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Interview about North
Billboard, 2003-09-26
- Chris Morris


Costello Heads 'North' With Orchestrated Map

By Chris Morris

Elvis Costello's new Deutsche Grammophon release "North" is not what anyone would call typical Costello.

In sharp contrast to his last album, 2002's "When I Was Cruel," the new album, released Sept. 23, eschews rock instrumentation and textures. Costello plays guitar briefly on just one number; the collection's 11 tracks -- all original ballads -- are dominated by Steve Nieve's piano.

Costello says of his unusually naked new songs, "The first song is taken [by some listeners] as a song of romantic loss, when it's actually a song about bereavement. The rest of the songs describe a transition from bewilderment into acceptance. That is something I believe is something that people will recognize in degrees... Hopefully, in time, different songs will mean different things to individuals who are listening."

The introspective, bluntly honest, often wounded songs were penned during Costello's 2002 American tour.

Costello says, "I was seeking out pianos wherever I could -- backstage, in dressing rooms, sometimes in the wings of theaters. And then I bought a little cheap electronic keyboard so that I could have something to play late at night in a hotel room. I could sketch things out on that. I was also on the road, literally on the road, so I could sit at the back of the bus with the keyboard and keep working.

"When I finished the tour, a second group of songs appeared, which is the second half of the record. Pretty much, they appear in the sequence in which they were written."

He adds, "There is a strain of piano ballad running through my recordings, and this is the most pronounced realization of that type of composition. People who have known me for edgier or more demanding-sounding records, more demanding of your attention, would be surprised to hear the use of my voice or my register, and the relative quiet of the instrumentation."

Without claiming any direct influence, Costello acknowledges the impact of some classic soul-baring albums on the songs heard on "North."

Costello says, "Once you've written the songs, it's irrelevant what kind of music you think it is, or what kind of music other people think it is. You have to look to the records that ask the same of you as a listener. The precedents for records that move you in that way might be something like [Billie Holiday's] 'Lady in Satin,' but it could just as easily be something like [Joni Mitchell's] 'Blue' or [Bob Dylan's] 'Blood on the Tracks.' It doesn't have to be music that sounds even remotely like it. It just is something that you know that went somewhere, and you think, 'That was admirable, to go out to that extreme.

"I'm not trying to put this album on a plateau with those albums. Only listeners will tell if they believe it to be of consequence to them. But that's what you have to think about. There's no point in doing something as open-hearted and as undisguised as this and trying to do it less than records such as the ones we're speaking about. They should always be your guide. It's not so much that they're inspiration or an 'influence,' as people call it. 'Influence' just means you stole the idea."

Though intimate in content, the set is embellished on several numbers by arrangements, written by Costello, featuring a string and horn ensemble that sometimes swells to 48 pieces. The Brodsky Quartet, the classical ensemble that collaborated with Costello on "The Juliet Letters" in 1993, appears on one track. Soloists include jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, trumpeter Lew Soloff, and vibraphonist Bill Ware.

Costello says of the arrangements, "The use of this particular type of low horn ensemble, is something I've been working with, although not on record, since 1995. I didn't just stumble on this yesterday. I've been working with this sound for a number of years. I just haven't got it on record before."

Costello's pop-oriented recordings are released through Island/Def Jam. But Universal Classics chairman Chris Roberts offered Deutsche Grammophon -- which released "For the Stars," Costello's 2001 set with opera star Anne Sofie von Otter -- as a haven for "North."

The current album acts as a prelude to the late-2003 release by Deutsche Grammophon of an orchestral album, recorded with Michael Tilson-Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra, of Costello's ballet score for "A Midsummer Night's Dream," commissioned by Italy's Aterballetto dance company.

"[Roberts] gave me the opportunity to make a ballad album," Costello says, "and I had a whole other repertoire of maybe 20 or more songs that I could have recorded. Then the 'North' songs appeared, and the imperative changed. I was given the opportunity to record a record which was more or less serving a function of building a musical bridge to a record that was already in the can. At that very time, I think I wrote what I believe are among the best songs I've ever written."

The CD package for "North" includes a PIN number that allows consumer to download the titular composition, which Costello chose not to include on the album out of concern for the overall tone of the work.

Costello explains, "On another occasion, I might have paced the record with humor or with a lighter or faster tune, but I felt that it was drawing away from the intensity, so I didn't want to do that."

Release-week events include a pair of concerts at New York's Town Hall; a live performance at New York's Museum of Television & Radio, simulcast at the museum's L.A. location and six major-market Virgin Megastores (and taped for a later airing by the syndicated public-radio series "World Cafe"); and appearances on "The Late Show With David Letterman" and "A&E Live By Request." The singer was scheduled to tape PBS' "Soundstage" on Sept. 26 for a later airing.

Costello begins an extensive tour of Japan and Europe in early October.

"Then hopefully," Costello says, "in the late winter or early spring of next year, we'll do a full-length American tour, if all is well."

He admits that incorporating the offbeat, uniquely arranged "North" material into sets with his band the Imposters represents a special challenge.

"These are so quiet, these songs," Costello says. "They're so quiet even in relation to the other ballads that I have. I use a different voice, technically, so it's quite tricky to shift inside the Imposters' repertoire, but not so much within the repertoire with Steve. So I'm hoping that in time we'll find a way to marry all of these things together. I always have done in the past.

"Hopefully there will be some opportunity to eventually perform the songs with the orchestration in concert, but even if that doesn't happen until after the orchestral score is released, then we have a natural repertoire to perform with orchestra. We can have excerpts from that score, these songs, songs from 'Painted From Memory,' other songs that I have arranged for orchestral groups. I could within a year do a group of concerts that allowed me to explore that side of things."


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