NEW YORK — She got the title from a line in Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll," but everything else on Wendy .James' solo debut, Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears, came from Elvis Costello.
Opening for Costello at a festival in Ireland in 1991 with her former band, Transvision Vamp, the British singer developed a strong identification with the career iconoclast. Later that year, with encouragement from Costello's frequent drummer Pete Thomas, she sent him a letter.
"I wrote it in Washington, D.C., just before the band's final tour, and presumed I wouldn't get any response," says James, who'd barely met Costello previously, yet nevertheless vented to him her own career displeasure and plea for help. She received word two weeks later that not only had Costello received her missive, he'd already written her an entire album's worth of material.
"We finished the tour and I received his demos, and it was even more dumbfounding to get a demo tape from one of your favorite artists who'd written your own album for you! And on top of that," she adds, "I actually liked the songs."
So did the folks at DGC/Geffen, who signed James without knowledge of the Costello tapes.
"It's one of the most unusual projects in pop music," says the label's marketing head, Robert Smith. "It's unmistakably the work of Elvis Costello, but the songs are really a good background of who [James] is: a unique crossover between an alternative artist and British pop star."
Not to mention an artist who also has caused quite a stir back home for prima donna behavior and posing, including a notoriously busty, blonde bombshell Face magazine cover shot. But as James makes clear, Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears is an intentionally clean break with the past.
"In the last 18 months I've worked with people I'd never met before in my life," says James, whose Chris Kimsey-produced album features drummer Thomas along with Terence Trent D'Arby bassist Cass Lewis and Dylan and Van Morrison sideman Neil Taylor on guitar. "I didn't want to work with anyone from the past because this is a new beginning and I wanted to broaden my horizons and work myself very hard."
She purposely avoided input from Costello. "If he said, 'I think the bass line should go like this,' his influence would be so large it wouldn't be a Wendy James album but an Elvis Costello album that Wendy James sings," she says. "But he was the first person I gave the cassette to, and he was proud and happy ... Even though our music is different, our experience is very similar in terms of the emotional turmoil it takes to survive the music business."
The first single is "London's Brilliant," but James says "Basement Kiss" — which presents a character easily hurt by others — hits especially close to home.
"It's nice somebody considers me vulnerable, when so many consider me tough," she says of the songwriter. "This album has allowed me to show different facets of my personality rather than `girl with an attitude' — which more often that not is accurate — but nobody is just one thing."
Adds Smith, "She came off as a very sexy U.K. pop star, but her artistic underpinnings were ignored." Thus, DGC, prefers not to "hype" James' album while gearing it toward alternative radio. As for future projects, 27-year-old James, who spent nine years and three albums with Transvision Vamp but was unable to contribute her own songs, says she's now writing her own material.
"It's a moth into a butterfly story," she says. "I know I'm a songwriter now, and I have great confidence in my life."