Elvis is awarded the ASCAP Founders Award
- Erik Philbrook
Twentieth Annual Pop Music Awards
ASCAP FOUNDERS AWARD
Elvis Costellos Astonishing Career
By Erik Philbrook
When Elvis Costello crashed the scene in 1977 with his first album,
My Aim is True, he came on like a brash and brainy new-wave punk: knock-kneed,
bespectacled, skinny ties and all. Some fans rallied around his angry
young man persona and savored the gall the musician had in naming himself
after the king of rock and roll. True music fans, however, rallied around
his songwriting and appreciated the breadth of his formidable talent,
from the tender soul of "Alison" to the reggae-infused "Watching
the Detectives" to the brawny R&B attack of "Less Than
Zero." Backed by an ace band of musicians, the Attractions, Costello
began to create some of the most energetic, adventurous and ultimately
enduring rock music of the era. On albums such as This Years Model,
Armed Forces, Get Happy and Trust, the supreme musicianship of the band
was matched by Costellos masterful command of words and melody,
and the obvious glee he had in pushing pop musics envelope.
At the dawn of the 80s Costello was a restlesss creative spirit
and, having made his mark on 70s rock, was ready to explore other
musical avenues: His 1981 album, Almost Blue, reflected his love for
classic country music and also featured jazz legend Chet Baker performing
on the title track; 1982s Imperial Bedroom was lush and layered
pop; 1986s King of America was stripped-down acoustic country-folk.
While Costellos sound began to change with regularity, his writing
became sharper than ever. It was no surprise to his fans, then, when
he began collaborating with one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th
Century, Paul McCartney. The fruits of their efforts appeared on Spike,
perhaps the most musically diverse collection of songs Costello had
recorded up to that point and an album that also yielded Costellos
biggest American hit, "Veronica."
In the 90s Costello continued to defy categorization, following
his muse into even more unlikely and interesting places. While continuing
to record and perfom with the Attractions, he also dove into the classical
music world and wrote a song cycle with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet
Letters. As both a singer and songwriter, his collaborations flourished
with such diverse artists as Johnny Cash, The Chieftains, Tony Bennett,
Bill Frisell, Roy Nathanson and the Jazz Passengers, Ruben Blades, Ute
Lemper, Aimee Mann, the Fairfield Four, the Charles Mingus Big Band
and many others. Then, as the decade came to an end, he collaborated
with the legendary Burt Bacharach on an orchestral pop tour de force,
Painted from Memory, which earned Costello a Grammy Award for "I
Still Have That Other Girl."
Recent collaborations have found Costello working with mezzo-soprano
star Annie Sofie von Otter and soul great Solomon Burke. In 2001, Costello
was also named Artist in Residence at UCLA and performed a concert there
with the Charles Mingus Orchestra, featuring lyrics Costello had written
for Mingus compositions as well as orchestrated versions of classic
Costello songs. Then, just as people were getting accustomed to Costellos
stylistic changes and versatility, he released When I Was Cruel (2002).
Propulsive and vitriolic with deep grooves and dark moods, the album
was a return of sorts to Costellos rock and roll roots -- just
in time for Elvis Costello and the Attractions induction into
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year.
While Costello will continue to play dates this year with his rock
band, the Imposters, he has already finished writing and recording a
new album of atypical love songs and piano ballads. His ballet score
based on A Midsummer Nights Dream, written for the Italian dance
company Aterballetto and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra with
Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, will be released. Also, in an ongoing
collaboration with Bill Frisell, they will present a concert called
"A Century of Song," in which they will perform one song from
every decade of the 20th Century.
While many stand in awe of Costellos accomplishments and not
just the quantity but the quality of his work, his modus operandi remains
simple: "Im a musician, therefore I go to work," he
says. "I play what I want when I want, and I hope people will be
interested in what Im doing." Today, that attitude has earned
Elvis Costello not only a worldwide audience, but an audience made up
of many different worlds. Fans of pop, rock, jazz, R&B, country
and classical music have all found common ground in this uncommonly
You are being presented with ASCAPs Founders Award and, as
you know, the founders of ASCAP and its early members were some of the
greatest names in music - Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins.
These are artists that you obviously admire. At what point in your musical
development did you really start to appreciate their craft beyond their
obvious surface appeal?
To be honest, and I'm not saying this to be cute, but this is the truth.
My mother tells me that one of the first words that I uttered as a child
was "skin" in reference to "I've Got You Under My Skin."
And I used to request it before I could form proper sentences. So I
suppose that's a pretty young appreciation of Cole Porter.
I grew up in a musical household, but I didnt have a formal musical
education. So I wasn't subjected to music the way that a lot of people
are subjected to it and are given a fright of it. I had a generous,
open-minded musical education and the availability of a broad-range
of music in my parents' house and through my own curiosity.
When did you first start playing a musical instrument?
I didn't pick up an instrument until I was in my teens, so I had plenty
of time to absorb a lot of stuff. Among those things were the writers
that pre-dated the pop music that I actually grew up into, in other
words the music of the 1960s. So I know an uncommon amount of
songs that pre-date the original blueprint for rock and roll that my
early music makes reference to. The 60s music was what I grew
up around and so that's my reference point as a player, but as a listener
and as an appreciator of music, I've gone back into the history of music
many different times and in many different ways, right back into very
early music and the stuff written before we had any concept of popular
I know a lot of songs that you would call standards. I can't play them
all by ear, but I can sing them all and I know the words of many of
them. Ive just absorbed them from years and years of listening
just like anybody would. But because I am a musician, theyve obviously
had an influence on me.
Occasionally I'll write in forms that approach that style, although
I won't necessarily adhere to all of the shape and rules, or otherwise
it sounds like a pastiche. You still want to make it your own, but you
can learn from those masters. Just as you can from a Howlin' Wolf record
or a Lennon/McCartney song, or something more contemporary. You've got
to keep your ear open to new sounds as well.
What benchmarks do you use to determine when you've written a good
song or when a song is finished for you?
It isn't like a ruler (laughs) that you have to take out and measure
and go "Does it go the full nine yards?" It doesn't work like
that. I think you just know instinctively when a song is complete and
whether you've reached your objective. Sometimes you finish a song and
you take a step back and see that theres no way to make it better.
That's as good as you're gonna get out of a musical idea. Sometimes
Ill realize it wasn't as strong an idea as I first thought.
When you're inspired, of course, the ideas flow through very quickly.
I must say that the songs that Im recording at the moment came
through me very quickly and a lot of them were written very rapidly,
so they have a common harmonic language. And theyve been very
good to me. I heard everything in them all at once. I heard what was
possible in them emotionally, where the lyric should fall. I also heard
all of the orchestral dimensions of them and where it was possible to
color them. I heard them complete in my head as I was writing them.
It's very, very exciting when songs arrive to you with such a complete,
vivid picture in your mind. It doesn't always happen; sometimes you
write a song and the ways to express it, the ways to accompany it are
various. You might go down several different dead ends until you arrive
at the definitive way to convey the song in performance.
You are considered an artist's artist in that some of your biggest
fans are other songwriters and musicians, and you've collaborated with
some of the greats. In some way do these other artists now become your
audience when you write? For example, when you were writing a song for
When I Was Cruel, was there a voice in your head saying "I bet
Burt Bacharach is going to appreciate this."
(Laughs) Well, I bet Burt Bacharach would probably find that thought
horrifying. I learned a tremendous amount from working with him and
also from working with Paul McCartney. They are the two main collaborators
of my career in that Ive produced the most material from a standing
start with each of them. Thats a very high standard and I obviously
learned a lot from them. But I would say that I don't really regard
those people as my audience. I'm not writing for them. I write for myself.
The idea of self-indulgence in art is completely obscure to me. You
should only please yourself. Nothing else matters.
Because people are trusting you to have your own idea and if you're
patronizing the audience, talking down to them, trying to guess what
they would like to hear, then you should be writing advertising jingles.
It has nothing to do with creative songwriting. You have listen to your
own voice and not give a damn about anyone else. If you make mistakes
or if you paint yourself into a corner or try something and discover
that youre not as smart as you think you are, then that's a different
thing. You have to be prepared to fail. Everybody's written bad songs,
not bad songs but songs that don't succeed in their objective.
And you can't listen to the record companies. They're in a different
business than what I'm in. Because I'm not in a business. I'm blessed
with the fact that I'm a vocational musician who has been able to indulge
in the idea of pursuing things from an artistic point of view and make
my livelihood at it.
You are a unique artist in that your music has gone in so many different
directions. How has this affected your relationship with your longtime
I'm aware of the fact that with every change I both lose and gain people
from a potential audience, and this is why I am reviled in some areas
of the record industry for not adhering to brand identity. I am the
person they fear most (laughs). In some respects Im the person
that proves that not listening to A&R advice is actually a lifetime
of adventure. Listening to that nonsense that you must protect your
identity and all of that timidness is the absolute antithesis of rock
To my mind, when I made King of America in the 80s and it was
all acoustic, that was more of a punk rock gesture at the time than
to be screaming and shouting. So was The Juliet Letters. So was Painted
from Memory. Because, relative to what people expect of me, I'm much
happier to do the thing that confounds expectations, and make people
aware of my curiosity in music and invite them into the world that I'm
trying to create.
I'm not doing this stuff to show off my versatility; I just love lots
of different forms in which music can be expressed and I actually don't
care about critical opinion or record company opinion. I care about
reaching a number of people, and while I'm aware that some people will
walk away aghast at the sound of The Juliet Letters record or Painted
from Memory or even this record I'm working on now, there are many other
people who will relax into it, or who will dive into it like the deep
pool that music is, and they'll say "Oh, yes, that other stuff,
I've heard him do that before, so now this is more curious to me."
For me, it all works out in the end. I have a free-floating group of
listeners who I greatly appreciate that go with me through a lot of
these changes. Some find the next change or emphasis not to their liking
and they may drift away. Then something else I do regains their attention.
I have to go with what's true to me, and I think the smart people appreciate
and respect that I'm doing it for sincere reasons and that I'm not being
Those people who are superficial about me and only say "Oh, it's
that angry guy in the glasses," I don't care about what they think.
They never understood me from day one. They never understood the tenderness
of a song like "Alison." They only heard the superficiality.
A lot of the ideas of what it is I do are written by overgrown boys
who live alone and don't know many women. I mean to say that they have
no experience of life. They're like Comic Book Guy in "The Simpsons."
That's who writes those sort of reviews of my records. And I know that's
I do know some things. I have lived a little bit of a broader experience,
so while I don't want to be highhanded about it, I can't obviously limit
myself to this very narrow definition of what's hip and what isn't hip.
Because I know what's hip. What's hip is what's hip to you in the moment,
you know? And if that's the gentlest or the loudest sound, that's what's
hip to you, and that's what you need. There's a time in life for Hoagy
Carmichael. There's a time in life for Claude Debussy. There's a time
in life for Jerry Lee Lewis. There's a time in life for Destiny's Child.
All of these things have their moment.
The ASCAP Founders Award to
Unique creative spirit...
whose music defies boundaries and will enrich generations to come.