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Interview about North
Toronto Star, 2003-09-28
- Vit Wagner


New Costello CD charts emotional journey

Mood is low-key, romantic and sometimes wintry
Title song 'North' dropped from album in the end


While composing the songs for his new album North, Elvis Costello wrote a tune called "North." But as listeners will discover when the CD arrives in stores Tuesday, there is no "North" on North.

"North," the song, is too "lighthearted," Costello says, to suit the emotional tone of the low-key, soul-bearing and unabashedly romantic album that shares its name.

"The song lends the title, I suppose, to the album," says Costello on the line from a promotional stop in Berlin. "But the charm of a humorous song can wear off a little more quickly than a very emotional song.

"Maybe at some point you can hear (the song) on the Internet. If you only have a gas-powered radio, you'll probably have to wait to hear it in concert."

Although the song "North" includes a reference to Canada, the album's use of the word is more metaphorical than hemispheric. The disc's 11 thematically linked songs chart an emotional journey from the wintry heartbreak of "You Left Me In The Dark" to the resurgent spring of "I'm In The Mood Again."

"North is more of a state of mind," Costello explains. "I think of the direction that north appears when you're holding a compass to your face. It's pointing upwards. North is also the opposite of saying that something is going south."

It is tempting to imagine that North traces recent events in Costello's romantic life, beginning with the unhappy demise of his 16-year marriage to former Pogues member Cait O'Riordan and leading to his current attachment to Canadian jazz diva Diana Krall.

It is further tempting to imagine that his relationship with Krall has somehow influenced the string-infused, horn-inflected sonic textures of North, an album that bears a much closer resemblance to mid-career Tony Bennett than it does to anything in Costello's 26-year catalogue — apart, maybe, from Painted From Memory, his 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach.

"We were friends but not together when a lot of these songs were written," says Costello of his relationship with Krall.

"Diana no more needs my assistance to progress her artistry than I need hers. We lend each other support. But that's the natural thing to do with the person that you love."

If anything, the style of North has more to do with the music played in the 1950s' Liverpool household of the young Declan McManus, as Costello was then still known. His father, Ross McManus, was a singer and band leader of some renown.

"The music I heard before I was 9 or 10 and started making my own choices and buying my own records was Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and bebop. That's not to say that I was aspiring to make a '50s-style vocal record."

Costello says he set out to "write with rigour and clarity about difficult matters of the heart." And, in that sense, he concedes he was influenced by the work of a female Canadian singer — not Krall but Joni Mitchell.

"You have to think about the rigour, economy and clarity with which she was able to write about emotional life," he says. "Because if you're not going to try to do it at least as well as that, then you might as well quit."

It's no great surprise that after When I Was Cruel, last year's return to rock after separate collaborations with Bacharach and opera diva Anne Sofie Von Otter, Costello has shifted gears yet again. Starting out in 1977 with the New Wave classic My Aim Is True, the chameleon tunesmith has reinvented himself on numerous occasions, surprising audiences with the countrified Almost Blue in 1981 and a song cycle for string quartet, The Juliet Letters, in 1993.

Composing at the piano, Costello wrote the songs on North while touring with When I Was Cruel. The new tunes might sound as if they were conceived with an over-arching concept in mind but Costello insists that wasn't the case.

"With When I Was Cruel, I did make a conscious decision to work with rhythm as the dominant factor," he says. "I had a method worked out. I wrote a lot of songs over a long period of time and then recorded them quite quickly.

"With this, it was quite different. The tour was going well and I was in a good funk creatively. These songs were bugging me night and day. I was having to seek out pianos, wherever I could. They were coming to my head. They were coming through my fingers. I really didn't have any choice but to make sure that they got down on the page or on to tape in some coherent form. The words were arriving at the same pace. Three of the songs were sketched out in one evening.

"By the end of that tour, I went into the studio in New York late one night and recorded six of the songs in rough form. And when I stepped out of the studio at 2 o'clock in the morning, I had the experience that is described in the final verse of `I'm In The Mood Again.'"

The last lines to the song are: "The Empire State Building lights up the sky/I'm in the mood. I'm in the mood. I'm in the mood again."

Says Costello: "When I took a step back, I realized that the songs were related. And that they had to appear in the sequence they were written. They charted some sort of transition."

Apart from its utter lack of irony, the most striking feature of the album is the consistently restrained quality of Costello's singing.

"You quite often write songs in low keys, initially because you're writing late at night and you don't want to wake up anybody," he says. "And then for drama and impact, you take them up several steps and amplify the accompaniment. But that would have been to contradict the emotion of the songs in this case. So I kept them in my lowest register.

"It's difficult to maintain control in that low register, just as it is in the very highest register. The extremes of your voice are always the least secure. But I was satisfied that I was singing the songs as I first heard them in my head."

Costello, whose talents as a songwriter have never been doubted, has not always received his due as a singer. On North, his voice is front and centre.

"Not to make too much of a case for my own singing," he says, "but people who are critical or dismissive of my singing perhaps don't really understand what's entailed. A lot of my early songs are very difficult because of the number of words and because of the rhythmic structure. People who have attempted to cover them have discovered this.

"My two favourite singers when I started out were Rick Danko and Van Morrison. And I didn't sound like either of them. But I learned certain things about explosive singing from both, and that characterizes the early records. Later on I found warmer voices to express different sorts of feeling, when the songs wanted to express more tenderness or regret.

"I've always said that I was a ballad singer who could sing rock and roll, not the other way around."


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