Interview with Elvis Costello about making of Painted From Memory
Musician Online, 1998-11-23
- Harvey Kubernik


We devoted plenty of room in our January '99 issue to Harvey Kubernik's excellent interview with Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. But even all that page space wasn't enough to contain everything that Elvis, in particular, had to say about his recent collaboration with Burt on their new album, "Painted from Memory." Here, as a Web site Exclusive, are a few further reflections from Elvis on his creative process as a performer and a songwriter.

Did you find yourself stretching out vocally on some of the material you wrote with Burt? Did the songs and words demand a freer interpretation?

Yeah. Whether they demand it, they present an opportunity to do it. And it feels possible to do it in the studio. I know that from singing "God Give Me Strength" while doing a tour of opera houses in Italy with Steve Nieve-very good singing halls-in January. Though it was a tremendous temptation to play piano versions of the songs we'd already finished, I wanted people to hear these songs the way Burt and I were going to record them. So I didn't debut anything from this record, even though I was dying to see what would happen. But "God Give Me Strength" was already out there, so we played it, and every single night it stopped the show. I mean, stopped the show, like we couldn't play the next song because people wouldn't stop clapping. I've never experienced anything like it, because it was such a singer's hall, [yet] the effect of the song had this amazing response every night. It had easily the best response of any song all night, even better-known songs I've sung for twenty years-on top of which, three nights out of the tour it was literally me asking the audience very politely to stop clapping. I had never experienced that. Also, I've come to grips with singing that song, a bit more than even on the recorded version. So once you get that adrenaline, you get to the situation where you feel, "I just want to get these songs on a stage to see where else they can go."

Other than that, what was the first song from "Painted from Memory" that you performed live?

That was on Burt's TNT "One Amazing Night" television special, and we did "This House is Empty Now." To be honest with you, it caused the biggest problems in getting the recorded version, simply because I had never heard the arrangement before the day we recorded it. I'd heard a rough sketch of the arrangement about a week before I came over to New York. We rehearsed it the night before. We did a dress rehearsal. The show was the third performance--and it was a pretty damned good performance. I couldn't have sung it better in the studio. It was one of the few vocals on the record that I overdubbed most of the way. Nearly every track on this record has the core performance, and every track has some element of live singing on it.

How did your collaboration with Burt differ from other joint writing ventures you've done in the past?

I think that both Burt and I are inclined to examine things in great detail in our writing. My collaborative experiences are quite broad, but each one has been very different in its objective. When I was writing with the Brodsky Quartet, that was such a different form of music for me, and I'd only just mastered writing music down, which was a necessary part of collaborating with them. So there were all these things that colored the way the music took shape. Other collaborations I've done have been much more about grabbing a spontaneous feeling of music with a couple of guitars and rhythm motivating everything. This is a very deliberate thing, but you have to have the initial inspiration and a strong thought on the first kind of musical thing, like in the first rehearsal. I may have thought of opening music for one song that ended up on the record, and Burt would have put the opening music on another song. But if you were to play the tape now, you probably wouldn't recognize those songs to the finished thing. They've gone through a lot of work. We cut thirteen backing tracks in eight days. That was like nine songs that we got first time and two [sic] where we did remakes in order to get the rhythm settled in the way we wanted. That's a pretty good ratio, considering that there were no rehearsals.