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Interview with Elvis Costello
Times, 2005-02-05
Laura Lee Davies

Will the real Elvis stand up?

After 28 years of shifting sounds, images and moods, former angry young man Elvis Costello has made peace with himself, says Laura Lee Davies

Elvis Costello stops eating his lunch and looks out of the window. He’s reflecting on his position in the industry now he’s reached the grand old age of 50. “You can always say it could be better, but if you’re not careful with ambition, the next thing you know you’re sailing a statue of yourself down the river . . .”

After 28 years in music, Costello has released more than 20 albums and enjoyed numerous other collaborations. He’s not one to be conveniently pigeonholed. This isn’t because his image itself changes dramatically: angular new wave gob almighty, to ginger-bearded muso, to the present look, somewhere in between, in shades and almost always with a hat. It’s not because his recent marriage to the Canadian singer Diana Krall has completely overhauled his personal life and changed his definition of where he calls home. It’s because he has evolved as a musician and performer to the point where, in the past two years, he has been able to release three very different albums. There was a “crooners” album of love songs called North, a classical recording of his ballet piece Il Sogno, and last autumn’s The Delivery Man: a combination of clattering Attractions-style rock, ballads and even nods towards his previously explored country tastes.

It’s fitting that we are in Copenhagen to catch his tour because his next project is an opera to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth. Not an opera in the conventional, fat-lady-sings sense, he explains, but something typically untypical.

Costello is on good form. With North being a No 1 jazz album and Il Sogno reaching the top of the classical charts, it’s particularly satisfying that The Delivery Man so successfully pulls together the energy, style and lyrical genius of the other side of his work. “Three albums in two years appears more hyperactive than it is,” he shrugs. “Il Sogno was written in 2000. It’s only because it was performed at the Lincoln Centre in New York last summer that there was an excuse to release it. People who came to the concert were a little curious, bordering on sceptical, but by the end it was well received. Some of the praise was a bit of a pat on the head. But I was ready for that.

“Sometimes it takes a while for something to sink in. If you read the clippings on Juliet Letters (his 1993 album), it was like the world was coming to an end. The year that I was the artistic director of the Meltdown festival on the South Bank, there were arts editorials about whether this was the beginning of the end of culture!” Far from it; Costello’s 1995 Meltdown festival included appearances by classical and jazz artists alongside rock legends. There was a memorable performance by Jeff Buckley. “Yeah,” Costello sighs, “Jeff sang Dido’s Lament. Nobody could have known it would have such poignancy. He originally wanted to sing part of Kindertotenlieder by Mahler. And I had to say: ‘Jeff, that’s in German, and you don’t speak German!’

”From Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach to Bill Frisell and the Charles Mingus Orchestra to, on his latest album, Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, Costello has collaborated with as many artists as such a varied career demands. “A Costello album is anything I say it is. You make yourself up. Rock’n’roll is a funny business and my definition of what can be included in what is nominally a rock’n’roll record has broadened a lot.”

In this broadened context, Costello is baffled by the negative reviews that his album of jazzy ballads, North, attracted on its release in 2003. “I don’t think any record of mine has ever been received with such hostility in England. People said it must be the influence of Diana, but we weren’t together when I wrote it!” Given Krall’s jazz background, those who aren’t so good with sums could be forgiven for making a link between their relationship and this uncharacteristically mellow collection. The biggest influence you could probably pin on Krall, however, is that her presence in his life has cheered him so that any criticism of North provokes amusement rather than ire.

When they have time to see each other, Krall and Costello call New York home. “It gives me so much pleasure that I co-wrote half of my wife’s last record. That’s been a very pleasing success because she did something true to her heart. To hear even my little contribution to that, that’s really something. It’s a transition for her as much as for me. There are no rules; we both have an understanding of what the other person is about creatively. It’s great to know there’s someone I can talk to about anything.”

Krall seems to have affected Costello’s disposition positively, too. He is happy to hang out in the chilly Danish afternoon sun for pictures. No special lights, make-up or pre-arranged agenda, just some casual chat and talk of bad TV. “Have you seen John Lydon doing all that Celebrity stuff! It’s more I’m a Musician, Get me on TV.”

The date in Copenhagen is a jumping 2,000-capacity club gig where the crowd is made up mostly of enthusiastic twentysomethings. They play for two hours, almost non-stop. The line-up of Costello, the drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard maestro Steve Nieve is completed by the bassist Davey Faragher, whom they met through Pete’s work with Vonda (Ally McBeal) Shepard. Backstage afterwards, I comment that I hadn’t expected to hear Shipbuilding. “Neither did we,” they chorus, laughing. They suspect Elvis was inspired by being in Copenhagen.

“Sometimes doing an old song is like returning to the text of a play,” says Costello. “It’s not invalid, just because it’s old, otherwise nobody would be acting Shakespeare. (Not to say that everything I do is Shakespeare!) But it’s inevitable that it changes its meaning or impact. That’s why I never really sing anything from a nostalgic point of view, because even if it’s 25 years old, it’s in the moment. That’s the beauty of live performance.”

Costello has nothing but praise for his Imposters. “Pete and Davey have a really good understanding as a rhythm section and Steve gets better and better. We discuss our gigs and what we could do next. It might sound dangerously professional, but it’s just enjoying what we’re doing.”

It wasn’t always so harmonious. The original line-up of the Attractions included the bassist Bruce Thomas, who has written his own painful and funny account of being in a band in the form of the story The Big Wheel. “People who know me know I’m inclined to say rude things about our former bassist, but he basically played lead guitar!” Costello laughs. “Which was great really, because in my opinion the rhythm section was me and Pete Thomas. Add to that Bruce and Steve and, at its best, it was an unconventional British rock band like The Who, and for some reason it worked. But around the mid-1980s, I started to hear music that was structured a bit differently. It was one thing to do Get Happy when it was punky, but the new stuff wasn’t working. Plus we started pulling in different directions. There were personality clashes, there was also the drugs and alcohol intake, people on different physical rhythms . . . that’s what pulls bands apart, we were only human.”

Given the range of Costello’s repertoire, occasionally causing artistic outrage and using a familiar ensemble at the core of his work, I pluck up the courage to suggest that perhaps he’s the Woody Allen of popular music. Costello laughs and puts his fork down. “Oh God. You mean, except the unpleasant bit about marrying your stepdaughter? The one film in which he really spoke — and I am a fan, so I don’t mean any disrespect — is Stardust Memories. He tells the truth about the mob aspect, the unpleasant side of an audience.

“Your analogy of the film-maker is quite accurate, but an independent one. I need to make enough money to justify making the next record. If I do something expensive that doesn’t pay off at all, then it makes the next thing that much more difficult. We’re looking at a business that is shrinking. And my place in it is by no means certain and secure.”

It’s true that a Costello album is no guaranteed hit, but isn’t it time he was regarded as one of our great British musical institutions, alongside Bowie and Jagger? “I have been over-praised at times and underrated at others. I’ve been through that cycle about 15 times, so I don’t lose a lot of sleep!” So he’s unperturbed not to have been measured up for a plinth to celebrate his greatness now he’s turned 50? “That’s handy for people who are a little less, er, robust than I am. Take Morrissey. For me, he’s been singing the same tune for 20 years. I just don’t get it. But he’s clearly an interesting character and means a lot to people. He seems to be of a disposition that is very sensitive to criticism and therefore it’s appropriately English that he becomes cherished in that kind of Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock way. Those who are fragile, who need to be cosseted, maybe their shortcomings or their excellence in their field is then woven into the fabric along with Albert Tatlock and Hobnobs.”

So, no statue in Trafalgar Square or floating down the Thames? “I’m enjoying myself too much to worry about it. Of course, sometimes you get ticked off if you feel someone’s showing their ignorance. That’s why the concerts are so much more valuable than the critical discourse of my work.

“It’s like Tom Waits. People only describe him in specific clichéd terms. I Don’t Wanna Grow Up is a very wise song. But nobody ever talks about that aspect of his writing. They just talk about the bulls*** stuff because they’ve read one book of philosophy.”

Without feeling a duty to defend every dodgy review that Costello has had, I observe that perhaps some fans of his work attach greatest value to those songs they first fell in love with. Like eight-year-olds and their football teams. “Yeah. I guess Roger Hunt is still my hero,” he smiles.

When it comes to music, however, Costello’s not one for looking back. His rowdy new single, There’s a Story in Your Voice, features Lucinda Williams and is available only as a download. “I don’t feel defeatist about new technology. The record company will say something like: ‘We’ll release the record and see how the radio airplay goes.’ I’m like, what f***ing century are you living in? God bless ’em; nobody has told these huge, multilabel international record companies that gathering together in large groups is how the dinosaurs died!”

There’s a Story in Your Voice is available by download from www.elviscostello.com and the deluxe edition of The Delivery Man is out on Lost Highway. Costello starts his UK tour at Brighton Dome on Wed Feb 9.

ELVIS ESSENTIALS . . .

Five albums to get your costello collection started

MY AIM IS TRUE (1977)

You really should get all of the first seven albums, but this debut contains Alison, a moment of staggering emotion in an era when punk and new wave were more preoccupied with noise and novelty.

IMPERIAL BEDROOM (1982)

This most consistently fused Costello’s exhilarating rock with a textural change of pace and style that highlighted the singer’s lyricism at its absolute best.

PUNCH THE CLOCK (1983)

Too smooth for some, this mid-1980s album finds Costello’s fury more measured, but just as affecting in the stark Pills and Soap and the elegant, eloquent Shipbuilding.

THE JULIET LETTERS (1993)

Pop undergoes a chamber facelift. This was Costello’s first foray into the classical world, featuring clever arrangements in collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet.

THE DELIVERY MAN (2004)

The clattering energy of the early years is now coupled with the mature confidence to mix in country and soul moods, plus the sultry, sassy story of the title track.

The clattering energy of the early years is now coupled with the mature confidence to mix in country and soul moods, plus the sultry, sassy story of the title track.