Interview with Elvis Costello and Ann Sofie von Otter
Australian, 2001-03-24, Review section ppR18-R20
- Jane Cornwell
von Otter & Costello
Dynamic duo: Classically trained mezzo-soprano Ann Sophie von Otter and post-punk Elvis Costello
Don't ask if he's worried about his reputation and don't call it crossover music. Them's the rules when talking to Elvis Costello about his latest collaboration, writes Jane Cornwell
I N AN outer wing of the Hofburg, the centuries-old residence of the Hapsburg family of Vienna, there's a theory floating round concerning Elvis Costello's facial hair. The further the Anglo-Irish musician ventures from his post-punk roots, mutter some of the journalists and marketeers who've flown in from all over Europe for tonight's showcase, the more he dabbles in composition, classical and crossover projects, then the scruffier his beard becomes.
Like the violinist Nigel Kennedy's faux-Cockney accent, perhaps Costello's tufty mutton chops are intended to keep him street, reminding diehard fans - and maybe even himself - that the angry purveyor of twisted rock `n' roll hasn't disappeared. He's just been stretching himself creatively.
We're here in Vienna because Costello's latest collaborator, the Swedish mezzo soprano Ann Sofie von Otter, has been performing a series of Mahler concerts in one of the city's innumerable music festivals. And because getting the two of them together on a makeshift stage inside the Hofburg - under a massive skylight that overlooks white chimney pots, dreaming church spires and the Gothic blue dome of St Michael's cathedral - permits the gravitas required to promote For the Stars, their selection of sophisticated jazz and rock ballads released on Germany's classical Deutsche Grammophon label.
Having donned his producing, arranging and, in five new instances, songwriting cap (not to mention a large trilby with a feather in it for both album cover and showcase), Costello has assisted von Otter in reining in her opera-trained voice to deliver characterful renditions of songs such as the Beatles' For No One, the Beach Boys' You Still Believe in Me, Kate McGarrigle's Go Leave and the Jessie Mae Robinson written, Nina Simone hit, The Other Woman. Backed by long-serving pianist Steve Nieve (formerly of Costello's now defunct rock band, the Attractions) and an ensemble of superlative Swedish musicians including ex-ABBA maestro, Benny Andersson, the result is intimate, often melancholy and rather beautiful.
It's a merger that is, for want of a better word, what 45-year-old Costello hates to call "crossover". "This is something totally different from what's been achieved before with a classical singer doing popular repertoire," he'll say later. "To me, crossover means taking some music which is regarded as difficult and dumbing it down so people can buy it for their granny. Or because they heard it in a coffee advert."
He's got a point. Whether it be the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra adorning the screaming heavy metal of Metallica, or Pavarotti's lame duets with Bryan Adams, Bono and Sting, classical musicians never really give the impression of believing in the popular music they play or sing. "They tend to sound like they've donned a party hat at some sort of gathering and feel faintly ridiculous in it," he'll continue from under his trilby, oblivious to the irony.
While von Otter, also 45, occasionally sounds like Julie Andrews on disc (which is not necessarily a bad thing), she certainly knows how to turn it on live. A striking, big-boned blonde in jeans, polo neck and long, leather jacket, she takes the stage with the casual ease of one used to subverting the critical gaze and launches, mellifluous and perfectly pitched, into the album's opening, Costello-penned track, No Wonder. "How strange the knowing look that's in my eye," she sings in her natural voice, the one she probably uses when singing along to the radio, or when she's in the shower. Wisely content to merely squeeze out a few cracked up harmonies, Costello stands to one side, his eyes twinkling at the audience through the most famous pair of black specs since Buddy Holly. "I'm just another musician" says his self-effacing demeanour.
And for the most part, he is. Aided by the chamber orchestra of Swedes, their long hair and handlebar moustaches saying more about their country's stylistic procliv- ities than any stabs at street cred, he introduces each song with barely concealed delight, grinning at von Otter during each enthusiastic patter of applause. "This is Broken Bicycles/Junk by two contrasting writers, Tom Waits and Paul McCartney," he says. "Not two you'd normally put together, but I think you'll find it works."
Having played accordion on the latter, the now notoriously publicity-shy Andersson is notable by his absence; his spirit, however, is duly honoured in a languid version of Abba's Like an Angel Passing Through My Room. It seems that if you're going to record an album in von Otter's hometown of Stockholm, as Costello and his crew chose to do, then ABBA comes with the territory. (And the furniture: the studio's boasted the same piano on which Dancing Queen was recorded). Costello has no truck with those who dismiss the Scandinavian supergroup's musicality. In last November's Vanity Fair, for example, he included them on his list of Top 500 Albums That Can Only Improve Your Life. "The fast songs on ABBA's Gold are for playing with the dress-up box, or for nights entertaining your Australian friends," he wrote, in a nod to our exceptional good taste.
But then it's mucisianship, regardless of genre, that has always tickled him the most; the list also included everyone from Shostakovich, Noel Coward and Charlie Mingus to Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Indeed, it's Costello's wide knowledge of virtually every sort of music that has made it possible for him to leap between them with ease. It's also why he's famous for getting riled with journalists who ask him stupid questions, like whether he's worried about his reputation as a rock star, or if he's gone soft in his old age.
"Are you worried about your reputation? Have you gone soft in your old age?" asks a young Danish reporter at the press conference following the showcase. Costello draws breath before answering. "Nope," he snaps. "I do all sorts of different music, sometimes simultaneously, and I have respect for all of them. If I were to pick up a rowdy electric guitar tomorrow I would have just as serious intent and just as light a heart as I did for this. But anybody who thinks I shouldn't be doing this obviously has a different idea of who I am. I can only feel pity for them." So there's no difference, then, between doing this album and doing one with the Attractions? "A bit," says Costello, glancing at his collaborator. "Ann Sofie's a better singer."
Their backgrounds couldn't be more different. Born Declan Patrick Aloysius McManus, the son of a bandleader, Costello grew up in Liverpool, England (he now lives in Dublin), in a house that swung with music; he reckons that he knew the names of jazz musicians like Dizzy, Louis and Bird before he went to school. Despite having regularly attended classical concerts with his parents, he first came to prominence in the UK punk era of 1977, after which his darkly comic vignettes and ballads of injustice - Oliver's Army, Watching the Detectives, Shipbuilding - marked him out as a true radical. The thinking post-punk' post-punk. Tramp the Dirt Down, in which he vowed to outlive Margret Thatcher so he could jump on her grave remains one of the most powerful protest songs ever recorded.
Obsessives tend to regard the real Elvis Costello as the knock-kneed guy in the ill-fitting suit who fronted the Attractions, or the one who released a series of solo rock albums such as 1994's Brutal Youth. But by the late `80s, in the wake of the Attractions split, Costello had self-educated himself in classical writing and arranging and began throwing himself into projects outside the confines of rock `n' roll. His subsequent collaborations have included a partnership with the German chanteuse Ute Lemper; with experimental American classical ensemble, the Brodsky Quartet, on the Costello-penned The Juliet Letters; and with cabaret lounge king, Burt Bacharach, on the Costello-crooned Painted From Memory. His facial hair, it must be said, getting hairier with each.
In the era Before Costello, von Otter had only worked in classical music. When the pair met back in 1989, at a backstage party following her performance in Berlioz's Damnation of Faust, she wasn't familiar with a single Costello hit. But then it's hard to imagine that her upbringing, as a member of one of Sweden's grandest families, would have encouraged access to such anti-establishment fodder as Tramp the Dirt Down. Her father's posting as consul-general in Britain meant she attended boarding school alongside the younger Windsors; she dreamed, variously, of being a ballet dancer or a doctor before joining the school choir, aged 16, and finding her calling.
'Anybody who thinks I shouldn't be doing this obviously has no idea of who I am. I can only feel pity for then'
She says she aspired to sound like, er, Julie Andrews. After studying at Stockholm College of Music and London's Guildhall, von Otter made her professional debut in 1985 as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. She is now considered one of the world's two top mezzos (the other being the Italian, Cecilia Bartoli). A star of the Baroque repertoire and a specialist in Lieder, her varied discography ranges from music by Monteverdi and Handel's operas to songs by Strauss and Verdi's Requiem. Legendarily tantrum free - a legacy, perhaps, of her marriage to an emphatically working-class theatre director, Benny Fredriksson, with whom she has two sons - von Otter's gradual yearning to crossover (a word she has no problem with) coincided, serendipitously, with her burgeoning friendship with Costello.
The duo had already appeared together in concert in Stockholm in 1996, von Otter singing Strauss and Costello his own back catalogue. Costello was thus inspired to write a trio of songs called Three Distracted Women for von Otter and his old pals the Brodsky Quartet. They performed the work, along with Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe's Island Dreaming, at London's Wigmore Hall later that year. It was during rehearsals that Costello and von Otter began discussing the possibility of making an album. Their relentless schedules (von Otter has already pencilled in an Australian recital tour for 2003), as well as their ongoing (but, they stress, good-humoured) arrangements as to what should be included, have meant the project took until now to complete.
"We wanted to record relatively unknown, fabulous songs which people will discover," says von Otter in cut-glass English, now sitting next to Costello in their low-ceilinged dressing room in the bowels of the Hofburg. "Some of the songs are known, but none are the obvious choices." Once they got into the studio, she adds, they were out again in a couple of weeks. This was something of a compromise; where rock and pop albums can take months to record (the minutiae of the multi-track offering a wealth of possibilities), their classical counterparts are usually wrapped up in a few days. "Orchestral recordings have to be kept short because it's so expensive to keep an orchestra hanging around," she explains. "And I don't have a lot of patience. I'm ashamed to say I get sick of it after four or five takes."
The other most obvious difference had to do with microphone technique. "In classical recordings," says Costello, "the singer projects as they would do in a concert hall and they catch the sound of the voice in the air. But we're talking about putting the microphone where most pop singers have it, like two to six inches away." For von Otter, this meant adapting her classically trained voice muscles in order to avoid what Costello calls the mantraps that people fall into when they leave their own territory. "It's a different sound," she shrugs. "I used a lower register, and just the breath of the air as colour."
Costello began playing around with microphones after shouting himself hoarse fronting rock bands, which he's still wont to do. It's a raw power, adrenalin thing. "I'm like the Richter scale. I can sing very loudly above middle C, but every step above that gets 10 times louder until it's unbearable." Sometimes, to break down the barriers between artist and audience, he'll close his shows using no mic at all. It's what he did at the acoustic-friendly Melbourne Concert Hall in 1999, with only Steve Nieve's piano as accompaniment. "I went back to Australia for the first time in seven years and I had a ball. They'd caught up with a lot of records I hadn't played down there and seemed to know them. We visited everywhere except Shellharbour Workers Club, which is a favourite of mine. They've got some great fruit machines.
"We wanted to record relatively unknown, fabulous songs which people will discover. Some of the songs are known, but none are the obvious choices."
"But no doubt Ann Sofie and I will be playing there on our world tour," he adds, smiling at von Otter's quizzical expression. There is, as yet anyway, no world tour in the offing. Costello is still to make his much anticipated rock album, the likes of which, he boasted to a British newspaper in 1997, no one has yet heard before. "Did I say that?" he asks. "Plans change. But it'll happen. And it will be rowdy. I do have a sound in my head but I can't talk about it. It's better just to do it."
But first he's heading off to Ethiopia with his wife, Cate O'Riordan, a former bassist with Irish outfit The Pogues. "My wife is very fearless when it comes to travelling. I have a fear of heights, so I have to decide whether the place she wants to visit is low enough for me to go to. But we've been on some adventures in the past few years." So far, the highest place he's scaled is Mount Vesuvius - which is where he discovered he had the fear. "It's a drag if you get somewhere and then decide you can't move another step. You know if it comes on you that way then you're better off staying at ground level. There's plenty to see." Von Otter, eager to empathise, confesses to a slight claustrophobia. "I was thinking before, what if the lights went out in here?" she says, looking around ominously. "I'm always afraid of being stuck in lifts and things like that."
The vertiginous sentiments expressed by Costello on the album's sparkling title track, For the Stars, are another matter entirely. Is it reaching maturity that has prompted him to venture into more difficult territories? "This wasn't difficult," he retorts. "It was a real joy. I haven't made any pact with any audience to conform to an idea of who I'm meant to be. I'm not the keeper of any flame. Now if I had carried on writing in the same style as I did for the Brodsky Quartet it would have seemed that I had some ambition to be seen as a contemporary classical composer, but I don't see myself like that. I just use different methods when I'm writing depending on the mood and the circumstances. It's all music."
A prolific songsmith, this current collaboration also enabled Costello to harness lyrics he'd already written but hadn't yet used. The song For the Stars, for example, had existed in fragmentary form for years. Luckily, it also made for a great title. "We originally wanted to call it The Other Woman, which was difficult as both of us were going to be on the album cover.
"I suppose," he muses, "it could have just been me in a dress." But that would hardly have gone with the beard, though, would it? "I guess you're right," he grins, pointing his chin in the air and giving it a good, long scratch.
For the Stars will be released locally by Universal Classics in May.