WITH FAMED MEZZO-SOPRANO, SINGING SWEDE SONGS OF LOVE By MARY HUHN
Interview with Elvis Costello about For The Stars
NY Post, 2001-06-01
- Mary Huhn
June 1, 2001 -- THROUGHOUT his career, Elvis Costello, 46, has often leafed through the back pages of modern music to craft material for his extraordinarily eclectic songbook. The key to his success is simple: The man has passion.It resounded clearly on his 1977 debut, "My Aim Is True," as it has on each subsequent album, whether rock, country, jazz, classical or his recent collaboration with the great American pop composer Burt Bacharach.
Although Costello has a restless musical soul, his aim has remained true. For the past three years, he has been working with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter on "For the Stars," an album of solitary, sometimes forsaken, love songs.
This quiet album isn't going to shake any charts, yet it is the kind of collection that will be remembered and replayed for years to come because it has the timeless qualities of sophistication and beauty.
Speaking to The Post from his home in Dublin, Costello insisted that the conversation stay tightly focused on the "For the Stars" project, but he did reveal he's heading back to the studio after the brief tour with Von Otter (which lands at Midtown's Hit Factory Wednesday, to be broadcast live on 90.7 FM WFUV).
"I'm not done with the louder sounds in music. People think that because the last couple of things I've done have been in a quieter voice," Costello said.
"After this, my main ambition is to make a record of my own. I'm in the mood. After making a record as delicate as this one, I feel like a wild man. I want to break out, and that's what I intend on doing."
Post: Why did you choose to work with Ms. Von Otter?
Costello: One of the great things about Ann Sofie is that she can approach a song with a lot more vocal ammunition than most singers. She does things with her voice that vocalists dream about. It gives her the ability to create moods in songs.
Post: Is that because of classical training?
Costello: Classical singing is very different from pop singing. Most rock and pop singers either write material for themselves or somebody is writing for their voice. A classical singer is singing music that has been sung by many singers before.
Post: Could you describe Ms. Von Otter's voice?
Costello: Anne Sofie has a modesty in her voice, yet she is utterly distinctive. Beyond that, there is the ability to capture an emotion or an intention in the music. Anne Sofie is always in that moment.
Post: Were you looking for a voice like hers?
Costello: This was a collaborative effort. I don't want you to have this impression that I was hypnotizing her or it was a Svengali kind of thing. We had a great dialogue going. I'd send her songs, convinced that they were perfect, and she'd say, "I absolutely hate that." Then I'd have to figure out why. Sometimes, it was that she simply didn't like the singer.
Post: Like who?
Costello: She has a blind spot about Sinatra, which I find inconceivable. You think, "Who doesn't like Sinatra?" But she just doesn't.
Post: It would seem you have more differences than similarities.
Costello: When I first wrote her, I didn't know how much she knew or understood about pop music, so it took a while for us to develop a colloquial way of speaking.
Her conservatory training allows her to sing hugely complex pieces of music that I can't even imagine how you begin to memorize. I can't sight-read music, which she, of course, can, but there are the instinctive things about music that can't be written down, and for those things, she trusted me.
Post: What were some of the directions you gave her?
Costello: Sometimes, I advised her to sing with less force - to "allow the song to do the work for you; don't overdramatize."
Post: In a recent interview, Ms. Von Otter said about you: "It's not so easy to sing with him."
Costello: I think that's very true. We found a lot of difficulty in finding the right way to do songs. We had to really think about how we would fit together as vocalists, and the truth of it is, we don't fit together simultaneously unless I sing very sparingly.
Post: But your voice is a strong presence on the CD.
Costello: We only sing simultaneously three times on the record. On the rest of the songs, I sing in response to her. I think our voices work better in contrast than they do in complement. Rather than lamenting that fact that we weren't perfect for each other, we found a way to be dramatic.
Post: The album is romantic, yet you don't get sugary.
Costello: We tried to put a lot of variety in the music, but in the end, we both felt the strength of the album lay in the melancholy ballads that are emotionally forlorn. This is a grown-up way to sing, not a kid thing. We are grown-up people and we're not trying to disguise that. This is attractive stuff. It feels consoling when you hear it.
Post: Many people lament that modern pop music is on a downward spiral. Do you agree?
Costello: That's nonsense. Good music is always somewhere. You have to seek it out. The good stuff is rare by virtue of its quality. Look at what is always most popular in movies, TV and music - it's often crap. You can't sit there whining about how commercial stuff isn't any good. You have to seek out the good stuff.