He’s been a singer, a songwriter, a talk-show host, an actor, and now Elvis Costello can add doctor to the list.
Last month the revered Rock and Roll Hall of Famer received an honorary Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the New England Conservatory, bestowed by NEC president Tony Woodcock, who said of Costello, “He reminds us that as musicians, as people, we need to challenge ourselves to see beyond the boundaries imposed by the way things are.”
The degree may be new, but Costello, who plays a sold-out show at the Wilbur Theatre on Sunday, has been rising to that challenge and writing healing prescriptions in the form of songs, in a variety of genres, for more than 35 years.
After receiving his doctorate, I moderated a discussion with Costello and Hankus Netsky, chair of Contemporary Improvisation at NEC.
For nearly two hours Costello discussed tunes from his disparate songbook, from his first single to collaborations with everyone from Burt Bacharach to Paul McCartney, to his current album with the Roots, “Wise Up Ghost.”
Here are a few excerpts from that discussion:
Costello’s father was a professional musician and his mother worked in a record shop, so he talked a bit about his family’s influence on his career choice:
“I’m a third-generation musician in my dad’s side of the family, and that definitely means that this vocational entity, which might guide you through all sorts of misfortunes as well as have you rewarded, I witnessed it being transformed from the mundanity of learning a song to actually performing it at an age before I had any ideas about styles or genres, just whether you liked something or not. My mother and father actually met in a record shop. . . . I discovered recently that my mother was involved in a minor smuggling ring. . . . American records were hard to come by. She worked for a record department in Liverpool and she was hired because she liked jazz. Why a young woman of her background was particularly disposed to jazz she’s never properly been able to explain. She would give her own money to a friend of hers who was a seaman and say, ‘I need to get these records from New York.’ My father heard there was a woman in this record shop who knew about this stuff and he went in to find out if she knew how to find Dizzy Gillespie records.”
On the sound of his popular recording of friend Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”:
“I thought, ‘We need to have something that functions like ‘Born to Run’ (by Bruce Springsteen). I can’t write that.’ This is us being the E Street Band. You can hear that, right? Of course, this is what happens if you take a bunch of English guys, fill them full of vodka and heaven knows what else, and then let them loose playing this song.”
On his hit “Alison”:
“I didn’t think it was my responsibility to write the unqualified love song because somebody else does it better and he’s called Smokey Robinson. You don’t need anybody, once you’ve got Smokey out there we all just go home. He’d already written ‘I Second That Emotion’ and lots of songs, ones with longing but not with that little twist in the tail. So I thought, ‘Well, that song hasn’t been written.’ And you can hear little bits and pieces that I borrowed from R&B.”
On re-teaming with Burt Bacharach, his collaborator on “Painted From Memory”:
“I will tell you that two weeks ago we started working again on the little upright piano in my studio and we wrote 12 more songs in a week. And the objective is that over the next year we’ll see which of these new songs and which of the original ‘Painted From Memory’ songs will be married together for a stage musical.” (Sitcom veteran Chuck Lorre and “Spring Awakening” Tony winner Steven Sater are collaborating on writing the book.)
On his excitement in working with Paul McCartney:
“You never assume that anybody that you’ve admired as much as I admired Paul would know who you were, but he was very charming when we met and like I said, his kids were running in and out of the studio. So then I get a call, will I go down to his studio and write songs? Well, yes of course!”
On his funky new collaboration with the Roots, whom he was initially unsure of how to approach:
“What I now find out is that (Roots drummer) Questlove and (producer) Steven Mandel had been scheming to get me through the door, lock it, and make me make this record. It worked out really well.”
Discussion has been edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.