|The Elvis Costello
Interview about North
Interview: Elvis Costello
In his early recordings he dabbled with country, then wrote with Paul McCartney, recorded with the Brodsky Quartet and later collaborated on a Grammy-winning album (Painted From Memory) with Burt Bacharach. Recently he has recorded with mezzo-soprano Sofie Van Otter and written the score for the ballet based on Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'.
In the past few months, after the break-up of his marriage, he has been linked with jazz singer Diana Krall. It is a relationship that is certainly in keeping with Costello's latest project, an album of jazz ballads, North, on which he is assisted by long-time associate Steve Nieve on piano, a thirty-eight piece ensemble and some lush orchestrations.
Having completed some rigorous touring over the past year with the Imposters, including a visit to Australia, Costello has also been making some appearances with Nieve, dipping into the back catalogue and also highlighting songs from North.
In the radio clip played above, you can hear:
Brian Wise spoke to Costello about his latest project.
Elvis Costello: I thrive on it. I've been doing it a long time now. I've just finished a tour with the Imposters which was great . The band is a terrific band and I want to play with them whenever the opportunity comes up. But having just completed a record which is quite a contrast to the sound of that group, I also have the prospect of playing shows such as the ones I played most recently in Canada with Steve Nieve, leading up to the release and after the release of North.
I hadn't played in Calgary for 25 years, so I had no idea what kind of response we are going to get and I couldn't remember being there the last time. [Laughs]. They were great. They were very welcoming. We played a whole range of things from the very beginning of my career to the brand new song from 'Everything was Incredibly Well-Received'. We got a great welcome.
Brian Wise: So, were you able to perform some of the more recent songs?
Elvis Costello: It's a cool order to play brand new songs to a field full of people, because it isn't as concentrated an environment as in a theatre but we played three songs from North and people seem to love them. It made me feel like very much the way I felt when I first performed the songs, sometimes the gentlest songs.
When you hear a rock'n'roll record, you go 'that's going to be great to be in a club or a theatre' and that's really coming out at me; whereas in a ballad, sometimes you want to hear them in your room if you like them. There's a whole different charge to play a ballad - and a very emotional ballad - in a theatre, both for the singers and for the audience I think.
These North songs are more intimate than most songs that we previously had. So that just means that our dynamic ranges have just increased, but it has increased in the direction of quiet dynamic - which is great because it draws the crowd right in and everybody is listening.
There was nowhere to go. You know there was nowhere else to go as it was all quiet you know.
Brian Wise: I suppose a gig like that also means that you have to respond to the audience in terms of what you are going to play, don't you?
Elvis Costello: Well, not really you know. Obviously you can be interrupted easily by some person that doesn't want to listen to this music, but they have chosen the wrong concert really. Concert going is a democratic endeavour - it's 2,000 people who want to listen and if one person decides they don't, they should leave. They should leave, not interrupt because are clearly in the minority. You are more vulnerable to interruptions if you are playing quietly than in a rock band where people could yell out or where people couldn't hear them. People were yelling out between songs. Sometimes they're calling out for specific songs, cause they know that you can hear them better than if you were playing in a band where you may not hear those requests. But in the main people allowed us to play and gave us good attention - which is essential to new material because you're not going get anything from it if you don't listen.
Brian Wise: So you didn't have any trepidation about playing the new material at all?
Elvis Costello: No, no, no. I'm very proud of the songs and I'm delighted to play them in concerts. The feeling I had when singing them was as strong as any group of songs I have ever done. That first feeling when you are first being put on stage - it's a wonderful feeling and what you've hear is how good you've got the record to be. You always know that there's going be loads of other places to go with songs. I know that's the feeling I had right away. The minute I started playing the songs off Painted From Memory with Steve Nieve, I knew that we could take them all over the place while still respecting the composition itself, that the emotion of them could just get deeper. That's the feeling I get when I play these songs.
Brian Wise: Some people might have suggested that the new album is some kind of direction change but when you think of what you've done previously - the Burt Bacharach project, the Brodsky Quartet and the music from A Midsummer Night's Dream - it seems to me just like a logical progression. Is that how you felt about it?
Elvis Costello: Yes. I don't think in either in terms of changes of direction or in terms of progressions. I just do what I do - what means the most to me with the most conviction that I can have. Nothing I do is a detour or side issue.
Thankfully, I have to say, the impression of some of my early records is still quite profound and people still hanker after the sounds of those records. That music can always be heard when I am playing with the Imposters. We'll always refer to that music and try to build on the sound of a rock 'n' roll combo playing. But if I then use different writing methods, different kinds of use of my voice, different kinds of arrangement and style to convey something quite different, then I can't see how it can be a shock - as you say after some of the things I've done. [Laughs]
If anything, I am probably better known now for the variety. That isn't to say that one thing isn't supposed to naturally lead to another but you can hear suggestions that it was possible to do this by listening to music from the past.
Brian Wise: I know you've always had the incredibly eclectic tastes and that goes back to the beginnings of your career. In fact, it probably goes back right to the beginnings of your listening to music and your family home. So it sort of has seeped into you, hasn't it? It's part of you.
Elvis Costello: Yes, that's absolutely true. Some music didn't interest me because it was dull and there's still plenty of that today, but also there's always something new to discover. Something new may not be brand new, but might just be new to you - maybe the music that you didn't have the patience for didn't really reveal yourself to you because your interest lies elsewhere.
So I feel very lucky in that way. There's music all around me and wherever I go I carry along the music with me. I pick music up. I still buy a lot of records and I have them in the house and I'm always going back to things, things I've forgotten about, things I've listen to casually and didn't really understand and then I listen to it and suddenly I get the richness of it and that's a wonderful experience.
Brian Wise: What was the inspiration for the album? Was there a particular inspiration for this? Was there something that spurred you on to do it at a particular time?
Elvis Costello: The songs came to me and I didn't have any choice but to write them down. You could ignore that but it seems very ungenerous, very selfish. If you're fortunate enough to find music appearing in your mind there's some sort of responsibility to yourself there at least - because that's what I do. Vocationally, I'm a musician, I'm never thinking when I am writing 'Oh, is this going to be a hit, I am going to be able to buy a new car with this song'. I am never thinking like that. I'm just thinking, 'Is this song worth writing?' and these ones really took me over. That's a great feeling, a slightly upsetting feeling, because it's really, its coming to you fast.
I wrote about five of these songs in three weeks. There's a couple, a fair number of them, I wrote in an evening and then when I got back off the road I wrote another six to seven songs. As a matter of fact, the entire album came in a period of just over two months and I finished one song on New Year's Day this year and it was in a studio within three months of that. It just took a little time to plan the recording and I suppose it's... I don't know what the word for that is, 'inspiration' I suppose?
Brian Wise: You found the muse?
Elvis Costello: Well, if that's the word for it. Maybe it's the grand idea for it. It's an arrangement of tones and rhythms and timbres and, of course, lyrics. They represent feelings and experiences that are - I'm thinking in the case for these songs - readily understandable. People in the past have said some of the words that have been written are hard to understand. People sometimes miss the point that that's deliberate, that you want to create a mystery in words that allow other people's imagination to flow. But in the case of these songs, they are written in a very plain language that's pretty easy to understand and, I think, speaking of experiences that people can recognise.
It's a general transition from the bewilderment to the ecstasy of love and that's surely something most people have experienced at one degree or another. So hopefully they will see themselves in these songs.
Brian Wise: How did you write the songs? Just sitting at the piano? Because you don't play guitar on the album at all, do you?
Elvis Costello: No, there's no guitar, because there's one guitar on the whole record. All these songs are written on piano. There would be no point necessary to put in more instruments. I've done that in the past. I've written songs on the piano and then transferred them onto other instruments. But then the case is with these songs is that I love the way they sound on the piano and the minute Steve started to play them, he played the changes so beautifully, I certainly didn't want to hear harsher sounds to accompany them or the emotions expressed in these tunes.
This is the first album for which I've written all the orchestrations and, for what it's worth, conducted them as well. And they are very spare. It's not all like a lot of strings in every song. I didn't want to give it a big lush romantic feeling, I just wanted the drama of and the influence and the colour of certain instruments supporting the voice. I think the orchestrations are perfect in doing that.
Brian Wise: I was wondering how you get to the point where you actually envision what the orchestrations might be. It's almost like you start off with a home movie and then go off and make it as a feature film in cinemascope. How do you make that translation?
Elvis Costello: I don't think cinemascope is a good analogy as it is a very large and deep transformation. It is an amplification of the colour implied in the series of chords, but I heard a lot of these orchestral ideas as I was writing. Where that stuff comes from, I really have no idea. [Laughs]
Not only get these relatively intricate songs, musically intricate songs, appearing at my hands but I was also hearing a lot of the sounds in my head that you hear on the final record. Obviously I took a little care to write it out and decide on exactly the right group of instruments to create that effect. On the song 'When I Stop Dreaming' it was just the sound I heard as I was writing the song. I can't explain where it came from but it was just there and I certainly think it's more effective having it, although you can, of course, just play the song for the piano.
Brian Wise: I was thinking about the perfect listening environment for this album and as I was driving to work along the beachfront, there was a bit of a misty rain and it seemed to me that it was almost the perfect environment.
Elvis Costello: Yes, well I am looking out at the sea today - very similar kind of conditions as a misty morning. The album was written so that it would and that it'd all come out in autumn. Of course, you don't have such extreme changes of season as we have in Europe or in North America. I've been quite pleasantly surprised the degree of interest that has been communicated to me from Australia because, environmentally speaking, it wouldn't be a natural place for the record. [Laughs] Maybe you're more reflective mentally than the public perception! It certainly is an 'after dark', leaves falling off the trees kind of record - it even refers it to it in the lyrics in one of the songs.
So I don't doubt that you know. I wouldn't imagine the record would feel exactly right if it came out in mid-summer but of course it will be approaching summer when it comes out in your part of the world. So I'm thinking in terms of my own neighbourhood.
Brian Wise: Your vocals are - possibly more than any other album you've ever recorded - right up front. And with this sort of material, there's no escaping that and there are reminiscences of people like Nat King Cole. I don't know what you might have been listening to leading up to it or what you'd modelled sound on.
Elvis Costello: No, I didn't specifically model this on anybody. A lot is absorbed about music and I wouldn't say specifically Nat King Cole would be somebody I listen to in a great detail. I obviously have listened to him. I've always listened to Sinatra and to early Mel Tormé. And Billie Holiday and Chet Baker. But I don't think I sound like any of those people at any time, not on this record, not on any record.
But you can learn when listening to them over the years and I listen to these records. There's no question it's a vocal record, whatever you might say about that kind of harmony - harmonies derived from classical music or from jazz.
I would say it's a vocal record and it's a ballad record and I have probably listened to that music more than any other because that would be the music that I grew up with - from an infant up until I was nine years old and I started making my own determinations about where the radio was tuned.
I had been fortunate in, as you mentioned before, in having a sort of an all-round education broader than some people who play rock'n'roll. I've been singing ballads .......perhaps the most well-known song from my first record is a ballad and I recorded you know Rogers and Hart song in 1978 and have been writing in a musical form that you can relate to this album.