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Interview about North
CMJ, 2003-10-09
- Steve Ciabattoni


ELVIS COSTELLO: Tries A Little Tenderness

Elvis Costello's new album North (Deutsche Grammophon) is among his most sublime and intimate. With voice and piano at the center contemplating love, loss and hope, moody songs like "Still" and "Fallen" sound as if they've been close to you for decades. Elvis took some time while launching his album in New York to talk about North, 19th Century composers, the 21st Century music business and his impending wedding (third time's the charm) to Diana Krall.

You wrote this very tender record amid a more raucous tour with your band the Imposters. Was this the music you wanted to hear after coming home?

I just started to hear this music because that's where my feelings lay at the time. I don't know if it was the music I wanted to hear, but it was the music I was hearing. I'm very fortunate in that respect because I've left myself open to different types of music. I can enjoy screaming my head off with the Imposters and then come home to find these songs taking up my late evenings and small hours.

It's romantic stuff, in the sense that romance can be about bliss and joy or about crying and cutting an ex-lover's face out of old photographs.
The great thing is that everybody will hear it differently. I haven't tried to make a record so specific to one person's experience that no one person can understand it. But I know that everything on the record is true and I know that I feel it. So I hope that people feel one way or the other—or some other kind of mood entirely. Then I will feel we've achieved something.

You've written some mellow, standards-inspired songs before, but these seem much more personal, very unmasked.
The minute you do something that's fresh to you, somebody will say, "Ah, well it's a version of this." It isn't a standards-related record. Yes it's informed by all of the music I've listened to, but it has as much to do with songs I've listened to from the 19th century as it does songs from the 1940s and ‘50s. Certainly the emotional language of these songs is much less coded than you would find in the era of Ira Gershwin or Lorenz Hart. They obeyed certain romantic conventions and their brilliance was in making those romantic conventions make you feel some genuine human emotion and truth. But they didn't do it by revealing the raw sense of experience. And there is some of that raw sense of experience in some of these songs on North. Somebody like Joni Mitchell made it possible for other people to abuse the liberty that her brilliance put into the language of songwriting. She made it possible for people to feel like you could speak directly. The point that they missed is that you have to have her power to do it really well. A lot of bad imitators came after just simply spewing out their experiences unedited. I don't think my record sounds any better if you know anything about my life. I won't deny that some of the emotional touches of the songs are things that I can very much understand. But you don't have to know anything about me any more than you have to know about any of those songwriters from the ‘40s and ‘50s, and that's where I do pay some allegiance to them. But then there are other elements where the songs have a more classical structure. A song like "You Turned To Me," for example. If you can keep your ears open to learn, there's a beautiful sense of miniaturization in some of those classical pieces. Schubert is a great songwriter. If you don't listen to him, you might as well not call yourself a songwriter. You've got to listen to him as much as Lennon and McCartney or Bob Dylan or Kurt Cobain or Thom Yorke, or some of the lesser-known guys like Ron Sexsmith or Tim Hardin. You've got to listen to it all.

Where do you like to buy records when you're on the road? Didn't your mother work in a record shop?
Yes she did. I was very lucky, the years when I was growing up were very rich in music.My dad kept an open mind about music as well. He gave me my first Joni Mitchell record, my first Grateful Dead record and my first Mingus record. My single favorite store is Village Music in Mill Valley, California, and I've been going there for 20 years or more. It's always a thrill to go there. There's always something I find there in the vinyl store— obviously they're selling CDs now—but I like to find records that haven't been reissued. I like to hunt around, but I'm not a collector who's into the different labels or editions. I'm into the music. That's all I care about.

Both labels and retailers have grave concerns about downloading. Do you see the war on music piracy to be as futile as the war on drugs?
Well, pirating music won't actually kill you like drugs. It's your choice if you want to fuck yourself up. If people want to share stuff they're making themselves and put it up on the Internet so people can get it, that's a very valuable use of this resource. Stealing other people's music and putting it up there is not acceptable. Even though everybody admits that it's slow and not good quality, there's still the temptation for people who don't understand the morality of it, or they don't understand the way the business works. They imagine that everybody that makes records are millionaires. It is unambiguously stealing to download. I won't listen to any bullshit argument about music being free or that it's a blow against the corporations. That's nonsense. The corporations, by the by, have been stealing both from the artists and the audience for years and Universal just admitted it by lowering their prices 30 percent because they are in such dire straits. It's a desperate fire sale tactic by an industry that's admitting its utter bankruptcy in terms of creativity. I say that as a Universal artist. And I have a very good relationship with one particular division of Universal, but in the main, the record companies have been set up as the casino and they've had the game fixed for years. [They] have been stealing from the artists by not paying them their due royalty, and stealing from the public by overcharging. And for the RIAA to sue individuals like 12-year-old girls is just ludicrous. Utterly ridiculous and toothless. What they should be doing is going after the conduit through which the file-sharing services exist. Why don't AOL sue themselves? They own the record company and the thing through which the file-sharers are abusing their copyrights. They could sue themselves and cut out the middleman.

On to another contentious topic. So, at the wedding, who gets to pick the music?
[Laughs] That's a state secret.

- Steve Ciabattoni


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