Elvis Costello has had a number of minor movie roles recently, landing cameos in everything from 200 Cigarettes to Spice World.
But he's never been so cast against type as he is in the Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant romantic comedy, Notting Hill. And the funny thing is, he isn't even onscreen when it happens.
Costello, in fact, is only on the soundtrack, singing the Charles Aznavour ballad "She" as Grant adoringly contemplates Roberts. "It's just a straight-out, adoring love song that's supposed to represent this guy's idealization of this Hollywood goddess," Costello explains, over the phone from London. "The character has her on a pedestal, so I'm singing a hymn to womanhood."
He laughs. "It's kind of unusual for me to sing a love song that doesn't have any disclaimer in the third verse," he says. "But with a 96-piece orchestra behind you, it's amazing how you start to believe."
When Costello began his career, back in the late '70s, the notion that he would someday be singing straightforward love songs — much less doing so to underscore the romantic interest in a major motion picture — would have seemed laughable. Back then, Costello was the king of curdled love, a biting, new-wave songwriter whose rapier wit was regularly sharpened on tales of what he dubbed "emotional fascism." This was a singer whose most "romantic" song, "Alison," is sung from the perspective of a man whose pining for a lost love boils over into homicidal fury.
Barry Manilow he wasn't.
But that was over two decades ago, and Costello — who performs at Pier Six this evening — has grown quite a bit since then. Not only has he successfully shed the Angry Young Man image he carried in those new-wave days, but he has also proven himself to be a supremely versatile singer and songwriter. Over the last decade, Costello has written for jazz bands and string quartets, and collaborated with everybody from Paul McCartney (on the 1989 hit "Veronica") to No Doubt (on the Rugrats soundtrack) to Burt Bacharach (on last year's acclaimed Painted From Memory).
Nonetheless, Costello admits to having been a bit hesitant when asked about recording "She" for the movie. "I had to take a deep breath, because that record was at No. 1 for weeks and weeks in Britain," he says. "And it was one of those records that people make fun of, because English people always make fun of the vibrato of French singers. I suppose it goes back to Inspector Clouseau or something ..."
Perhaps that was why, when Costello began to work up his version of the song, he sounded "like an English person singing with a French accent." But as he began to dig deeper into the tune, his admiration for Aznavour grew deeper. "He's such a passionate singer," says Costello. "He'll sing a song about a man with a really mundane job, but with absolutely wrenching passion. Kind of like a Bruce Springsteen song, where he finds poetry in the mundane life.
"I realized it was actually very beautiful."
"She" isn't the only romantic ballad Costello is currently crooning in movie houses. For Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, he teams up again with Bacharach for a rendition of "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." This time, though, Costello is actually in the film.
"We're in Carnaby Street in the '60s," he says. "I don't know exactly how we got there, but Burt and I are in the sidewalk cafe, and I have some very attractive yak-hair sideburns — they put Englebert Humperdinck love-god sideburns on me — and we serenade Mike [Myers] and Heather Graham."
Costello adds that it's a bit odd to be getting so much work singing other people's music. "If I have any reputation at all, it's more as a songwriter than it is as a guitar player, or until recently, as a singer," he says. "But curiously enough, two of my biggest hits in England have been covers."
Still, it's not as if Costello grew up uninfluenced by other artists. Take "Alison," for example. "That's me trying to sing like Phillippe Wynne of the Spinners," he says. "And that's how it came out. So you start out to try and copy somebody, and it ends up being very distinctively your own. So there'll be another song where I'm trying to sound like Curtis Mayfield. Of course, I can't sing like Curtis, but just in making the attempt, I get something different out of my own voice.
"Isn't that how Elvis Presley started? I mean, he was trying to sing like a blues guy, and sing like Dean Martin, and sing like Bill Monroe, all at once, you know? And that's what makes it exciting.
"You come up with your style by accident, and then your style inevitably changes, because you listen to other things. And in my case, it's a lot of other things." At the moment, Costello's personal play list includes the Tom Waits album Mule Variations, Ron Sexsmith's Whereabouts — "I'm just going to keep saying it until everybody starts listening to him: I think he's great" — and RCA's 24-CD commemorative edition of the works of Duke Ellington.
In other words, Costello is interested in a broad range of music, and so, he believes, are most of his fans. Consequently, he gets a mite impatient with those who complain that his recent work has been a bit too eclectic.
"If I had actually been making a variation of the same record for 20 years, I would be getting it in the neck for my lack of adventure, wouldn't I?" he asks. "Instead of getting it in the neck sometimes for the adventure. ...
"Still, you'll find that the audiences are much more ambitious and adventurous than, say, [record company] guys, radio programmers, and — I have to say — some journalists. Because audiences are all individuals, too, with many, many different, multifaceted points of view."
Just like Costello himself.