practical to do with the record. I just credited him because I felt that he doesn't get acknowledged enough, and I wanted to let people know that in my mind, I wouldn't be making a record like this which I'm proud of and which I think is a really fine record-if it wasn't for the example of Dan Penn. His kind of songwriting is an exact blend. After all, these people have grown up in the geographical area where several threads of music meet: rock'n'roll, as you know, is an accidental collision between R&B and hillbilly music, you know? But that mixture of country and soul is very attractive to me and I've always taken strength from it. Dan Pen's songs are particularly inspirational. So I think it's good to acknowledge him because he never gets-you never see his name in lists of great songwriters. It's incredible to me that he could have written 'Dark End of the Street' and 'Do Right Woman' and 'I'm Your Puppet' and nobody every remarks upon what a great songwriter he is. He's somebody that you would aspire to writing like.
BW: That's a fantastic tribute to him, for you to include his name on your album. And I mentioned before that you're a music fan.
EC: Mention Hubert Sumlin, as well, because Hubert's a great man, and again, you know, I don't play the guitar very good, but when I'm playing this kind of music, I always have him in my mind. I wish I could play like Hubert.
BW: I mentioned you're a music fan, and people who listen to the song 'Monkey to Man' will pick up immediately the Dave Bartholomew reference.
EC: Yes. the 'Monkey to Man' song-the monkey speaks his mind. The Monkey, as it's actually called, has been cut a few times down the years. Obviously Dave Bartholomew did the original and it was revived in the 1980s by the Fabulous Thunderbirds; it was revived again recently by Dr John with Dave Bartholomew. I had already written 'Monkey to Man' when I heard that Dr John had cut it again. We cut it ourselves down in Clarksdale at the same sessions as we cut 'Monkey to Man'. So that'll come out some time in the future. It's a great song. It's one of those pieces of folk wisdom and Dave Bartholomew's 'racket' is pretty unbeatable. But it's a song that you want to get out of the shade. Again, it's a song that's decently obscure to a lot of people. 'Monkey to Man' is an answer song, 50 years later. Things are not getting better.
BW: It's still as relevant today as when it was first written.
EC: It might be more relevant.
BW: Your first song is titled 'Button My Lip'. And you then proceed to unbutton your lip.
EC: Yes! Well, a lot of the songs on this record are connected by the narrative contained in the title song, 'The Delivery Man'. They refer to the story of three women living in an isolated community, served by Abel, the delivery man, who's mentioned in the 'Delivery Man' song. And 'Button My Lip' is in his voice. He carried a secret and then he carries a violent instinct in himself. And so the story isn't told in a strict 'beginning, middle and end' fashion. I wanted to treat the narrative in a slightly unconventional way; how people build up their own relationship with the characters in these songs. You can hear the songs in isolation to the story, and enjoy them just fine. I didn't want to have it hinge on following it like you were sitting in the theatre. But you can piece together some of the connections for yourself, and everybody will have a different view of that. So 'Button My Lip', you can hear it just as a exciting sounding track or you can later on maybe connect it to some of the elements of the story.
BW: So what inspired this thematic approach to the album?
EC: I'd just been thinking about a number of things. One was about the way people impress upon others their desires-and obviously these three women being very contrasting in nature, all react to Abel in a different way. Vivien is a divorcee disappointed in life and love, who likes to make everybody believe that she's having a wilder, happier time than she is. She's kind of a sad person. Geraldine, her best friend, is a pious war widow who nevertheless is titillated by these confidences that Vivien makes to her of her wild, carnal life. And Geraldine is bringing up her daughter alone-a girl called Ivy, who hasn't found her path in life yet and she's trying to shield her from the influence of her wilder friend. And Abel is a person who suddenly comes into their community, who they recognise, oddly, and it says in the song, 'In a certain light he looks like Jesus.' They make all these improbable kind of comparisons. But the reason they recognise him is because they saw his picture in the paper when he was a child. He committed murder when he was a child and he's been institutionalised for a number of years. Now this isn't mentioned in the record, at all. I'm telling you this because this is the way I'm working with the story. It has story that went before the record began; it's got story that carried on after.
BW: It sounds like the soundtrack to a movie.
EC: Well, It's a continuing story, and that's what makes it exciting for me, is that you can enjoy the pieces of the story just as they are, and at a later date maybe they'll be assembled into another form. Maybe in a comic book, I don't know. I haven't decided how I'm going to tell the end of the tale, but I like the idea of leaving the threads trailing and allowing people to make their own version of the connections between these characters-while knowing, myself, how they are connected and not necessarily giving all of that information away immediately. I wrote a song for Johnny Cash in the 80s, called 'Hidden Shame'-or maybe early 90s-and it was about a man who confessed to a murder when he was already in prison for a number of other crimes. He's spent thirty years of his life in prison for various offences, but then confessed committing murder during childhood. And it made me think about what happens to these people, and so I sort of revived that character, which was actually based on a true story. I revived that idea of this person who's committed murder as a child and re-emerged in society with a different identity-and made him into Abel, the central character of 'The Delivery Man'.
BW: Are there any southern writers that you've been reading? It kind of sounds like the plot of a southern Gothic novel. Is there anything that you feel ...?
EC: I'm aware of all of those ... I read them in the past. I haven't been studying them particularly right now. I have read people, and the notable people from the southern literature, but I didn't feel I needed to style it self-consciously on any of those people. We were staying at the cottage right next to Rowan Oak while we were making this record. We were lent a really nice place to stay by some local people in Oxford. And Rowan Oak is Faulkner's house, which is in the woods ... I was walking in the woods where Faulkner used to walk, but that didn't - I'd already written the songs-that didn't have any influence on the songs. A mere coincidence.
BW: An amazing coincidence. I wanted to ... following on from that, the songs; you've got a couple of singers helping you out. If you ever wanted to capture emotion in a song, I daresay the best person you could possibly get is Lucinda Williams, because on her duet with you, it's just absolutely dripping with that sort of emotion and tension, isn't it?
EC: I explained as best I could this story to the singers when they came in. They're not seeing it from inside my head, where I've been rolling this idea around for about five years. And this is one of the ways- this is the solution that I chose- to have to begin this story, because I don't believe it's told here, and it's not concluded. I did think at one time of making it a self-contained piece like a theatrical piece, and then I thought, that's going to make it a separate animal. It won't be a record, it won't be something you can travel with, you can't then play it on the bill with other songs ... there were all sorts of limitations that didn't appeal to me. So I had to try and explain, as I tried to explain to you, quite an unusual way of thinking that I'd arrived at. But Lucinda could obviously understand what's going on in the song, 'Delivery Man'. And she could very much understand the character that's expressed in 'There's A Story In Your Voice', you know, and it's a pretty wild piece. And she throws herself into it with something like abandon.
BW: And Emmylou Harris sings on this, a couple of songs but one in particular, 'Heart-Shaped Bruise', stands out as one of the best ballads you've probably ever written.
EC: Thank you. Well, it's very much styled after a Felice and Boudleaux Bryant song. It has this very unusual harmonic change at the top of the bridge which is a characteristic of their writing. They would write these heartbreak ballads and they would largely stay inside the country idiom, and at some stage they would just surprise you; they wrote these beautiful songs, many of them for the Everly Brothers. And of course, I had heard my favourite of all of the Bryant songs, which is 'Sleepless Nights' and I'd heard it revived by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris 30 years ago or more, and I recorded my own version of 'Sleepless Nights' for the Gram tribute which Emmy put together a few years ago. And I've known her to say hello to, we haven't been close friends, but I've known her to say hello to for many years. We were on a bill of a George Jones special back in 1981, just before I recorded 'Almost Blue'. And our paths have crossed a number of times. And in the last couple of years we've sung together on stage once in a gala concert in Washington DC, and then on the Concert for a Landmine Free World tour, in Europe, which she and Steve Earle were really prime movers in-this great, very wonderful concert if you ever get a chance to see them, because they feature a number of songwriters sitting on the stage together, singing 'turn-about', like what they call in Nashville a 'guitar pool'. And of course, inevitably, they end up dueting.
And on the tour that we did, that had John Prine, Steve Earle, Emmy, myself and Nancy Griffiths-Emmylou and myself revived doing a- I taught her 'Heart-Shaped Bruise' just after I'd written it. And we also did 'Sleepless Nights' together, and she sang with us in Memphis the other night on the DVD. And not only did we do 'Nothing Clings Like Ivy' and 'The Scarlet Tide' which feature on the album, but we also recorded 'Sleepless Nights' and 'I Still Miss Someone', the Louvin Brothers' song, 'My Baby's Gone' and the Gram Parsons song, 'Wheels', which I'd never sung before, but we learned it specially for the show.
BW: Sounds fantastic.
EC: It was really enjoyable. She's a tremendous presence on stage and people love her. And it was interesting to hear how we were able to play this very quiet music. Yes, there was a good, decent amount of noise at the bar. You don't play a club and expect everybody to be hushed, you know. But it was a good atmosphere. It was a very good atmosphere indeed.
BW: 'Scarlet Tide' was co-written with T Bone Burnett. How is T Bone these days? He's done all right for himself in the last few years, hasn't he?
EC: Well, T Bone's had a remarkable career as a producer since the time that we first worked together. He was dividing his time between recording and producing when we first met, and touring. We toured together and we were great friends. And of course since that time, he had a couple of very, very major successes as a producer with Counting Crows and the Wallflowers. But most of all, with the Oh Brother Where Art Thou movie, which was exceptional. And he's done a number of soundtracks where he's been able to bring his love of different forms of music into the light of the movie soundtrack, with The Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood and the recent Coen Brothers movie of The Ladykillers. And of course with Cold Mountain. And Cold Mountain had lots of very rich music in it. We recorded several things for Cold Mountain. They didn't use all of the music but there was a lot of music recorded for it other than what appeared in the film. And at the very end of the production, when nearly everything was completed they came to T Bone and I and asked us to write the concluding song. That's how 'The Scarlet Tide' came about.
But I was very conscious of the fact that I wanted the song to have an independent life. I was respectful of the role it played in the film, but I think it was important that it could stand up as a song without having seen the film.
BW: And finally, I know you would hate this title, but when I think of you and think of the fact that you've done a classical album as well-although you've worked with the Brodsky Quartet et cetera, you're almost like the perfect example of what people would say is a renaissance man. How do you turn your attention from doing an album like The Delivery Man to composing classical music-because they're two totally different things?
EC: Well, people will call it classical music because it's on a classical label. It's an orchestral album and it uses ideas, my view of orchestral writing. First of all, I didn't do the two things simultaneously, so that should explain that. Although the Delivery Man ideas, songs and theme have been in motion for about five years, I was commissioned in the year 2000 to write Il Sogno. And that was originally to accompany a dance adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, so I worked in conjunction with the choreographers from the dance company and their ideas about how they wanted to tell the Shakespearian story. They gave me very detailed descriptions of the dances that they intended, and I have no idea how I managed to propose that I would write it for orchestra, because although I have been able to write music down for over ten years now, I learned to do this because I wanted to be able to communicate with musicians who receive their information off the written page. I did perfectly well writing over 200 songs before I ever did that.
But I did reach a point where I felt thwarted in certain instances. And over the last ten years, after my work with the Brodsky Quartet, I had the opportunity to write arrangements for chamber group, chamber orchestra, jazz orchestra, symphony orchestra even. And I suppose I gathered the skills necessary to write Il Sogno. But it was still a big undertaking to do an hour-long piece. Anyway, Chris Roberts of Universal Classics thought well enough of the piece when he heard the live recording, that he thought that they make a serious recording of it and release it as a piece of instrumental music. And there were certain challenges to going back and looking at the score. I did some revisions. I was introduced to Michael Tilson Thomas, who's one of the world's great conductors-and also, by the way, a composer and somebody who's worked with people from all different walks of music-and his questions and critique of the score was very inspiring.
And many of the things that asked me about spurred me on to get the very best out of my materials and by the time we got into Abbey Road in the spring of 2002, I had just recorded 'When I Was Cruel'. In fact I was rehearsing for 'When I Was Cruel' in the evening, and in Abbey Road in the day, so that really was-that was the only time that it was a little schizophrenic, because I was listening to the London Symphony Orchestra during the day and playing with the Imposters in the evening.
But we were waiting, since that time, for an opportunity to release Il Sogno. You need a platform upon which to release an orchestral record, otherwise it's just going to be an obscurity. You have to face the fact that I have no reputation as a composer; I have my reputation as a songwriter and a performer-and that opportunity came this summer, when I was invited to perform at the Lincoln Centre festival in New York ... three nights. I had already agreed to do a concert in Den Haag in Holland with the Metropole Orchestra, which is a Dutch jazz orchestra, and I had a repertoire for that concert. I had the new repertoire recorded this spring of the Imposters which would make the second concert, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic gave the first full performance of Il Sogno in its fully-instrumental form on the final night.
Then I performed with the orchestra in the second half with a short program of songs just to bring the thing to a conclusion. It was a massive amount of music to actually perform. I performed sixty or seventy songs over the three nights. But it was a big opportunity for me to do something right in the town-the closest thing I have to a home town these days. Since I got married I've moved from Ireland to North America and I split my time between New York and British Columbia, and to have the opportunity to do this right at the centre of New York's music scene was pretty remarkable for me. and it gave Deutsche Grammophon the springboard on which to announce the release of the record. We had already agreed at the beginning of the year when all this was planned that we would just release both records the same day.
I was fifty this year and it's my celebration of making the year that a few years-not being melodramatic, but a number of years ago I wouldn't have put odds on me making 50, you know ... so I feel pretty great to be able to do all of these things and to enjoy my life and to be unashamedly happy in my private life-most of which is private, but obviously people remark upon it when you're married to somebody who's also a musician and you can't help but have a public dimension, a public profile. But people are mostly respectful of the fact that we got well known for being good at what we do, not for having a picture taken. If they want to take our picture sometimes that's fine.
BW: To do what you've done requires one big thing which takes a lot of guts, and that's you've got to be prepared to fail.
EC: Well, I've had a lot of different experiences in music over the years. And not everything you do can satisfy everybody's idealised version of you. There are many critics who have an idealised version of where my strengths lie. But as I said before, if I had continued to just simply work a franchise sound, as so many artists do, I think I would have got bored with it by now and quit. I've done a lot of things. Some of which are-I don't think they're experimental, but they've explored areas of music that I didn't start out with, but I did have the curiosity implanted in childhood about lots of forms of music.
And I don't feel any form of music is beyond me in the sense of that I don't understand it or I don't have some love for some part of it. And if there's something in it that I can respond to, then there's something that I might be able to use as a composer. There are records of mine that have had smaller audiences and have provoked really drastic responses from people-particularly from critics-who maybe don't have quite enough time to live with the record or accept that a piece has its own integrity. And I had very drastic reactions to The Juliet Letters, and then ten years later people are saying, hey, that piece has got something about it. And people have asked to adapt it, the songs have been performed in other contexts. Very similar experience happened last year when we released this album, North. It was on Deutsche Grammophon, it was very, very honest. It was the most honest record I've ever written. But it was written in entirely unprecedented style, and that's a dangerous thing to do when you're dealing with people who are judging your music against a deadline and they have little musical imagination to begin with, many of them.
And they just simply just compare it to the nearest thing that they know in their narrow little world. And as a consequence, it did receive some very vicious and some deeply personal attacks, which I can't say didn't offend me, because they showed tremendous ignorance, really, rather than any insight. There was no attempt to look within the piece at all. It was just an exercise in name-calling. It was puerile. So I feel as if instead of rather being discouraged by that, it just makes me more wilful.
I know what's important to me-as a group of songs like that which I knew when I made them wouldn't be for everybody-totally true to the way I felt, they're the absolute expression of the transformation of my heart in that period of time. I wrote them and formed them in a way that I thought was the least distorting of any group of songs that I'd ever written. I wrote them exactly as I imagined them. I performed them exactly as I imagined them. I wrote the orchestrations informed by the fact that I'd already written a whole orchestral piece so I knew what I was doing. And that was that period of time. And then there was time to pick up the electric guitar again and sing another type of song entirely. Not a reaction; it's just that's a natural cycle for me, is to do that.
And the people that have taken these records, such as The Juliet Letters and the record I did with Bert Bacharach, all to heart, are people who have imagination and have really listened in and tried to appreciate what's going on. Some records are rarer than others, that's the thing. They're not better, but they're certainly not worse, either. They're just different. And if there isn't a place in all of the releases of today for a variety and different shades of expression, then I don't know what we're doing. I really don't know what we're doing. I know that when I make a record like The Delivery Man as a contrast to even Il Sogno, this is going to reach a wider audience, because it communicates in that very direct way.
But there are things in Il Sogno that the methods of The Delivery Man could never achieve. There are things that are beautiful, there are things that are mysterious-that you just can't achieve with those methods. You just can't. So I'll continue to do what I can to follow my instincts about music, and I don't have any ambitions to speak of, but people tend to give me-things come my way, opportunities come my way, and I would be absolutely foolish and I think tremendously lazy and arrogant to keep presenting the same record over and over again. I want to be able to find new things to do. And I know even more things that are lying around the corner.
BW: Well listen. Thank you for your time. I'd better let you go and do a concert. We look forward to seeing you in Australia, very, very shortly.