Interviews with Elvis Costello and Anne Sofie von Otter
The Independent, 2001-02-11
- James McNair


How we met: "Do I have any advice for Elvis? Take off your hat occasionally!"

Elvis Costello & Anne Sofie von Otter Interviews by James McNair & Photograph by Richard Kalina

02/11/2001 The Independent - London FOREIGN

Elvis Costello, 45, was born in London and made his name as a singer- songwriter in the late 1970s. His three-decade career has seen him collaborate with Paul McCartney, the Brodsky Quartet and Burt Bacharach. He lives in Dublin.

Anne Sofie von Otter, 45, was born in Stockholm and studied at London's Guildhall before establishing herself as one of Europe's finest mezzo- sopranos. Recent recordings have included works by Britten, Dvorak and Kodaly. She lives in Stockholm

Anne Sofie von Otter: In 1989 Elvis took a break from intensive touring. He and his wife, Cait, decided to spend more time going to concerts, and they went to the Royal Albert Hall, where I was singing at a Prom. After they'd been to some other performances of mine, they sent me flowers with a thank-you note, and I was thrilled to read the name Elvis Costello. I didn't know his music very well, but I knew the face and the name, obviously.

Because of those beautiful flowers, he and Cait were asked backstage. Situations like that can be tense, but Elvis is very easygoing, and he and my agent at the time were chatting away. Later on, we asked Elvis and Cait out for a post-concert dinner, and immediately the subject of us doing something together came up.

The first thing we did was a sort of New Year's concert in Sweden. Elvis sang some songs of his, I sang some Richard Strauss and Kurt Weill, and then we did some standards together. From then on, he started writing songs for me and the Brodsky Quartet. I soon noticed Elvis's tremendous memory. With music, I have to hear things again and again, but he'll have an informed opinion almost immediately.

Elvis is much more out-going than I am. He has more energy, too. He's always juggling several projects at once, writing articles and collaborating with different people. Even when he has a couple of weeks off, he'll go to South Georgia to watch whales and penguins. When I have time off, I just collapse and do my laundry.

He can talk a lot, and often I'll just listen. He'll tell me what he did in LA or New York, or about what this musician did 40 years ago and why it was important. He's like a walking history of pop, and I don't mean that in a bad way. If I haven't seen him for a while, I need my dose of Elvis's stories.

Cait shares my passion for nature and walking, but I think Elvis prefers the comfort of the car seat to a brisk walk. Yesterday, a journalist was asking him where that angry young man went; where the politics went. I don't think his views have changed; it's probably just that he's more family-oriented now. He's very grounded, and he loves his home in Ireland, even though he's not there that much.

I wish I knew half the people Elvis knows. Paul McCartney I'd love to meet. Tom Waits, too. When we were working on the new album I was able to introduce Elvis to [Abba's] Benny Andersson. When Benny came to the studio it was amusing; these two high dignitaries of pop smelling each other out. They got on very well, though. Do I have a piece of advice for Elvis? Take off your hat occasionally! Actually, I suppose it would be something mother-to- son-like: take it easy now and again. I'm sure he knows what's best for him, though, and I wouldn't want to interfere.

Elvis Costello: I first saw Anne Sofie in concert when my wife and I were still living in London. I was off the road and writing an album, and we made a decision to start sticking pins in the calender, saying, "Let's go see this." One of the first things we saw was The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz. Anne Sofie was singing, and after that we made a point of seeing her perform. I'd never had any particular prejudice against classical music, but I'd never really made time for it, either. When I heard Anne Sofie's voice, something changed. I literally felt better for it.

You have this idea that people in classical music are almost hermetic; that they wouldn't be that good if they were wasting their time listening to pop music. When I first went backstage, though, I think my way of expressing enthusiasm was less measured than she might have been used to. It wasn't "It rather reminded me of Kristin Flagstad's 48th recording of such and such"; more "That was unbelievable! I think I stopped breathing!"

It was Anne Sofie's agent, sadly since passed away, who first bridged the gap. She invited us to a dinner after a concert. Soon after that, we said hello at a concert, and Benny, Anne Sofie's husband, said: "You two should work together." About 18 months later, we performed together in Stockholm.

The more we worked together, the more it became obvious to me that there were emotional qualities in Anne Sofie's singing that could be brought to bear on popular songs. Initially, I was making tapes and writing her notes that were like a formal lesson in the history of pop. If I could see what I wrote then, it'd probably be laughable.

Because Anne Sofie's tall and seems so in control on stage, people tend to think she might be austere and a little forbidding. That's completely wrong. From the minute we met, she was very animated and funny. Some people also have that racial-stereotyping thing, where they assume that because Anne Sofie is Swedish, she'll be rational rather than passionate. I've seen her in the studio, so I know that she gets affected by what she sings. I've seen her when there's nobody to act for.

Am I more a fan of her music than she is of mine? I don't know. She came to see a concert I did in Stockholm with Steve Nieve, and she seemed to enjoy that, even though I thought it was awful. She has funny preferences in my back-catalogue, too. The album she really likes is Kojak Variety, which the critics didn't like at all. That's the great thing; she hears pop music without received prejudices. We share something that's very important to both of us, and that's how any friendship develops. For me the most important things in life are family and music, and I suspect the same is true for Anne Sofie.

"Anne Sofie von Otter Meets Elvis Costello: For The Stars" is released by Universal Classics on 19 March.