Interview with Elvis Costello
Allmusic Zine, 1999-08-25
- Kevin Ransom
Elvis Costello is not the man he was.
In recent years, his music has grown more sophisticated and more harmonically complex. His last few records have taken on a brooding hue that, on the surface, differs sharply from the twitchy, exhilarating rave-ups that put him on the rock and roll map in the late 1970s and early '80s.
On such seminal discs as This Year's Model (1978), Armed Forces (1979), and Get Happy!! (1980), Costello's music was a woozy whirligig of audaciously catchy melodies and quirky big-beat rhythms, often fueled by the playful flutter of a cheesy-cool roller-rink organ or tittering carnival calliope. And his lyrics -- a whoosh of snappy alliterations, densely layered wordplay, and hilariously overripe metaphors -- often gushed at a breathless pace.
But in the '90s, as Costello has sifted more deeply through the dark rubble of the human heart, he's employed richer, more subtle shadings. All This Useless Beauty, released in 1996, was his most muted, ballad-heavy effort, at least up to that point.
Then came Burt. When Costello hooked up with '60s suave-pop icon Burt Bacharach to write and record Painted From Memory, he got to flex his affinity for the lush orchestrations and swoony crescendos that made Bacharach one of the most successful pop composers of the past 30-odd years. Painted From Memory, released in September 1998, is a somber, harmonically elegant study in heartache and loss -- a collection of what Costello calls "twisted lost-love songs." In their own way, these gloomy ruminations are every bit as harrowing as the biting screeds of his youth, and Painted From Memory won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo.
Even before the Bacharach collaboration, Costello was famous for a far-flung eclecticism that led him to explore various genres: Get Happy!! was an amphetamined homage to soul music, Almost Blue (1981) limned the country-music canon, and The Juliet Letters (1993) was a semi-classical collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet.
Costello's current record deal honors his restless muse. If his instincts pull him in a pop direction, he'll release a disc on the Mercury label. If he's in a jazzy mood, he has the option of recording for Verve. Or, if he wants to go the country route, a la Almost Blue, his project will bear the Mercury Nashville imprint.
This summer, Costello toured the United States, doing stripped-down, mostly acoustic performances of songs from all phases of his career, accompanied only by longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve. In November, he'll do a European tour. Allmusic Zine spoke with him in late May, just as his U.S. tour was getting underway.
Back to Back with Bacharach
How did working with Burt Bacharach affect your writing?
Well, until recently I didn't read music very well. I still don't read very fluently. So it would be one thing to look at one of his scores and analyze what he's done. But when you watch him actually come up with something right in front of you, and it has all these unusual little quirks of meter and a very distinctive harmonic language, and you're trying to write music that's compatible with it, and trying to enter into some sort of dialogue inside the song: Maybe I'm writing the opening, or maybe he is, and one of us is trying to pay off the proposition that's contained in the first part that's been composed. You obviously get influenced by that. And I think it drew stronger stuff out of me. It didn't make me want to imitate him, but I wanted to speak in a compatible language, so we both wrote on the piano. I didn't see any point in my trying to bring the harsher sounds that have existed in my compositions to bear on this group of songs, because that just would have been perverse and counterproductive.
Did you lay out any guidelines as you began the project?
We agreed that it was going to be an album of lost-love songs, and we would try to keep them all in a mood and in a particular world. But there's still a great deal of contrast in the songs. No two are alike: There's a lot of different orchestrations, and most of them are very gently expressed. Some begin delicately and move to a big dramatic climax. Sometimes he would write the lion's share of the composition, sometimes I would. But we would always suggest at the very least a structural design that is necessary to push the music one way or another. Sometimes he'd take a phrase of mine and just twist [it] in some little subtle way that would bring out the best in it.
You didn't do any writing on guitar for this album?
The only song that has any foundation on guitar was the opening vocal melodic statement on "Painted From Memory." I wrote that on guitar and then transposed onto piano because it just made more sense to develop the composition on the piano. Burt wrote the intro and the chorus, and it just came very naturally to move it onto the piano. After that, I didn't touch the guitar. Actually, since 1980, the only two of my albums that were largely composed on guitar were Blood & Chocolate  and Brutal Youth . Nearly everything else was mostly composed on piano. I've used the piano a lot more the last 10 years as the main instrument for composing, even though I don't really play very well.
You've said that you didn't write for Painted From Memory in "a secret language" -- that you wanted the lyrics to be more universal.
Well, that was true of that record, but I'm not so sure that it was a forever kind of conversion. Sometimes it's very good to play with words and see where it leads you. It just depends on the mood and circumstances, and how you're responding to the music that's composed. Certain songs just beg for a certain kind of writing.
When I was in the early stages of writing the songs for Painted From Memory, I tried to be as wild with words as I could be, and one thing began to overpower the other, and they began to fight with one another. So I just simplified it and let the words serve the music, and let the words inform the music, and let the music inform the words. That was an exacting task, but it was good. It was good discipline, and I ended up with words I was happy with, that worked for those songs.
Writing in that "secret language" seems like a great way to express contradictory feelings.
Yeah, a lot of stuff I wrote in my late 20s and early 30s was like that. Sometimes it came directly out of personal experience, so maybe I'd express things in a kind of way that wasn't too self-serving or too exhibitionist. You're really trying to find a language that intrigues and invites the listener, instead of making a spectacle of yourself, which is never the intention.
If I'm writing songs independent of my life, it doesn't mean they don't have emotional authenticity just because I don't want to join the confession culture. I reject the idea completely that if you don't bleed all over the songs, it isn't real. Some of the greatest, most revealing songs were written with the greatest restraint, like Cole Porter songs, if you go way back before rock and roll.
Silver Screen Adventures
You and Burt Bacharach performed a song in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Yeah, it was the Bacharach-[Hal] David song "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." It was a really sweet version, very straight. It's a funny sequence, where we're all swept back in time, through the magic of the movies, to the '60s, and we're in Carnaby Street -- I don't understand how, exactly, because I haven't seen the finished movie. But we're in the middle of a big dance sequence, and Burt and I are serenading Mike Myers and Heather Graham as Austin romances Felicity Shagwell. It's very sexy.
You've done a fair amount of film music lately.
Yes, my wife [Cait O'Riordan] and I wrote a song for The Big Lebowski. We also wrote a song for The Rugrats Movie, which No Doubt performed and I produced. I did something for an English movie [ I Want You], made by the director of Welcome to Sarajevo [Michael Winterbottom]. I made an appearance in 200 Cigarettes, which uses a couple of my old tunes from the '70s. And I sing a Charles Aznavour song, "She," with a 96-piece orchestra, that runs in the opening and closing sequences of Notting Hill [the romantic comedy that stars Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts]. So I guess that is a pretty big movie brief, just in the last 18 months. It's starting to become a second career. These things are sort of a holiday away from writing and recording and performing, but they're enjoyable.
What's coming up?
I just made a movie in France, where I play myself, in a surrealistic kind of way. I got to sing this 20-year-old song written by a French guy, with a huge orchestra. What am I going to say: "No, I'm not going to have that experience?" I mean, why not? It doesn't mean I'm only going to record songs now in that style, but because I'm singing these twisted love songs on Painted From Memory, maybe they think I can sing straight ones once in a while.
The Songs That Got Away
How do you create your lyrics? Do you write them down in a notebook, or carry a tape recorder around, or come up with them while sitting with an instrument?
I do all of those things. I don't really have one particular method. I've tried working on huge pieces of paper with lots of words written on them, and then gone to using small bits of paper. I've carried notebooks, I've carried Dictaphones -- but then I stopped carrying those because I feel inhibited if I have one in my pocket. It felt like money burning a hole in my pocket. Sometimes I feel that if I carry a notebook, I'll never write anything in it, so I'll leave it at home. That's when I end up begging pieces of paper from strangers.
Do you ever lose a song because you had no way to get it down?
That's the one you wake up with in the small hours of the morning and think, "Oh, I'll remember that in the morning" -- and then you don't. When you're half asleep and half awake, and you have half an idea -- that's the deadly thing. Or it turns into some sort of French farce, where you're walking down the street, with your fingers in your ears, trying not to hear any other music that might throw you off the track before you can get to a telephone. I'm forever calling my house and humming things into my answering machine. I've even gone into a shop and bought a Dictaphone, with my fingers in my ears, humming the tune, while the guy puts the batteries in for me. It really gets ridiculous. Sometimes you'll get smitten with something, and you're convinced that if you don't get it in, it's gonna be the one tune where you'll really rue the day that you didn't get it down -- and many times it turns out to be nothing, of course.
Do the elements of your songs -- the lyrics, the music, the title -- come separately?
On Painted From Memory, some of the ideas behind the songs and some of the titles came simultaneously with the music. Like on "In The Darkest Place": There's a tape of me somewhere mumbling the opening musical phrase of the verse, and outlining the melody up to about the first eight bars, and sketching out what it was going to say. Then I had to develop the rest of the music, based on where that first statement had taken me. It wasn't until I developed the music, six months later, that the rest of it fell into place. So in nearly every case, the music led the way on this record, whereas with the records I've made on my own, the music was often driven by the words. The words would come tumbling out simultaneously with the music as I was sitting there, playing guitar or piano.
Collaborations Past, Present and Future
You've been involved in a number of interesting songwriting collaborations. Are there any other writers you'd especially like to work with?
No, I've never actually had any particular ambition in that sense. I never had any kind of ambition except to do the next thing that's thrilling. I always hoped that there would be another thing, but I never had a wish list of people: I never dreamed of working with Paul McCartney or June Tabor or Burt. I might say, well, I'd like to write a song as good as these people could write, but I don't have any wish list of singers I'd like to write for. Now, there are singers I wish I could have written for, but they've passed away.
You haven't targeted any contemporary singers?
I'm sure there are singers out there who've done great jobs on songs I've written or songs I'll still write, but until that opportunity presents itself, it's better not to have the ambition. It's better, perhaps, to have the encounter and let it lead you somewhere. Like, with the Brodsky Quartet: I was a member of the audience, then I met them as friends, and next we found ourselves writing together. It stimulated the way they looked at themselves, and stimulated the way I saw myself. It opened the possibility for me to do something other than working with a band and a rhythm section.
So you weren't looking at the time to move beyond the limits of pop songwriting?
I'd never thought of working in a form that didn't have any of those pop music elements until I got the opportunity to do it. From then on, I've thought of working with all sorts of different ensembles, some of them driven from underneath, with a rhythm section, and some not: maybe orchestras, or small chamber ensembles that lean toward jazz or classical, just in terms of the timbres of the instruments. I'm still singing the songs I'm writing. I'm not a jazz player or a classical singer, I'm a pop music singer, but I just shape my songs slightly different than the mainstream, you know?
Are there any songs out there that you wish you'd written?
No, I've never thought, "I really would love to have written that song." I've admired loads and loads of songs, but I've never really had envy about songs. I'm just glad someone wrote them.
What historic composers do you most admire?
Oh, goodness, loads, all over the place, depending on who you're listening to most at the moment. The list is huge, and you can admire someone without having the slightest resemblance to them, or any illusions that you could be anything like them -- like, say, Schubert.
What kinds of songs can we expect from you in the near future?
I have no idea where I'm heading. I mean, this latest song I wrote with Steve [Nieve] is an amazingly short song -- if it's two minutes long, I'll be surprised. But there are many more spaces in it than even in the Burt songs. It's almost a literal dialogue between piano and voice, and therefore you have to listen in a slightly different way because the continuity of the lyric is spaced in an unusual way, at least to the typical pop-music ear. Not that it's abstract; it's just spaced in unusual ways. And I'm still finding ways, just in the simplest and shortest form of song, that there's another way to write and pace yourself and get your ideas across with so few lyric and rhythm values, and meter values.
Are you making progress?
Well, I don't write much on the road, so I'm looking forward to getting back home and gathering my thoughts and working on it. Because I think the snapshot thoughts that threw up really good songs when I was young, if I relied on them today, are more likely to throw up songs I've already written. I've got a lot of things I want to work out, and I've got a lot of unfinished songs, like maybe two albums' worth, and I don't even know if any one of them is going to be the foundation of my next album. I do have a few things that are complete, but with other people's voices in mind, and I'm going to write some material for a new record by another singer. Through the process of touring and having daily access to such a big repertoire of songs I've already written, I have a clearer idea of which way to jump next. I've got a really great sound in my head that I want to get at, which I haven't heard before.
Can you describe it?
Not really, no. Because if I could, it would already exist. It incorporates a lot of sounds that appeal to me that I don't believe have been combined in quite the way that I have in mind. I also don't know technically how to do it, or if it's even possible to do it, but I'm going to find out and see.
Will this sound work for the songs you plan to be writing?
Who knows? You can't always determine what bunch of songs are going to just pop out of your head. It's down to experience and chance elements. I might write more ballads. Or I might say, "No, that's enough ballads. I want this, and that will be the impetus. I'm gathering momentum. It's been a couple of years since I've just devoted myself to writing for my own ends. I've been writing for films, or special requests for certain singers, or in conjunction with Burt and tailoring my thoughts to "how can we enter into this dialogue, and where can we take that conversation?"
Do you sense which category your next record will embrace: elegant pop, country, R&B, chamber music, or whatever?
I don't define them like that, although I would like to come up with an ensemble that hasn't been put together quite that way before and find a rhythmic motivation for it that's fresh and not static. Not that Painted is static, but rhythm is more much gently expressed [on Painted] than on any other record I've ever made, possibly even including Juliet, which has some driving sections. There are no harsh claustrophobic sounds, no sounds that assault the listener in an unpleasant way -- you know, for effect. Obviously you don't put unpleasant things on deliberately to needle the listener, but sometimes it can challenge the idea of what's in focus and what's out of focus, and what's intended, and where this will lead. So I don't know; it's too early to say. I have a lot of possibilities. I have a lot of alliances with friends and musicians that I want to see through, Steve included. Some songs we've written recently are featured in the show from night to night.
Waiting for a Revolution
With all the branching out you've done recently, do you feel that the musical vocabulary of rock and roll has become too limiting?
Not to me. I just think I've followed my instincts. Like, working with Burt: I saw no point in making a collision between "Pump It Up" and "What's New, Pussycat?" It's a Frankenstein's monster type of proposition that might be interesting for five minutes but wouldn't endure, whereas we can write all these other songs that play to the strength of the things we share an understanding of, you know? And I've been involved in that for the last two years. I guess the last rock song I wrote that was recorded was "My Mood Swings," for The Big Lebowski, with my wife. It was an off-the-cuff kind of thing.
Has it been harder to find inspiration in rock music?
I can't say I've heard too many rock and roll records that have really thrilled me in the last couple of years. I'm waiting for the next person to make it up in a new way, but I have a broader definition of rock and roll than some people do. Like, I think Tom Waits is a great rock and roll artist. He does so many other things; he's a great composer and has that American musical gumbo thing, which the original rock and roll had. But when you try and just put those same pieces in the pot again, they don't really make it, because we know what they are now. When Elvis [Presley] did it first, or whoever did it first, it was such a surprise. That's why, if you play the Sun records, they're still so shocking: It was beat poetry, folk music, and Howlin' Wolf, all mixed up.
Do you think something that revolutionary will come along again?
There's always going to be another one of those. Nirvana was one: the Beatles mixed up with Black Sabbath -- whoever thought that would go together? -- with a punk attitude and using an amount of distortion that would have been unacceptable six months before that. I remember making a video, which I know is not a great thing to judge criteria by, but it was in about 1986, when we did a cover of "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." It was rejected by MTV because they said it had too many different layers of things going on. Some of it was superimposed, some things were going in half-time, and some things were going double-time, some were in normal time, and some things were out of focus. Now, every trailer for MTV combines all those elements and nine other things plus animation. That's how quickly the parameters move.
In fact, I remember getting really scathing reviews in some quarters for Blood & Chocolate, because of the level of distortion on the record -- due to the way it was recorded, it's a little fuzzy around the edges. Then, within a few years, you've got Nevermind, and everybody's trying to make a record like that one. It's just idiotic, but it happens all the time. Someone makes it come into focus and makes it the benchmark, and then everyone else is left trailing it and trying to recreate that magic combination of things -- then you've got all the imitation bands. And that thing wears out, so you get the new thing and all the imitations of that. That's just the way pop works: You've got Frank Sinatra trying to sing like Bing Crosby.
You've recently been playing duo gigs with Steve Nieve, though you don't have a current album to promote.
I'm just playing concerts. I'm on a different type of schedule than the record industry. I'm playing good songs because I feel like it. I'm not "promoting" anything. I'm playing songs from Painted because they're great songs and I'm proud of them.
Logistically, at least, two-person shows aren't difficult to stage.
Because of the very punishing economics of trying to do concerts with a 30-piece orchestra, it requires a tremendous amount of time to rehearse a band up from the ground every two days. It's impossible to do many concerts like that. Burt and I did six of them, which were great. But Steve and I have been doing a number of concerts in this style -- just him and me, mostly acoustic guitar and piano -- for a few years, and each time we've done it, it's like doing a resume.
The first time, it was part of a festival in '95. We just did songs that we'd done before on occasion when we were touring with the Attractions, like maybe songs we'd done to open a show or songs we'd done for an encore, with just piano. But we decided to do a whole set like that, and it was great. When I had the songs that made up All This Useless Beauty, we decided to present them to the public that way first, before playing them in a full-band arrangement. We played small places -- clubs, the Fillmore.
Was that a nice change of pace for you?
I enjoyed that, to be truthful, more than the succeeding tour, which turned out to be the last Attractions tour. Then we [Costello and Nieve] did a tour of Italian opera houses, and I was writing the songs with Burt during this time. So I had this maddening situation: I didn't want to debut those songs before recording them, so every night I knew I had five really killer songs I could play, but I knew I would be doing them a disservice to have them debuted in this style. But now that people have heard them on record, they've traveled a bit.
I feel good about what I'm doing with Steve. The purpose of the tour -- which we've been doing since January in Europe, Japan, America, and Canada -- is to just play the best songs I have on each night. We change it every night. We do a number of songs from Painted, in this style, and we also do a lot of old songs, which are stripped to the essentials, so you can't get lazy with them. We have to play them full-on.
You're not limited by the acoustic guitar-piano lineup?
Actually, the combination is quite rich. On some of the songs, I put the guitar down and just sing, so it's just me and the piano. Sometimes I'll just play guitar, so it gets quite wide-ranging. We play some electric, and we play a lot of rhythmic music to break up the prevailing mood, which has more to do with ballad music, music that's more melodic and less rhythmically-driven. We do play some rock and roll songs. And we like to keep 'em guessing. We have 200 or 300 songs to choose from, and we have about 70 songs right under our hands today. We've been known to play four nights in a row in one city, and play 30 songs a night and change 15 of them each night.
Sounds like a [Bob] Dylan show.
Well, he has a bigger catalog than me, doesn't he? He's been writing a good deal longer than I have.
What's In a Label?
Your contract is quite innovative, in that it lets you release albums on various labels within your record company, depending on the genre you're exploring. Why was it important to have that kind of latitude?
It just seemed to make sense. Now, how it works in reality is still to be proven, you know -- it's just a blueprint for a form of activity. I mean, while I was with Warner Bros., I released The Juliet Letters without any assistance from the classical division at all, even though it obviously shared a lot of things in common with a classical record, apart from the fact that I was singing on it. You can do it the other way, but it's my guess that the people who are really great at selling Hanson records maybe wouldn't be the best people . . . well, maybe they just wouldn't enjoy working on a record that was me and some kind of weird ensemble that they don't see as pop music but that is still music and is successful in its own way.
But I can't say, OK, I'm going to record for Deutsche Grammophon and play saxophone, because I've never played saxophone. It has to be something where, OK, this is what I'm working on, and we'll talk with them like grownups. Maybe I'm getting to the point where we're all grownups and I can actually say that the record company is not necessarily the enemy -- they haven't given me any evidence that they are. So maybe let's just credit them with the idea that it might be better for everyone if all the people who knew the most about this kind of music took it to the public.
Have you gotten strong label support for Painted From Memory?
The record is actually in a funny situation right now, because the record company [Mercury] was taken over, and now it's been cast as a Universal company, and Universal has enthusiasm for it to this day, just as though it was a current record. Now, obviously it's difficult to sustain that, in terms of that "where is it on the charts?" kind of nonsense. But they have reissued it with the addition of live tracks that show what I'm doing with the songs in concert, I guess because we won a Grammy, and it got everyone all fired up again. And that's fine. That's what the purpose is of those types of awards: to focus people on some of the things that were done that didn't make the top of the charts. It's good when awards are won by records that aren't on the top of the charts.
Were you worried about losing your major-label deal over the past year, as labels were being consolidated and shut down?
I thought I might get dropped off of Mercury when the takeover went down, simply because of the "last in, first out" kind of thing. I was somewhat surprised to stay on the label. But if they can see the value in keeping me, I'll stay there as long as I think I can make it work. I'm not sentimental. I've left both of the last two major labels I was with. And outside of the U.S., I've been an independent for the bulk of my career. Only since 1989 have I been globally with a major. For the bulk of my career before that, I was with an independent that had a relationship with a major -- it was only a distribution deal.
So I've had the experience of being both an independent and with a major label simultaneously. I've seen the benefits and the pitfalls of both scenarios. I left both Columbia and Warner Bros. somewhat acrimoniously, either because I outstayed my welcome or I felt that, at the time, my efforts were being squandered by other people's lack of understanding. But you get over it and survive and go on.
What would you do if you were dropped?
I'd just go back to being an independent, which is how I started out anyway, so it would be no change for me. Besides, I'm already independent inside the major -- no one's ever told me what to record. The day it would stop working for me to work in conjunction with majors [would be] if they did tell me what to record. I don't take orders very well. But if they don't like what I'm doing, they can just not promote it. It's not like a Big Brother sort of thing. They can just say, "Well, we're not going to spend the money on that." At that point, it becomes pointless to even make the record. But that sort of thing has happened much less to me than it has to other people.
When you left Columbia and Warner, was it because they wanted you to keep making "Mystery Dance" over and over again?
No. Actually, there were some people who wanted me to do that from day one, although not so much with Warner. Remember, I joined the Warner Bros. that had bankrolled Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman and Ry Cooder and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. I came on board in time to see the end of that incarnation of Warner Brothers -- the Warner Bros. that bankrolled The Juliet Letters without hearing a note of it. And I saw it enter into the era of the Time/Warner merger, which brought different pressures to bear. Look at artists like Sheryl Crow, who was very emotional at the Grammys about the demise of A&M, which had its own history. I suppose if your career with a label has spanned the time from its identity in that form to its identity as just one of the acquisitions of a major corporate conglomerate, you're bound to feel differently than I do. But I'd just joined Warner, so what I was most anxious about was the people I'd just gotten to know, who were clearly working under tremendous strain, not knowing if they had a job next week.
Obviously you feel good about being with Mercury.
Well, there are great records on the Mercury label, and there's great records on the Verve label. But then, which Verve are we talking about? The Verve that put out the Ella Fitzgerald songbook, or the Verve that put out We're Only In It for the Money by the Mothers [Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention], or the Velvet Underground? Labels have all changed identity and all been owned a million times, just as artists have been on lots of different labels. They're not defined by the business side. If you can separate the music from the business, then you don't have a problem.