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Interview about When I Was Cruel
Borders, 2002-05-01
- Tim Pulice


Ongoing Attraction
Elvis Costello proves his aim is still true

After exploring ballads with Burt Bacharach and classical music with the Brodsky Quartet and Anne Sofie von Otter, Elvis Costello decided it was time to release a "rowdy rhythm record." In 1977, Costello's riveting debut, My Aim Is True, propelled him into the forefront of the late 1970s British punk and new-wave explosions, showcasing not only his sonic and lyrical ingenuity, but also his refreshingly candid, often blunt personality. Costello admits to mellowing somewhat in recent years, though it's clear his willingness to make daring stylistic forays and dedication to writing challenging material have never wavered.

Forgoing chronological order and opting instead for thematic similarity, Rhino Records continues to reissue albums from Costello's diverse catalog, most recently This Year's Model, Blood & Chocolate, and Brutal Youth, each containing a bonus disc that features alternate takes, previously unreleased material, and insightful new liner notes. On When I Was Cruel, his first solo outing since 1996, Costello teams with former Attractions band mates Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas, as well as bassist Davey Faragher, for one of his most energetic releases to date.


Why was this the right time for When I Was Cruel?

Elvis Costello: After a while you just get anxious to feel what it might be like to move the music from underneath again. When I was working with Burt Bacharach, we were writing songs that were very ambitious in terms of harmony and melody. The rhythm was by no means the dominant partner. But in this case, I started with the idea that the rhythm was going to be very important, fundamental not just to the performance of the songs or the production of the songs, but actually to the writing of the songs.

Why did you choose this title?

EC: I love the idea of titles. Obviously, it's taken from one of the songs on the record, and that has a specific meaning in relation to the words of that song. But I also like when titles can be used to provoke something inside listeners, to see whether something occurs to them, that it should inspire something in the imagination. For me to say why is less effective than for people to listen and know why. I'm not just hedging because I don't know. [Laughing.] It's really for the listener to decide why it's called When I Was Cruel.

Does your best songwriting come from periods of happiness or pain?

EC: It doesn't really come out of either. You might write songs in either state. There are love songs on this record like "15 Petals," but that isn't a typical love song. It isn't a romantic, sappy song in the classic sense, but it's full of the craziness and the passion of love. "My Little Blue Window" is about somebody in your life who doesn't tolerate your being a "blue" individual all the time and smashes through all of that. That's a very simple song. Some of the other songs aren't from such loving impulses. [Laughing.] You hope there are many aspects of life that get into songs. You can't say all of life is here, because that isn't true. But you hope that it wouldn't be limited to one type of feeling.

Is any subject off limits?

EC: Only in the sense that it may not be very interesting. I'm suspicious of people who simply recite pages of their diary rather than there being any real poetry or any beauty to the way they express it. Simply saying, "this happened to me, therefore it is interesting" seems self-centered and dull. The great songwriters of 50 years ago or longer, in the era before rock 'n' roll, often used very stylized words when writing for musical theater. People like Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter. They could say some things that were quite charged with the feelings we look for in songs. But the language is very restrained. Somewhere along the way, rock 'n' roll got the idea that anything could be said. There was some real liberty to that. Certainly after Bob Dylan. He brought liberty to lyric writing, to the subject matter. But then it got beyond that into "anything I say is interesting" from some artists. And that isn't true. The problem is lack of editing. If you listen to great writers, whether they write with the economy of somebody like Lucinda Williams or Hank Williams, there's a lot of editing going on. It's never having that unnecessary thought when writing the song. They instinctively know to leave it out.

When did you first discover American music?

EC: I grew up in a very musical house with both parents being involved in different aspects of music. My father was a trumpet player, a bebop player before that was a well-known style of music in England. He was getting records that were imported into Liverpool, absorbing Clifford Brown and Dizzy Gillespie. Singers my parents liked in the '50s were people like Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé, and Sinatra. They were all American. I didn't really know the names for all these types of music, but I did know there was this music called jazz. I was vaguely aware of rock 'n' roll. Then the Beatles happened. It was only a little bit later, after I'd become a huge fan, that I realized that half the songs they sang, if not actually written by American artists, were songs written by the Beatles imitating artists they'd grown up on—whether Fats Domino or Roy Orbison or the Everly Brothers. They had such a vivid way of doing it, you didn't notice they were influenced. "Please Please Me" is the very first record I ever owned. It's a well-known fact that John Lennon wrote it with Roy Orbison in mind. And it was supposed to go, "Please please me, oh yeah," like that. What happens is you go down a trail from that first inspiration of those artists. I got into country music because of the Byrds. They suddenly started singing Merle Haggard songs. I thought, "Well who's this Merle Haggard guy? I've got to find out because I like this group."

What initially sparked your interest in classical music?

EC: I've been interested and aware of classical music since I was a child. But you have to have the patience for the length or scope of the music. You have to be less selfish; you have to get outside your own prejudices about music. I had begun to do that in the late 1980s when I encountered the Brodsky Quartet. I don't think what we were doing in recording together was classical music, but we were using the sounds of instruments usually employed in classical music and trying to write songs that belonged to both the world they come from and the world that I come from. There are some pop melodies, and there are some structures to those songs that could only exist with a string quartet. I could never play them with a pop band or a rock 'n' roll band.

Any surprises while collecting the material for your catalog reissues?

EC: One of the big surprises was the fact that some of the tracks were thought to be lost. And there were a few things I was pleasantly surprised to find. Some of these records have been reissued a couple of times already, and I feel if I'm going to ask people to get interested in them, I'd better tell a more interesting story. The second disc with all these additional tracks that comes with the albums is not going to make you like it better. If, on the other hand, you are interested in the original record, it's going to be interesting to listen to. And some of those tracks are, in some cases, at least as good as the tracks on the original album.

The story told in the liner notes is better humored and has more to say. It's less morbid. I'm in a better humor these days about the past. I don't live in the past, and I'm very much looking to the future.

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