Interview with Elvis Costello
The Independent, London, 1995-10-05
- Nicholas Barber
The Independent London
Chrissie Hynde, 44, was born in Ohio and moved to Britain in the early Seventies. After writing for the New Musical Express, she formed the critically acclaimed band, the Pretenders, in 1978. She has two children, one from Ray Davies, and one from her marriage to Jim Kerr. Now divorced, she lives with her children in west London. The singersongwriter Elvis Costello, whose real name is Declan MacManus, is 40. He has made 17 albums and written over 300 songs, as well as writing for and collaborating with jazz and classical musicians. He lives between Dublin and London with his second wife, Cait O'Riordan. He has one son from his first marriage
CHRISSIE HYNDE: I can't remember exactly when I met Elvis, but I could say that about most of the people I know. In this business, people just appear. Elvis was certainly around at the time Nick Lowe was producing the Pretenders' first record, "Stop Your Sobbing", in 1978. Elvis had been working in the same studio, but Nick moved him so that we could get in. On "Stop Your Sobbing", there's an overlapping repeat of the phrase "gotta stop sobbing, ohoh". That was Elvis's idea. He had been down in the studio, having a listen. But I don't really remember meeting him there.
Usually, you think these guys in bands are gonna be giants, then you meet them and they're skinny little guys. Elvis is the opposite: he actually presented himself as this wimpy guy. He's like Ray Davies in that respect one of these people who describe themselves as 5ft 6in, sandinthe face types, and you meet them and you're shocked by how big they are. I was a bit sheepish when I first knew him, because he was already a big star, a recording artiste. One thing I do remember, though, was that I thought he should change his name. I couldn't for the life of me imagine such an unlikely name as Elvis Costello: it seemed to me to be careericide. It just shows you how wrong you can be.
Only now, when I look at it in retrospect, do I see how bold everything he did was. I've worked on a couple of records with him. I think the first time I was in the studio with him was on the first Specials album, which he produced, and on which I sang on a couple of tracks. I was pretty nervous being around those guys, because I thought they were awesome. Then I went and sang on one of Elvis's records, Spike, in 1989. He got me to sing higher than I normally would; but he knows what he's doing.
He bailed me out big time once. I'd agreed to do this charity thing that Bill Wyman had organised in 1988 for the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. I'd never been in front of an audience with just myself and an acoustic guitar before, and I was dead nervous about it. So I asked Elvis to duet with me. He had great ideas. He knows everything about music he's like a professor of musicology. Anyway, he helped me work out the songs. We did "Days", the Kinks song, "There's a Place", by the Beatles, and "Windows of the World", the Bacharach/David song, which I later went on to record with the Pretenders. He really saved my ass on that one.
Although Elvis always had this mean, moody, broody, angry young man look, especially in those early pictures, he's actually extremely good natured and personable. He's terribly sociable and gregarious.
He found his calling when he became a singersongwriter. He couldn't be anything else he'll be doing it until the day he dies. He's always got a glint in his eye; always moving on to his next project and embracing it with real enthusiasm. Maybe I notice that because I'm not like that myself. His productivity makes my piddly little output seem even smaller than it is, because he's terribly prolific, and I've made a lifestyle out of goofing off. He's done all this other stuff with other musicians, going to Nashville and doing classical stuff and writing with Paul McCartney. He's just got too much going on upstairs to be restricted to one band.
If I ever call him up at odd times with some musical idea, he's always welcoming and friendly, and he's always up for whatever I suggest. If I say, "What are you working on?", he'll say, "I've just finished such and such and I'm working on so and so. I can't ever imagine him saying, "Well, you know, I'm having a think."
ELVIS COSTELLO: I probably knew Chrissie's name before she knew mine. She'd come over from the States and was writing reviews for the New Musical Express when I was starting to make records in the midSeventies. When her name popped up later, I thought: I remember reading her.
The Attractions and I cut This Year's Model in about 11 days in 1978. We had a spare day of studio time which we didn't need, so Nick Lowe cut the Pretenders' single, "Stop Your Sobbing", in our studio time. I'd heard their demo and it made a pretty strong impression. I remember "Brass in Pocket" being on it. I said, "This sounds great, I'd love to play on this." Basically, I was hoping to sneak on to the record. But when I got down to the studio, Chrissie had already left, and when I heard what they'd recorded, and I heard how well her guitarist Jimmy Honeyman Scott played, it was quite obvious that they didn't need me.
Our paths kept crossing, but we were touring all the time, so the first time we actually met is very unclear to me. A lot of it had to do with everybody having so much to drink. I seem to recall one time at a Clash gig talking to Iggy Pop, and the next thing we were talking to Chrissie. . . but it's all jumbled up.
I was producing the Specials album in 1979 down in this studio below a laundrette in Fulham Palace Road. They wanted this sireny chorus, so Chrissie came down and sang, and she was just great. I've just got this vision of her singing away, and all the Specials were peering through a studio window, in awe of her.
Clive Langer, who produced a couple of my records, had a theory that she influenced my singing, in the sense that she put the vibrato back into pop. During punk, no one would linger on a note, but Chrissie made it hip again.
When people talk about the best pop singers, they don't mention Chrissie as readily as they might Aretha Franklin or Dusty Springfield. People mention kd lang, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Chrissie can sing rings round all of them. And she's got a lot of voices she doesn't use, as well. One time, we were talking about Annie Lennox and she suddenly just did Annie Lennox uncannily, with all those trills that Annie Lennox can do. Annie's a brilliant technical singer, but, with all due respect, she's nowhere near as expressive as Chrissie. If Chrissie had been more mainstream pop, and didn't play the guitar, people would recognise her more for what she is one of the greatest pop singers that has ever lived.
There was a time a few years ago when I got a little sad, because Chrissie would do interviews, but she would run her own stuff down. She would say that she didn't like her voice, or that her records were little collections of silly songs. Musicians shouldn't be musicians if they don't like what they do.
I'm always enormously pleased to see her. She has a good sense of hum our and doesn't take any shit. That's something of a defence, I suspect, because there's a sensitivity in the singing and the writing. She's had more of an influence on me than I have had on her. I have people in mind sometimes when I write songs. I approach somebody's style as a way of getting at something. I've done it once or twice using Chrissie as a model. I'm not going to tell you which songs I did it on, though
She's just asked me to write a song for her, and I was really surprised because I always assumed she had enough of her own songs. I'm very pleased to have a go, though.
Chrissie's always been really cool. Recently I did this gig with Bob Dylan and we were doing "I Shall Be Released". Bob had Chrissie and Carole King up on stage doing backgrounds, while Bob and I were doing a duet. I turned round and Carole King was really excited, dancing and shaking her head around. But Chrissie was just standing at the mic like one of the Vandellas, doing the chick singer thing with finger snaps and everything. It looked great.
In 1988, we did this charity gig at the Albert Hall. She asked me to do it with her, so I went to her house, and we sat there with a couple of guitars and worked. She's infuriating to work with. She digresses the whole time; it's really hard to get her concentrated. Eventually we learnt the songs, but when we got to the Albert Hall, she said, "I've forgotten the chords." I was in the dressingroom, saying, "It goes like this," and we were playing these songs over and over. I was getting more and more wound up when the door flew open and there were a wildeyed Ron Wood and Terence Trent D'Arby, shouting "Heyyy!" It was just the wrong moment for these two energetic people to come into the room.
By the time we got onstage, I was in bits I was terrified. But Chrissie was completely cool, playing every song perfectly, and singing brilliantly. Suddenly, I was the one thinking: "What's the next chord?" !