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Interview about The Delivery Man and Il Sogno
Toronto Star, 2004-09-21
- Vit Wagner


Elvis Costello says that writing an orchestral score to A Midsummer Night’s Dream feels little different than creating his pop work.  

What's on next for Costello? Soul, score

New CDs from Mr. Diana Krall
Next idea always intrigues writer


By now, we should know enough to expect the unexpected from Elvis Costello.

The pioneering post-punk tunesmith first raised eyebrows in 1981 when, having established himself as one of the premier purveyors of new wave pop, he ventured down the dusty road of country on Almost Blue. A dozen years later, he teamed with the Brodsky Quartet, a chamber ensemble celebrated for its interpretations of Shostakovich, on The Juliet Letters.

Should it really be all that surprising, then, that of the two new albums Costello has coming out this month, one, The Delivery Man (Lost Highway), is rooted in country soul and the other, Il Sogno (Deutsche Grammophon), is an orchestral score for a ballet version of A Midsummer Night's Dream?

Probably not. But experience has taught Costello otherwise. Never mind that his resume also includes a successful collaboration with Burt Bacharach on Painted From Memory or that his most recent album, last year's North, recalled the era of big band era crooning or that he co-wrote songs on the current disc by his Canadian jazz diva spouse, Diana Krall, Costello's wide-ranging efforts are inevitably received with a certain amount of incredulity.

It is the reason he decided to release both albums at the same time. The Delivery Man, featuring Costello and his current band the Imposters, with guest appearances by Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, arrives in stores today. Il Sogno, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, comes out next Tuesday.

"When I do things that are perceived to be unconnected to the music I began with, people assume that it's some sort of detour or that I'm not really holding to my true vocation," says Costello during a recent promotional stop in Toronto.

"To me it's like, why would you do anything as difficult as write an orchestral piece if you weren't heart-and-soul into it? I thought the only way to make that point was to put these things out together. They're obviously different in methodology. They're different in nature. But in terms of my belief in them, they are the same. They come from the most personal place that everyone has, the imagination. You wouldn't do anything this demanding purely for vanity."

Il Sogno (Italian for The Dream), commissioned in 2000 by the troupe Aterballetto, is a colourful, multi-movement composition that has drawn comparisons to Debussy and Gershwin.

"I wrote every note of that score with a pencil," he says. "I didn't use any modern computer trickery to play things into a computer and then have them appear on the stave. I wanted the labour of writing it. I didn't even work it out on the piano because, truthfully, I don't play the piano well enough to play most of this music. I imagined it.

"There is a synopsis which, if you care to follow it, allows you to hear how I intended the music to describe the transitions in the story. Some people just like the music to wash over them and it doesn't have to have anything to do with A Midsummer Night's Dream but if you care to follow it, it does work. It does actually do what it's supposed to do."

By coincidence, a handful of the 13 songs on The Delivery Man also share a narrative link, in this case uniting the story of a mysterious drifter, Abel, and the three women whose lives he touches. But Costello understands that listeners might not perceive the connection. And besides, there are several unrelated tracks, including "Bedlam," a swipe at the Bush administration, and a version of the Grammy-winning "The Scarlet Tide" from Cold Mountain.

"The story doesn't have a formal beginning, middle and end," Costello says. "You can enjoy the songs independently if you care to."

Most of the album, which has a soulful and organic feel, was recorded during a two-week session at Sweet Tea studios in Oxford, Mississippi.

"It seemed like the songs on this record were coming from a place in the road where country and soul meet," he says. "So it seemed natural to go to a place where that music is derived from."

Costello, who largely divides his time between the New York apartment and Vancouver Island retreat he shares with Krall, is planning to tour the disc extensively. At the same time, he has been buttonholed by the Danish National Opera to write something about Hans Christian Andersen for next year bicentennial of the author's birth.

"This is honestly the best I've ever felt in my life," says Costello, who turned 50 last month. "I'm happy. And I'm more on top of the things that I love about my work than at any time before.

"I have a great band. And yet I have opportunities to write things like (Il Sogno) and other work I'll do in the future for things I can't imagine yet because they haven't happened yet.

"I don't have ambition. That's the odd thing. I've done a lot of things but I never imagined them ahead of time. They just happened to me.

"All I ever want to do is to make the next record. I just want to write the next group of songs that are interesting to me. And just keep going."

Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.


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