|The Elvis Costello
Interview about North; next album to be instrumental
By Michael Dwyer
As far as Elvis Costello is concerned, recording history has yielded only three "completely studio-bound" records that are "really, truly great". He cites Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and Sergeant Pepper by the Beatles before getting stuck.
"Maybe In A Silent Way," he adds, recalling the 1968 Miles Davis session edited by producer Teo Macero. "That's very much a studio record. Even though it's spontaneous playing, it's a creation of the studio as much as the musicians."
On the other hand, he adds, "there's an awful lot of recordings that are great facsimiles of people playing music in a room, which you could also go and see them do in a theatre - all the records by Frank Sinatra, for a start.
"That's what North is. There are no effects as such, other than the natural environment of the recording."
North is, both lyrically and sonically, the most naked and courageous of Elvis Costello's 20-odd albums. His technical distinction between "studio-bound records" and records that happen to be recorded in a studio may look esoteric on paper, but the difference resonates on disc like only a lone voice in front of a 48-piece ensemble can.
Recorded live with acoustic instruments, and then enhanced with various orchestral permutations, its old-fashioned arrangements comprise the latest step in an epic musical journey that's taken rock, soul, country, jazz and classical music in it stride.
With its candid lyrics of love lost and found, the essence of North is a certain timeless emotional truth, a quality the writer sought to reflect in an unembellished recording process.
"Thirty years ago, playing piano and singing at the same time was actually very common," Costello says wryly. "Joni Mitchell's records were all recorded like that. We didn't think that was an impossible thing, a dazzling feat of expertise.
"I think what we've got these days, the expectations of our ears, are these huge creations of the studio with the voice located somewhere slightly to the north of it, not always feeling like it's connected, you know? I suppose this recording is the opposite. The instruments really make way for the voice.
"It's a vocal record, I would say. Even though I'm proud of the orchestrations, I didn't write any of them until I had the performances I wanted."
Like Sinatra on a bossy day, Costello took to the podium himself to conduct the rhythm section - nine horn players and 28 string players - that colours North's more elaborate tracks. "Although I have no technique as a conductor," he demurs. "Really, I'm kind of waving my arms around hoping to inspire them."
The key inspiration, though, came from his emotive throat strings, a remarkable development from the strangled bleat that gave the new-wave agitator his first chart successes with Watching the Detectives and Chelsea.
"I always knew I could sing much better than those records suggested," he says, "but I wasn't called upon to sing with much tone. As you get older (he's 49) you can develop more resonance, and I seem to have developed quite a lot more.
"I've stretched my voice a lot by singing music right on the edge of my ability, The Juliet Letters and Painted From Memory (with Burt Bacharach) being two examples of singing something very close to the edge of impossible - not just for me, but actually impossible for anybody.
"There was quite a lot criticism of the singing on Painted From Memory that mostly ignored that almost anybody would have a hard job singing those songs. They're just very, very difficult. What's important is the emotion that's coming over."
Much discussion about North has centred on its thematic parallels with Costello's recent romantic history. Last year he split with his wife of 16 years, former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan. His engagement to Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall was confirmed in May.
These facts are impossible to ignore when confronted with North's clearly heartfelt narrative, which begins with bitter heartbreak and disillusionment and builds to a rapturous invocation of new love.
"There's no false singing on it, in the sense of emotionally false singing," is as much as Costello will say.
"The songs are presented in the order they were written, so the transition is one that I felt, from song to song. Although it isn't, strictly speaking, a story, there is the development that you describe. That's absolutely evident."
On a DVD attached to the new album, Costello plays and sings a couple of songs live: single-take piano-vocal performances that once again emphasise the complete lack of artifice at the heart of the songs.
"These might be the most personal songs I've ever written," he tells the camera, "but none of that means anything unless other people can see themselves in them."
It's a very romantic record, isn't it?
"I believe it is, yeah," he responds. "But in a genuine and profound sense, rather than in the simple reduction that romance is often seen in these days."
Though light years removed from his archetypal new-wave sneer, North's absence of irony and cynicism feels like a natural development to anyone who has kept up with Costello's evolving voice as a composer. The next album, though, promises a real challenge.
"It's an instrumental album, which is already in the can," he says. "It's orchestral music. The instrumental colours on this record may prepare people's ears for that, but it will be asking for their attention for a lot longer without words - which is the one thing I've been known for."
By the time he tours Australia next year, Costello says, he may be in a position to link that album with North, with the aid of locally sourced orchestration. He's momentarily dumbfounded to hear that Kiss attempted a similar union with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra last February.
"Well, it might be a slightly different thing," he deadpans. "But you never know."
North is out this week through Universal.