Interview with Elvis Costello about the Arts
Times, 2001-06-02
- Amber Cowan


After hours
Amber Cowan

The Times of London
News International
Final 1
Play 4
(Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd, 2001)

The musician loves Ethiopia, movie soundtracks and historical books, misses the stolen self-portrait of Rembrandt, but hates noisy air-conditioning and the Daily Mail.


Aside from music - obviously - my main cultural pleasure is art. When I was young I used to think that the daytime was just the inconvenient bright stuff between nightclubs, but as I get older I increasingly want to fill my days with things that take my mind away from my own stupid selfishness.

Art is ideal.

Last year, someone stole my favourite painting, which I am very upset about. It is a little Rembrandt self-portrait (above right), painted when he was young, which used to be on display in the National Gallery in Stockholm. I last saw it when it was on loan to a tiny gallery in Rotterdam and shortly after that it was stolen. Not by me though. Honest.

Whenever I visit a new city, one of the first things I do is to seek out the small, intimate galleries where you can retire to for an afternoon of peace and quiet. The Art Institute of Chicago is superb for that, as is the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York. I tend to avoid the headline grabbing exhibitions, though, as all too often you can feel like you are surfing. A huge wave of people will come crashing in, then there is a moment of calm, then another crowd will come along. That said, I was incredibly moved by the Tate Modern (London SE1). It is an amazing building. People in cities tend to spend far too much time lamenting bad architecture, but this really makes you appreciate a building's beauty. And the contents are amazing, too. They should do the same thing with Battersea Power Station.

I was lucky enough to attend a private view of the Royal Academy's recent Botticelli exhibition (London W1, until June 10), which meant that I was able to stand for as long as I wanted, almost alone, in front of these pictures. I feel that is really the only way to properly appreciate great art. It is almost as if you enjoy the same sort of uninterrupted relationship with the works that the artist must have had.


New York (below) is an amazing place. The first time that you go there you inevitably get swept up in the rhythm of the city, and leave hell-bent on moving there. Then you return and can't wait to escape. That's my experience of most teeming cities - I get frustrated very quickly.

I recently had the privilege of finding myself in Ethiopia, which is a place I never imagined that I would go to. My wife was very keen to visit, so we took a couple of weeks off to travel. It's a beautiful country. The towns are full of music and life, while in the countryside, you can find evidence of a rural way of life that has remained unbroken for thousands of years.

I am really into Ethiopian pop music, which has a very individual character because the country was closed off for so many years. The Ethiopiques series of CDs (Buda, Pounds 11.99 each) have done a lot to make the riches of the music available in Europe, and I would recommend them to anyone with a passing interest in world music. Because of the circumstances in which they were recorded, when the monarchy was giving way to a new regime 25 or 30 years ago, the music really sounds as though something is bursting into life. It is very poignant, and very beautiful, too. The European view of Ethiopia is shaped by news reports on their wars and famines, but that's only one side of the coin.


I am not much of a reader. I am terrible for starting books and becoming distracted halfway through. I don't have a favourite author and I tend to stick to factual or historical books.

The last great book I read was Endurance by Alfred Lansing (Phoenix, Pounds 7.99), about Sir Ernest Shackleton's voyage to Antarctica. It is a remarkable and very inspiring compendium composed from the diaries of the men who travelled with him, and it is illustrated with some amazing photographs. My wife and I ended up taking a holiday to South Georgia a few months ago and stood in the exact spot where their journey came to an end. That was very intense.


I rarely find time to go to the cinema and most of the films I watch tend to be the blockbusters screened on aeroplanes. But big-budget films are not designed to be watched on a tiny screen in the back of someone's seat.

Having said that, I did see one film recently that was wonderful. It was called Joe Gould's Secret (2000), by Stanley Tucci. It is the story of this bohemian guy in Greenwich Village in the Forties, and is very beautiful. Its pace means it would never have troubled Gladiator (2000) at the box office, but I'm glad that they screened it on a flight instead of the usual Hollywood rubbish.


I love movie soundtracks and I adored the Coen Brothers' film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), mainly because the music is almost a co-star in it. The Nashville sound today is plasticky and dominated by singers who try to sound like Celine Dion, but this gathered together authentic country music from the period in which the film was set.

I think the soundtrack has actually been quite successful commercially, which is wonderful because it has given a new lease of life to the musicians involved, many of whom are old men now. There is even a concert of music from O Brother, Where Art Thou? (above) at the Carnegie Hall in New York on June 13 - isn't that amazing? And there is this one guy, Ralph Stanley, who is finally becoming a musical star in his Seventies; I love that.


Music is my passion, my vocation and my pleasure. It also pays my way and has opened so many doors in my life. It sounds a little one-dimensional to have such an intense relationship with one particular art form, but it guides me in the same way that religion does others. On a more mundane level, I am also mad about football. I have supported Liverpool (Michael Owen, left) since 1962 and for a change, I have had the time to go to a few games this season. This is a big year for Liverpool fans, which is ace.

Pet hate

I think that nurturing pet hates is churlish when there are so many terrible things in the world, such as prejudice and the wretched way some people have to live their lives in order to benefit others. But if I had to choose, I would say that I really hate the type of air-conditioning in hotels that you can't switch off. I once stayed in a hotel that required a card to work the electricity, and they had things wired up in such a way that you had to choose between the air-conditioning that sounded like a jet plane or having the lights on. That infuriated me. My only other pet hates are the Daily Mail. And suburban fascists.

Elvis Costello was interviewed by Amber Cowan. He plays the Festival Hall, London SE1 on June 26, as part of Robert Wyatt's Meltdown.