Interview with Elvis Costello
The Sunday Telegraph, 1999-01-24
p 174, includes 1 standard publicity photo
- Kathy McCabe


Costello's aim still true


In recent times, Elvis Costello's career has been characterised by unexpected collaborations.

Work with Paul McCartney, the Brodsky Quartet and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell has delighted—and confused—fans and critics.

Costello's latest release, Painted from Memory, a partnership with legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach, has placed both artists firmly back in the spotlight with its emotive melodies and heartfelt Iyrics.

"Burt is enjoying a rediscovery by some people and a complete discovery by younger people," Costello laughs.

"Whether I like it or not, I've been around long enough that the same thing could start happening to me any day — although I don't feel I've been away anywhere long enough to be rediscovered."

Costello and Bacharach first met in the late '80s in Los Angeles when they were working In the same studio. It was a brief encounter in a hallway.

Destiny stepped In in the form of the music supervisor on the Alison Anders film Grace of My Heart, who suggested they write a song together for the film.

God Give Me Strength became the movie's signature tune, and it features on Painted From Memory.

"That song seems to hit the mark with a lot of people," Costello says.

"It's become much more famous than the movie — which is a shame, because it was a good film, and it would have been nice to have got to the Oscars with that song and Burt.

"Maybe another time."

Writing Painted from Memory was an unorthodox experience that spanned 18 months.

Bacharach and Costello worked on fragments independently until they could fit in five days here and there to complete songs.

"The songs were never far from my mind, no matter where I was, and the Iyrics were very demanding," Costello says.

"The exactness and precision with which Burt examines the music is remarkable.

"I was happy enough to write in a ballad style —I wrote on the piano which meant we could communicate in the same language, even though we have different dispositions harmonically and melodically.

"Certain things about the shape of the melodies would make the writing of the words an exact thing— a demanding thing— but when I finally got it right I realised it had led me to write in a much simpler style."

Some have always had a problem with Costello's Iyrics. Like many of his contemporaries, he prefers at times to let listeners find their own meaning in a song.

"The Iyrics on Painted from Memory are very, very direct and comprehensible on one hearing, but that's not to say I don't think there's merit, sometimes, in leaving some ends untied for the listener to make their own sense of it," he says.

"When I write songs that are opaque in terms of meaning, that's not because I'm a bad writer —it's deliberate.

"Of course, when you do it, people think you're too lazy to finish the song properly.

"I know what I'm doing, and they're for people who see the value in that—not for some schoolmasterly critic who thinks they've caught me out not finishing my homework."

Bacharach and Costello have performed five concerts, replete with 30-piece orchestra.

But on his Australian tour, Costello is accompanied only by pianist Steve Nieve.

They have been performing as a duo since 1995, and Costello says this has given him an opportunity to revisit older songs he had tired of playing.

It has also rid him of the fear of sitting down.

"The older songs in my repertoire are most likely to be fresh in this form, as playing them with a band presents a danger where I feel I've been down this road before," he says.

"Now sometimes l sit down, hunched over the guitar, and I can get into the way I felt when I wrote it.

"It's not that easy but I don't mind telling the audience this is what I'm trying to do.

"If I happen to sit down during the show, it's not because I'm old —although I do sometimes sing Gigi, which is an old man's song."


Elvis Costello, with Steve Nieve, performs at the Capitol Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday. His new album Painted from Memory, is out through Mercury.