Interview with Elvis Costello
Cleveland Live, 1999-06-22
- John Soeder


Costello prefers less rock-y road

Singer-songwriter brings his orchestral pop to Nautica

Tuesday, June 22, 1999


Elvis Costello chuckles as he recalls a 1989 concert in Cleveland.

"I remember distinctly playing "Miss Macbeth' and these two guys standing up and storming out," says the British singer-songwriter, checking in by phone recently from London. He performs tonight at Nautica Stage.

"It really made me laugh," he says. "People always say Cleveland, that's really a rock 'n' roll city. I was playing this kind of strange folk-terrorism music that night. These guys had obviously come to rock and I wasn't rocking.

"I love when that happens. Obviously, if everybody storms out, it's not good. But if you get extreme reactions, either people getting really angry and going red in the face or people throwing roses, I like either."

Costello steers clear of rock altogether on his latest release, a collaboration with Burt Bacharach titled "Painted From Memory." Nonetheless, reaction to the joint effort's sophisticated, lushly orchestrated pop has been extremely positive. In addition to glowing reviews, the duo garnered a Grammy Award in the best pop collaboration with vocals category for the track "I Still Have That Other Girl."

Airplay has been light
Airplay has been harder to come by, but Costello couldn't care less. "The fact that it's incomprehensible to the boneheads who program most radio stations is a sort of aside to the reality of the music. It's a mere inconvenience," he says.

On the surface, these gifted tunesmiths from different generations make an unlikely pair. Costello, 44, and his band, the Attractions, rode the New Wave movement to prominence in the '70s, making rock 'n' roll that was too literate and well-crafted to be mistaken for punk. Bacharach, 71, had his heyday in the '60s, teaming up with Hal David to dash off impeccably tailored pop hits for Dionne Warwick, Tom Jones and others.

Costello and Bacharach first hooked up four years ago, when they wrote and recorded "God Give Me Strength" for the "Grace of My Heart" soundtrack. They were so pleased with the end result that they decided to do an entire album together.

"Burt is one of the major songwriters of the 20th century," Costello says. "I learned and gained a lot from listening to his advice."

"He kind of reinforced something that I felt instinctively, that I should sing with greater delicacy and not go at it so hard," Costello says.

"Bear in mind, I wasn't so challenged on this record by a lot of harsh sounds. On a lot of records with the Attractions, there were more claustrophobic sounds, because we were playing a lot harder. The very, very determined way that Burt arranges everything meant I would have the ability to sing softly and then build up to the drama of the song."

Impressions of Toledo
One of the most dramatic numbers on "Painted From Memory" is "Toledo," a haunting ballad about infidelity that was partly inspired by Costello's impressions of Toledo, Ohio, and the Spanish city of the same name. He was struck by the difference between the old-world charm of the latter and the mills and factories that he saw through the window of his tour bus while passing through the former.

"The song is about a man who has strayed," Costello says. "It's just another way of saying the grass is always greener, using the contrast between this fearsome-looking industrial city and this magical medieval city that probably has its own problems. Maybe the drains don't work there or something. We think of it as a fairy-tale place and they're probably going, "I wish we had something modern. I wish we had more mills here.' "

"Painted from Memory" is the latest in a series of creative stretches by Costello. In 1993, he released "The Juliet Letters," an album recorded with a string quartet. Next year, Costello plans to produce an album by Swedish classical singer Anne Sofie Von Otter. These might seem as radical departures for a rocker, but Costello never wanted to be stuck in that role.

"I never had a great love for rock music," says Costello, whose real name is Declan MacManus. His father was a big-band singer and trumpet player. His mother, a record store manger, turned him on to jazz and classical music.

"I like rock 'n' roll because it's sexy," he says. "But rock music with a big, hard backbeat - I don't think I've ever done that. I mean, I've made a few rock 'n' roll records, but that's rather different, isn't it? There's a hard backbeat on some of my records, but never one of those really rigid kind of stadium-type beats."

This summer, he can be heard crooning remakes of Charles Aznavour's "She" and Bacharach's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" on the soundtracks for "Notting Hill" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," respectively. Costello is plugging "Painted From Memory" by hitting the road with former Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve.

The logistics of mounting a full-blown tour with Bacharach and an orchestra were prohibitive, but Costello says they would gladly entertain an invitation to perform with the Cleveland Orchestra. "Burt and I could come and do three nights at whatever hall you've got there," he offers.

Informed that Severance Hall is closed for renovations, Costello is undeterred.

"Once you get it fixed up," he says, "just get them to call us."

1999 Cleveland Live. All rights reserved.