Interview before concert at 1999-10-07: with Steve Nieve; Austin, TX, Backyard
KRSG, 2000-10-17
- Jody Denberg


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Q: Tonight at the Backyard, it’s Elvis Costello. And Elvis, you’re a Jessie Winchester fan, aren’t you?
A: Oh, yeah, going way back. Yeah, his first record, in particular, I suppose, everybody gets sick of hearing that. Hey, I loved your early funny films. But it’s a great record, his very first album, one of the great records. And somewhat unsung. And I hear from a friend of mine who saw him in New York recently said he’s in spectacular form these days and singing just as well as ever. You know, he has some beautiful songs of a more recent vintage. He has one of the most beautiful voices in all American music.

Q: We should have had you tuned in [earlier when Jesse Winchester was our guest] because we mentioned your cover [of his song] and also I asked him how he felt about people, you know, holding that first record up in such high esteem. And he said, “Well, my singing wasn’t that good. I didn’t really care for the production.”
A: It’s funny, you know, because I’ve heard that he said that before about that record. And you know what, I’d say almost exactly the same thing about my first record, which a lot of people still seem to like. And of course, I suppose, it’s inevitable the person that does it tends to hear the naivete and the inexperience. And I tend to think I didn’t really get in my stride as a recording artist until my second album, you know. I know there are a couple of really good songs on that first disc. And he may feel the same thing about his first album, you know.

Q: You’re playing tonight at the Backyard with Steve Nave. How did this deal evolve or de-volve from the full Attractions?
A: Well, it started out in 1995. I was the director of a music festival in London and I got to do all sorts of things that I never would have expected. I programmed a good proportion of nine days of music, ranging from symphony orchestra to being able to extend invitations to the Fairfield Four, you know, the gospel quartet you may know from Nashville, to Jeff Buckley came over and sang. He sang some Jacobean music. He sang a piece by Henry Purcell. We had Moondog come over and he made his only-ever appearance in London during the festival. I worked with Bill Frisell and the Jazz Passengers. A number of different people, that many of those collaborations have gone on to be recording collaborations in the years since. And at the time, I was fairly new to playing with Steve again. You know, the Attractions had not been playing back together for about a year and a half. And it seemed like very strange that Steve and I played together for on and off for 20 years, but never, ever taken a whole set together with just the two of us. And we did it at that festival. And it just -- like so many things in those nine days, it sewed the seeds of the next few years of work. And we’ve gone back to it. You know, we did it after the recording of All This Useless Beauty. And we’ve gone back to it on a number of other occasions. And each time, there’s a new injection of material, there’s a great -- it’s a great way to present the songs because you’re presenting them very much as they wrote them originally, often writing them on the piano myself, and then having them played properly by Steve.

Q: Do people have this preconceived notion that because it’s just the two of you that it’s going to be a mellow show?
A: It might be a bit of a shock. I mean, it’s -- I think in the last tour we played in the summer and we weren’t able to make it down here. And we were still featuring a lot of Painted From Memory. And suddenly, that was a more of a concert recital show. And because those songs are very large and predominately slow, it did seem to make for quite a melancholy evening. You know, it was intense, but it certainly wasn’t very rock and roll. Now, we’ve gone back towards a sort of mixture. We have a lot of unusual songs in the show. We have a number of older tunes, some of which we’ve never really attempted on stage, and just lighting into them with the two of us, you -- I think people will be very surprised how rocking it can get with just the two of you. If you think back to early rock and roll, there’s often only one or two instruments on the records. And that should -- you shouldn’t ever forget that you don’t need 12 guitar players to play rock and roll. But we still have a lot of good ballads. We have some new material, as well, in the show, brand new songs. Both songs I’ve written on my own and songs I’ve -- one song -- two songs I’ve written with Steve, with his music and my words. So we’re really ahead of the recording agenda now. You know, we’ve got -- the other night, we played five new songs in the show that nobody had ever heard before. We’re still playing a couple of songs from Painted from Memory and plenty of songs that people know from the last 20 years.

Q: You mentioned Painted from Memory. That was your collaboration with Burt Bacharach.
A: That’s correct.

Q: Now that the project is done, the critical and commercial reaction has been registered, how do you feel about the project?
A: I love it. It was a very big two years building up to it. Inevitably, it was a slower process than I have experienced in the past in writing my own songs. Partly because of the geographical realities of working with somebody who lives the other side of the world from you and that is very, very meticulous. And I learned a tremendous amount from the experience. He’s a master musician. It was a thrill to write music in collaboration with him, not simply to serve as a lyricist, but to work sometimes as the dominant musical partner on a song and have -- you know, what could you ask for better than having a master like that be your editor. Sometimes I would act as his editor, sometimes we would have a dialogue in music. We came up with 12 songs of which I’m very proud, several of which really suit me in this style of performance with Steve. I mean, perhaps my personality comes out even more in performance. People have told me that, in some cases, they prefer the stripped-down version of these songs. Those that are not tuned to the orchestrations of the record, which, of course, are Burt’s signature, they sort of hear my personality come through a lot more when we take them down to just piano and guitar accompaniment, you know. They seem to kind of resonate better with some of my older songs, some of which are along -- you know, are really about the same things. There’s a lot of songs about lost love. I’m not a stranger to that subject in my own repertoire, solo-composer repertoire. And I’m finding that you can build an interesting story over an evening using old and new songs.

Q: And I’ll point out to our listeners, there’s also a new release from guitarist, Bill Frisell, that interprets the whole album.
A: Yeah, that’s right. On Decca, that’s just newly out. And Bill’s done a remarkable job. He sort of -- he received a stack of manuscript, which was barely complete. You know, we -- well, it was complete, but we had had no time to -- we hadn’t been in the studio and recorded Painted from Memory. And the originally, the albums were supposed to come out side by side. And then, as you probably know, there was a huge upheaval at what was then Polygram, when they were purchased by Universal. And a lot of their projects got sidelined for a while while they went through a process of hiring and firing staff. And for a while, it looked as if the record was going to fall foul of that process. But thankfully now, it’s been released and people seem to be really digging it. And Bill did a remarkable job. He’s interpreted the songs. It’s a big complement to any composer to hear their music interpreted whatever way it turns out. Obviously, it’s not going to sound like the way Burt and I chose to interpret it, because that would be pointless to repeat the exercise purely instrumentally. Bill’s taken the piano out of the arrangements and built his orchestrations around a group of horn players and his own guitar playing. And there are just a couple of vocal appearances on it. Cassandra Wilson does a great version of "Painted from Memory" on it. I duet with her on our new version of "I Still Have That Other Girl". And I do a solo version of "Toledo", again with a very different orchestration than the one I recorded with Burt.

Q: You’ve been involved with a couple of movies lately that have raised your profile. You recorded a song called "She" for the Julia Roberts film. And then you and Burt were in Austin Powers 2. So this is new territory for you, I’m thinking.
A: Yeah. Well, I’ve been in movies, on and off, in one capacity or another over the years since 1978 I made my first movie appearance in America. I’ve done a number of things for English television. I’ve collaborated on the actual score for a very long and involved drama series, one of which I won a British Academy Award for. So reasonably high-profile stuff. The movie appearances on camera usually being cameos. I was in a movie which wasn’t so celebrated called 200 Cigarettes. I made a brief walk-through in that. And as you say, Burt and I appeared in Austin Powers, which is obviously something that particularly a lot of younger kids have come up to me and said, “Hey, so you know Austin Powers.” Sort of strange to think you can write songs for 20 years and the first thing they notice is this little cameo. But it’s inevitable, you know, that’s tuned into a different crowd.
I’ve enjoyed it. I’m involved in, as I say, writing songs for a number of different films. My wife and I wrote songs for both The Big Lebowski and for that matter, the Rugrats cartoon. So these are all like a little detour from your regular career. But they’re coming up. In about three or four weeks’ time, I’m making an appearance in a new movie -- well, I’m actually playing a dramatic role in a movie written by Donna Martin and co-written by Q-Tip. And it’s set in a prison system and the educational system. It’s a very serious film, but it uses music in the most ingenious way to help tell the feelings of the characters. And I play a teacher in it. And I get to sing a song that I’ve composed specially for it. I got a little hand on the words from Q-Tip. And some other people from the hip-hop world are in the film, Mary Jo Blige and Q-tip is in it, obviously, as the lead. In fact, that’s going to be a world away. That’s quite a contrast to Julia Roberts and Austin Powers.

Q: Elvis, your songwriting partnership that you had with Paul McCartney for a while proved very fruitful. What are your favorites from your collaborations with Paul?
A: I think my favorite single song that we wrote together was "That Day is Done", that was originally released on Flowers In The Dirt. And as I said, in ’95, I was able to invite the Fairfield Four to London. They made their first London appearance and then the group has been in existence for getting on 70, 80 years, of obviously, different members. And if you’re familiar with this group, you know they come from the a cappella gospel tradition. Wonderful gentlemen. And they were very, very kind to ask me to come to Nashville and record the song that we sang together that evening, which was "That Day Is Done." So I got to record my version in some of the most spectacular company one could imagine and doing the song in a very simple way. Paul did his with a big elaborate arrangement, which was right for his voice. And then I got to sing it singing lead with the Fairfield Four. So that was something else. And then that’s probably the song that I feel has traveled the most.
Of course, I’m also very fond of "So Like Candy" and the success -- you know, the successes that we had in the charts from "Veronica" and "My Brave Face".

Q: You also sang "That Day Is Done" at the Linda McCartney tribute at the Royal Albert Hall. That must have been an emotional time.
A: It was very, very sad. Paul, you know, carried the evening with a tremendous dignity. And you know, it was done out of a lot of affection. Everybody there, I think, was there for just the right reason, not just to promote, you know, causes that Linda was passionate about, but also to celebrate her life. Not in a somber way. There had been the inevitably somber memorials at the time of her passing, but this was a celebration. And it did have an uplifting feel to it. And Paul was magnificent. He came out and sang his heart out on one of the songs that I think now has appeared on Run Devil Run, you know, the new album he has out of rock and roll songs that he’s just released. He did an old Ricky Nelson song. He had me come sing harmony with him on it, which was a thrill. And we did an ensemble version of "All My Loving", which was very joyous. And it was a very beautiful evening. But singing "That Day Is Done" and the other song I sang that evening, "Warm and Beautiful", one of his tunes that he wrote for Linda, was a difficult gig, you know, emotionally.

Q: Right. I know you’re a very big music fan and a collector. So I ask this tentatively, but have you seen the bootleg that compiles your demos and work with Paul?
A: I have, yes. I’m sort of, you know, honestly dismayed that those things have come out. I have absolutely no idea how they could have emerged. I mean, obviously, it’s very difficult with live broadcasts on radio or even with live concerts to avoid some tapes coming out. And I’m not particularly bothered about them, because they’re usually just like a souvenir. But when it comes to pirating studio stuff, I have a little stronger opinion because I think it should be the right of the creator of the material to decide when and where they’re released. And quite apart from the matter of them being -- you know, the money made from them in criminal hands, you know, because it is pirate work. And I was hoping that Paul, at one stage in the future, might, you know, include a couple of those tracks in some future compilation of his solo work, because I think, quite apart from the reality of it, that they include a couple of his fine performances from recent years. They were done very much off the cuff when we were just recording the songs. But I’m not terribly happy about the way in which they’ve emerged. And although it’s on a very low level, you know, I can’t obviously sanction it.

Q: We’re talking with Elvis Costello, who has to make his way toward soundcheck. So just one or two more questions and we’ll let you be on your way. Talking about intense fandom, there was this magazine that is still released, it used to come out of San Antonio, Beyond Belief, that’s devoted to your work. How do you feel about that magazine?
A: I have a very -- I don’t endorse it in any way. I mean, people are entitled to do what they want. I think there is a thin line, you know, between intrusion and genuine interest sometimes. I think when members of my family have been bothered in the past by inquiries…I think a genuine interest, of course, is something I have to be thankful for. I have people come see you year in and year out. I have no problem with that. I don’t personally operate on the world of the Internet so I have no -- I’m told that there’s quite a lot of activity there in that sort of world to do with my stuff. But I really don’t want to express any opinion about it, positive or negative. I really am completely ambivalent about it, you know.

Q: Fair enough. Elvis Costello tonight at the Backyard. Elvis, the first time I saw you in Austin was the first time you played here, the Armadillo World Headquarters.
A: I remember it well.

Q: So do you have any favorite Austin memories? Because you’ve been here so many times over the last 22 years.
A: Yeah, I’m very fond of this town. I -- you know, at the time that we played at the Armadillo, we were actually thinking ahead to probably a lot of hard road work in terms of like connecting with the American audience. And I don’t know if the people are aware of this, but at one point, we toyed with the idea of setting up shop here in Austin and making this our U.S. headquarters and working out of Austin. And, you know, obviously, then it became apparent that we were needed in Europe just as much as we were here and it wasn’t practical to really set up shop anywhere else other than London to keep the base. But that’s how much we liked it here and we continued to. And we’ve had a lot of good fortune with many of the shows here. I like the -- is it the Texas Opera House that used to --

Q: Oh, yeah.
A: Yeah, that was a good place to play. And just really, all the shows we’ve done here over the years. There’s been a lot of different contrasting ones. And I think tonight I’ve been in this venue before and we’ve always had a good time. I think in the kind of show we’re doing, we played -- you know, we played everything from the Oakland Paramount, which is a very grand deco theater the other night, 3,000-seat theater, to the House of Blues in New Orleans the other night. And, you know, obviously, sometimes the environment really shapes the response from the audience. Sometimes when you get in those fancy halls, people sort of sit on their hands a little bit, a little intimidated by the grandeur of the venue. You can imagine in New Orleans it wasn’t exactly like that. It was a honky-tonk. And I think the Backyard is somewhere in between.

Q: Well, we wish you and Steve a great show tonight. I appreciate getting the opportunity to talk to you. Elvis Costello and Steve Nave at the Backyard tonight. Another 107.1, KGSR Concert Exclusive. Thanks to Elvis for phoning in and talking to us about a variety of subjects. That was a lot of fun.

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