Eighty-8, July 1996

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That old familiar attraction

An interview with Elvis Costello

Christopher Simony and Yancy Yohannan

I guess the best place to start would be with your new album.

What would you like to know?

From what I understand, most of these songs were written for other people. Is that correct?

A few of them were. Actually, that's a good one to talk about because I think that's been exaggerated a bit. I think it's a convenient way to fill up space so that reviewers don't have to think too hard. You know, they don't want to tax their brains too much. It's true that four of the songs were previously recorded by other people and a couple of them were written by other people, but beyond that, quite a lot of the songs I just wrote for myself and I often use other singers as a model when I'm writing as a way of getting a new song out of my head... so I think that sort of developed into a story.

What was it like getting back with The Attractions? You had been away from them for seven, maybe eight years?

Well, this is the first record that we've started together. They played on half of Brutal Youth, the last record, so I suppose we've gotten to know each other in the making of the record and we've toured since that record and in the preparation of this album, we started from day one in the preparation and we went to New York and we played shows there where we played all the new songs. I'm treating them like new songs. I think there's a bit of a neurosis about every song having to have been written last week because I've been writing songs for quite a while now and I've sort of gotten over that I must put my new songs out right away. Sometimes it's good to put them to one side and think about them and decide what you want to do.

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

I do, yea.

What song was that

What was it called?

Did you ever record it?

No, no. I'm talking 12 or something. I don't really remember how it goes. It was a typical 13 year old song. I think it was in E minor and I think it was called "Winter," so you can tell I was a pretty cheerful teenager.

You did a lot of work with Paul McCartney on this album. Didn't he co-write a couple of songs on this album?

We wrote one together on this album, "Shallow Grave."

Is this a new song or is it between Flowers in the Dirt and Spike?

We've sort of written them. We didn't have any sort of special deadline on when to record them. We've written about a dozen songs together over, I suppose about seven years, and a couple have been on my albums and a couple have been on his albums and this one. We passed it back and forth to each other and he suggested he was going to record it on his last record, then it didn't work out and I fancied having a try at doing it on this record. It seemed to fit with some of the other songs, so that's what we did and we always say that maybe we'll do some more who knows when.

What did you think of the Beatles reunion and all the hullabaloo?

Well, I grew up with the original records and they were the first records that I listened to so I was very curious about all the archived stuff. That was what I was interested in mostly and I see no problem with them making a record of this tape that they had. I don't think there's anything particularly horrifying about it. There's a nice melody to a couple of them. But I find the archived stuff is the stuff that interested me more because it shows what was behind these great records.

You've been heavily involved with orchestras and I know The Beatles were bringing in orchestras in their last couple of albums. Is that where you got that interest? I find it funny that you're working with Paul McCartney and you're working with orchestras as well.

Not really. We made a record about 14 years ago with Jeff Emerick who co-produced this album and on that album that was the first one where we took time in the studio to use the studio as a place where we would experiment. On that record, we arranged for a 40 piece orchestra, so we're talking about 1982....so it wasn't like we decided last week to do some different things. Over the years, some of the records that I've made have been pretty spare in terms of instrumentation but others have been more intricate and it really depends on the material. If you've got the songs that are going to benefit from a more elaborate orchestration, then sometimes it's good to experiment with those things but it isn't as if it occurred to me recently. Of course, in the last sort of five years, I've been working with some people who are classical musicians by training but they've also got their ears open to other types of music. I did this record with the Brodsky Quartet. We toured around the world with that and since then I've been trying to use some of those sounds to make more interesting records that everybody can hear. Obviously we made this record and people who like rock and roll and electric guitar and drums are not going to be necessarily curious about a string quartet record as you can hear on this album. We did a track where they're our guests and we did an orchestration involving them and some clarinets...they're just instruments. It's special only if it sounds special. I don't think of it as a different kind of music, if you understand my meaning.

I remember reading, I guess it was between Mighty Like a Rose and The Juliet Letters I read in an interview with you and you said something to the effect that new sounds could only be found in orchestral music or classical music of the past. Do you feel the same way now or is that a complete misquote?

I think that's the trouble with saying things or more importantly assuming that they are an absolute and forever statement. Perhaps when I said that, that was the way I felt because I was absorbed in.... for me, the most interesting things at that time were in listening to music which because I hadn't had the patience or concentration to listen to. It hadn't rewarded me when I listened to it in the past and suddenly I was able to hear it and I think that happens throughout life. You find the time in your life for different kinds of music and it isn't necessarily an inexorable sort of dissent or reduction of the passion of youth that you sometimes just find the stillest music can be unbearably moving when previously you had no patience for that. Some music, the like of which you thought was the be all and end all of music, suddenly seems facile and then it can all change again. It can change completely. I don't think that anything I ever say is a permanent condition because music is changing all the time and my attitude toward it is changing and hopefully I'm changing as well.

One thing you said once that I hope is permanent, this is one of my favorite quotes of all time... you said, "Writing about music is like dancing is about architecture."

That's credited to me so often but I don't think I said it. I think I was quoting someone. It nevertheless can be true. I mean that's not to say that there aren't some books about music or about musicians that don't open up some things about them. Like sometimes the lives of musicians can be interesting to read just as the lives of artists are or writers. In some cases they're more illuminating than reading every word they wrote or painted or composed, you know. But, I think sometimes we think too hard about stuff that is supposed to work on several different senses at once. I mean just thinking about and reducing it to words... I obviously like words because they play a big part in the songs that I write... but a song really that works on our complete senses and works on you rhythmically and on your emotions sometimes...have you ever heard a song that you can almost like smell the circumstances where you heard it first? Have you every had that experience?

Yea, sure.

And it can be a song or piece of music, a piece of classical music, or jazz or a particular solo on a song you like but the thing you really like is that one moment. It could be something that's actually a mistake or something about the actual atmosphere of a record before it starts, you know. All of those things are very special and somewhat illusive to definition.

I guess your understanding of music has allowed you to be in a position where you can be an excellent producer. I know you've done producing work. Are you interested in doing any more of that?

Well actually, I'm coming out of retirement as a producer because I produce my own records. I co-produced this one with Jeff Emerick and I've been involved in the production of all my recent albums and even when your name is not on the production credit, you always have something to say. But the last record I produced in earnest was The Pogues in '84 or '85, whenever it was. So it's been about 10 years since I produced a record and actually just this week I'm about to come out of retirement as it were because I'm doing an exchange, a mix exchange with, do you know who Tricky is? -- so I approached him to do a reworking of one of the tracks on his record because I'm doing sort of an unusual sort of release in London where I'm releasing a single every week for the month of July because I'm playing in London during July. I wanted to have as much of the music of this record available to people during that period so we decided to do something that's kind of different. And I wanted to make sort of like a magazine or just have a forum on the record's concept for a month, so I've engaged a couple of people to recut some of the songs in the way they hear them, so you know that they'll be very contrasting to the original version. It continues the idea that these songs are here to be sung. That's what these songs are there for. They're to be sung and they're to be heard. I'm very curious to hear what some of these people do because they're quite different from me and they'll no doubt bring something very new to my ears and the ears of other people. The deal that I have with Tricky is that he's going to mix my track if I mix his.

What do you think of trip-hoppers, the direction, the sort of spacy direction....

Well, I'm always suspicious the minute there's a sort of newspaper definition of anything. I started out at a time when everything was called either punk or new wave and I didn't really feel very connected to any of the other bands that were defined as new wave or whatever it was we were being called. I'm sure the same applies to groups in England now who are all called triphop and likewise. There are very few people who are proud to be known by such a defining and excluding name like that. I think most of the artists like the name they go under whether it's a group name or an individual and i think that's the danger, but it flatters the worst people and insults the best. I hear lots of really fascinating things in the use of sounds to create moods which I find have more in common with some area of jazz than they do with rock music I think what's called trip-hop has more of a jazz sensibility than a rock sensibility and that's what's very peeving to me. That's not to say that I like everything that's just labeled like that because you have to have some critical faculty about it.

You talked about back in the '70s a lot of things were classified as punk. Didn't you produce one of The Specials albums? '

Do they count? I guess maybe they do now. There was a sort of mixture that emerged out of those times and you know punk itself, with the bands like The Specials and The Clash had moved on. They'd either broken up or moved on to other things by the time The Specials emerged and they combined a fairly unique English view of dance music. Whether it be from Jamaica or Detroit together with things from punk and a very straight way of speaking because they had a very vernacular way of delivering the words which, of course, wouldn't have been acceptable before punk. He didn't sing in a melodious way, he just delivered the words in a convincing way...he was great in that way. I just did it because I really liked the group and I didn't want anyone else to get their hands on them and maybe make them slick. Most of the records I've produced have been a question, a sense, of what's right for the group even if it may be less ambitious than sounding like what's on the radio. The Pogues record I produced has the same sort of character. It has a very, you know, it's very accurate to the way they sounded. It made sure that everything was coming through but it doesn't blow them up out of all proportion so that when you saw them live they actually sounded like that....which I think is a good thing. It wasn't like a live record. It was like a very good studio record.

So coming out of the whole punk idea...I hate to keep asking you about comebacks and stuff. How do you feel about The Sex Pistols?

They made some really great records and they caused a lot of fuss in England. At the time it was much easier to shock people than now and that was all great for the time and beyond that I really don't have an opinion about what it means for them to reform. It apparently means that they're going to get rich or richer. It doesn't really bother me one way or another. I think there are many more interesting things happening in music. I'm sure they'll be an entertaining spectacle at the same time.

What particularly floats your boat right now as far as new artists....as far as new artists now, who do you listen to?

I don't know. I just listen to all sorts of things. I listen to a mixture of things. I try to listen to something different every day to keep my mind moving so a lot of the things I listen to are older music but they're new to me - seem fresh to me. I've been listening to a lot of music by a guy called Oliver Nelson and I've only just discovered his records and also to Eric Dolphy but that's just my private listening. Of records that are out currently, my favorite album is that Fugees record. I really love that record. I like everything about it. It has great singing and great character and the way the tracks are put together, it sounds fantastic. I'm trying to think what else. My mind always goes blank when people ask me that question, you know. I've been listening out for new bands that I'm interested in and I hear a record by people and then I sort of forget their names before I get a chance to listen more to them. I'm sure there'd be something else if I could think of it, but I can't. I hear things and go "that's fantastic" and then it's gone again.

You've worked with a lot of different people. I was looking over this incredible list...you've worked with Roy Orbison, Chet Baker, Johnny Cash. A lot of country influences there. Didn't you recently go to Nashville?

I've been to Nashville several times. I went to Nashville the first time to record in 1979 and I recorded a duet with George Jones of a song I wrote which was on a record he was doing of duets at the time. So that was a tremendous break in terms of being a Nashville songwriter. It was like hitting the jackpot the first time. It didn't, because of the kinds of songs I was writing at the time, really lead to a career in writing songs for people in Nashville and truthfully there really aren't many artists there I aspire to write for. Johnny Cash has been good enough do a couple of my songs and did consider doing "Complicated Shadows." I sent it to him but he didn't end up doing it.

I've always been fascinated since the '60s with the rawer end of country music. I don't like it when it gets too slick. I listened to country music originally through the group The Byrds, you know, and through Gram Parsons and then I got curious about who these artists were because I wasn't familiar with Merle Haggard and people like that. They weren't well known in England. When I first came to America which was 19 years ago, a lot of music opened up to me then, both R&B and country because I had access to records that weren't available in England and I learned a lot very quickly about various artists.

I went and cut a record in Nashville and we did one with Tammy Wynette and George Jones which Charlie Richards produced which was an album of covers. Then after that I went to California in the mid-80s and cut a record called King of America which was certainly influenced by the styles of country writing. I was using sort of country instrumentation but I don't think in a million years it was country record. I was singing about things you'd never find in a country song.

Since that time, a lot of artists who are called country are writing that way as well. You've got people as diverse as Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett and in her earlier career, k.d. lang, and they're all making records which are called country but are quite sophisticated. I don't think anybody now has the illusion that country is somehow separate from the main sort of thrust of songwriting. It really comes down to what you grew up with, don't you think?

My experience when I came down to the south of America for the first time was that a lot of the local people who came to see us play, I'm talking about 1978 now, didn't really share a lot of the music maybe because it was more familiar to them because they grew up with it all around them. When I first went to Nashville, everyone wanted to hear urban music, you know. They wanted to hear punk because they were sick of steel guitars and maybe if you come from the city then stuff that comes from the country has more romance to it, you know.

Well, someone you worked with early in your career is highly into the country side of things, Nick Lowe.

Well, Nick produced the first five albums and he then produced the last record I made with The Attractions before we stopped working together in '86 and he also played bass on the last album I made before this one, Brutal Youth.

How did ya'll originally get together?

We'd been pals a long time. We've been friends since about 1972 and before I was a professional, he was somebody I looked up to and he's still writing great songs and occasionally producing but he mainly does his own writing and producing now. I don't know if you heard the record he put out last year, maybe 18 months ago, The Impossible Bird. It's a very beautiful record and has some wonderful songs on it. But he has always had a real love for certain elements of country music and also rhythm and blues and they're in his songs. That had quite a big influence on me because I got a lot of my ideas from him initially and eventually you develop your own style. That's the way it works.

Who have you enjoyed working the most with? I know that's a tough question.

It is kind of tough because recently you mentioned Nashville and I've been back and did a track with The Fairfieid Four, the gospel quartet, based out of Nashville, so bring the conversation around full circle. You mentioned Paul McCartney earlier and we recut one of the songs that Paul and I wrote together called "That Day is Done" and that's going to be on their next record and that was a very special experience but it wasn't like anything I've ever done before.

I also recently wrote a song with Burt Bacharach which is going to be in a film that comes out in a year....so you can't really compare that but they were both really wonderful to do. I had to do different things. I had to sing different ways but that's what I'm enjoying doing now as much as making my own records so I'm getting to work with lots of different people.... and each thing I learn something new so when I make another record of my own, I'll have some new ideas. I'm not just standing in one place and saying,"I know it all now." I'd be really upset if I knew everything about music cause you can't possibly stop learning about it

Who is there that you have not worked with...is there anyone left that's like a dream perhaps? Have you ever worked with Phil Spector at all?

No, I think that sometimes, you know, you have to acknowledge is the thing that makes you like people is the period in their career when they were perhaps the most in control of their abilities and able to do the most with them and the opportunity to work with them may have passed, that moment may have passed. Most of the people that I've come across and admired in music when I was a kid, I've been fortunate enough to work with. I met Roy Orbison just on one show and writing 12 songs with Paul McCartney is something I wouldn't have dreamed about when I was 11 years old. I was just a fan of this group you know.

It doesn't mean that there isn't somebody round the corner that I haven't heard of that I'm going to be delighted to work with or is going to present a whole new challenge to work with. It could be somebody that nobody's ever heard of yet. It could be somebody that I've not met. There isn't like a list of famous people that I'm trying to meet before I retire. I've been very lucky. I worked with a lot of people in a lot of different circumstances. Sometimes the results have been really only for that night.

Recently I did a track with the Jazz Passengers, a group out of New York who I really love, and their singer is Deborah Harry who used to be with Blondie. She's now developed into this wonderfully witty and terribly gifted singer of the music that they do which is very tricky jazz. It's got a lot of wit and humor and is very technically difficult and demanding but she makes it sound really human and brings a great personality to it. I did a track with them and one track I was singing and another track I was singing a duet with her. Things like that are like a holiday from what I do anyway. That isn't to say I don't enjoy my own stuff, whether making records or touring, I'm getting to meet these other people and do these other things and some last for one evening and some of them point the way to something else.

You're a very difficult person to peg as far as seeing what exactly you're interested in. It's just a wide range of things, so it's nice to see why you stray all over the place.

Well some people I think find that suspicious....that you don't have conviction about anything or that you don't want to stick in one place. I just find it boring to stick in one place. I think all musical things can be connected in some way and there are certain qualities that music inexplicably shares even though there are obvious divides of time and experience....like you can talk to people with 20 or 40 years difference in age with wildly different experience and training or success and there will be something they agree upon in music.

That is perhaps why I find it the most satisfying thing in life, beyond words really. It doesn't bother me if it doesn't add up to a convenient pattern but the convenient pattern is what a commentator is looking for, not so much people on the radio but people in print who write about musicians and are looking for some explanation or definition as you say and it's quite hard to achieve one. Sometimes it's suggested that I do these things because I just don't want to have one big success. I've had success.... I don't need to do it again. If it all adds up into a big success, that's great.

From time to time I have a hit record and that's when everybody agrees with what I know, that I've made a good record. I don't release bad records. I just release some records that are more popular with more people than others. It may sound arrogant but I don't try to make bad records. I know some are more, in retrospect, better than others, but when I release them that's the best I could do at the time with the resources that I had, with the musicians that I had and the hope and imagination that I had in that period of time and if they suddenly click and you find yourself with a hit single and consequently a hit album, that's fantastic because a lot of people have agreed all at once that there's a quality in it you hoped was there.

If it doesn't happen, then you have to...it's not a question of saying I can sell myself with this, you have to respect the fact that if eight people bought your record with great sincerity, then that's eight more people than you that really took it to heart. I think sometimes people in the music industry lose sight of that because they think that people that listen to music and the public are fools and they become very cynical. And I'm not a little bit cynical. You can't possibly please everybody. You have to be respectful of that fact that everybody listens differently.

Well, sometimes it turns into a numbers game, too.

EC; Yea, when I was first starting out and was told I'd sold a thousand records in a day, I just couldn't imagine that because at that time I'd never played to a thousand p (?????) -d now the biggest audience I've ever played to is 300,000. That was in Rome. And I've been on television on things like Live Aid where there were a billion people watching and it's beyond your comprehension. So to become obsessed with the difference between selling 100,000 and 5,000,000 records is ridiculous because if they all came around to your house and asked for a drink, you'd really be in trouble.

You'd find it very difficult to imagine having the conversation we're having with everybody that buys a record. To some extent it's a very unnatural thing. Once the records are issued and released on a major label and released around the world, it's no longer as personal as when you were first learning to play the guitar and taking the songs to a club and trying to play them. I'm trying very hard, particularly as I get older, to try and hold on to the human aspect of it and play in smaller venues than I have in recent years by choice and not worry about status and things like that as much. Sometimes I go on small tours with other sounds, like I'm going on tour to Spain with the Brodsky Quartet because that music that we did together is gaining an audience in Spain. I'm not sure why and people are very curious to hear the music we wrote together and that's an opportunity for us because these towns have never been visited by a rock and roll band.

Are we Americans going to have a chance to see you this summer?

Yea, I'm coming back..I don't know...you're having that Olympics in Atlanta. That's made it quite difficult for us. I don't know whether there's a date in Atlanta because of it. Of course, nothing's ever set in stone and if we're not there this time, we'll certainly be there next time.

I can make some phone calls. We could cancel those damn things.

So I'm hoping we will be back before very long. I don't know what my plans are beyond September. I'm just about to start a European tour and we're traveling all over and going as far as Greece. This is the first time I've played there. It's quite good after 20 years to play in a country you've never played in. And we're in Paris and all these towns and we're playing in London every weekend and then we come over and play in America and end up in Japan. So we've still got a long way to go.

You need to send us some postcards from the road.

Yea, I'll send you some postcards.

The record again is called "All This Useless Beauty"?

That's right.

It's been great having you give us a call from....?

I'm calling from my home in Dublin, Ireland.

We appreciate you not calling us collect

Well that would be a bit of an imposition. It's very nice to speak to you. I hope that I will see you before very long.


Eighty-8, The magazine of WRAS Atlanta, July 1996

Christopher Simony and Yancy Yohannan interview Elvis Costello.


1996-07-00 Eighty-8 cover.jpg


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