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Interview about North
Jam!, 2003-09-29
- Angela Pacienza


Elvis Costello praises Canada

Canadian Press

TORONTO -- Elvis Costello's star power in Canada went up several decibels after it was made public he was smitten with jazz darling Diana Krall.

By his own admission, his bookings increased (including cities he hadn't played in 25 years), the venues got bigger and his face was splashed across the front pages of newspapers more frequently.

"I'd perhaps underestimated that I was known in Canada," he said bashfully during a recent interview over the line from Germany.

And while fans can look for evidence of the couple's romance -- and his divorce from his wife of 16 years Cait O'Riordan -- on his new album North, Costello says things never happen precisely like they do in song.

"Life is longer, wider and more boring and messier," he said. "It's impossible to say it is literally in every detail exactly as it happened because it leaves out so many things. The things you choose to focus on become songs. Their aim is to be universal in appreciation, be there for people to see themselves in the songs."

Even the album's title has nothing to do with the homeland of his fiancee. "It's sort of like expecting the opposite of the old saying 'Something is going south.' It's like saying onward and upward . . . a general sort of movement towards the positive," explained Costello, who began his recording career in 1977 with the record My Aim Is True.

The actual song North, a whimsical ditty about a country with polar bears, moose and geese, wasn't included on the album because it would have specifically placed the album in Canada, Costello says.

"It would exaggerate the sense of identification of these songs with my life or with our life. And then I've defeated myself," he said.

Besides, he says, the songs were written prior to becoming romantically involved with Krall.

A collection of vocally driven ballads, North intensely captures tender emotions in a roundly classical style, reminiscent of his collaborations with Burt Bacharach and the Brodsky Quartet (which appears on the album). The record, Costello's 24th, follows last year's rock-minded When I Was Cruel.

Set to vulnerable piano chords and delicate orchestral arrangements, North plays like a movie, beginning with the end of a relationship and ending with the birth of another.

He describes the progression as "quite sad and then hopeful and eventually joyous."

"It's not just about looking at it and trying to picture somebody's life so much as see something that stimulates your imagination, like moving pictures," said Costello, who was born Declan MacManus.

To that end he chose to keep the instrumentation sparse because it fit with the lyrics. "That was the most truthful way for the songs to exist," he said. "There's a starting point of sadness and literally the first song is as much about bereavement as it is about romantic loss."

Forever fine tuning his craft and reinventing himself in various musical genres, Costello says he's proud of his ability to stick to his guns and not give in to any commercial formula.

"I didn't think very far forward 20 years ago. I didn't even think I was going to get out of next week in terms of writing and making records. But after a while it seemed, despite the fact that my old records didn't sell very much, there was always somebody there to listen. I'd made some changes . . . because I loved a different type of music and that's what I wanted to do," says the 48-year-old singer who started some 25 years ago with roots in the punk scene and later became one of the barometers for good pop music.

"I'd expected people to become exasperated at that point and stop listening but usually just as many people thought 'Hey that's great. I never heard that before.' "

And he's philosophical about what his approach has meant for him.

"Why I don't have massive success and fame and wealth is because it doesn't accumulate the way it does for people who make the same record over and over again," he said.

Now that the musical chameleon has completed his album, he'll be anxious for fiancee Krall to finish her new one.

But he insists, despite numerous requests by friends and fans, their careers will remain separate entities.

"As you would expect with people who share their lives, you would also lend support to one another but in ways perhaps that are harder to define," he explains. "We don't have to make records together and we don't have to be together all the time for that to be true."

They did however come together for Willie Nelson, performing a cover of Crazy for a tribute album.

"That's probably the right type of thing to do; keep it rare for the special occasion because we have, heaven knows, enough to be getting on with in our own independent careers."

He added that her new material is "a fantastic piece of work that will show another side of her that only aspects of have been shown before. It'll show a vivid picture of her in this place and time which is great for anybody to be able to achieve."

And that's what he thinks he's accomplished with North as well.

"A change," he starts, "But one that doesn't make them depart of the places that people know and love them for, but only deepens it," he explains.

North, he says, gets people's hearts pumping but not in the rock-out, adrenaline flowing sort of way some of his fans are accustomed to.

"I'm proud of the record touching people because I stuck to my intention to make it stay true to the original feeling I had when I was composing the songs and even hearing these orchestral ideas."


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