Watching the invective
He's busier than ever, but the surprise is that Elvis Costello is happy and not trying to hide it, writes Bernard Zuel.
Elvis Costello is in control. Almost reclining in the chair with his legs splayed and one long, shiny black shoe plonked on the table between us, he's showing off incongruous but defiantly bright lime-green socks. The sun coming in the window opposite him bounces off the yellow plastic-look glasses he's sporting, effectively blocking his eyes from scrutiny. I doubt he minds at all.
Combative as ever, his approach to interviews almost always begins with scepticism. At some point he will remind you how some foolish writer somewhere misunderstood his intentions or gratuitously insulted him. More often than not it's a scribe in Britain, where Costello has not lived for nearly two decades and claims not to care about but can't help feeling every slight directed his way.
That "insult" these days almost invariably relates to his musical eclecticism, which has seen him work in rock, country and classical, on a film score, in collaboration with Burt Bacharach, and on an album of ballads inspired as much by 19th-century German song as postwar songcraft. To top it off, there was the simultaneous release this year of two albums, The Delivery Man, ostensibly written for an R&B/country blues-style musical, and Il Sogno, his first full orchestral work.
It's a career tally that can perplex as many as it excites, often leaving critics floundering and angry if they are without appropriate reference points. (After all, how many of us have both Schumann and the Band, Sammy Cahn and Boudleaux Bryant, Charles Mingus and Mary J. Blige in our record collections?) And save for a few spikes of chart hits, it's a career that has settled in the solid but far from staggering sales level.
For all that real and assumed tension, however, Costello is hardly having a bad time. Mid-year, about the time of his 50th birthday, that eclectic back catalogue had an unprecedented three-night airing at New York's Lincoln Centre with a Dutch art orchestra, the Brooklyn Philharmonic and his "beat group", the Imposters, providing the backing.
The performance of Il Sogno in New York was the first time Costello had heard his rewritten score played as one piece, an event he now describes as "a pretty magical place". Furthermore, those two albums he released last month have, in the main, received good reviews. And 11 months ago he married (at Elton John's country pad, no less) Canadian pianist and singer Diana Krall, with whom he now lives in New York.
Krall is upstairs in their Sydney hotel room. She is his second wife (he had a 17-year relationship with musician/songwriter Caitlin O'Riordan between his two marriages) and the inspiration for North, his album from last year on falling out of and then into love again. Consequently, even though he's never been the type to let anyone see into his life, Costello isn't trying to hide his happiness.
"I think it would be kind of churlish to put on a theatrical face rather than make people uncomfortable by being happy," Costello says. "I can't put on a theatrical face that contradicts my state of mind. I've never done that.
I know what gets under my skin still. I know what inspires, provokes, whatever you want to call it, but you may be in a better position to deal with it if you're at ease with yourself. I don't know, it's a new feeling.
"People are sentimental about the image or the thing I represent, the woman-hating angry dweeb that I seem to be some kind of founding father of, which I've always rejected. It's uncomfortable for them to realise that I'm actually happy and, what's more, can acknowledge my failings in reaching that. I didn't get to it easily; I got to it extremely painfully. It's just a little more truth that some people want to accept."
And in this tumultuous and exhilarating time Costello has produced three albums of his work and a collaborative effort on Krall's most recent (and best) album, and been commissioned to write an opera for the Copenhagen Opera House.
"The last couple of years have been very productive, but I haven't exactly struggled before that," he says, not needing to mention more than 20 albums or projects since his debut in 1977. "I've always managed to make it work regardless. That's not to say I've been in a state of permanent unhappiness for all the years before, that would be disrespectful to the past. You just reach a certain point where your life changes, and it has changed profoundly for the better in the last two years, and in that time I've somehow managed to realise, brought to realisation a couple of ongoing things."
He has taken off a natty black felt hat so the grey-tinged hair, receding past his high forehead, looks a little mussed. His voice still croaks, the legacy of a week's cold and a long flight. That may explain why, while outside it's 38 or 39 degrees, inside the hotel Costello is in a familiar black leather jacket over a loose shirt.
If nothing else, Costello, born Declan MacManus, the son of a trumpet player and singer, the grandson and father of a musician, too, still looks like a rock musician. Older and heavier, yes, but in his own way still a man for whom a guitar, volume and a rhythm section that makes you dance has not lost its sway.
It's this version of Costello, with the Imposters (two of his old band, the Attractions, and newish bassplayer Davey Farragher), that will this month play a set dominated by the rock end of his catalogue, even if some shows will be in vineyards.
"We're assuming everybody's going to be drunk," smiles Costello, who won't be contributing to the coffers of the vineyards, having given up the drink some years back.
"I played a winery in America and my experience is they were all drunk, not surprisingly. I'm not sure if that means the audience will be more or less sedate. They could be stunned by the heat and alcohol; they could be a bunch of raving lunatics."
They may need to put up the chicken wire. "That's usually the kind of venue we like best," he says with an evil grin. "I'm looking forward to a lot of shagging in the audience myself."
Shagging of the audience or in the audience? "No, only in the audience."
As ever, Costello exudes confidence, and not just in his "power position" seating manner. Not for him any of the insecurities most artists confess to. "I suppose the moment you're having those, I don't know if it's a question of confidence or you're working out where you can enter this world or what in that world of music is valid for you, you don't do that bit in public," he says. "That would be like having a workshop version of your career.
"Lack of confidence has no place on the bandstand. It doesn't mean you don't have nerves or that you're arrogant. Lack of confidence or being tentative is not going to make anything of value."