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Interview with Elvis about how he views England and the opera he is writing
Liverpool Echo, 2005-02-11
Kate Mansey

King of cool

Feb 11 2005

Kate Mansey talks with a musical legend, Liverpool Echo

ELVIS Costello is a Reds fan. But it might not have turned out like that.

In the 1970s his Birkenhead father would take him to alternate games at Anfield and Everton so that he could make his own mind up.

And although he may have stuck when it came to football - music has been a very different story.

In a career spanning more than 25 years, Costello has made a virtue of diversity. He has performed with industry legends from Burt Bacharach to Paul McCartney and if imitation is the highest form of flattery then Costello is not short of compliments, with covers of his work performed by the likes of Dusty Springfield, Chet Baker, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.

His album The Delivery Man, released towards the end of last year, is a return to what Costello does best.

Declared by U2's Bono to be one of the best records of last year, it has a definite rock sound not present in his previous smoochy North album and has already earned him four nominations for the Grammy awards held in LA on Sunday.

But critical acclaim or otherwise, especially in Britain, is a thorny issue for 50-year-old Costello.

Now living in the US and married to jazz pianist Diana Krall, the music business in this country is clearly a source of frustration - and he knows exactly which direction to aim it at.

Simon Cowell, look out. "North was praised everywhere except England and that's because England doesn't have any culture," he argues dismissively. "That's one of the reasons. If your ears are tuned to Pop Idol all the time then you can't hear anything. You are not going to be able to hear subtlety if you are used to these people shrieking at you like bad karaoke singers.

"And there is a bit of mistrust. It's very uptight. It's a weird combination of utterly brazen and garish sexuality crossed with a prurient, morbid interest in that and a prudishness about it.

"These are the defining aspects of the country I have grown up in and have left gladly. I can now see it and love the things that I love about England when I come here because I don't spend all my time here so I am not bound and gagged by it.

"Every country has its archetype and its easily lampoonable stereotype. England is no exception and my part in it is very small. I come to visit and all I want to do is play. I don't want to explain. I just want to get on there and play."

Born Declan Patrick McManus to a jazz band leader father and a Liverpudlian mother, Costello perfectly reflected the new music oozing from the city in those early years of rock and roll.

Bursting onto the New Wave punk scene in the 1970s and 80s with his band The Attractions there was no stopping him.

Now Costello, who only learned to read and write music 10 years ago, has taken his classical turn further, writing an opera about children's writer Hans Christian Andersen to debut at the Copenhagen Royal Opera Theatre in October.

He says: "Of course the minute opera is mentioned it's like a big, fat woman with a Viking helmet. Everyone sees that image and thinks that it has to sound like Puccini.

"What I am actually doing is telling a story about Andersen. I didn't want to set one of the tales because that has been done.

"I'm right in the process of writing it - it's about Andersen who was this weird misfit kind of guy who came from a very poor background and rose to prominence because he basically invented children's stories. Andersen was a very conflicted person in his own sexuality. He kept falling in love with the wrong people.

"But it is not going to be written for an orchestra and I'm singing two of the roles in the initial production so it won't be like formal opera."

But then Costello has never been one for playing by the book.

"The other night we were in Rome," he says.. "I was a bit sick and I just sat on the edge of the stage and sang two ballads. I brought the microphone down - I had no monitors or anything. I just sat there with my legs dangling over and the next thing I had all these people around me.

"It was like I was telling them a story. I finished the song and this girl reached up and kissed my hand so I figured I must have been doing something right.

"Now the Liverpool FC fan is coming back to Liverpool next Wednesday with his band the Imposters and, he says, diehard fans can have high expectations.

"I can do much more with this group and also we have 25 years of experience," he insists.. "It's not just about youthful, nervous energy, attractive as that is for the first little while, it isn't as multi-dimensional.

"I think we are a 10 times better band than the Attractions ever were. That's my view. I know some people would disagree because they are sentimental about it. I know it is true."

* Elvis Costello is at the Royal Court next Wednesday.