Interview with Elvis Costello and Anne Sofie von Otter about For the Stars
San Francisco Chronicle, 2001-04-08
- Aidin Vaziri
Q & A With Elvis Costello And Anne Sofie von Otter
Aidin Vaziri, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, April 8, 2001
One of the more unexpected pairings in popular music arrives in record stores this month in the form of "For the Stars," an album of collaborations between Anne Sofie von Otter, 45, one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos in the world, and Elvis Costello, 45, reformed punk icon. The Swedish Von Otter, who has recorded more than 80 albums of lieder and opera, stretches her dexterity as she covers pop hits written by everyone from the Beach Boys to Tom Waits. Costello serves as producer and arranger for the project, adding his distinctive rasp in just a few spots. We recently spoke with the unlikely duo. .
Q: How did you become an Anne Sofie connoisseur?
Elvis Costello: Around 1989, my wife and I started going to a lot of classical concerts when we were living in London, and among the first things that we heard that really made an impression on both of us was Anne Sofie. Words are a poor servant in describing the emotional impact of the music. We sent her flowers and we would pretty much go and see her whenever she was billed to sing after that.
Q: What did you think of this strange man who was sending you flowers?
Anne Sofie von Otter: Well, his name and his face and those glasses were familiar. He's been quite often to Sweden. He's very popular there. Even though I never went to his concerts or had his recordings, I knew the phenomenon Elvis Costello quite well.
Q: Did you have this image of him as a skinny-tie-wearing angry young man?
Von Otter: I had no idea who he was or what he was all about, so actually I didn't have any preconceived ideas. I was quite pleasantly surprised. He's very articulate. He writes great letters. He's very witty. He has a way with words that is quite unusual. Maybe I hadn't quite expected that to come from a rock star.
Q: Were you worried that working with him might ruin your classical career?
Von Otter: No, we had quite a few years to build up our relationship. I noticed he has enormous experience and a vast knowledge of songs that might be available. In his mind, he can flick through his catalog instantly and come up with so many great ideas. I thought it would be great to have him on this recording as a producer, because I knew by then what he was all about.
Costello: I'm sure Anne Sofie is not worried that people are going to mark her down as a dilettante because there is a much crasser record that we could have made if we simply wanted to make her a pop star. It doesn't have many drums on it. It doesn't have any Gershwin or Broadway tunes, which are very easy for people to take. All of those things were options. I was very careful not to make a record that would make her look frivolous or ill-advised.
Q: Some people might think you've gone soft by working with an opera singer.
Costello: People might be disappointed that the record doesn't have an edge to it that my records had from 25 years ago, but I've made a lot of different kinds of records. Some of them have an edge, some of them have a gentler voice.
The most important thing is the feeling behind the music.
Von Otter: To Elvis, "crossover" is a horrible word, but I don't mind it. He doesn't even want to put it in his mouth. It is a different repertoire for me, and it is a pop effort even though I don't sound like your typical pop singer because I'm trained in a different way. My voice can never sound entirely pop. Certainly that was the only way I could access these songs because you can't sing them with a great big wobbly opera voice.
Q: How hard was it holding back?
Von Otter: As long as it's in the lower register of my voice, it's not a problem. But when it gets higher, I would almost say it's impossible because as soon as it gets high my voice wants to go where it's been told to go for the last 25 years or so. But when it's in the natural speaking register that most pop singers stick to, it's not a problem.
Q: Was it hard to give up the spotlight, Elvis?
Costello: I felt that if I sang too much it was going to turn it into a duets record. It wouldn't be credible if we were cast as star-crossed lovers. Our voices wouldn't naturally fit together just because we wanted to make this record. I just didn't think it would work.
Q: Was there a lot of flirting going on in the studio to get in the mood for these songs?
Von Otter: We kept our roles as they were -- I'm not sure exactly what you mean, but it was not embarrassing or strange or weird. When we both sing on a track, he often put that on when he was sitting in the recording studio later. We weren't able to record at the same time.
Costello: Because Anne Sofie's tall and seems so in control onstage people tend to think she might be austere and a little forbidding. That's completely wrong. From the minute we met she was very animated and funny. Some people also have that thing, where they assume that because Anne Sofie is Swedish she'll be rational rather than passionate. I've seen her in the studio, so I know that she gets affected by what she sings.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle