Canberra Times, September 4, 2004
Mellow Costello is in
ELVIS COSTELLO picks up a tiny guitar- like instrument from its plush case resting on a huge hotel bed and cradles it lovingly as if it were a baby, against his barrel-like chest. It's a vintage ukulele, precision-tooled by Hawaiian craftsmen.
He likes guitars a lot but guitars are not for show. All receive a vigorous work-out. At a recent concert he used seven ones. Has he any idea how many he has?
"Oof," he exhales. "Dunno", A fair few. he says. But some were damaged when the storage lock-up he rented in Dublin was flooded by a canal. U2's The Edge which also uses the lock-up, lost some instruments too.
It's a Sunday afternoon in SoHo, New York, and the heavens are about to open with torrential summer rain. Costello cuts a regal, but vaguely battered figure. The glasses, of course, are there, but his hair, shot with steely silver these days, is retreating up both flanks of his head.
Also less in evidence is the pinched, frowning Elvis Costello of repute. The singer-songwriter has long had a reputation as an intense artist and a very intense man. His ever-more infrequent interviews hardly seemed comfortable, never mind fun, for any of the parties concerned. The sleeve of his first album, North told you everything you needed to know about this middle-aged punk survivor: Costello, suited and booted, black overcoat, striding down a street in the rain, in black and white, unshaven, glowering.
But North was the sound of Costello in transition, deploying wrenching, orchestrated piano ballads to deal with what he calls "the change of heart" after he split with former Pogues bass player Cait O'Riordan and began a romance with the Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall.
Now married to her and blissfully in love, this year's model Costello is more relaxed, less clenched almost playful. It is surely no coincidence that his coming album, The Delivery Man is exciting, energetic and soulful.
"I'm definitely, unashamedly happy", he says with very un-Elvis-like-giddiness. His voice is precise and confident, his accent polished but not plummy, occasionally , lapsing into mild Scouse. "I don't see my wife enough, We work a lot. But we try to keep our separation down to a minimum." She's been touring since February, promoting her highly successful album, The Girl In The Other Room. Her husband talks rhapsodically of writing songs with her for the record.
"[Songwriting] is about trusting yourself. I really do believe that everyone can write songs. They just don't trust themselves to do it. We can all write books, we can all sing songs. We can do it when we're children, we can all draw and sing. And then it's either beaten out of us, scared out of us, or our own inhibitions - our adult self - doesn't allow us to do it any more. And one of the great things about music is the freedom in it. Not rock, " he says with visible distaste "as we know it now that commodity. But rock 'n' roll at its purest. Jazz, certainly has it, it's about freedom." It's about freedom. To hell with prejudice, inhibition or fear. With boring, uptight, old rock, Elvis Costello - who has just turned 50 — all his 27 years as a recording artist making music on that basis.
Now, as he hits middle-age, he seems more energetic than ever. But would anyone think badly of him if he decided to chill out a bit, to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labour.
"Well two things probably affect that," he says, poking his glasses up his nose. "I have not ruthlessly pursued success and I have not capitalised on success as cynically as I might have done. Therefore, I am not as assured … though obviously I am not hurting… I'm not as wealthy as I would be if I'd been very much more ruthless in the pursuit of certain successes I've had. Therefore I have the need to keep working, I have a lot of people I want to be able to look out for. I want to be able to move and live with the freedom have at the moment. I have responsibilities.
"And the second thing is — what else am I gonna do? I don't wanna be defined by a handful of songs I wrote 25 years ago…"
On a hot summer's night in New York at the Lincoln Centre's annual festival, Costello and his three-piece band The Imposters barrelled through a 2½hour set that roamed freely over a back catalogue numbering about 400 songs. (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea was energetic but messy ; Radio, Radio introduced by a brisk "one two-three- four" was greeted with lusty cheers; Indoor Fireworks was tender and lovely. The lengthy set also found room for a raft of new numbers from The Delivery Man; Bedlam, Needle Time to a rollicking There's A Story In My Voice. That last song, he told the sell-out audience of 2700, was, on record, a duet with Lucinda Williams.
Home these days is the New York apartment he shares with Krall, whom he married last December at Elton John's Surrey mansion. The couple also spend time at their house on Vancouver Island in the Canadian's home province of British Columbia. For much of his 17-year relationship with Cait O'Riordan, he lived in Dublin. That is when he wasn't in a studio recording one of his near-annual albums or touring. As part of his present touring schedule, Costello will perform in Canberra's Commonwealth Park — on November 21.
His departure from the British Isles is more than geographical. Of his two new albums, Il Sogno was originally written as a dance piece for an Italian ballet company, and The Delivery Man is a rootsy vaguely thematic rock set recorded in the deeply southern environment of Oxford, Mississippi. His next project will be a piece of musical theatre on the life of Hans Christian Andersen, commissioned to celebrate next year's bicentenary of the author's birth.
If he were still in the Ireland of his ancestors or the England of his birth, he wouldn't be "allowed" to pursue his relentless high-art fancies. North released barely a year ago was savaged in Britain. After album-length collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter and Burt Bacharach, Costello was accused of having ideas above his station.
He'd prepared, he says, for Il Sogno to receive a similar kicking, not least from the classical purists.
Does he get a kick out of offending purists’? “It’s not my motivation but I'm ready for it. I know that I'm going to read patronising dismissals of II Sogno simply because I wrote it. By people who won’t have heard it. I had the same thing happen, particularly in England, with North. People dismissing it, and describing it in terms that really proved they hadn't even heard it.
“But, you know, if North got the worst reviews of my career in England, it got the best reviews of my career in Germany. It was No 1 in the jazz charts in America. I mean, you can’t please all the people. I don’t live in England. I'm not very with the English sensibility. I haven’t been for many years. And I'm getting further and further away from it. It’s very distant to me and seems very small and — I don’t mean this to be rude — but kind of insignificant. That’s not to say the people of the country are insignificant — I have some of my closest friends there, my family lives there. But the cultural scene and its seethingness doesn’t interest me.”
Does he find it insular? “It’s like a tiny crowded bar, with everybody elbowing for room. And it just bores me.”
This is Costello at 50: still criticising the critics, ever convinced of his own infallibility. He zealously pursues his own agenda, and will stoutly defend his right to take whatever musical path he pleases. His excursions are not the idle indulgences of the moneyed bored. It is all about reinvention and regeneration for the angry young man who ditched his given name (Declan MacManus) for a deliberately provocative stage name. Who has had a succession of deals with different record labels, and has recently transferred his business affairs to the care of Krall’s high-powered management. Who thinks that, if he had not blown the whistle on the sudden success of his early career by calming down the excesses and reassessing his music, he would either be dead by now or “bent out of shape”. Commercial acclaim, he insists, “didn't sit well with me .
All that said, he is patently less tense these days. Love seems to have chilled him out. When Krall phones from Los Angeles during our conversation he comes back almost gooey. He’s also careful to temper his bliss. “I'm not ignorant or careless, or not mindful, of the sad things that you have to pass through to reach this point,” he says.
“I haven’t made a success of two relationships before. I'm not proud of that but I can’t live in the past."
But the best evidence of the new lease of life Costello is enjoying is the vibrant, organic-sounding The Delivery Man. It’s a cracking record, at times hungry and enthusiastic, at times simple and heartfelt. It’s his least mannered, most unforced album in years.
In contrast to the beefy, bearded, dishevelled figure he was in the early 1990s. Costello’s 50 years sit well on him. He’s the first extant icon of the punk generation to raise his hat for a half-century — John Lydon has two years to go, Paul Weller has four, and Joe Strummer didn’t see out his 51st year. He thinks British dance culture offers the “greatest musical choice”, more so than any other genre, and positively bobs with enthusiasm for the Street’s A Grand Don't Come for Free.
But aside from the music?
“I never wanted to be young,” he says, shrugging and with that faint, knowing Costello smile on his lips. Maybe, he’s casting his mind back to those late 1970s and early-1980s tours of America when drink, drugs and women nearly almost destroyed him. “I didn’t like being young,” he says. “It just never appealed to me that much. I always thought the adults seemed to be having all the fun. And now I am old, and I’m having lots of fun.”
Elvis Costello performs at A Day on the Green in Commonwealth Park on Sunday, November 21. Tickets range from $79.50 to $154, plus booking fee. On sale now at Ticketek 6219 6666. More details from www.adayonthegreen.com.au
Canberra Times, Panorama, September 4, 2004