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Interview with VH1
VH1, 2004-01-16
- Heather Stas & C. Bottomley

 

Elvis Costello: Threats & Hand Signals from a Hopeless Romantic

He talks about North, his new batch of reflective love songs, and working with his new wife, Diana Krall.

by Heather Stas & C. Bottomley


Elvis Costello leads a double life. On one hand we know him as the acerbic songwriter and punk iconoclast who led the Attractions and penned pop classics like “Alison” and “Pump It Up.” Last year, the singer and his latest band the Imposters released When I Was Cruel, a slam-bang rock record that highlighted all of his signature bite.

But Costello also has a different itch that’s taken him away from the Top 40. He’s performed in a jazz opera written by Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve and made a record with soft pop patriarch Burt Bacharach. He’s written soundtracks and collaborated with string quartets. And lately, he’s dipped his toe further into classical waters, recording with opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter.

His latest project, in fact, was set to be a full-blown orchestral piece. However, his label suggested that he first record some symphonic songs to ease his fans into the idea of Costello the composer. Then something interesting happened. While grappling with his suite, he left his wife and fell in love with jazz star Diana Krall. In the process, he began writing a different kind of song.

Although the recent North finds Costello's indescribable croon being lifted by the soft moan of strings and after-hours piano, the singer is keen to point out it’s not classical music. It’s not jazz, either. And no, it’s not really about Krall, who he married in December. Call it, then, pure Costello. He’s never shied away from tenderness, but as North progresses, a third persona emerges: here's Elvis the hopeless romantic. He spoke to VH1 about why songwriters should come to grips with Schubert, the importance of kitchen counters to his art, and why sometimes with orchestras you have to do the arm-waving thing.

VH1: Is North a concept album?

Elvis Costello: There was a certain story being told, which rather risks people linking the album entirely to changes in my life. Obviously the curiosity has been great in certain areas of the media. But in the long run, songs endure much longer than gossip.

VH1: It’s something of a departure for you. Have you caught a lot of criticism for this album?

EC: Whenever you do something extreme, even if it’s of a gentle kind, that extremity can trigger alarming reactions in people. It’s as if you’d changed your religion, but I haven’t. This is where I chose to place the emphasis. I can imagine more than one kind of song and I will, because it serves to keep music flowing, to keep me from going stale, to not bore myself and therefore bore the audience.

VH1: You made North while engaged to Diana Krall. Did she have much of an influence on the album?

EC: The influence in making North is not in the creative decisions, it’s more in the way in which somebody affects your life. That’s much more valuable to me than any advice. Some people have been quick to assume that North was a vocal record [with] jazz orchestration. They somehow have it mixed up with ‘50s vocal records. But it doesn’t actually sound like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. If it had, it would be because I listened to that music when I was growing up, not because I’m [now married to Diana Krall]. We happened to share an appreciation of a lot of the same music. You might be surprised at some of the music that she likes, despite what she plays. These opera singers quite often like heavy metal!

VH1: You’re usually thought of as a guitar-slinger, but North casts you as a piano man.

EC: Most of the ballads I’ve written over the last 20 years have been on the piano, but then I bring the guitar into the arrangement, so I have something to do. Sometimes you start a song and you don’t even have an instrument at all. It’s just slapping a rhythmic idea on the kitchen counter. But most songs come fairly spontaneously. Words and music pretty much arrive together, whether it’s written on piano or guitar.

VH1: This time, though, you didn’t incorporate the guitar. Why?

EC: There’s been no attempt to amplify the songs in any way. I’ve kept them in those late night keys they were written in. Often the songs are written in the small hours, but you’re imagining a louder brush of sound as you’re singing the song to yourself, trying not to wake up the neighbors. With the North songs, I didn’t want to do that, because all the strength of the songs was in that confidentiality.

VH1: There’s definitely a very atmospheric late-night mood to the album.

EC: The songs are slow and they don’t repeat many things. Some people have been quick to say, “They don’t have any melody.” What they actually mean is they don’t have any hooks. They don’t have any easy idiot-friendly structural devices for people with limited musical imaginations. These are relatively complicated tunes, but I think [they’re] very accessible. Once they impress themselves on you, they’re hard to shake.

VH1: Why did you take that approach?

EC: When you tell somebody something close to your heart, you say a paragraph. You might emphasize a phrase, in the same way that the title of the song is the emphasized phrase in the song. But you don’t go on to repeat it 17 times! That would be nonsensical. That’s very different to singing a conventionally structured pop song. But these [tunes] have more in common with forms of art song.

VH1: Art songs?

EC: I don’t feel I’m saying anything grandiose by that. I listen to and learnt from lots of different strains of music, particularly composers from the 19th century. If you call yourself a songwriter, and don’t listen to Schubert, you’re not going to know what you’re doing. Because there’s so much to learn! It’s in another language, but the beauty and the economy of the way some of these songs are written, is so fantastic.

VH1: The liner notes say North is “composed, arranged and conducted” by yourself. Is this your first time conducting an orchestra?

EC: I conducted one track in the studio before. You direct musicians all the time. I’ve done that since the beginning, [with] hand signals and threats, y’know? I don’t have any conducting technique, but a larger group of instrumentalists need guidance as to where the emphasis is. You have to basically make a fool of yourself waving your arms about. You can do it with more elegance, as many skilled conductors do, but you’ve got to give people a clue as to where the music should grow and where it should diminish.

VH1: How do the North songs fit in with the rest of your work?

EC: As you play the songs in conjunction with other songs, you get all sorts of crosstalk and resonances. A song like “This House is Empty Now” from Painted from Memory [his album with Burt Bacharach], works very well as a preface to “You Left Me in the Dark.” It’s almost like the back-story. A number of other songs we’ve chosen seem to work very well, either because they’re in sympathy with the North songs or because they’re in very extreme contrast. You want contrast in a concert because otherwise everybody’s going to complain.

VH1: You’ve also written songs for Diana's new album.

EC: We did work on some of the songs for that record together. I have to say - and I say this with no false modesty - I think of the songs as entirely hers. My role was in being kind of a lyrical editor. She told me what was in the songs emotionally and laid them out in long form. I have that kind of trick mind that people have that do crosswords. I can look at a page of free association writing or a newspaper and see lyrics. So I was sort of the lyrical editor. These are much more personal songs. It’s somewhat different than the material she’s been associated with, so I won’t say more about the record than that, because that would be for her to tell you about, but it’s a very beautiful record.

VH1: So is this a farewell to rock?

EC: Oh, I intend to make another rock record, because the Imposters are a fantastic rock ‘n’ roll band. People are sort of surprised by North and can’t see it as being the same work by the person who made When I Was Cruel. I can’t help them, really. I hear it. I can’t explain it. I’m sort of tired of explaining everything. I just want to play, and whether it be songs with a gentle resolution, or more sonically progressive like the songs from When I Was Cruel, the next record will be different again.

© 2003 MTV Networks

 
         
 

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