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Interview about North
La Libre, 2003-10-24
- Laurent Hoebrechts (translated by miss buenos aires)


Elvis Costello, it looks like North

With the recent "North," Elvis Costello dissects romantic love in eleven sparse ballads, and makes the most of it by checking irony at the door. Romantic Costello?

Elvis Costello is in good shape. Public notoriety: the end of his marriage with Caitlin O'Riordan wasn't easy to digest, but today he's found his poise again, helped by his relationship with the jazz diva Diana Krall. In fact, "North," his last album, speaks of nothing else.

In 11 songs, Elvis Costello spins the thread of a love that dies out, to be reborn later. From "You Left Me in the Dark" to "I'm in the Mood Again." Explanations.

You like to change genres. After a return to rock last year with "When I Was Cruel," "North" is composed, above all, of ballads, almost jazzy.

I have a passion and a curiosity for music that have always pushed me to explore other genres. That said, even if you can hear harmonies that come from jazz or from classical, for me, above all, it's about the songs. I wrote fourteen of them at the piano for "North" in the space of two months. I didn't really think I was going to make an album out of them, but the fact is, they really went together.

Is it the base, the story you want to tell, that determines the form?

I don't know. As always, writing is something very spontaneous. You've got to capture emotions in songs. In this case, the emotions are very intimate. Maybe that's what led me to find new forms in my writing. It's true that this time I put aside certain "techniques" that I'd used a lot up until now: irony, puns...I tried to say very simply what I had in my head.

Is that a first for you?

Not entirely. A disk like "King of America" was also pretty direct. But the fact is that one rather has the habit of emphasizing the plays on words. Which sometimes leads to misunderstandings. In the case of "North," the songs are very easy to understand. But given that they don't "shout" either to draw your attention--the musical language is very calm, the tempos are rather slow--people are going to have to take some time to understand what it's about. It's not a disk they're going to play on the radio.

However, these are rather short songs...

Yes, and I think the melodies are rather accessible, easily memorizable. But...I don't know, I have no commercial ambition for this album. I'd like to think that it could touch the maximum number of people, but I must be realist, and I know that that is going to be difficult. Anyway, none of my albums has really sold massive quantities. Not the way people think they do.

How do you explain that?

I don't know, that's just how it is. Maybe I didn't do things in order to sell more. I want the music to be heard, I don't want it to remain secret, but at the same time, that shouldn't define what you say and do.

"North" is being released by Deutsche Grammophon," a classical label. Surprising?

Yes, if you remember that I came out on the rock circuit. But that actually says a lot more about Deutsche Grammophon than about me. They try to find the music that they can serve the best. Actually, I've always had difficulties with working with pop companies that always operate in the present, more focused on the image than on the content.

You've said you abandoned all irony for this album. In "When Green Eyes Turn Blue," you sing, "Wits may sharpen up/Their cuts and clever flays/Let them squander all of them/You brighten up my darkest gaze." Is this to head off the reviewers?

Yes, because some of them are rather cynical about life. I'm not talking about rock critics in particular. People in general can be very skeptical concerning love. You know that song by John Lennon, "Instant Karma"? He sings, "What in the world you thinking of, laughing in the face of love?" It's one of the most profound lines he's ever written.

That's never been you?

No! I've never made fun of love! I may have been disappointed by certain romanitc conventions that aren't always sincere. For example: the way certain people approach attraction and sexuality, a way I find ridiculous. You find it in rock, for example. But you know, these rules are no longer admired except by kids and retards who think that relationships are defined by "Honky Tonk Woman."

The album begins at the end. The end of a relationship...

Yes, "You Left Me in the Dark" speaks of that, but more generally, it's the loss of someone dear to you. Actually, it's as much a love song as it is a song of bereavement. It's true that "North" begins in an environment rather desolate, bare and solitary. Little by little, things evolve, emotions change. "When Did I Stop Dreaming" is about the moment when one returns to reality; "You Turned to Me" evokes the danger of seeing the possibility of love in the eye of someone else; "Fallen" is about the inevitability of falling in love again...Without really planning it out, a whole story is woven.


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