Article/interview with Elvis and Burt
Contra Costa Times, 1999-09-22
- Paul Freeman


Costello's still learning, really

By Paul Freeman
Contra Costa Times
Published: Wednesday, September 22, 1999

OVER THE YEARS, Elvis Costello, indisputably one of the greatest songwriters to emerge in the last two decades, has changed his approach to the craft.

"I used to just pick up the guitar and words would tumble out," explains Costello, who appears with longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve (of the Attractions) at San Francisco's Warfield on Thursday night, followed by a concert at Oakland's Paramount Theatre the following evening. "The words led the way. Most of the time, they came simultaneously with a sense of shape and rhythm. Later I would refine the music to some degree, even if it was quite simple. A little while after that, I would move to the piano and it became more determined musically.

"In recent years, I feel as if the music has been driving the words almost entirely. The music has come first, in almost every case, in the last five years particularly."

That meant an Elvis Costello-Burt Bacharach collaboration could work beautifully. After teaming for the Grammy-nominated "God Give Me Strength," from the film "Grace of My Heart," Bacharach and Costello joined forces for "Painted From Memory" (Mercury), a full album of lush and luscious tunes. They also had a cameo in the "Austin Powers" sequel.

"Some people look at this as a real odd couple," 70-year-old Bacharach says, "but we're not coming from such different places. If you trace Elvis back to his bad-boy days as a punk artist and view me as the king of soft, middle-of-the-road pop, the perceived disparity is understandable. But it's not really that way. He's a guy who did an album with the Brodsky String Quartet. He's an adventurer. So this isn't so far out, is it?"

Cool collaboration

The album features instant pop classics, such as the title tune, "This House is Empty Now," "The Sweetest Punch" and the award-winning "I Still Have That Other Girl."

Costello, who turned 45 last month, appreciated having the opportunity to work with a master. "I've always been knocked out by the climaxes in Burt's songs, as well as the opening statements, which are often quite confidential. He has songs that are ingenious and have a light spirit, but the ones that really get under my skin are those that have a great sense of poignancy.

"It's been fascinating to see the way he thinks musically, his amazing discipline and attention to detail."

Bacharach benefits from a more formal musical training. "He's a thoroughly schooled person with a complete command of communicating on the page," Costello says. "I've come rather late to that. I'm able to write music down now with a reasonable degree of confidence, but I'm not so good at sight-reading.

"So I occasionally would make an error when we were working on a song. I would take away a first draft of the music that we'd written and might bend the tune a little bit to my lyrical will, only to have Burt say, 'That's a great rhyme … but you didn't actually have that many notes to make that rhyme," Costello laughs. "I'd sometimes fight for that line to stay that way. But usually, when I took a step back, I realized he was right. For this record, I changed the way I wrote. I got a very distinct, recognizable lyrical tone, where everything is much clearer than any other set of lyrics that I've ever written."

Costello gets humble

Costello's voice on the album is at its most plaintive. "Burt has been sung by some of the greatest singers ever, many of them probably more secure vocalists than I am, less fallible than I am, in some cases smoother, singing with less stress. But there's a tension and, I hope, something thrilling about reaching for something that is on the edge of your ability."

Bacharach and other pop composers of the '50s and '60s found themselves being pushed into the background when the singer-songwriters emerged. Costello relates, "I heard Joni Mitchell say, 'Everybody's a songwriter; even people who shouldn't be.' It's true. It was as true in 1963 as it is today.

"People heard the Beatles and said, 'Oh, I could do that!' Actually, no, you couldn't. You couldn't write 'She Loves You,' let alone, 'For No One' or 'Girl.' It's the same today. A lot of people who can sort of write songs screw up their ears and tell themselves it's something special. But it's not really."

Costello admires the timeless quality of Bacharach's music. "Writers like that were always being told they were out of date. Guess what. They're not. People are still talking about George Gershwin and he's not been around since 1938.

"Who's the better songwriter, Burt Bacharach or Bob Dylan? Burt writes very complicated songs that sound very appealing nevertheless. Dylan uses a very simple form where the complexity is in the ideas and moods and emotions it creates. You can't even compare them. I'm just glad they're both around."

Early work

Costello has been around, energizing the pop scene since the late '70s, bursting forth from the new wave scene and eventually exploring a wide range of musical avenues. He has written more than 300 songs.

"I'd say I'm probably not known for my best songs," he says. "I've had success with songs that, in my opinion, aren't in the front rank of the compositions. The kind of songs that I have the strongest feeling for have a quirk about them that doesn't make them that commercial."

Costello's musical evolution has been enhanced by his collaborating with diverse artists, spanning rock, blues, jazz, country and classical genres. "I don't set out to get anything out of those experiences other than enjoyment. But I usually end up learning something.

"It's not like a lesson you can really point a big stick at," he laughs. "It's just a subtle nuance or some little thing you learned about your own ability, vocally, lyrically or as a performer. It's all added up to more capability of going that little bit further. When that large challenge, like writing with Burt, came along, I was able to take advantage of it to a greater extent because of a lot of those things I had done previously."

When he collaborated with the Brodsky quartet, Costello couldn't communicate his ideas to them through musical notation as fluently as he wished. "It was very embarrassing at times. Now I'm half-trained. I can write music down with reasonable credibility, but I can still make my own kind of good mistakes," he chuckles.

"The formal music education is no more important than the aural education of just listening, which is ongoing and never-ending."