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Interview about When I Was Cruel
RTÉ Guide, 2002-04-12
- Paddy Kehoe



Elvis Costello sits in an upstairs, bay-front room of the Killiney Court hotel, on one of those spring days of rain, or impending rain. From his armchair, the singer/musician casts that canny, sidelong regard of his (through pink shades) as he reviews his long and boldly adventurous career in music. When I Was Cruel is his first solo record in seven years, created free from the collaborative discipline that characterised the last two albums that bore his name. They were made with Burt Bacharach and mezzo soprano Anne Sofie van Otter, respectively. "I didn't notice the labour on it, which is a good sign," he remarks of the new record. He talks of various technical problems, `pondering and a lot of responding to things,' on Painted From Memory, the album he co-wrote with Bacharach. "On this one it's a lot freer, I'm in charge and there are some half bars and 13- and-a-half bar blues going on."

So, a renewed musical `rowdiness' (his word) facilitates the return of that old familiar, Dylanesque torrent of words. Back on his own again, he didn't have to care unduly about scansion; a bit of leftover syllable here and there wouldn't spoil the finish. He concedes that the song Episode of Blonde, for instance, has an overwhelming amount of words to take in at one listening. "Episode of Blonde and When I Was Cruel (no 2) both have this survey of an absurd social panorama. I wanted to get the claustrophobia of some situations across with the sheer volume of words." Episode of Blonde, he says, is about our endless fascination with worthless things. We don't need too much more blondeness, do we, let's face it,' he quips. When / WaS Cruel (no 2) sashays along with a louche majesty, as befits its Scott Fitrgerald-like partying scenario.

"These are very rich people, and in their pomp, people of power, but there's a slightly macabre aspect to the party," he says of the song's characters. The song is based on an amalgam of real observation. "I've had a degree of success which allows me through the door of certain gatherings, particularly in the last few years, having had some kind of accidental pop success with She (from the Notting Hill soundtrack.) You find yourself in odd places, and what I took out of it was that even with the wealthiest people you're seeing these little, miniature tragedies going on. You're seeing a man with his fifth wife, and a clearly tragic first wife who's hanging on to a loveless marriage. You're seeing a person who wields enormous power in society, you're seeing how very seedy and shoddy they are up close."

There is a bitter-sweet swagger about the latter track and another called Tart, which sees the Costello vitriol filtered through over a musically rich weave, achieved with the help of three of the Attractions. Tart suggests some fabled type who has everything but yet cannot be happy. "You don't have to be wealthy, it's like somebody who cannot see good," the singer remarks. "I think that's an impulse that many of us have to fight, never satisfied, you know." The opening track, called 45 is a familiar, four- square Costello rocker which its author describes as an attempt at the story of his life. `I wrote it on my 45th birthday, and I do put a lot of store by music measuring out your time in life, and there being songs for every occasion. I remember things very vividly from the age of nine, mostly related to music, through music. Also my folks were divorced. You have that thing that some people go through of dividing up the music that they shared between them."

A chink of autobiographical daylight is rare in the Costello window, so here goes. Does it trouble him all these years later that his parents separated? "No, because it's what had to happen in their lives,* he replies, without a blink. "There's both a joy and a sorrow in that, some things that you share will always take you to the moment when you were together and happy. Some things are gonna be a mark of the time when you grew apart. 45 is a very passionate song, but not in a way that's confessional. It's not like saying, `look at the pain that's in this.' It's a celebration of how vital music is in people's lives. You'd be wrong to invest what l'm saying with a deep psychological scarred meaning, because that ain't me at all. I don't confess, I got out of that Catholic sh**." Moreover, he believes that there are too many confessional song-writers around, although he loves the great ones, like Joni Mitchell and Lucinda Williams and, years before them, Ira Gershwin. "There are well- written confessional songs, and then there's just like writing pages from your diary, incontinent writing." Alanis Morrisette, perhaps? "I'm not going to say any names, " he replies. "They write for them, but for me, it's like, `well, okay, you had that experience, but that isn't really that unique and neither is it interesting.' "

The few artists that survive from his punk-ish generation of 1975 or thereabouts are mostly on Greatest Hits packages nowadays. Even if his work in other genres may be of little interest to the original fans, he has survived way beyond the period that spawned him musically. I put this to him. "Well, I don't know, I suppose I have, I don't really sit around wondering about that," he replies. "I'm aware of the fact that a lot of the people who started out the same time as me were playing out end games, anyway." In the early 80s he branched into country music; ten years later he would begin to work with classical players. "It's not so much that I should be applauded for doing it so much as you can't criticise other people for not having the ambition," he says of such adventurism. "It's not really an ambition for me, it's a curiosity. Obviously I've been fortunate wlth the people that I've been able to work with, and we've bounced off each other and created something different, whether it be Burt Bacharach or the Brodsky Quartet or Anne Sofie van Otter. Even though she didn't contribute to the songs, having Anne Sofie's voice in mind made me write a couple of really great melodies on the For the Stars album."

In 1996 he got up on a Stockholm stage with Anne Sofie and the Swedish Radio Orchestra. It wasn't that nerve-racking for young McManus, it seems he had performed wlth the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as early 1981. "AlI the follies of being on stage with an orchestra underprepared were lived out that night, believe me," he ruefully recalls. "So I pretty much knew what I was doing by then." In July 1997, hls music for Tom Thumb was performed by Sir Neville Mariner and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Shortly after, he found time to make a cameo appearance in Spice World, the Spice Girls movie. Interesting times, surely? "A movlng target is harder to hit," he laughs. "I thlnk it's just fun to do off-the-wall thlngs sometimes, it stops people from being too serious about you."

At this stage in his career, he does pretty much what he pleases, creatively speaking. "They (the record company) have worked out that it isn't gonna do any good to tell me what to do," he declares. Early on in his career there were record company battles, but he wasn't involved in them directly. "I had a very combative manager, Jake Riviera, who kept them away from me. That worked very well, because it gave me the space to get on with what I was doing." He talks of The Juli/et Letters, his l993 collaboration wlth the Brodsky Quartet as `the last stand of the great Warner Brothers that brought you Ry Cooder, Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell.' "We sold three times more records of The Juliet Letters than even I thought we would, " he says. "I told the president we'd sell 100,000 copies and we sold 300,000, so thats's very satisfying. In classical music terms, that's a ton of records. I only made it because I wanted to work with the Brodsky Quartet, I wasn't trying to make a hit record."

His songs have been recorded by some of the greatest exemplars of popular music, singers like Dusty Springfield, George Jones and Chet Baker to name but three. "From the volume of songs I've written, which is a lot, about 300, I haven't been covered that many times. But the calibre of the artists has been really high quality, so I'll settle for the quality over the volume. Obviously, it's more lucrative to be covered by everybody, good, bad and indifferent." At the time of our conversation, he had no idea how When I was Cruel would sell. "Some people who bought She and made that a hit, they're young enough that they don't know that I do anything else. I'm only known as a crooner in Thailand and Brazil and those countries where that song was a big hit, and these weird countries that I've never even visited. It's funny to think that with this record comes out, they'll go, `he doesn't sing like that." G


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