The Attractions' keyboard player on Costello, Robert Wyatt, Sting and his album's French connection...
Given his stage name by Ian Dury in 1977, keyboard player Steve Nieve has been a stalwart at the side of Elvis Costello with The Attractions, the Imposters and other projects. He recently released his sixth solo album, ToGetHer, featuring Costello, Sting and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze as well as Robert Wyatt, Laurie Anderson and Vanessa Paradis.
Do you remember your Elvis Costello audition and that first year with the Attractions?
In 1977 I was a student at the Royal College of Music in London, but every Wednesday I was buying Melody Maker and scouring through the ads. I came across one that said "rocking pop combo requires a keyboard player." I went along to the audition. It was the first time I'd ever seen a Hammond organ. That's what they had. I'd definitely never played one. They were doing songs like "Less Than Zero" and "Alison" and I just had to go for it. I was determined to find a rock band and I found it. This Year's Model, the first album we made, remains a favourite, purely for its sound. It's just got one texture all the way through, very peculiar. It was like a black and white photo when the ones that followed are in colour.
You and Costello went on to make one of the definitive records of the eighties, "Shipbuilding," famously sung by Robert Wyatt, and both appear on ToGetHer...
In the early Eighties I was doing a lot of sessions with Clive Langer, who wrote the music for "Shipbuilding." He was a huge Robert Wyatt fan and we recorded the track not knowing what would happen to it, until Elvis put this new lyric to it and really turned it into "Shipbuilding." Robert has one of the most amazing voices I've ever heard. It really touches you. He was on Welcome To The Voice, the opera I wrote with my partner Muriel Téodori. "La Plus Jolie Longue" on ToGetHer is my attempt to write a song in French. I've been living in Paris for many years but my French is extraordinarily bad. Robert loves singing in a foreign language and was immediately trying to correct it, but that's the comedy of the sang. English is a very dominating language. It's taking over everything.
The album has a very French flavour with Vanessa Paradis as well as Alain Chamfort, Cali and Tall Ulyss, less familiar in the UK...
Alain Chamfort is the Bryan Ferry of France! He's the reason I came to France in the first place. That was how I met Muriel. He's part of our story. In 2000, I was musical director for Vanessa Paradis when she did an album called Bliss. We toured all over and became good friends. Tall Ulyss played drums on the album. He brought a new energy to my music.
What is the idea behind ToGetHer?
I wanted to compose songs that I could perform and record with people I'd worked with. That's the thread that holds it together — that and the idea of the number two, with paired-up tracks like "Up" and "Vertigo." I've known Glenn since before Squeeze, I opened for Laurie Anderson in Germany and France. It took a long time to make because everyone is busy. Travelling to Tuscany to record with Sting was part of the adventure. The track he sang, "You Lie Sweetly," is quite operatic. Elvis wrote the lyric and Sting interpreted it beautifully.