Elvis Costello's surprising new album, Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane, recorded in Nashville with a down-from-the-mountain string band, should really come as no surprise. After all, Costello has made a habit over the past 30 years of blowing past expectations and right through the walls between genres of music: from the acerbic rock 'n' roll that made him famous to reverent country to elegant piano ballads and even orchestral works. What other songwriter could conceivably and credibly have worked with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Loretta Lynn, the Pogues, Bill Frisell, and the London Symphony Orchestra? For Costello, what matters — clearly — is the song and the story, not which marketing category the instrumentation suggests.
So on Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane, Costello chose to play straight-up acoustic, strumming his flattop guitars alongside Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Mike Compton on mandolin, Jeff Taylor on accordion, and Dennis Crouch on upright bass, plus fellow songwriter Jim Lauderdale on brotherly vocal harmonies. In the producer's chair was T Bone Burnett, who also collaborated with Costello on the rootsy King of America (1986) and the all-over-the-map Spike (1989). The band assembled for the new record (and the accompanying tour), dubbed the Sugarcanes, works brilliantly as a setting for Costello's incomparably dark and witty story songs. The sound is decidedly old fashioned, and the lyrics to several songs take us as far back as the 1850s, but the urgency in Costello's voice and language makes the whole album come across as anything but quaint or nostalgic.
To find out how Costello, at 54, found himself taking this particular back road, I had a long, two-part conversation with him this spring: first while he was on the road in Canada with his wife, the pianist and singer Diana Krall; and then when he was in London preparing for shows with the Brodsky Quartet. In conversation as in his songwriting, Costello is one of a kind: courteous but feisty, erudite yet intuitive, by turns highly sophisticated and proudly primitive in his approach to music.
What was the impetus behind the string-band setting of the new record?
I started out as an acoustic guitar player, you know, before I could afford the shilling to put in the meter for electricity. I'm not any great player, but it's always been a composing tool. I write some songs on the piano, but I don't play very well.
About 25 years ago now I made a record with T Bone [King of America], which was the first one where I put the acoustic guitar at the center, the way I wrote the songs, and prob ably because they were ballad form. Some of them leant into country music, some into folk music, whatever label you want to stick on them — I mean I just think of them all as songs, but I know other people like to be more precise. So it's not an overnight thing.
The sound of the new record — especially because you didn't use drums — reminds me of early rock 'n' roll, with Bill Black slapping the string bass behind Elvis Presley's acoustic guitar.
I don't know that music very well. I know music from the '20s and '30s better than I know music from the '50s. The music of the '50s I know is Frank Sinatra and jazz and things like that. I never heard Elvis Presley as a new thing; I was only born the year that he started making records and probably made a lot of his best records. I mean I'm aware of the records, but that isn't the same thrill as being there when it happens the first time. So I heard that music transposed into English bands like the Beatles, and the same with rhythm and blues — except with rhythm and blues we also had the opportunity to hear some of the great people like Sonny Boy Williamson come over and appear on the television.
We didn't so much hear the people who were influential on the harmonies that the Beatles really picked out of the Everly Brothers. If you follow that line back you get to the Louvins and the Delmores and all those brother groups. Certainly the average pop fan didn't know anything about the Louvins. It took really for the Byrds — another rock 'n' roll band who were reaching beyond what they were defined to be — to hip a lot of people to some of those beautiful, soulful sounds.
Did this batch of songs steer you toward traditional country instrumentation?
The songs come from a number of sources. It's almost like I was doing my own song-collecting job, the way a folk-song collector would. I had a couple of [previously recorded] songs of my own that I didn't think I had put really in the correct context. I mean they were fine enough recordings of the songs before, but they didn't really say what I wanted to say. I had a couple of songs T Bone and I had written together ["Sulphur to Sugarcane" and "The Crooked Line"] that lended themselves to this instrumentation.
Then there were four songs taken from a piece I wrote for the Royal Danish Opera about Hans Christian Andersen and his relationship with [Swedish singer] Jenny Lind and her relationship with P.T. Barnum. That story travels from Europe to America and is set between the 1850s and the 1870s. When I tried to arrange the music with the instruments I began with, which were chamber classical instruments, I got close to the songs, but somehow it felt that I got even closer with the instrumentation you hear here. The timbres of the mandolin and the fiddle and the dobro and the acoustic guitar seemed to open the songs up and make them more human, less theoretical.
On King of America your acoustic guitar parts are credited to Little Hands of Concrete. Was that a statement about your playing?
On the early records, which have a lot of intense rhythm, I tended to break a lot of strings. There were a lot of words coming out, and it was almost as if there were an invisible wire between my jaw and my wrist — that made me a little heavy-handed. So that was a joke against myself, against my technique. I don't know that I've become any kind of virtuoso. I think I play better now than I did then.
The other thing is when we made King of America, I was in an isolation booth for a lot of that record. And [on Secret] I was right in the room with the guys. You are really listening to what the other people are doing, and don't feel you have to fill in so much 'cause you get the sense of what they're giving you. You get it not just in the hearing but in the demeanor of the players. I really appreciated the amount of listening they were doing, and the way they responded in their individual voices. The dobro and the fiddle tend to catch the ear right away, but also in listening you realize how crucial it is to have Mike Compton on the mandolin and Dennis Crouch [on bass], and of course the vocal harmony from Jim Lauderdale. That close vocal harmony is not a feature I've had on my records. So a number of things are different about the record than any other one that I've made.
It's remarkable that Jim Lauderdale's vocals were cut live, considering how dense the lyrics are and how unpredictable your vocal phrasing is.
I know — he's kind of like a bird dog. It's amazing. It is that style of harmony singing that you really only hear in country music, where it's so essential to the sound but it never draws anything away from the lead singer's personality. You don't think, that's two people. You hear it a lot in great country records — in George Jones and Johnny Paycheck and Buck Owens. And obviously these are lessons that Jim would have learned from loving all that music, and he found his way to play a role complementary to mine that never seemed to draw away from the story.
You wrote "Complicated Shadows" for Johnny Cash, though he never recorded it. How is the songwriting process different if you have another artist in mind?
It happens in different ways. Sometimes there's a voice guiding you with a melodic line. You may never hear them sing that song. You may have no way of getting it to them — they may not be of this earth anymore. I've written a number of songs with people's voices in mind who were not around anymore. But that's an exercise in trying to move the song toward something that moved me in that singer's or songwriter's style. I may fail miserably in getting there, but it's a little way of getting the song to shape itself.
Johnny did record "Hidden Shame" [on Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town / Boom Chicka Boom] and did a wonderful job on it. That kind of story song is something that he would turn to time and time again, so I knew he could do it, and I had the feeling that some of the contradictions in the song would appeal to him, because he was a man full of contradictions. And the same is true of "Complicated Shadows." I sent it to him near the end of his life, and whether the song reached him or not or whether it didn't appeal to him, I hear it in his voice. I imagine John to be someone who could deliver the final lines of the song with authority, and it helped me write them to think of him singing them: "Take the law into your own hands, but you'll soon get tired of killing."
What was it like to co-write "I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came" with Loretta Lynn?
We were actually in the cabin that Johnny Cash used as a writing cabin — now his son has built a studio onto the back. I went there with John in 1981, when we were recording Almost Blue with [producer] Billy Sherrill, the album of country covers. My producer Nick Lowe had married Carlene Carter, and Johnny and June were kind enough to treat us like extended family while we were there. So I'd been to this cabin, and here I am 30 years later with John Carter Cash and Loretta setting up to write some songs really for Loretta's record.
She came into the room with a box file full of fragments of songs, sometimes half versions of songs that are quite well known, the original drafts written on pieces of cardboard, cereal boxes, any piece of paper I guess that was at hand when the inspiration struck. She was fantastic. She would propose a number of titles — I wrote one song which appeared on my last record ["Pardon Me, Madam, My Name Is Eve," from Momofuku], just based on her title. But this song, "I Felt the Chill," we wrote line by line. She had the title, and I said, "It sounds like somebody imagining they're going to fall from grace," and that's the tale it tells.
Collaborative songwriting is a different matter. You've got to leave a little space for the other person. Sometimes when the song sounds good it's easier to drive on and finish it the way you hear it, but you might cheat yourself of something special.
With the songs relating to Hans Christian Andersen's life ["She Handed Me A Mirror," "How Deep Is the Red," "She Was No Good," and "Red Cotton"], is it critical that listeners understand the very specific historical context?
It's not important that you follow the entire narrative to enjoy these songs. "She Handed Me a Mirror" is a song of longing of a misfit man for an unattainable woman — that's not exactly a song that's never existed before. This one has some curious details that come specifically from the Lind/Andersen relationship — this image of her handing him a mirror in response to his entreaty for romantic love. But it could also just be a symbol. It could be that you identify with either Andersen or Lind; that could have happened to you or me.
The same is true of "She Was No Good," which is a colorful travelogue of the sort of disasters that happened with the Lind tour of 1850. She was this very upright, pious woman, and P.T. Barnum took her out so she was playing cowsheds and things like that in towns that were not quite frontier towns but not far off. Bills weren't paid, and there were fistfights and duels and drunkenness ... I thought it was curious when I read into the history of this tour that that it sounded like any rock 'n' roll tour, except we don't use riverboats, we use tour buses. Not yet, anyway — maybe we'll move back to the riverboat.
And the song that I imagined as one of the songs that [Lind] sings, "How Deep Is the Red," is just a pious meditation. It could be my song, it could be her song, it could be Luke the Drifter's song, it could be anybody's song. It's a kind of gospel song, or a song of longing for some truth, but it's not written from an absolute point of view.
"Red Cotton" is perhaps the most complicated in terms of its background, so maybe the historical significance of that might be useful to the listener. That's why when you get the record sleeve, it gives you a little précis, like in old-fashioned books that would say, "Chapter nine, in which such and such happens." I did that. I set the scene in saying that P.T. Barnum is reading an abolitionist pamphlet. Most of us know about the progress of slavery, but the way I put it in the song is slightly different because it's played against a man whose mind is being changed in the moment — who's thinking, maybe this isn't right. And that's a conflict and a dilemma that faces people to this day.
Many of your songs tell stories in third person, yet you also sing songs in first person that create characters. Is there a difference between those two modes?
"I Dreamed of My Old Lover" is sung in the voice of a woman who's woken up having dreamt of an old lover and wondering whether her husband ever heard her talking about him in her sleep. That's written in the first person, but it's still a character song. So I don't know that I make a conscious decision or divide them up — they just come out that way. Some of them are more obviously reported. "Hidden Shame" isn't my experience, but it is a true story. It's based on a story I read about a man who had spent year after year in prison for petty crimes, and when he was a relatively mature man he confessed to this childhood murder. He murdered a friend of his when he was a child, but he carried it with him all his life.
The narrator of "Sulphur to Sugarcane" is a vivid character.
Well, it's an imaginary character, but he embodies a glad-handing lyric character which is pretty well documented in politics going right back into the century before last and certainly the 20th century and perhaps even today.
It started out as a shorter song. I took it out on the road when I played on the Bob Dylan tour [in 2007], and I added a verse for every town I was in. What you hear now is an "I've been everywhere" version of this song that contains the best of those cities. It's amazing the amount of applause you can get for impugning the reputation of the ladies of certain towns. What's stranger is that when you say something about the women of Ypsilanti not wearing any panties, it's the women cheering. I have no idea why that is.
You've worked in classical traditions that are built around the written language of music. How does that experience affect the way you write songs with guitar?
You still need to convey your ideas clearly. You know that "She Handed Me a Mirror" passes through four keys. It doesn't do so in an arduous way for the ear, but it does require the players to know what they're doing. [The Sugarcanes] wrote that chart out Nashville style, so they had a route map just as surely as when we played it originally in Copenhagen with classically trained musicians. There was improvisation [in both performances], but the degree of improvisation upon that basic structure was greater in the case of the Nashville ensemble.
But I don't feel [the notation] made me write differently. I mean I'm about to play with a different kind of string band — I'm playing with the Brodsky Quartet next week in England. In the moment we're playing, the music is just as free as when I'm playing with the Sugarcanes, because we've built up our rapport. They have the music on the page, but what happens to music as it leaves the page is what really makes it special. If it were just a bland recitation of what was written down, then we needn't turn up — anybody could be there playing it and singing it. We have to do something to animate it beyond that initial thought on the page. I think that's true of all written music.
Your songs often have a surprise chord change. Even in the traditional country progression of "Down Among the Wines and Spirits," for instance, there's a weird harmony on the words "empty barrel."
You hit a good point, and I don't know where that comes from. Another similar example from a recent record is "Country Darkness," from The Delivery Man, which has some very unexpected movements. It essentially starts like some sort of gospel tune and has comforting gospel changes, and it suddenly does something you don't expect.
The half bar can do the same thing rhythmically: that's something I did consciously emulate from the Beatles. They had a lot of 2/4 bars, but they never sounded like clever insertions; they went with the cadence of the vocal or the sudden slip of the rhythm. I feel the same way about Burt Bacharach. From working with him, I know that there is no affectation in his use of odd time signatures. He really breathes the phrases that way.
Do you find chord progressions by hunting and pecking on the guitar, or do you take a more analytical approach based on what you know about theory or orchestration?
I really don't know anything about theory in that sense. I never studied harmony; I'm a self-taught orchestrator. It's a little bit like, I can write relatively well in my own lyric style and sometimes even manage to write coherent sentences — but I don't know Latin, and therefore I don't really know grammar very formally. It's the same with harmony. At this stage the formal study of harmony — in other words to go back and learn all the fundamentals from scratch like somebody who went to university or music school — I think would be less productive for me than the learning of notation was.
So I'm sort of a semi-educated person. But I do hear things, and I suppose the answer is that I just hear those chords. I don't need to know what interval they are. I do the Nashville style of communicating, where they say it's the IV, it's the V, rather than giving the letter name of this chord. It's convenient in the sense that you can switch keys very easily. But to be perfectly honest, if somebody walked up to me and pointed to a note on the guitar fretboard and asked me what it was, I wouldn't have the first idea. I've deliberately left certain things vague about the guitar, because I like the primitive aspect of the way I play and think about the guitar. I never think about what key I'm in. I just start to play and hope for the best. Even constructing a solo, I just start anywhere on the fretboard and try to work it out.
Is it jarring to go from a rock band to a country string band to an orchestra?
Well, there's nearly always a shared song or two. I think it's quite interesting to try and carry some songs across. It's like returning to songs from the '30s: they were written with the idea of being performed by different people and maybe even with different accompaniments. [Take] "Sulphur to Sugarcane": I've played it solo; I've played it with my regular rhythm section and Bill Kirchen playing Telecaster; I've played it with just John Leventhal, Rosanne Cash's husband, playing electric archtop to my rhythm guitar; I played it on A Prairie Home Companion with double bass, drums, piano, National [reso-phonic guitar], fiddle, and baritone sax. In June we'll play it with [the Sugarcanes]. And guess what — today I played it with the Brodsky Quartet and my J-50.
I love to hear all these different versions and carry songs across all these different worlds, because it sure beats trying to get played on the radio. There's no future in wishing for that, so I'd rather see how many different renditions can be achieved. I just go with my instincts about what I want to sing and what those songs are about. I'm not thinking whether all my songs could be played by every kind of ensemble. Obviously it would be ludicrous to take a song like "Pump It Up" and play it with a symphony orchestra. But a song like "Almost Blue" can be played with a piano, a string quartet, just a guitar, or a full symphony orchestra. If you have the opportunity, it's a very beautiful thing to use all those different colors.
I happened to listen to your music shuffled with Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Those ballads from the '20s and '30s describe tragic events in such an unsentimental way. Have you tried to tap into that storytelling mode in your lyrics?
I definitely was aware of those songs. Today I was at a television show here in London, and a fellow mentioned an arrangement I did years ago of the song "Scarlet Ribbons." I wove into it some references to the old Scottish ballad "Son David," which is about a murdered unwanted child. It's very coldly stated, and one of the reasons I put it into that song is that "Scarlet Ribbons" always seemed to have something slightly sinister about it when I heard it as a kid — like the scarlet ribbons could be blood.
There is one song that appears on the vinyl edition of the [Secret] record, which is the continuation of a tune on the Harry Smith anthology: "Omie Wise," an old Appalachian song. Again, it's one of those songs where the story is very deadpan. She's a homely girl who falls in love with a bounder who simply does her in without any warning and without any apparent remorse. The song doesn't even pay off with him going off to the gallows or anything. He just escapes into the army, and the song ends with him apparently getting off scot free. So I decided to kill him, and I wrote the sequel, called "What Lewis Did Last," about him being tortured by a ghost and what happened to him when he was in the army. He got to the point where he could live with the killing in the army but couldn't live with the killing that he'd done out of lust or love. It's told no more melodramatically than the original song. I suppose one of the reasons why old storytelling is like that, and doesn't overdramatize the most dire circumstances, is that people lived a lot closer to death. People weren't long-lived, infant mortality was common, disease was rife, poverty was everywhere . . . Sounds like today.
Are there qualities of popular songs from the Tin Pan Alley era that attract you in a different way than music of the post–rock 'n' roll age?
They all do . . . I think one of the things about when radio was a new thing was the discovery that you could sing quietly into a microphone. It really changed the way people sang, from having to hit the back of the balcony with a trained voice — or basically yelling — to being able to be very intimate. It's why Bing Crosby was so successful, and Rudy Vallee and those other singers of that era. And the minute that sound become dominant, with a voice right onto a mic, it actually changed the way they wrote. People weren't looking for huge ascents to Everest in every song. The harmony was very ingenious that it gave the impression of greater development in terms of scale and altitude than they actually did.
When you compare something like "Body and Soul" to an '80s power ballad, you can easily see the skill of the composer in conspiring to use harmony to create tension and dramatic conclusion. It's much more sophisticated than simply modulating lots of times or going up a half step, like they did in Nashville in the old, bad, corny country records — all these little tricks to create a sense of tension.
Think of the bridge of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" [sings]:" But oh, if we call the whole thing off then we must part." Where did that arrive from? It's a mad sort of idea, but it's so right. You can't imagine the song without it. It's that kind of ingenuity.
In earlier eras, too, songwriter teams were writing songs for people to play at home or for other performers to sing — that's very different than being a singer-songwriter.
Well, a couple of things happened. One is what you say: that the success of the song was not necessarily founded on the ubiquity of one rendition so much as the ubiquity of the composition itself. The second thing is [the arrival of] key writers in different genres who were writer/performers — I mean Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Lennon and McCartney ... They let loose the idea that in any one of those forms of music, you could write your own songs and be better than the pack-room songwriter.
What it also let loose was a bunch of people who can't write songs at all recording them anyway [laughs]. It's the dirty secret: people were very quick to say piracy has killed the record industry, or the corporation's greed. Another thing is just bad songs, the perhaps wrongheaded idea that some singers of quality were pushed into writing their own songs when they showed no evidence of having any talent for it, whereas in a previous era they would have been supported by ugly people or misfit people who could write great songs. You know, Cole Porter couldn't sing a lick — it was an unpleasant sound. And yet, how could this be the man that wrote all these incredible songs? He wrote them in his imagination, and at the piano.
Do you aspire for your songs to have a life beyond your performance of them?
Not in every case, because sometimes songs are very particular to your own experience, and it's hard to imagine even somebody else understanding them. That doesn't make it wrong to write them, because you hope to place within them something that people recognize. But somebody who has the ambition to make songs universal uses language which is universal, and I don't. There's a very, very thin line between universal and cliché, as well, so you try to avoid that.
I write for other people sometimes. But my first thought is not, "Will this song go down into history?" anymore than I care a damn what posterity says about me. I have no concern for my reputation when I'm gone from this place. I mean if they'll sing my songs and think fondly of me that I did anything good in this world, that's fine, but I'm not writing to be remembered. I'm writing because I want to write, and I play because that's what I do. If people get pleasure from it or anything from it at all, then I suppose I must have done something correctly in following my instincts or curiosity or even, as much to say, talents. But I'm not thinking about people kind of gabbing around and giving a brass plaque. That would be a wrong thing to do when you are writing.