|The Elvis Costello
Interview with Elvis about When I Was Cruel
Cruel and unique attraction
MAESTRO: Elvis Costello goes back to his 'rowdy' roots in a new album with the Attractions. And he still enjoys being different, he tells Tony Clayton-Lea
Elvis Costello's new album, When I Was Cruel, is his first solo collection for almost eight years. Since 1994's Brutal Youth, however, he hasn't exactly been twiddling his thumbs. Let's see: All This Useless Beauty, a gathering of songs he had originally written for or with other musicians; Painted From Memory, a perfectly balanced torch/pop collaboration with Burt Bacharach; For The Stars, a fortuitous meeting in the dark with mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter; Passionate Kiss, which involved the loaning of several of his songs to arch-eyebrowed Ute Lemper; an orchestral score for an Italian dance company's adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream; and - not finally, but we really could take up a lot of space here - being chosen as artist in residence at UCLA.
He's reluctant to admit that all of this is a long way from playing The Nashville in gob-strewn London, 1977, with The Attractions, sidestepping the issues of how a young man from Liverpool via Middlesex could manage to step away from post-punk/new wave and enter into the worlds of country, pop, classical, opera, dance and cameo appearances in the Spice Girls and Austin Powers movies. It is, he says with no hint of mischievousness, "always good to challenge prejudices and entrenched ideas about things".
Costello is right, of course. This is why many of his early fans - the ones who liked the spite, spittle and spiked comments, the short 'n' sharp melodies of his first three records, My Aim Is True, This Year's Model and Armed Forces - have distanced themselves from his more left-of-centre work. Yet - and it's a valid yet, believe me - there are many of his most dedicated fans whose physical sensibilities will be excited, rather than their academic interests tickled, with When I Was Cruel.
"This album comes at you, whereas the others invited you into the world we made there," says Costello in a hotel room overlooking a decidedly choppy Killiney Bay, his conversation spattered with the noise from rain on the window.
"I wasn't involved in the Ute Lemper record, other than I wrote some songs that were butchered. With Burt Bacharach, it was a full-time job over a long period of time - something you couldn't do casually, and not at all a side project. I suppose for the people who didn't like the other albums, I guess When I Was Cruel would be exciting, but the thing you always have to focus on is that people's introduction to you is via a tone of a record that engages their senses or emotions. It could be the record with Burt Bacharach or Anne Sofie von Otter, or any of the others where I wasn't even the central player that leads them into an understanding of what I do."
In the period between Brutal Youth and When I Was Cruel, Costello once again became a pop star. His version of Charles Aznavour's She (from the Notting Hill soundtrack) was a massive hit in Brazil, a country where Costello's output hardly impacted on the national psyche.
"It was played on the radio more than The Backstreet Boys. You can see how you can have success any time you want, kind of accidentally - but then, it was a Julia Roberts movie! Really, it's far more satisfying if your heart and soul are into it, whether it's of a gentle, intimate tone of the last two records or something like the new album, which is a whole different thing. I can obviously recognise the difference between them, but this is the way I'm feeling now." While Costello was getting on with the business of being busy, the usual record company mess-ups were going on in the background ("boring to talk about, but frustrating when you're going through them"), causing him to postpone any definite album-making plans until everything was sorted out.
Before he eventually signed to Island Def Jam, he had started making a solo record, within the limitations of what he calls "hands of concrete" - the demo of which, he says, would have been suitable for most people. Thanks to a couple of live outings, however, (supporting Bob Dylan in Kilkenny last year, and taking part in the Robert Wyatt-curated experimental London-based music festival, Meltdown), the team of former Attractions, Pete Thomas and Steve Naïve, and newcomer bassist Davey Faragher, was pieced together.
When I Was Cruel is a rowdy, raucous record, somewhat more muscular than Painted From Memory, but also without that album's high regard for elegant melody lines and true beauty. The whole point of the rowdiness, Costello says, is "that you're usually in this for the fun of it, although you also do it because you feel or want to express something."
Is it a different kind of fun - doing something as gritty as the new record and comparing it to sitting in an opera house in Italy, where he didn't speak enough of the language to really get all of his ideas across? "You hope the music you've written comes out coherent," he remarks in relation to his orchestral score. "In the end, it's a tremendous thrill to hear the music you've written with a pencil in a front room suddenly come out and fill a theatre. That's amazing.
"And with the Anne Sofie von Otter record, you find yourself almost stopping breathing because she's finding a new way to use her voice. And when you find yourself suddenly conducting ABBA's Benny Anderson's playing of his accordion - how weird is that?"
Does he see the making of his "rowdy" records in a less academic light than his work with The Brodsky Quartet or von Otter? "They're all different kinds of fun. The satisfaction you get is different from making a rowdy record, which is more visceral, the thing of letting something out of your head and whacking the strings on your guitar. There are more chance encounters, I suppose, because you don't really know what kind of sonic effects you get until you start rubbing one thing up against another. You can't really predict that stuff.
"The point of an orchestra, of course, is there are certain agreements that have been developed over a couple of hundred years; you can push them a little bit, but beyond a certain point it's perverse to push them too much.
"Some music that I don't take to in modern orchestral stuff just seems to be trying to do something with an orchestra that Jimi Hendrix could do so much better with an electric guitar and a fuzzbox. Why create a hideous sound with violas when they were made to sound melodious and agreeable? That's not to say all orchestral music should be gentle or tame, but there are certain things that are straining for effect. Electronic instruments allow you to go into outer space."
How do the classical/opera/dance cognoscenti feel when they hear what you do? Do they think you've overstepped the mark? A sudden, slight chill in the room accompanies the pitter-patter of the rain. "You'd have to ask them," says Costello, barely polite. "I get feedback from my friends, my family, those I know and respect. Other people have their opinion and I have mine."
CURRENTLY working on writing songs for Neil Labute's film of his stage play, The Shape Of Things; the imminent recording of his Italian dance company score by the London Symphony Orchestra; and organising concerts in Los Angeles as part of his UCLA role, Costello appears to have no end of ambitions.
He says he had no concept of being famous back in the 1970s; all he wanted to do then was to make records his own way. "Fortunately, the circumstances in 1977 - not so much with punk but with the nature of independent records and the existence of Stiff Records, which was set up to champion people who didn't fit in anywhere else, who had the door slammed in their face, which happened to me quite a lot - meant that being different to other people was the whole point. I stuck with that."
The music industry is so different these days, he says; the way that if someone like him were to start off now they would probably be crushed by the weight of manufactured pop groups.
Popstars? He doesn't have an opinion on it. "You might as well ask me what I think about logarithms. It's just not in my life."
When I Was Cruel is released on April 12th (sic)