Travelling off the beaten track of rock and pop music is nothing new for Elvis Costello. A flick through his back catalogue will turn up not only a list of some of the most potent rock records of the past 2½ years, but a collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet on Costello's Juliet Letters, a fruitful partnership with Ute Lemper, and a mind-bending stint as director of London's Meltdown Festival.
Still, even Costello had to look to his laurels when he started making an album with Anne Sofie von Otter. Not that Costello wasn't familiar with the mezzo-soprano's voice and repertoire — they originally met because Costello and his wife Cait would regularly attend her classical concerts, having first seen her perform in Berlioz's Damnation of Faust in 1989. But Costello knew she'd never recorded anything remotely resembling a pop or rock record before, so the challenge was to make an album which ranged beyond her familiar repertoire while still maintaining her stringent artistic standards.
It was in 1996 that Costello and von Otter first appeared together in a professional context, at a concert in Stockholm. "The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra played some classical pieces, Anne Sofie sang Strauss and I sang some of my songs," Costello recalls.
"It was very informal. It wasn't anything like the record we've made."
This first encounter prompted Costello to compose a collection of songs for von Otter and his old pals the Brodsky Quartet, entitled Three Distracted Women. It was while attending rehearsals and performances of these pieces, watching how both singer and string quartet worked their way into the material, that Costello began to discuss the idea of making an album with von Otter. "Anne Sofie actually asked if I would consider producing a record," he explains. "I think she may even have used that dreadful word 'crossover,' but I don't think of it like that. I tend to see 'crossover' as taking some music which is regarded as difficult and dumbing it down so people can buy it for their granny, or because they heard it in a coffee advert. Once we started to talk about it, I told her that I really believed she could do something different from what had been achieved before with a classically-trained singer performing popular repertoire."
The irony was that while von Otter had come to know Costello personally, she was unfamiliar with the records which have made him a familiar figure to a broad popular audience. "I didn't have a single one of his albums!" she admits. "But he sent me some of his recordings and I began to understand his background, this incredible talent."
In Costello, von Otter had found one of the very few artists with a sufficiently wide knowledge of music from virtually every genre to know how to do justice to each of them. Although he wasn't classically trained originally, Costello vividly remembers being taken to classical concerts by his parents when he was growing up in Liverpool. He has since put himself through a rigorous course of self-education in classical writing and arranging, but has never allowed his classical enthusiasms to outweigh his appreciation of country music, rock or jazz. It has become a cliche to say that "it's all just music," but in Costello's case he has the breadth of understanding to kick-start the phrase back to life.
But while Costello was an old hand at leaping between musical genres, von Otter's experience had been exclusively within the arena of classical music — if you don't count a brief dalliance with Flower Power during her youth. As she recalls, "When I was in my teens, I wanted to play the guitar and sing hippy songs. A lot of my friends did too, and we all had guitars and we would play 'House of the Rising Sun' over and over again."
This phase was, perhaps mercifully, short-lived, and instead von Otter went on to develop into one of the most commanding and elegant mezzo-sopranos currently gracing the concert platform. She hasn't hesitated to tackle classical music from any period, whether the baroque operas of Handel, music by Mendelssohn or Mozart, songs by Grieg and Korngold, or Verdi's Requiem. Quite simply, von Otter is one of the most versatile talents of her generation. But, as she was well aware, the discipline and technique of classical singing were very different from what would be required for her collaboration with Elvis Costello.
"I had a very old-school classical training," von Otter explains. "I spent six or seven years at music college where I was trained in harmony writing and piano playing and doing everything from the sheet music. I am very fixed on the music page, and I tend to stick very closely to what's written there. When you try to sing pop or jazz like that, you can't do it because it sounds very corny. And Elvis is from the opposite end, where he learns it all by ear."
Costello was aware of the problem, and had been mulling over various stratagems for overcoming it. "There have been some fairly wretched records made by classical singers doing popular repertoire," he points out, carefully mentioning no names. "I think they're led the wrong way by their producers. Sometimes I feel the singers don't really believe in the music. They do it in a frivolous frame of mind and they don't pay enough respect to the composition. Their singing sounds like they have donned a party hat at some sort of gathering and they feel faintly ridiculous in it. They don't feel at home and it doesn't sound like they feel at home. I was determined to avoid those traps, and I think we have managed that."
Yes, but how? An aspect of the recording to which Costello paid particular attention was the placing of the microphones to capture von Otter's voice. This was one area where pop and classical recording practices differ significantly,
"We spent time going into how we could record her in a non-naturalistic way, not always using the microphone technique used on classical records, where the microphones are quite far away," Costello says.
"In classical recordings, the singers project as they would do in a concert hall and they catch the sound of the voice in the air. But we were talking about putting the microphone where most pop singers have it, like two to six inches away. And in some cases, putting quite a few microphones around her and finding which one suited the colour of her voice for that particular song. Sometimes we didn't even use a hi-fi mike, but quite a cheap one or some old '40s mike that had a quirky sound to it. Those are the sort of colours that are open to us in popular music, with microphone technique, and it would have been silly of us not to explore them. So we did and we had a lot of fun. It gave Anne Sofie a character, a little bit like we were in costume in a story. She was able to give us the character of the song. She is so accomplished that way."
Von Otter quickly identified the problems with this newfangled close-miking technique. "It's a habit of mine from classical singing to speak very articulately and spit out the consonants, so people can hear you far away. If you do that with a microphone, it sounds like you are spitting at someone."
With this intense, close-up emphasis on her voice, she became increasingly aware of the ways in which she would have to adapt. "As soon as I go up in range towards the higher notes," she explains, "my voice wants to use the support that comes with classical singing, and with that support comes vibrato and overtones that scream 'This is a classical singer singing!' But when you listen to pop or jazz singers, often they use a very low register which lies around the speaking voice. I like that colour, but for me to sing the whole disc like that would be a bit boring. We tried to keep some in lower keys and bring other songs up to where I would use a slightly higher register. Sometimes this would work and sometimes it wouldn't."
There was a further culture-shock in store when von Otter discovered that the recording process for rock and pop works in quite the opposite way from classical recordings. Whereas pop performers expect to spend weeks in the studio for layering, editing and mixing, classical artists are accustomed to whizzing in and out as quickly as possible.
"They use several weeks or months for a pop recording," she says, "but I'm used to doing it in a very short time. When it's only voice and piano, the recording will be finished in four or five days at the maximum. Orchestral recordings have to be kept short because it's so expensive to have an orchestra sitting around."
Costello, by contrast, likes to immerse himself in the minutiae of multi-track recording, tweaking the tempo or making minor adjustments to sound balance or instrumentation. "There is a little bit of freedom to use the studio as a workshop, which I think she had not experienced before," he suggests. Von Otter admits: "I think he would have wanted to work more like that with me, but having the background I do, I got so tired of the songs after five or six takes. I'm ashamed to say I was sick of it and I didn't want to do one more take."
Naturally, the success (or not) of all these experiments depended on what material von Otter was singing. Both parties understood that the selection of material for the album would be both crucial and problematic, and the process duly took several months.
"We had maybe 30 songs on the list for the recordings," von Otter reveals. "We sat down and had a couple of mutual listing sessions. Initially Elvis would send me tapes and I would send him tapes of stuff that I had at home, and we would exchange ideas. I would explain why I didn't like that sound or that song, but he's wonderful at hearing what lies behind a particular sound. If I didn't like a singer or an arrangement, he would say, 'Look, I think this song will suit you, even if you don't like it now.' And he was right."
The list of songs they eventually agreed on may have come mainly from the "popular" genre, but they were by no means everyday selections. "We wanted to record relatively unknown, fabulous songs which people will discover," von Otter says. "Of course, some of the songs are known, but none of them are the obvious choices."
When they wanted a song by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, they didn't pick familiar hits but went for "Don't Talk" and "You Still Believe in Me," both rarely heard despite being from the much-lauded Pet Sounds album. Tom Waits's "Broken Bicycles" originally appeared in the Francis Ford Coppola movie One From the Heart, but Costello put a personal spin on it by combining it in a new arrangement with Paul McCartney's "Junk."
Some Canadian input is supplied by Kate McGarrigle's "Go Leave," and "April After All," written by Ron Sexsmith — a songwriter much admired by Costello. One of von Otter's particular favourites on the disc is "The Other Woman," written by Jessie Mae Robinson and memorably recorded by Nina Simone.
Inevitably, Costello's own songwriting is also much in evidence. Among his contributions are "This House is Empty Now," co-written with Burt Bacharach, "Shamed into Love" (a collaboration with Ruben Blades), and "Baby Plays Around," for which Elvis gives most of the credit to his wife Cait. For a finale to the album, Costello wanted a track that would "come as a bit of a happy surprise to the listener," a requirement he fulfilled by writing "For the Stars," and also by singing on it alongside von Otter.
However, both participants felt it was essential that the album should grow naturally out of von Otter's Swedish background. While Costello brought in a couple of his own musical comrades to contribute to the recording sessions in Stockholm, in particular his long-serving pianist Steve Nieve and guitarist Billy Bremner, von Otter introduced some distinctively Swedish tones by recruiting such local heroes as Svante Henryson, Mats Schubert, Kalle Moraeus and the Fleshquartet.
Costello added English lyrics to an instrumental composition by Henryson to create "Green Song." "Rope" and "Just a Curio" feature music by the Fleshquartet and lyrics by Costello. And it was the Fleshquartet who supplied a new arrangement of the Lennon/McCartney song "For No One."
"The Fleshquartet is a group I had never come across before," says Costello. "They are classically trained string players but they use drum loops and trumpets all mixed together in a very dark picture. They have a very distinct mood to their pieces."
And perhaps no project of this nature could have been complete without a little Abba being sprinkled into the mix. The sessions were held at the Atlantis Grammofon studios, where Abba recorded the invincible "Dancing Queen" 25 years ago. "It's a great room," Costello says, "and they still have the 'Dancing Queen' piano in there. Every day, it was a real pleasure to go to the studio."
During work on Costello's arrangement for "Broken Bicycles" and "Junk," they decided they needed an accordion on it. Somebody suggested ex-Abba maestro Benny Andersson would be the perfect man for the job. Phone calls were made, and Andersson obligingly bowled up to the studio with an accordion under each arm. "I met him 20 years ago at a folk festival in Sweden," Elvis recalls. "I was with the Attractions, and for a gag we sang 'Knowing Me, Knowing You'. Benny remembered and we had a laugh about it."
But that wasn't all. Since Andersson was there in the flesh, von Otter popped the question of whether he would agree to play the piano on "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room," a ballad from Abba's final album The Visitors.
Andersson agreed, and Costello barely had time to start the tapes rolling before Andersson and von Otter had rattled through an impeccable take of the song. Enthused by the experience, Andersson then took tapes of the track back to his own studio to add some of that magical Abba fairy-dust. "Benny treated the song to some of his amazing post-production techniques, adding layers of colour," says Costello admiringly. "The result is that we have an amazing track."
So to all concerned, perhaps we should just say, "Thank you for the music."