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Interview about North
Jam!, 2003-09-21
- Mary Dickie


Elvis Costello opens up

By MARY DICKIE -- Toronto Sun

Elvis Costello's career has taken a lot of twists and turns in its quarter-century journey. Punk, post-punk, new wave, country and avant garde chamber music have all been part of his repertoire, but some constants -- such as razor-sharp wit, brilliant wordplay and a kind of amused bitterness -- have always been present in his lyrics.

Until now, that is. Costello's latest album, North, is much more of a departure than the left turn we might have expected after last year's return-to-rock When I Was Cruel. It's a collection of quietly intense, startlingly intimate songs in the '50s pop-jazz vein -- think Ella Fitzgerald's songbooks or Frank Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours -- directly inspired by the breakup of his 16-year marriage to former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan and his new relationship with jazz pianist Diana Krall.

In a way, North is a bit of a throwback to the music Costello's parents listened to in '50s Liverpool. "My father was originally a bebop trumpet player who took a job as a bandstand vocalist after he got married and I was born," Costello says over the phone from Germany. "And my mother worked in a record store. So I was lucky enough to hear lots of different music. Those '50s pop records were in my family home for as long as I can remember -- my mother tells me that I could request I've Got You Under My Skin before I could form whole sentences.

"I went back to them as a young man, when I was old enough to know what the songs were about. There's something unashamedly adult about those vocal records; they require patience that a child doesn't have. And they've been my predominant listening ever since, even though the music I've been writing and recording has had a very different tone.

Still, Costello has put his modern stamp on a vintage style. "I didn't set out to make a nostalgic album for a time that I didn't actually live in," he says. "The thing that separates those older albums from this one is the language. The language of the '50s songs is very restrained, almost like a code. No matter how tragic the song, the way things are said is not very overt. And I've lived through the changes in songwriting that led us to the moment when you can write things more literally -- and in fact, to do otherwise would be a bit cute."

And North is literally and overtly about new love -- specifically his new love. As he winsomely sings in Still: "Lying in the shadows this new flame will cast/Upon everything we carry from the past/You were made of every love and each regret/Up until the day we met."

In fact, North is the most personal work Costello has done, revealing our cynical, world-weary singer as surprisingly vulnerable, nervous, even euphoric. Instead of semi-cryptic cleverness, he sings with excitement, candour and even embarrassment about the joy and bewilderment of falling in love. Sometimes, as on Let Me Tell You About Her, he combines all of the above as he describes his friends rolling their eyes when he starts going on about his new love.

In our interview, Costello exhibits a similar ambivalence -- he seems reluctant to discuss Krall directly, but acknowledges the (rather public) relationship and the intimacy of the songs, as well as his happiness, which is evident throughout the lyrics anyway. For example, take this passage from When Green Eyes Turn Blue: "You brighten up my darkest gaze/And as a consequence I can see out of the gloom/That I gathered about myself/That I thought would flatter me/What the hell was the matter with me?"

Or the album's wonderful closer, I'm In The Mood Again, which conjures up the image of a besotted Costello roaming the streets of Manhattan at dawn: "I don't know what's come over me/But it's nothing that I'm doing wrong/You took the breath right out of me/Now you'll find it in the early hours/In a lover's song."

"I'm not denying that these songs have some relationship to my life -- they obviously do," Costello admits. "But there's an element of craft in writing songs which makes them accessible to other people. That is the point of them; otherwise you'd be singing to yourself. And the one thing I don't want is to make the experience of listening to this record predicated on knowing something about me. When you tie songs so rigidly to one person's experience, it stops them from operating as songs should -- to work on other people's imaginations and emotions."

In fact, he even left the title track ("You can ring those southern belles/I'm going North") off the album because it drew perhaps too clear a picture for listeners.

"It reinforced the personal identification with the songs past the point where I could say, 'This is not all about me -- it's about you, too,' " he explains. "If you include a song about Canada and your fiancee is Canadian, people assume all the songs have to be thought about in those terms.

"I wrote this light-hearted song about Canada, and it brought the house down when we played it in Montreal and Calgary. I think they even printed the lyrics in one of the papers. I was kind of thrilled that people took it on as if it was some sort of unofficial anthem, and it was meant in a good spirit, because I've always had a fine welcome in Canada. But I think with a song that has humourous overtones like that, the charm can wear off on repeated listening. (The song North will be made available on the Internet shortly.)

"Still, there is a wonderful feeling in finding a new type of song that I can do, after 25 years of singing about the darker side of everything," he adds. "That doesn't mean I've been relentlessly unhappy, either. Obviously I've had some happy moments! I've written a lot of dark songs because I believed that they made better material, and that I did it better than other people.

"But in these songs I found a way to say things that I've never been able to say before. All the details are not exactly how things happened, but I can tell you that this is a real feeling."

North also breaks new ground for Costello in the way the songs were written and recorded, and in their instrumentation -- they're piano-based, with low, softly sung vocals, strings, horns and virtually no guitar.

"I found myself writing the songs very quickly, and trying to make sense of all these musical ideas," Costello recalls. "I wrote late at night on the road, in dressing rooms, in hotel rooms and on the bus, singing to myself. Normally the process is to then raise their keys and find the right accompaniment to project the idea. But every attempt I made to do that would contradict their emotion, so I kept them in their original low keys.

"I think it's the warmest and gentlest part of my voice, 'cause when I get louder I get a lot of edges in it. This singing is close to speech, which heightens the personal, intimate nature of the songs. You know -- personal in the sense that it comes from within you, not necessarily that it's everything that you ever wanted to know about my life."

Right. Obviously it's difficult to conduct your relationship in front of the world, but hard to avoid when you're that horror of horrors, a celebrity couple. Costello and Krall have appeared in public together on several occasions, including at Willie Nelson's 70th birthday celebration, where all three collaborated on a version of Crazy (available on Nelson's recent Live & Kickin' album). But he declines to say whether he and Krall will work together in the future.

"When you share your life with somebody, you lend support to each other in many ways, and in your work as much as possible," he says. "But she doesn't need any help from me to make great records. We were asked at the ASCAP awards how things were different since we've been together, and she said, 'He's happier, and I'm angrier.' It was a funny way of getting out of answering, but it's also slightly true. There's a fire in her playing right now that might take people by surprise. I don't want to say anything about the record she's working on, but it's really thrilling stuff.

"At one concert, she did a version of my song Almost Blue, and a friend said afterward, 'Well, you don't have that one anymore!' I'll gladly give it up. There can't be anything better for a songwriter than to sit in the audience and hear their song interpreted so beautifully. But when you love that person and you get to go home with them, it's even better. I am a very lucky man."


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