Date: Sat, 13 Feb 93 16:10:16 -0500
From: aa680@cleveland.Freenet.Edu (Vern Morrison)
Subject: EC interview, Musician mag, 2/93
The following interview appeared in the February 1993 edition of
_Musician_ magazine, and is reproduced w/o permission. "CB" refers to
the interviewer, Claudia Buonaiuto.
CB: Your new album, _The Juliet Letters_, is a collaboration with the
Brodsky Quartet, a classical chamber group. How did that come about?
EC: Over the course of a couple of years I went to a lot of their
concerts. It turned out that a couple of the members of the quartet
had been coming to my concerts for a while. So we arranged to meet and
we just got on instantly. We talked about music, really became friendly
and from there talked about ideas of collaboration in very general terms.
CB: You won a British Academy Award for your score for the TV series
"GBH." You slipped a couple of those motifs into _The Juliet Letters_.
EC: If you look at the history of classical music, it's littered with
self-pilfering. Particularly Rossini. He would set an entirely new
aria to an existing tune or transpose the overture of one opera to
another because he was pressed for time. Well, I wasn't pressed for time
--I just thought some of this music had been used so fleetingly that it
had another life and I wanted to hear it sung. Mainly by me!
CB: You wrote words and music with the Brodskys. How did that work?
EC: On, say, "Taking My Life In Your Hands" Jackie (Thomas) came up
with that tune, and I took it away and developed it some more. That
character seems to be quite fragmented, because a lot of us wrote the
words. It became apparent that the person we were dealing with in that
song wasn't all there. He was like some of the people who write me
letters--they're very nice one minute and threaten to kill you the next.
In "Swine" the character is not entirely in charge of his faculties--
CB: It's an epistolary libretto. Each of the songs is a letter.
EC: We tried to stretch out the possibilities of what a letter could
be. We started with a list of suicide notes, love letters, a child's
letter. The music to "Swine" seemed to beg something a little bit more
crazed. It's a bit of the "Poem on the Underground Wall." The character
in it is exasperated with humanity. "Was she your mother or was she
your bride?" refers to the earth. But I didn't want to make that
abundantly clear, because then it would become a preachy environmental
song, which it isn't--it's just a thought caught in passing.
CB: Gee, I thought that line was a subtle way of calling the swine
EC: Ah! I think that's great. One of the great things about writing
songs is that sometimes not filling in all the blanks allows that sort
of imaginative misinterpretation. That's entirely valid. It's not a
game where we're setting up a trap for the audience. In the notes to
the record I refer to "the crafty language of the songwriter." It's
craft but it's also crafty, and everybody has their own vocabulary.
Somebody once told me that they had counted the number of times shoes
were mentioned in my songs--and it was unbelievable! I don't have a
thing about shoes, don't get me wrong, but I had a thing about the WORD
shoes. [Okay, Dec, if you say so--VM]
CB: Was your record company at all nervous about your making such an
EC: It's not like they indulge me to do anything I want. I described
it to (Warner Bros. President) Lenny Waronker and he said, "Well, that
sounds interesting." Compared to the money they're throwing out on
people like Madonna, it's nothing, it's pocket money. But nonetheless,
in the relative scale of things it's a bold move and I think Warner
Brothers showed great imagination in supporting this.
In all musicians and artists there is always the fear that the game
is going to be up for you sooner or later--even though YOU think what
you're doing is really good--and somebody is going to say, "What you do
is now invalid and the conventional wisdom is that you shouldn't exist
anymore." I had the distinct feeling that that day was imminent for
quite some time, but I think that day has come and gone. I no longer
feel that I have to worry about cramming all of the things that I'm
interested in into one record. But this isn't a calculated thing to
show off my versatility. This was just a collaboration that came by
being friendly with some people who happened to be musicians from a
completely different world. I mean, I don't see it any my "next step."
NOTHING'S my next step. I think a big mistake of critical or
journalistic perspective is to see everything as the next step which
denies everything that went before. It's not some 12-step plan, "How
to cure yourself of rock 'n' roll."
The attention to detail that is lavished on a piece written for
voice and string quartet would not be even considered in most pop music,
where a lot of the frequencies cover each other up. A lot of what's
exciting about rock 'n' roll is because all the registers are all doubling
one another and the left hand on the piano is playing something at
variance with the bass. In classical music, all of these things are
problems to be solved, to make them clearer. The attention to detail
allows you to be more expressive, to be more vivid. And if the next
week you want to run in a room and scream your head off and bash an
electric guitar, that would be a different thing you're trying to say,
and it would be just as right if that's the kind of song you want to
sing. And in my life that day is approaching very fast!
Date: Mon, 1 Mar 1993 11:36 EST
Subject: EC article/RS mag March 93
The following article appeared in the Rolling Stone magazine March 1993.
Please excuse any typos, and hopefully it will induce some opinions from this
list. Here goes...
Elvis Costello's Classical Gas
The pop poet teams up with a string quartet on 'The Juliet Letters'
Perhaps it was inevitable, after Elvis Costello made his name as an
acid-tongued punk tunesmith in the late seventies, he reinvented himself in the
eighties as a neosoul shouter (Get Happy!!), a torchy crooner (Imperial
Bedroom, Punch the Clock), a country & western twanger (Almost Blue, King of
America) and an eclectic jack-of-all-trades (Spike). A foray into classical
music might have been the only challenge left for this voracious workaholic;
his new album, The Juliet Letters, is an ambitious joint venture with a
British chamber-music ensemble called The Brodsky Quartet.
"There are plenty of examples of rock people matching up with classical
music or something else and coming out with a horrendous record," Costello
says. "I don't think the rock-based stuff is the worst of it, either. Some
of the most hideous stuff comes when classical enters the pop world. Like an
opera singer doing Peggy Lee songs -- I mean, _why_?"
The singer-songwriter fervently believes TJL is the exception to the dreck.
It's a confessional song cycle, no less; an intertwined series of third-person
missives set to the formal melodies and flow of classical music. Call it
challenging, even a bit daunting. Just don't call it classical-rock fusion.
"This isn't something to be afraid of," Costello quietly insists. "It's not
some high-art concept thing. It has more in common with jazz and bluegrass
than rock. We're trying to break down the perception that it's my record
arranged as a string quartet, that it's my next 'experiment.' It's not a
concept album, now is it? Where's the concept? So it has an idea? Yes, it
damn well does; it has _lots_ of ideas!"
Receiving interviewers in his Manhattan hotel suite over a pot of Irish
breakfast tea, EC is sharp-eyed and cordial at ten in the morning. He's
trimmed that scraggly, Amish-farmer beard, and his loose fitting suit is a hip,
subdued shade of black. His new-found enthusiasm for classical music in
general threatens to bubble over sometimes, yet he's surprisingly respectful --
even reverent -- about it. The angry young man who set his sights on "Alison"
and urged numbed-out listeners to "Pump It Up" is a figure of the past. Of
course, flashes of the fiery, opinion-filled old Costello's cutting edge still
surface now and then.
A devotee of Shostakovich, Costello met the Brodskys after he heard their
1989 festival performance of the composer's complete quartet works. Though the
quartet members -- violinists Michael Thomas and Don Belton, violist Paul
Cassidy, cellist Jacqueline Thomas -- are all in their early thirties, they've
played and recorded together for twenty years. Known for a wide repertoire
ranging from Haydn and Mozart to thornier and lesser-known twentieth-century
composers, the group previously crossed the pop-culture barracade by providing
music for one of designer Issey Miyake's Paris fashion shows.
Costello did more than meet the Brodskys halfway. For starters, this
self-taught, fifteen-year veteran of the pop-music business finally learned how
to read and write music.
"I didn't have to learn to write music to do this," Costello says. "It just
made it easier. Before, I would make little tapes for the musicians; say I
want a groove like a Howlin' Wolf record, play 'em a Howlin' Wolf record! Why
not? That would be frowned upon in the classical world."
Paul Cassidy expresses open admiration for the speed and facility Costello
showed in mastering the basics. "Elvis tends to underplay it a bit," says
Cassidy. "He learned to write music in a month!"
"I thought I had a block about writing music," says Costello. "But I got
over it. And then I found out, well, this isn't a bad system. No wonder we've
been using it for 700 years. The disciplined aspect of writing down allows you
to have more abandon inside that structure. The Brodsky String Quartet is
never going to be as loud as a rock & roll band, but it wields an attack in its
"There are two mistakes I think are easy to make with this record," Costello
patiently continues. "One is the way people assume that it's just a singer
with backing stringed accompaniment. Two is the way some people seem to think
a song is like a small, frightened child at the center. And the string players
weave all this _stuff_ around him -- the notes pile up like the superstructure
of a cat's cradle. You know the way pop records use orchestration like an
icing or a cushion of strings? Well, that's not the case here."
The unifying idea behind TJL surely is something more than another bogus rock
concept. It's a full-fledged literary conceit; a vision of Romeo's old
girlfriend as a sort of Shakespearean sob-sister figure. Around the time he
started jamming with the string quartet, Costello and his wife, Cait O'Riordan,
came across one of those obscure but true newspaper filler items -- several
sentences about an Italian college professor who discovered a crate of alleged
"Dear Juliet" letters.
"I assume there was a time when you could write to Juliet Capulet, care of
Verona, Italy," says Costello, "the same way you could once write to Charlie
Chaplin, Hollywood, USA, and have it get to him. We didn't want to research
it and turn it into a documentary."
Seeking to make his voice the "fifth instrument" in the quartet rather than
the centerpiece, Costello opened up his own composing process to include the
Brodskys. Not only drawing on their extensive musical training ("I know how
guitars work but not how fiddles work"), Costello solicited their input on
lyrics -- quite a novel fashion.
"We worked haltingly at first," Costello says, "drawing up a list of the
different types of letters. Everyone went home and tried to write a suicide
note one night -- just like school."
The songs on TJL mirror this process. "Dear Sweet Filthy World" is a
goodbye-cruel-world note; "This Offer is Unrepeatable" spiels like a chain
letter; "I Almost Had a Weakness" mumbles guardedly like an elderly aunt's
latest gossipy dispatch. Several of the melancholy kiss-offs (such as "Taking
My Life in Your Hands") hit their romantic targets like classic Costello letter
bombs. Actually, the artfully stinging divorce notification "Jacksons, Monk
and Rowe" could fit onto Imperial Bedroom.
Though he's written a modern classical ensemble piece for reeds and strings
since the completion of TJL, EC hints at yet another new direction. "I've
written a musical play," he says. "It should be produced next year. It's
about the afterlife: God melts in the bathtub and comes back to haunt people
in the water system; they drink, and he gets in their bodies. The title has
changed several times."
He hasn't exactly abandoned the pop-song format, either. "I wrote fifty
songs last year," Costello says rather casually. "My wife and I got a phone
call and wound up writing ten songs for this girl, Wendy James of the pop-punk
group Transvision Vamp. Not one -- ten. We just had a weekend to spare, so
we wrote ten. I said: 'If we don't finish by Sunday, forget it. It's got to
be quick, like a Tin Pan Alley job.' I always said I could write pop songs to
order, and then somebody said prove it. And I did."
-By Mark Coleman