Interview with Elvis Costello
- Phil Hogan
My date with Elvis
I've got all his albums. I know all the words to his songs. So what do you say when you meet your hero - apart from telling him he's a genius?
Sunday July 18, 1999
I've decided to keep this interview ultra-professional, not least because I know Elvis Costello has a reputation for taking his work ultra-seriously and doesn't like being asked dumb questions. So I'm not going to mention those occasional dawdling moments in my life when I've set myself the delicate task of deciding exactly which eight of his songs I'd choose if I was invited on Desert Island Discs, or ask him where he bought the hat he wears on the cover of Painted from Memory with Burt Bacharach, or if he still has to string his own guitar.
But Elvis turns out to be so relaxed and friendly when I walk into his suite at a discreet, whitewashed rockbiz hotel in Holland Park on a sweltering July morning that I immediately blow it by throwing myself at his feet and insisting on having my picture taken with him. 'Just something big for the bedroom wall,' I explain. Far from having me escorted from the building, Elvis couldn't be more accommodating and affable, joking with the photographer about his favourite football manager poses and politely waiting for me to stop sweating into the complimentary croissants before we get down to business.
So I ask him about 'She', the new single taken from the Notting Hill film, and wonder - already risking the arched eyebrow of wry intent - whether he thinks most people might find it a bit tricky getting past the memory of their mum trilling along to the cheesy Charles Aznavour original in 1974. Elvis is notoriously broad ranging in his tastes to the extent that it's hard to imagine a single musical genre that it's safe to poke fun at in his presence, so I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised that he does not find the idea of Charles Aznavour remotely amusing, and in fact goes on to list him alongside Jacques Prévert and someone I've never heard of called Gilbert among his all-time premier Gallic warblers. 'I love the atmosphere of that music,' he says. 'I love the arrangements. I've no idea what they're singing about but I know it's something torrid a lot of the time.' We laugh. (See - there is something funny about French singing.)
When Elvis was in the studio recording 'She' for the film, he says it took him four takes to shake off his cod French accent. We laugh again, but not for long because Elvis has now seamlessly moved on, via ballads generally, to the Brodsky Quartet and back to Europe by way of Marlene Dietrich and is now pulling through Bacharach country, which I am trying to avoid until I am more confident of it not being a defenestrating offence to remain blind to Burt's lush scenery. 'Just try singing "Anyone Who Had a Heart" in a French accent,' Elvis is saying. 'You can hear how influenced by French song it is. Very dramatic, very melodic... '
Actually, I wouldn't mind asking another question but I'm beginning to realise that Elvis is all accelerator and no brakes and you can only stop him by forcing him into the central reservation which results in an unseemly tangle of us both talking at once, but we do only have 45 minutes and I've been working up to introducing my interesting theory regarding the mutually hostile roles of rhetorical versus classical modes in the aesthetics of the three-minute pop song. He takes a sip of water. Here's my chance.
'So, where does your love of ballads come from, Elvis?' I ask. Damn.
Elvis tells me how, on the recent American tour he was always being asked if he didn't see a big contradiction working with Burt; after all, wasn't that his parents' music?
And was it? He smiles. 'Not in our house it wasn't.' Elvis's house famously swung with Sinatra, bopped with Dizzy. Mel Tormé was cool. Ella, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan. And, of course, Elvis's father, Ross McManus, who sang with Joe Loss. 'That's a pretty good education,' Elvis is saying. 'That would give you a disposition to ballads. I knew the names of jazz musicians before I went to school - Gillespie, Charles Mingus. I really loved Peggy Lee.' And then, in the Sixties, Burt appeared to Elvis in the guise of Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Gene Pitney.
But what about the Beatles and the Stones? The Kinks? Herman's Hermits? Wasn't all that slow stuff a bit unusual for a 10-year-old?
'Not really,' he says. 'The distance between the Beatles and Dusty wasn't that great to me. It was all part of the same thing.'
OK. I surrender. The Bacharach album. We haven't managed to talk about what most normal people think of as the real Elvis Costello - from the debut My Aim Is True to Brutal Youth, his last proper solo album - so I'm bound to wonder how the post-punk pope of angriness came to wake up one morning in the cabaret lounge of pre-pop. Or at least pre-posturing pop. Pop before the long hair. Notwithstanding the ballad-driven boyhood, it still seems a bit of a leap.
Absolutely not, says Elvis. It was always there. His first famous song, 'Alison', was a ballad; his first cover was a Bacharach-David song; his second cover was a Rodgers and Hart song. He could go on.
I suppose he's right. But I'm sure that when he arranged 'My Funny Valentine' for double bass and guitar, his followers might have just seen it as lovably eccentric, or playful, in the same way that easy listening has got this ironic cachet at the moment. I mention the new Austin Powers film - as well I might, since the newly fashionable Elvis (and Burt) has a walk-on part and a song in that one too: two of the hottest movies of the summer! I'm about to ask him whether he's in Star Wars, but he is still busy putting my earlier point through the mangle.
'It wasn't irony. I structured my albums like a Beatles record would be structured - a couple of uptempo numbers, then a ballad. You build up a bit of tension through the rhythm and then there's the release of melody. And we stole ideas from all around us - new records as well as old ones. We absorbed things from Abba, Bowie and Iggy Pop. I never felt the need to put eye make-up on to do that.'
I have a theory that the Burt thing is all to do with Elvis learning to read and write music in recent years, and that having bought the rollerblades, so to speak, he's determined to try them out. I ask whether you don't lose some spontaneity sitting at a piano with a pencil rather than humming a tune to yourself in the shaving mirror. Where's the trial and error? Where's the adventure? The danger?
'That hasn't disappeared - quite the opposite. I have the luxury of working in the way of a pencil composer and the spontaneous composer. One is a sort of gift and the other is a talent, I suppose. It still has to have an inspired root.'
OK, but I'm still pretty stuck on the idea that half the appeal of pop is the vitality that comes from getting things right by accident - or even a better version of right. You stumble on things you know will look good hanging on the dining-room wall of your song. Are these not the rhetorical flourishes that make up the perfect pop moment - the difference between a polished speech and one that hits you with humour or misery?
Elvis's songs are full of these touches - a cracked-up vocal, a full stop where you don't expect it, a killer line that goes on killing longer than is required by law. I cite examples. I remind him of the way his squeezed-up lyrics are always an exhilarating two inches longer than the music; I praise his battling harmonies; his byzantine arrangements. None of this seems to happen on the Burt album. Obviously, I'm trying to keep my inquiries at this side of sentimentality and intemperance, and I don't want to seem like I'm carping just because Elvis is doing something different, because actually I'm all in favour of collaborations - haven't I myself often thought of asking Tom Wolfe over to sit in on my half-finished novel? But much as I respect and admire Burt, I can't quite warm to those molten flugelhorns and trombones. 'He's not really up my alley,' I say. 'Maybe it's just me.'
Elvis is cool enough not to mind if I don't keep my ill-informed opinions to myself, but talks instead about enjoying the discipline of working with Burt. 'I had to have respect for the shape of the music. I actually looked at my own writing and realised I'd largely written in the same rhyme scheme for 20 years. Having to obey a different template of music was exacting, though sometimes exasperating.'
As Elvis tells it, Burt didn't get where he is today by letting lyrics run off the page. 'He would be saying, no, the line isn't da-da-da-da der-der, it's da-da-da-da der'. It's all to do with taking a breath at the beginning of the next line, says Elvis. 'Now that may seem very pedantic, but I realise that's what makes him great.'
He agrees that there's no right or wrong way to make music - but that applies to Burt, too. He tells me the story about Burt trying to get the band at the Apollo to play 'Anyone Who Had a Heart'. 'They were furious because of the uneven metre of the song. But if you just sing the damn thing, it does the work for you - and that's no different from a blues guy who plays a thirteen-and-a-half-bar blues '
Louise, the PR, is on top of us pointing at her watch. Oh no
Elvis looks at her. 'Am I going uptown?' He looks at me. 'Are you going uptown? We could talk in the car.'
We could talk in the car! 'Er... I could go uptown,' I say. Wherever that is.
We head out, down the hotel steps to the waiting limo in our pop-star sunglasses. Elvis asks the driver to turn the radio off. 'I hate music, don't you?' he grins. I grin back. Just look at us
I don't know if I'm working now or just having fun, so I steer the conversation to the meanings of my current favourite obscure Elvis songs (which, of course, he can't remember the meanings of), and moan about why 'King Horse' and 'London's Brilliant Parade' aren't on the magnificent forthcoming Very Best of 42-track, double CD in the autumn, and why he's stopped putting lyrics on his album covers, so you end up having to get them off the Internet.
Surprisingly - shockingly, to me - Elvis says he has become less interested in writing words now, as his interest in writing music has grown. He talks about 'This House Is Empty Now' from the Burt album, which he says he finds quite painful to sing. 'It's simultaneously about a man walking through the ruins of his broken marriage, but it's also a personal song about the fear of not having any other words in your head worth the work. It's this house is empty ' He points to his head. 'It's quite a despairing song about the whole idea of whether there's any more songs worth singing.'
Blimey. Writer's block?
'No, no. I have no difficulty writing songs. On the contrary, I'm suspicious of the ease with which I can do it. I check myself if I'm finishing a song too easily - if I feel it's going down a road I've been down before. That's why I've got so many unfinished songs, many of which I'm sure people would be happy to hear, and other people would be happy to take off my hands, but I wouldn't be happy to part with until I thought they were worth it.'
The driver drops us at an anonymous BBC radio studio in the middle of somewhere not obviously 'uptown' and I get ready to exit. But then the producer says we can wait in the coffee bar until Elvis is due on air - we've got about 35 minutes. Yesss
We chat for a while. Elvis tells me he doesn't have £8 million, as Q magazine seems to think. He couldn't give up work tomorrow, he says. But he's not exactly broke either. He's happy. He tells me he turned down Rod Stewart's Hampden Park concert, though he would have got a ton of cash for it. I burn my hand on Elvis's teapot.
Is this an age thing, I'm wondering - this affair with Burt and the Brodskys and Elvis's other hundreds of collaborative projects? The pop critics start counting the number of cardigans at your concerts. You break up with your record company. ('If you don't sell half a million, you're not in the game,' says Elvis.) You start on a tour of musical genres that you don't have to be young to get into - country, classical, folk, jazz, easy listening. You buy the dinner jacket. What next - Las Vegas? Or is it that he has reached the kind of maturity where you get your fun from doing something difficult? Burt and the Brodskys are hard work but rewarding. Rewriting Armed Forces would be easy but worthless. So has pop music finished with Elvis Costello?
'I just follow my curiosity,' he says. 'When I went to Nashville to do the country album, I was 26. There was no sense that I was no longer in pop music. I'm not a keeper of the flame. I don't feel the need to live inside the rock'n'roll world exclusively.' He says he'll be back with another solo album but he doesn't know what it will be like. He might do a UK tour in the autumn. He might not. He's not bitter about his old record company, Warner Bros, deleting all his albums, but he tells me: 'Burt refused to make Painted From Memory for them because he'd seen my morale plunge to the ground over that first year we worked together.'
I'm beginning to like Burt.
Elvis gets his cue. He gives me a wine gum and we head for the door.
'It seems a pity to break it up now,' I say. 'We could have gone back to your place. Few beers. Barbecue. Maybe done an album together... '
Phil Hogan, Life, page 9