Interview with Elvis Costello
- Anders Dahlbom
(translated by Sverre Ronny Saetrum" email@example.com)
Obscure lyrics and musical experiments still brings him fame.
By Anders Dahlbom, "Dagens Nyheter", December 28th. 1998
"Look !", Elvis exclaims, pointing down at the evening paper laying on the table in front of him. The paper has marked specific places in Stockholm with tiny "Costello-heads", where they think thereīs a chance of catching a glimpse of the famous world-star while heīs in town for the "Trettondagskonserten" on January 5th.
"I seem to be on the move all the time", Costello laughs.
And surely, it could be argued that standing still in one place never has been one of Costello's trademarks. From his debut in 1977 and up until this day he has constantly surprised his audience with his change of musical styles and genres. "Lots of people who only follow the hit-lists think that I have disappeared. Even certain critics have no ideas about what Iīve been up to during the last ten years. But if you HAVE been following my career, you will have seen the logic in everything Iīve done", he says.
Declan Patrick McManus was born in 1954 into a musical home. His father, Ross, was a singer and bandleader. Every week new records by famous artists were dumped into their letterbox, because the band was going to perform them. Elvis listened and learned.
"I was singing 'Iīve Got You Under My Skin', while other kids was singing nursery-rhymes", he laughs. And soon he started to play on his own. He got a recording contract with a small London-based record company during the punk-days. A moniker was needed and he settled for the first name of the great American singer, who had just died. His debut album; "My Aim Is True", showcased Elvis as an artist with slightly obscure and thought-provoking lyrics, mostly about difficult relationships to others and himself, set to a musical backdrop consisting of pop, rock, country & western, and "pubrock". The media lapped it all up and regarded Elvis as "The thinking manīs Johnny Rotten". A punk artist with a pen as his sharpest weapon!!
With his backing band, The Attractions, Elvis made some of the most critically acclaimed albums from the late 70īs, and during the 80īs. The superlatives dashed out seemed never-ending, while brilliant records were regularly released and Elvis won prizes and awards. It seemed that nothing could have been better for the media-shy artist, but the truth was that it was quite the opposite. Elvis holds on to his cup of tea and reminisces, "We toured the US at the end of 1979. Everything shouldīve been just great, we were on a sold-out tour, promoting a very well received album (Armed Forces), and had a Top 5 hit-single. But I hated it all. We werenīt performing like a proper band anymore, we were just holograms!"
He becomes silent for a minute and then continues, "During the first two, three years of my career, the audience was so baffled and overwhelmed by my musical approach and the fact that it sounded so good, fresh and new, that I could just keep churning out the same over and over. This repeats itself today, just look at Oasis. But after a while the fans started to question the repetitive quality of my music. Let me assure you, though, I got tired of myself long before the fans did !!"
Thus, Elvis started experimenting. He did a Country & Western album in Nashville and he "re-invented" Stax-soul and Tamla-Motown. The influences and styles were mixed, but the critical praise was constant. So was the artist's insecurity, "I really felt that I was being blown out of all proportions by the critics in their lavish praise, I never thought the albums were as good as they said they were".
The insecurity seems to have been swept away these days. Self-assured and calm, he looks back on his previous albums and says, "Iīm not aware of any other record that sounds like Imperial Bedroom. Itīs unique music." On his song-writing abilities in the "old days" he says, "There were so many good songwriters, then, but nobody was my equal, and nobody worked as hard as I did."
He answers questions about the 90īs, an era in which both fans and critics found it hard to keep track on all his musical experiments, in an honest and upfront way, "I understand my records completely, but youīd have to be me to like them," he laughs.
Lately, heīs made yet another breakthough, though. In the wake of a most inspiring songwriting collaboration, by way of fax machines and phone, with one of the 60īs and 70īs most acclaimed composers, Elvis decided to do a whole album with Mr Burt Bacharach!
The result, "Painted From Memory", is riding high on the lists of the most critically acclaimed albums of 1998, and has for Costello, but maybe most of all for Burt Bacharach, resulted in a long awaited come-back. Elvis smiles widely and shows his gap-teeth when the albums is brought up in the interview, like a school-boy getting an A+ on his thesis. Heīs evidently extremely proud of the collaboration, even though he canīt pass up the opportunity to whine a bit and get a few facts straight, "Thereīs been some misunderstanding about the album, such as Burt writing all the music, and me just writing the lyrics. The fact is that we wrote the music together, except on a few songs. But thatīs not really important. The most important thing is that you can actually hear that itīs two songwriters behind these songs."
Painted From Memory contains grand, orchestrated melodies about lost love, and Elvis has never sung better!
The collaboration also made Elvis look at his lyrics in a new perspective. "Lyrically, this album has taught me how to use simplicity. Burt wins his listeners over by NOT tiring them musically. Personally, Iīve never been riddled with that particular problem," he laughs.
Costelloīs musical style may change from one year to the next but in his (something missing here) with an immaculate black suit and black-framed glasses, his "Buddy Holly" look is still very much the same as when he started out. Just a few pounds heavier and probably with a few less hairs, but the black hat he wears helps hide that.....
With a slight frown he continues to talk about todayīs songwriters. "Joni Mitchell said something recently, that Iīm sorry to say I have to agree with. She said that everybody seems to be songwriters these days, even if theyīre not... The younger generation seems to think that it all comes down to digging deep within themselves and reveal all their innermost secrets in their lyrics. Many seem to think that my lyrics are autobiographical, which of course is not the case at all. Often the theme can be based on my own life and background, but the details certainly are changed in order to create better music."
After more than twenty years in the music business, Elvis has more projects going than ever before. After lots of internal squabbles, he has finally disbanded The Attractions, and heīs got a new "tailor-made" recording contract that allows him to do any kind of music he wants to, and currently heīs achieving great success with the Bacharach-collaboration. The "future" for Elvis Costello, still means looking just three days ahead at a time.
"Tomorrow Iīm going to Burt in Los Angeles, to work on a movie-soundtrack. Apart from that, I donīt know whatīll happen next, I have no plan that I follow. Then again, I guess youīve already figured that out," he laughs, pulling the brim of his hat down to his eyes.