Interview with Elvis Costello before Woodstock '99, 1999-07-21
- Erik Himmelsbach


Elvis Costello Fears No Man...

...but around Jewel, he protects his nose. Costello comes clean about backstage shenanigans with

by Erik Himmelsbach

It takes a lot to intimidate Elvis Costello. Huge crowds? Not a problem. The Woodstock audience won't even be the largest the songwriter's faced in his more than 20 years of road work (he performed before 500,000 at a festival in Rome, Italy). "[Woodstock] doesn't scare me in the slightest; I'm not afraid of any circumstances," says the prolific songwriter, who will perform with longtime bandmate Steve Naive. "On the contrary, I'm really looking forward to it. It's difficult to unite everybody, particularly when you're playing in the forum I am, where there's just the two of us. We don't have a lot of volume to rivet people. It's down to the power of the performance and choosing the right songs."

The prospect of singing before a "whole city all at once" may not daunt Costello, but Jewel Kilcher certainly puts the fear into the man. You see, Jewel, who's scheduled to follow Costello at Woodstock, has a proclivity for nose-grabbing famous musicians, including Elvis, who was tweaked by the Alaskan folk warbler backstage at the Grammy Awards a few years ago. "I heard she did that to Bob Dylan, and she also did that to me, so I take it as probably a compliment," says Costello. "I have a fairly big nose. It's a pretty big target. She said, 'nice nose,' and grabbed a hold of the end of it. I'm going to wear a nose mask if she's around."

But seriously folks, speaking of Dylan and the Costello in the same breath is hardly far-fetched. Both are musical chameleons, both have written timeless tunes that have touched generations, and both have done marathon touring. In Costello's case, the road's been his method of spreading the word about his latest record, Painted From Memory, a collaboration of grand orchestral pop with Burt Bacharach. Released in late 1998 on Mercury, the label was subsequently gobbled up by Interscope and corporate parent Seagrams. But rather than allow the songs to quietly fade into obscurity amid label chaos, Costello took matters into his own hands and has toured relentlessly with Naive. "I thought it was the only way to spread the word about these songs," he says.

Painted is just the latest shift in a restless musical career. Although best known for his scathing, scabrous rock with the Attractions, Costello's become something of a wild card, England's answer to the eclecticism of Neil Young. In addition to working with virtually all pop configurations, he's dabbled in roots and country (King of America, Almost Blue), operetta (The Juliet Letters), and now Bacharachian pop.

Still, there are those, he says, particularly in England, who would prefer that he remake albums like 1979's incendiary Armed Forces. But Costello knows better than to pander to his cult of fans, who are fiercely loyal and willing to ride along in any direction the maestro chooses. "It would be completely contrived to attempt to do it and would be insulting the audience," he says. "I'm very much more interested in the genuine reaction of the individuals that make up the audience, who've responded so generously to all that twists and turns that I've made over the last 20 years, especially since I parted with the Attractions and started to experiment more with the ways of recording music and the kind of ensembles that might accompany my vocals. I've had all these adventures and not all of them have been destined for the top of the charts, but I knew that."

The latest potion from the Costello laboratory is percolating in his head. He calls it "21st century big band music -- something that can swing that has the same relationship to dance music that big band music had."

It's not that the forward-looking Costello has turned away from his past. Actually, incessant touring has had an additional benefit, he says. "I've rediscovered a love of playing live and an affection for a broad range of performing my own catalog. I've got a pride in it that I didn't have a few years ago."

If Costello didn't enjoy performing, it was hard to notice. Although he was known for his brusque, rude performance style with the Attractions in the late '70s, Costello transformed into a endearing, transfixing performer. "The audience will follow you if you believe," he says. "Whatever you sing, if you sing with conviction and you really mean it."

Of course, playing intimate concert halls before rapturous fans requires a different kind of shtick than playing in a large field before several hundred thousand indifferent fans, a large proportion no doubt waiting impatiently for the next barrage of noise from Limp Bizkit or the Offspring.

"In a field, the gestures have to be a little larger, particularly when you don't have the benefit of the bottom-end volume of the rhythm section to carry your message," he says. "I think I probably have enough songs a number of people in the audience can recognize that can help unite the crowd to some degree. Once you've made that connection, you try to take advantage and do something a little unusual." At the recent Guinness Fleadh Festival, Costello seized the opportunity to segue from "Every Day I Write the Book" to Bacharach's "I'll Never Fall In Love Again," a song he is seen singing in the film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

And who knows, there may be other surprises as well. Although Costello says it'll be just him and Naive on that big Woodstock stage, don't be surprised to find a few other dazed and confused folks milling about. "We're gonna drive there in our tie-dyed camper-van. We may pick up a few heads on the way over."