Interview with Elvis Costello
Toronto Star, 1999-06-10
- Betsy Powell


Elvis Costello steps out from behind the noise

Singer strips down classics for tour that brings him to Toronto


By Betsy Powell
Toronto Star Pop Music Critic

``Twenty-thousand people pointing at the same thing doesn't make it right. With that line of thought, it's like saying that McDonald's is the best food there is because everybody eats it.''

So says Elvis Costello, the inveterate genre-hopper who sprang to worldwide acclaim in 1977 with the new wave punk classic My Aim Is True.

Since then, Costello's musical eclecticism has been as predictable as food found under the golden arches.

In recent years, Costello, 44, has stretched as a composer and worked with dozens of artists, including pop veteran Burt Bacharach. Their collaboration, Painted From Memory, was a critical hit and earned the duo a Grammy Award earlier this year.

After staging a handful of shows together - none of them in Canada - the pair parted company, but their songs remain central to Costello's latest tour, which finds him reunited with Attractions' pianist Steve Nieve and at Massey Hall on Wednesday.

The Bacharach/Costello songs will be played alongside older material with pared down arrangements for guitar and piano. ``There are some songs that people want to hear despite their great age,'' says Costello on the line from his home in Dublin.

The songs or fans?

Costello laughs and is quick to dispel any notion that he draws only 30-plus crowds. ``Maybe my eyesight's failing, but everybody seems to be getting younger.''

And softer.

``By virtue of the diversity of the records that I've done, I maybe have lost a sense of a guaranteed place in the pop charts,'' he says. ``The good side of what I've done is the variety and composition of the audience is very much different. The fact that I don't play exclusively rock 'n' roll music . . . means there are many more women in the audience than there used to be,'' says Costello, now well into his stride.

``There are many more ballads. I believe the love vibe has kind of rubbed off on me. There are many more couples in the audience which I prefer - a balance of humans, you know, rather than just all guys.''

Costello's stripped down approach allows him to dust off chestnuts such as ``Alison'' or ``Little Triggers,'' free of the resentment some artists feel toward their own back catalogue.

``(There's) no embellishments or ornamentation of arrangement that gives you this cumulative layer of varnish that many, many years of adding becomes fuzzy. You strip it away, and even a song like ``Alison'' - it took me back to how I wrote it.''

But not because Costello assumes the personality of the person who, back then, bristled with anger and cynicism.

``(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes'' was written at 22 about the terror of the compromises that come with age. Now I am twice the age I was when I wrote it.

It would be unbecoming to try and sing it like I was 22. So I sing it as this age, and there is some humour to it that wasn't there before, which I find really makes the song kind of fresh.''

He also now includes songs in concert that weren't well-served with a backing band ``because they required a degree of subtlety.''

``The Attractions were a very, very good band, don't get me wrong. But there's a self-defeating aspect to electric music that doesn't admit certain nuances to be played that could be achieved in the studio.''

This, in turn, presents Costello with the challenge of ``standing up and being counted for the songs that you can't hide behind noise. It means I have to be in good voice.''

Once the tour ends, Costello plans a break and a return to writing and some producing.

In the meantime, there'll be plenty of Costello sightings on the big screen. ``You won't be able to go to the movies without seeing me,'' he says, chuckling.

He had a blink-or-you'll-miss-it cameo in 200 Cigarettes, recorded Charles Aznavour's ``She'' for the Notting Hill soundtrack (the romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts) and recorded the Bacharach classic ``I'll Never Fall In Love Again'' for Austin Powers' The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack. (In the movie, Costello also plays a street busker, along with Bacharach, who serenade Powers and his girlfriend.)

Later this year, he'll turn up in a French movie, his first appearance in a foreign-language film. ``I speak in English, you'll be pleased to know.''