Elvis Costello, the 64-year-old singer and songwriter from England, lives in Vancouver with his wife, the jazz singer Diana Krall, and their two kids. Costello has been making records since the late 1970's, records that range from punkish pop to super-dense super-pop to country-and-western; from earnest to sardonic. He's particularly adept at bringing a postmodern flair to the elegant foundations of the old-school songbook. That's what he's done on his newest record, called Look Now.
Just how versatile is Elvis Costello? Over the years, his collaborators have included Burt Bacharach, The Brodsky Quartet, Anne Sofie von Otter, Paul McCartney, the Charles Mingus Orchestra, and Allen Toussaint. For a time, he was nearly very, very famous; to those who love his music, he's way better than famous: he's an original — a musician's musician, a writer's writer. He's also got the rare ability to create music that is both high-minded and open-minded — and, as you'll see, he can do that in conversation as well.
If you would just say your name and what you do, however you'd like to describe that.
Hello, I'm Elvis Costello, and I am some kind of musician and a writer.
So, let's start with your new record, which I love. Congratulations. I think it's remarkable. It's rich and dense, but also gritty and funny, and it's modern and traditional, and it's a record that no one in the world but Elvis Costello could have written.
That's a pretty good compliment. But that's what I hoped to do, to be really truthful. I had these songs, some of them I'd written a while ago, some of them were written in collaboration, some of them were written very recently. And I knew that they were songs that would be served by my band, but they would give us an opportunity to show everything that we can do, not just one aspect. A four-piece rock 'n' roll band is often just asked to be a four-piece rock 'n' roll band. And that's great fun, but it's also great to be able to bring to anything that which you've learned, that which you've come to understand, be able to quiet yourself to the mood of a ballad, and in this case playing in collaboration with Burt Bacharach. I couldn't imagine us pulling that off 20 years ago or longer.
You write in the liner notes, "I wanted to make a record that we couldn't have made back then."
Yeah. To me there's never been any point in making the previous record again. So, each one has, to my ear, been quite different. To people who don't hear those increments change, or don't have the same appreciation, probably all my record sounds the same. But they're attuned to different things than I am. And the great thing is we're totally spoiled for choice. We have so much stuff we can listen to: from the past; from the present; stuff that's secret; stuff that's right in the headlines. You don't have to have one above the other. It isn't necessarily a hierarchy.
One of the only positive things about the changes in the way music is heard is that the hierarchal aspect of it has become less oppressive. There are still people that sell massive amounts of records and people are obsessed with those achievements. But some of the most interesting things are happening in little corners. And that's not to say, "Well, I'm making the best of it, because I used to sell records and now there aren't records to sell." It's just that that's the way it is. I find that the records that really interest me by other people — whether they're people of my generation or whether they're brand new artists — they tend to be things you stumble upon, and it reminds me of how wonderful it was to feel as if you had personal possession of a record that nobody else knew about, which was the way it was when I started out.
So when you were a kid, your dad was a singer for what sounds to be a pretty wonderful dance band, you call them.
Yeah, nobody would regard them as hip in the slightest way, but the leader, Joe Loss, he managed to front a band from the late 20's to the 80's. He was a remarkable character in English light entertainment, and he had a very good ear for two things: people, talented singers — I mean, Vera Lynn made her debut with him; my father later had good singers. And my dad had two other singing partners, and they were on the model of the Glenn Miller band. They weren't by any means up with the rock 'n' roll vibe or anything like that. But as time went on, because of the curious way radio was set up in England, the way we heard a lot of popular songs were as they were interpreted by dance bands and light music ensembles of all dimensions.
What do you mean, "the way radio was set up in England?"
There was an agreement between the BBC and the musicians' union that there were only five hours of recorded music allowed a day.
Oh, the musicians' union being live music, like, "Don't put us out of business, BBC."
You couldn't play recorded music for more than five hours a day. So bear in mind that there was only the BBC. There was no commercial radio in England. There was one station which we could beam in from Luxembourg which broadcast in English and played continuous pop music. But it wasn't until the pirate stations started up in the mid-60's that the revolution to the American model of 12- to 24-hour radio took hold in England, and therefore we heard a lot of things filtered. And that's why you see, in archival clips, The Beatles, and very big bands like that, appearing on light entertainment shows with comedians. And they would have to get their music out somehow and the opportunities to play on television were limited to maybe one or two pop shows a week on television. I'm talking about all of recorded music, so you are dividing up the classical music, the pop music, jazz. So, there were a lot of broadcasts of live music, whether they they were bands interpreting the hits of the day, or little shows that presented people playing music for broadcast like jazz ensembles or folk singers.
I never knew that. So that's fascinating. I wonder if you believe in retrospect that that scarcity retarded a certain kind of original British music making.
No, it had the opposite effect. I would say that the rarity of it sharpened the wits of the people that got through, although there were obviously contradictions in it. A lot of the rock 'n' roll singers that were on the radio when I — because my parents didn't really listen to rock 'n' roll, they were jazz fans. rock 'n' roll seemed a bit flimsy, I have to be honest, because I never heard any of the really original exciting stuff because it didn't get played. We heard this vanilla version of it. They were local acts that had been styled and given names to sound like American acts.
It was The Beatles really that blew that up, and The Beatles came and signed to, they were turned down by the first label that they auditioned for. And then they went to Parlophone which was an E.M.I. label, but think of the name. What does it mean? It's a talking label. It was a comedy label. I don't think they really knew what they had. Nobody has ever said this that much, but I think they might have thought they were a novelty act initially. I'm sure the people up at the top of the company like George Martin obviously understood what they were, but I think they thought that they're probably a one hit wonder. And people that spoke in northern English accents in those days were mostly comedians.
You've got to remember that we're talking about the BBC, where they still put on evening dress dinner jackets, to read the news on the radio. I mean they've always had services, that broadcast in different languages, but the home broadcasting was very much two things: what they call BBC English, which was a kind of formalized English, and mostly northern English comedians, or people from a musical, who were genial hosts of things. But the idea that it would reflect real life was not really—
As a kid in the north — you were from London originally, and then when your parents split—
Yeah, we stayed in London. I grew up in the suburbs, in the western suburbs, and you wouldn't call it London because we were out so far. And it wasn't a bleak place at all. It was very leafy. But I spent a lot of school holidays on Merseyside. So, my dad from Birkenhead, my mother from Liverpool, I spent a lot of holidays staying at my grandmother's house. I felt as much at home there. I was actually taken north as a baby and christened there. So, I had this feeling of belonging to both places.
It's hard to feel you come from London because it's such a mixture of neighborhoods and overlays of culture. If you come from one of the old neighborhoods, particularly in the east or the north of the town, people say "I'm North London" or "I'm East London." West London, it gets a little bit more foggy about identity. We just live out there.
Who do you support football-wise?
I've always supported Liverpool.
Well, that was easy.
We were in second division when I started.
Is that right?
Yeah. I went to see them the year before they came up.
Well, you're having a very nice season this year, and last year was exciting. So, why so long between records? I'm just curious, Elvis Costello is a musician that those who love him, love him very, very, very much, and yet you've never been the mega-sized star that you threatened to become once, years ago, and I'd like to talk about that.
Well, it was threatened by other people.
Threatened upon you, perhaps.
I made a conscious decision about the use of my time. 2010, 2011, I had an enforced little bit of time off. I released a record in 2010 which I really loved. It didn't seem to demand that the music be played live. There was no demand for me to perform those songs, and it coincided also with my father's passing, and maybe that just made me take stock. And I started to think that maybe records were a vanity that I shouldn't indulge. That brought home how limited time was, and with having young children, I decided that if I was going to be away from home, I had better be really be bringing home my share of our family income.
It was a much more certain bet to go out and play concerts and I also felt that maybe I had an opportunity — now I really did have too much material for one evening of songs — that I could create shows. I ended up creating two or three shows, stage shows, I'm talking about. They weren't elaborate productions with huge expensive values; they were cheap carnival tricks that I used to frame what I had, which is my songbook. The first one was called, "Spectacular Spinning Songbook," it was a revival of a show I did first as a kind of dare in the mid-80's where we used a game-show wheel to select the next song, and I had a beautiful assistant like a magician.
And it was real, not rigged?
It was real, and I mean sometimes we rigged it towards the end of the show to get a number to get offstage. But now, we let it go as it was. It was a tremendous challenge for the band because they had to know somewhere around 150 songs at the drop of a hat. And you could get a run of three finale numbers to open the show, and then you would have to find how you could continue the mood.
Everything conceivable happened; you'd have people that would come up and we had a very good cast members. We had a dancer who was really sympathetic. She was really good, she was doing a parody of it like a go-go dancer. Some people didn't realize the whole thing was a satire. They thought we were actually serious. The whole point of it was to bring people on the stage and invite them. You never could guess how many people really want to be a go-go dancer. And there were people on stage who should never dance that did. And that's a great moment because I'm the worst dancer in the world, so I really have sympathy for people who come up. They threw themselves into it and we'd have mothers and sons come up and do it together, and married couples. We had a couple, one guy propose to his fiancée. I started to claim that I was actually ordained at one point. It really, it was a semi-invented character I was playing. It was partly me and partly this character I was inhabiting.
And then, well, I applied myself to finishing a book I'd been working on for 12 years called Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. And I then worked up another show over a couple of tours where I gradually gathered props. Started out with an on-air light like you find in an old radio studio, like the kind I saw when I would go with my dad to the radio broadcast. And then I added a television set which had a screen onto which I could project cues to the songs; sometimes there were old advertisements, sometimes there were family photographs. I could also get inside this TV and appear, as it were, on television on the stage.
It was again semi-theatrical, semi-scripted, the anecdotes told by way of introduction were frivolous versions of more serious stories that appeared in the book. Sometimes the manuscript version was a lot more heartbreaking and I would tell a lighthearted version — a lot of the things were about, some of the things about family were quite dark. There were there were some things about my parents' relationship, my dad's more wayward nature which I unfortunately inherited for a period of my life. I suppose I was working all of that stuff out because it was all in the songs already, and all I did was point people to maybe what they had only suspected about the songs.
But the book, I gather, is real to the core. Yes? Everything in the book is you?
Yeah. I chose to put it out of chronological sequence, because I thought, "Well, Wikipedia does that." I mean, you want the emotional sense of it. And I fictionalized a few episodes, not because I was being evasive, because I was trying to use fiction to summon up the mood. Rather than identify people, because it wasn't their identity that was the point of the story, it was the feeling of the room I was in, and I only used that twice in the book.
Your songs are all, as far as I know, copyrighted Elvis Costello. Your book, however, is copyrighted by your given name, Declan MacManus.
Some of my songs are copyrighted — I changed it for a little while, and then I found that when people wanted to write with me or do my songs, of course, nobody had any idea who Declan MacManus was, so they wanted an Elvis Costello song. Again, that's one of those things that I did kind of as a, just a little marker. It's a gift to music critics to see something like that, because they want a real sense of psychological significance into it.
I was aware of the fact that the brand of my original appearance on the music scene was quite that: it was a brand in some people's view, even though to me it wasn't. It was my life. And the name was idiotic, and the appearance was idiotic. I played up to it, and I leaned into the character that was invented around me. But then, after a little while, it's a bit boring and it gets in there and it gets dangerous as well you start to live it out, and make the wrong choices in so many different ways. You've got to get out of it.
Maybe part of it was reasserting there was a person who was completely on the outside of all of this ridiculous showbiz stuff that made the little tapes that got me my first record. I mean, I was making those in my bedroom. I still sing some of the other songs that I was writing then, and it was just the few that caught people's ear were the ones that coincidentally landed me in the studio right when this supposed new thing was happening in rock and roll. I never really identified myself with it. Other people said, "You're part of this new wave thing." It was just a label somebody made up as a matter of convenience. It wasn't a game plan.
You did seem to recognize even then that — I remember in your book, you wrote "The squarer I look," which I gather is English for "angrier," yes? "The angrier I look, the more the camera likes it." How much of that early on was you putting on a creative persona?
I saw an interview with Wayne Shorter in a documentary about Lee Morgan where he talked about drinking brandy when he was younger, and he said it just created a little kind of place around himself in which he did his work. It wasn't like he was really getting lit. It just took him out of the immediate environment. I understood exactly what that was. Even though I am a very different type of musician — obviously, I'm not on that same level, but I'm not an improviser in that way — but I know that I did the same thing with the, with aspects of the persona. The fact that I didn't speak on record at times, it all just created a bit of room around me. Could get on with the job without being interrupted.
Oh, is that what it was?
It was just that. And also, I was probably just anxious, nervous, as well, because I'm actually by nature quite shy. And then you have to learn bravado. And of course bravado you know easily. Then you get challenged particularly by boring self-satisfied people, whether it would be a radio DJ or a journalist that thought they'd worked you out. Of course, you'd go push it to a greater extreme just to confound them, just to horrify them more. And then also some people who were very kind.
There were some older journalists, a woman journalist from Wales who interviewed me very early on. I hadn't got any guard up for her. I found her charming, and she seemed to kind of see that I was serious about what I did, in that way that sometimes younger people are a little earnest. And I see that. When I see the footage of it, it breaks my heart because I think there wasn't any generational animosity or any of that nonsense. It was just genuine curiosity, somebody trying to do their job and me trying to do mine.
I'd like to ask you about your writing, and I could ask you all day about your writing; I don't get to, but I think you're a great writer, you're a great songwriter but also I think lyrically alone, you're a great writer, but a puzzling one sometimes. You're a challenging one sometimes, on a couple dimensions. I'll start with the one. Your lyrics are full of extraordinarily clever and memorable and cutting phrases and imagery that's evocative and it's specific; and yet often the actual theme or the plot of a story is a little bit removed and enigmatic, and I want to know is that a choice, is that you?
It is in some cases. I think there's a really obvious shift in the writing on the album Imperial Bedroom in '81. I knew I was doing it then. That's the first record I ever published the lyrics. Up until then I didn't think that they should be written down. I felt they needed to be heard at the same time as as the music. They weren't little poems, and I could have written poetry if it wanted to. I used to write poetry as a kid. I don't know whether it was any good. But I knew how to write poetry. And I think poetry is the use of words where music is heard but none is playing, isn't it? That's one definition. I don't know who said that; maybe I did. Where you hear music by the rhythm and the cadence of the words without there actually being a musical accompaniment. I mean, that's one possible definition of poetry and I never really put myself on that level. It's a very high art form.
So, I just wrote these things to be sung, and then I started to think, "Well, I like certain kinds of painting where there are more than one angle within the frame. Why can't a song replicate that?" And cinematic cutting is like that. It fractures time. It goes backwards and just the active editing. You see it from one point of view and then you're through a door and then you see the person standing there.
All those things, I'd kind of referred to them in songs from as early as "Watching the Detectives." I mean, I'd use a stage or the film directions in the lyric. I've done that a few times, but I just push it further. And then, other songs came up that were very straightforward, and I just wasn't very comfortable with the idea that if I wrote about events that we all shared, rather than, say, about matters of the heart, then I was less comfortable with making the easy slogan about it. I didn't feel it was my job to do that or to tell people what to think, but to maybe try and find that little story that underlined something that I had seen that maybe somebody else hadn't.
How often would you write a lyric that you would need to get rid of because it was too obvious, too on the surface?
I just didn't write it. I mean, I don't think I ever did get rid of it because I thought it was too obvious, I just didn't write that. I wrote very fast. I realized right away if I was down a track that wasn't going to work. I never wrote any songs about rock 'n' roll that I can think of. What I mean is, there's a lot of songs with the word rock 'n' roll in the title. That kind of song that was celebrating the life? I wrote some songs that were kind of about the indulgences, but they were more from the outside. I never felt comfortable, even though I indulged just as much as anybody in those things, I always stood off from myself.
"Indulge," you mean the lifestyle.
Yeah, there were some moments of hedonism, I suppose would be the word, but I always stood outside myself a little bit, going, "This is not really what you should be doing." Maybe that's just a way of making excuses for yourself, like a drunk who said, "Well, I could give up, but maybe just after this drink." That kind of thing.
And you were drinking — by the way, which sounds horrible to me — Coke and Pernod?
Oh, that was just one afternoon. You don't do that twice.
So along those lines of becoming the writer that you became, you wrote in your book, that you knew you hadn't been born with the good looks and confidence necessary for popular success.
Face for the radio.
Face for the radio. But was that really true? Did you really believe that? Because in my reckoning of how you became who you are as an artist, you're growing up with this father who's in showbiz, and you have access to showbiz; and British music at the time was very exciting and there were rock stars being made all the time; and you were to my mind, at least, I hope you agree, phenomenally good and talented and hardworking, etc., etc.; and did you really draw the boundary where, for yourself, that I'm never going to be in the inner circle of stardom? Is that really the case?
Well, I think that a couple of things color it. One is that I was exposed, I suppose, to some elements of showbusiness early on. Just like anybody, you have an admiration for your parents' ability to do whatever it is they do. Cook the dinner and go to work, and I'd go see my dad sometimes in the dance hall on a Saturday afternoon. That was one perspective of performance. And he brought music into the house that he was learning for the weekly broadcast.
Later on, after my parents separated, his life transformed. He then took on an appearance closer to, I've said in my show, closer to Peter Sellers in What's New Pussycat? He grew his hair long and he started to wear fashionable clothes and listen to contemporary music, and started to incorporate their songs into what was otherwise a fairly unpromising environment of working-men's clubs and social clubs, because he left the safety of the nightly gig with the dance band and decided he wanted to do his own thing.
So, that striking out and being independent thing was from his example, but all the way along, no matter what the music was or the style. And, bear in mind, my taste in music changed just like any teenager; from it was all about one thing, the next day it was all about another. It was always about the song. I'd seen the sheet music transformed into a radio performance. My father used to go and make a little bit of cash money doing cover records where they did note-for-note covers of things. So, the stardom of the individual people, with the exception of a band like The Beatles who everybody was fascinated and focused on all the way through those years and their various transformations; I didn't really see that as something I could do.
I had spent the last two years of schooling in Liverpool, which at that time was musically very quiet in the early 70's, and tried to make my own way playing my own songs. I had a partner, we sang in bars and any evening where they would let us on the stage, really; we were making tiny little bits of money just about covered our expenses, and I learned a little bit how to do it, but I never really thought— I looked at the television every Thursday to see Top of the Pops and saw the distance between the way I looked and felt and sounded and what was a pop singer right then, which was a lot of people in baker foil with eye makeup on; that was the music of that moment, the glitter, glam moment. That seemed very distant from a 17-year-old.
Did you kind of wish you could do that?
No, I never wanted to do that. I might be the only person in English pop music that that made a record that never wanted to be David Bowie, while still loving everything he did. I never wanted to look like him. I just loved his records. It was enough for me that he made those records. I didn't want to make them. I knew I couldn't.
There's also, so I don't mean to summarize your music to you, but this is one person's perception, and your music is extraordinarily diverse and interesting on a lot of levels over the years. But a lot of your writing shows a — I don't know if "cynicism" is fair — distrust and frustration, and often the belief that too many people and especially institutions are cruel and corrupt, maybe not of their own design, but they are hypocritical; and I'm curious, if you accept my summary of that part-attitude in part in your writing; it's not always that; if you accept that to some degree, whether you thought that maybe pop music, the kind of super popular pop music, couldn't contain that commentary.
Oh no, I felt the opposite thing. I mean, I think, like any teenager, I was a little bit self-righteous when I when I was 17 and I thought I had discovered the secret because, I remember telling a teacher, a careers master, I wasn't going to be in pop music, I was going to take words and I was going to set them to music. I'd discovered a magic formula, and he just said, "Oh, you want to be a pop singer." And they were sneering and how ridiculous could that be. And it wasn't like they were thwarting my ambition. I didn't have any ambition. I was a purist; I was a Puritan.
What do you mean by that, a Puritan in what direction?
I wasn't interested in those trappings. For one thing, I didn't think I was a performer. I was almost certain that I was a songwriter.
For other people.
Well, by then, I'd got possessed of the idea. I'd watched too many Hollywood movies where somebody burst into a room to go, "I've got a song for you" and make them listen to it. And I did do that for a few years when I returned to London in 1973. I was playing my songs still around, wherever they let me play, which were the remnants of the English folk club scene where Bob Dylan and Paul Simon had made the first steps in the early 60's. It was only 10 years, 12 years later that it was quite changed, the scene. We'd had all of the late 60's psychedelia. The music that was in the pop charts wasn't really yet quite disco, but it was like dance music and glitter.
And the acoustic music, which I really loved was mostly played by Californians, or people that came out of California: James Taylor; Joni Mitchell, although she was Canadian was seen as Californian; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and that kind of music. It seemed quite remote, somehow glamorous. And you never thought you would see those people. And there were lots of really good musicians playing around you could see and I'd run across them. But we didn't hold them in the same regard as the American musicians.
And that's always been the way the English think. Whether it would be jazz, or rock and roll, or even acoustic music. So I would go to publishing houses and try and get them to listen to my songs and I think of them now they were not at all suited to other people.
You'd go with tapes or you'd go with the guitar and sing?
I would go with both. I would go with a reel-to-reel tape, I'd made in the bedroom and my guitar, and I'd make them listen to the songs, which they would take calls in the middle of the songs, and it was pretty not good for the confidence — or maybe very good for the confidence, because I got a little tougher. And I got a few paying gigs playing my own songs. I abbreviated my name to my initials. My dad always called me D.P. so I adopted that. Then, I adopted my Irish great-grandmother's name Costello; but everybody said it like an Italian name. I let them think that I was Italian. Not that anybody really cared, but it looked better on a bill? And then I became the resident singer in a club where quite good people came and played.
And when did the Elvis come in?
Not until I took a tape to my first record company Stiff, which was a little company that started with like a thousand bucks, maybe not even that, borrowed money, and started putting out singles in 1976. My producer, one of my favorite singers, Nick Lowe, was their first artist, and I was the first person to knock on the door with a demo tape. And at first, they they had me record a couple of songs, but very much with the view of somebody else singing them. They were still seen as demos, they weren't seen as releases.
Even for Stiff?
Yeah. The first recordings, they weren't sure that I wasn't a writer for somebody else. That was really the objective. My managers were managing Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds' band, Rockpile; and Dave didn't write. So, they tried to sell Dave on a couple of my songs and they tried to give them to other people.
Thank goodness they didn't take them.
And people found them too quirky, so that, in the end, they suggested first putting half a record out with another songwriter, like Chuck Meets Bo. There's a jazz record with one side of Chuck Berry, one side of Bo Diddley on it. And thankfully, I just ended up writing so many songs that there were 12 and they put that out. I was still working in an office till the week before my record came out.
This is with Elizabeth Arden?
Yeah, I was a computer operator. I'd sit in a little air-conditioned cubicle and pretend I knew what was happening with the computer and write my songs in a book. And sometimes if I had to work at night, an evening shift, it was just one operator — it was only an I.B.M. 360, it wasn't a complex computer. It was probably not as powerful as your phone, and I just wrote my songs in the evenings, and I was still working there. I had singles out, and I was still working there.
Let me ask you an existentially depressing question, which is for every one of you, Elvis Costello, or Declan MacManus, working that job and writing songs, for every hundred thousand of you, there's one who actually gets to do what you did. And there are questions of talent versus hard work and opportunity and luck and so on. What do you say to all those people out there who have some kind of dream of being a creative? And many people are realistic, they don't expect to reach huge success, or even do it as their livelihood even partially. But, do you discourage those people from hanging onto that?
Are you talking about right now or back then?
I'd say right now.
Right now, it would seem to be tougher to start, because I am beginning to think there was a narrow window of opportunity which I caught the last few years of, where it was possible to make a reasonable amount of money from making records and having a musical career, other than to just fund the next go around on the machine. Obviously, before that, people bought the rights to songs; they sometimes put the names of the publisher or the singer on to the song. That's how you come to see songs that are credited to Al Jolson or Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra, who to my knowledge never wrote anything.
And of course latterly — and when I say I latterly, it's almost 25 years now — there's been a shift to the ownership of all of the medium through which music and most other entertainments appear. And it's transformed the sense of ownership. On the one hand, the delivery of those things has become a commodity owned usually by super-corporations who are not in the same business as I'm in. In other words, say, Universal Records, who hold the rights, for the time being, to my catalog, are owned in turn by a French utilities company. They run trains, sewage works. They're not really in the music business, are they? They're not in the art business, for sure. So, they are the people to whom, the bosses who are above the people who hire me to work, make records. That's who they are. Now independent companies, like the one I'm recording for now, still have relationships because you have to get the physical records out somewhere. And those people control the distribution networks.
But of course, as it's become a matter of instantaneous access, we're moving to a model now where nobody really has any physical records anymore, or at least, as generations of people who have no knowledge of that, they have no expectation of owning a physical copy of a record, unless it's a fetish object like a vinyl record that they bought in a hipster store. They can access something much more readily on the Internet, whether through YouTube or Spotify or such a system. So why would they want to clutter up the house with a bunch of records? There are people that will contradict that. But that is a big model now for it.
So why can't you have all of those systems, rather than sitting around whining about it. Why not just say, "Well, that's happened." You can say there are some things that are unfair or possibly even dishonest about it, but so it's always been the way that people will say, "Yeah, you can make that record for me, I'll give you a Cadillac," and then they would go make millions off that title and the guy would just be driving around until the wheels fell off the Cadillac.
The artists have always had a difficult, hard time getting — In their more egotistical moments, some of the megalomaniac moments they probably believe that they've been cheated in some way of a fate, but maybe they just didn't work hard enough. One thing that really affects some people is that they're too hip to work. I know a lot of people that that think of themselves as very groovy, that disdain major popular music.
You know who I like? I like Bing Crosby. He was a huge-selling artist. I don't dislike pop music and actually what music I don't care for is boring rock music that's so pompous. I like rock 'n' roll a lot, but I don't hear the thrill in this square music. And each type of music gets infected by that kind of squareness or self-satisfaction or self-fulfilling prophecy that happens in every form of music. And somebody else will tell you that happened to me because they they judge it that way.
Where did your tremolo come from ? Is that what it's called? Tremolo, vibrato in your voice, when you sing. Did you always do that? Was it a conscious thing?
It's about three different factors. One is that I was aware of that way of singing.
From your dad's music?
He definitely listened to Billy Eckstine. My dad, on some records that he made — he doesn't have a lot of records under his own name — but the few where he sings in his true voice, oddly enough, you can hear elements of Eckstine in his vocal delivery. And he's one of my mother's favorite singers, along with Tony Bennett. And ballad singers tended to use vibrato. The vibrato that might have been inherent in my voice, I think wasn't so obvious because there were so many words in my songs, there were not many long held notes in the early songs, they mostly very quick fire. And when I slowed the pace down to sing ballads, then it became more apparent — and also simultaneously to that, I have to credit Chrissie Hynde with reintroducing the warm vibrato idea into pop, popular music of the then time. I'm talking about '80 to '83, that period after she made her appearance about '79, '80, and it reminded me of the sounds that I loved about Dusty Springfield — who was probably my favorite singer, at that time. I think beyond that there's a certain amount of vibrato as a product of maybe a physiology.
Many who can't do it right. Many singers can't do it.
Yeah, but I think also that part of it is physiological. I guess it's a flaw, in my breathing that the whole engine works like that, and it's like, if you live with something like a heart murmur it can be like that.
You're saying your vibrato is a handicap of some kind?
It's not a handicap, I mean; it's a physiological fact.
Really. So you don't try? You don't try to put it on, your voice does that?
I think the breathing does that because I think it's like a limp. It's like a limp, but you could make it, you could — There are people who have great gaits that you remember, like Robert Mitchum had a particular gait. Think of it like that. It's my John Wayne kind of gait, but with vibrato. Just think of it like John Wayne.
But I thought the story you were telling me about Chrissie Hynde was that —
I didn't suppress it. I love Chrissie singing so much that I thought, "Well, okay, you can't have that in modern pop music like you could have it in the 60's."
Because it was corny, I mean, if you'd heard it in the 60's it would have been.
Yeah, but I don't think there's a single corny note that Dusty ever sang. Well, I think if you hear some things from the 50's, they sound very over-emotive. They sound kind of trumped up. And also some people can't hear opera they think that's ridiculous, and other people hear beauty in that way of singing.
How about you?
I hear, really, beauty in a lot of the opera singers. I mean, there's times when you go and it isn't good. But I know the physical dedication that goes into that. And if you listen to Chaliapin, or Hans Hotter, or Fischer-Dieskau, or any of the great recorded singers — and then there's the people I've seen, my friend Anne Sofie von Otter. I was a fan of hers from the, from just going to the concert hall to always hear her sing, and then we became friends and we made a record together. And she wanted to make a record where she let go of some of the training of her voice, but she's incapable of signing an ugly note. And of course some of the things that are proposed in the singing of a popular song are sounds that are an anathema to a trained singer. So, it's quite difficult for them to unlearn some of their training and to be unbuttoned enough to do it.
Do do you still have the scream? Do you still scream, ever?
Do I what?
The scream you used to do.
I can, yeah. I mean, I don't want to do it in here because it's loud.
Well, I don't mind, but I don't want you to hurt yourself.
I'm not going to try it now, but I mean, yeah, it's not something I was conscious of doing. It's not really a thing, "I'd better put a scream in there." It's just something you do. It's a harmonic. I'm thinking particularly in terms of the beginning of "Man Out of Time," that sounds like an alto saxophone playing harmonics. It's not. It's actually more than one note. And I like that. When it came out, it all went squirrely and I love those things.
I mean, there's different singers whose techniques I'm fascinated by. I used to love Bobby "Blue" Bland. He used to sound like he was clearing his throat. And Al Green has a — and these are singers that have so much voice, compared with me. I like singers who are kind of tryers, like Rick Danko, who sounded like there's was a kind of nervous thing to the way he sang that I really loved, and it felt very human. There's something very beautiful about that, and that's probably why we're able to respond to music in other languages without understanding what's being sung.
We're maybe fascinated by where the emphasis lies in the kind of music that uses either a different rhythm or a different scale. So it's always surprising us and the timbre of the voice, as — you can tell, there's a yearning in it, or a sense of joy, or a sense of lament. I can listen to religious music in the same way without necessarily believing the same thing that the singer is. I can listen to gospel music or cantors, or whatever recordings. It's just what the singer believes in.
Joe Loss was Jewish, I assume. There was a line in your book about how he wanted your dad to have been Jewish.
He was absolutely convinced that my dad was.
Are we convinced your dad wasn't Jewish? I was kind of hoping your dad was Jewish.
I actually don't know because — I think it's a bit unlikely, but of course — because of the background of the family. Who knows? I mean, we can't get back very far with records with Irish people. My great grandfather was what would be called now an economic migrant. He left in the generation after the famine, and unlike a lot of people, he didn't go to America; he just went to Merseyside. And so I have no idea. If he hadn't have died in a relatively avoidable industrial accident, I might not even be sitting here talking to you, because maybe I'd be digging a ditch, or loading coal onto a ship, because that's what he did. And the only reason that the occupation of musician appears in my family is because my grandfather was placed in an orphanage and from there became, joined the British Army when he was 12 as a boy soldier, as a bandsman. And that chance event seems to have derailed our family into a line of work in music. I've no way of knowing whether it would have been any different.
Had you not become a musician, presumably you wouldn't have stayed at Elizabeth Arden forever. What do you think you would have done, though, had it not worked out?
I just never had any doubt that I would do something eventually. It never occurred to me.
When you say you didn't have doubt, meaning you had confidence that it would work, or you just didn't have an alternate idea?
I never, oddly enough, it sounds really strange, but I didn't have any other ambition than just to do this. Including, I didn't imagine any of the things that happened to me because they were all, from the making of the first record to right now, just the thing that happened next.
So, do you feel fortunate in that regard?
Of course, enormously. Even though, in many ways I could have had much more conventional form of success, but I've watched friends of mine who are much better known become confined by their success and to the expectations of an audience, and not being able to outdistance their own shadow, and things like that. So, it seems like a life you'd want. The grass is always greener. I have managed to kind of stay ahead of the wolf by basically working most of the days since I was 17.
And most people would regard me as very, very fortunate, but I'm sure a lot of people that imagine I'm wealthy beyond all dreams. I'm really not. I work to maintain, to look after the people that I want to look out for, for as long as I can do that, and to do the next thing. Quite often the money that comes in to make a record funds that project, like being an independent filmmaker. It's not about, it's not about hitting some imaginary number or moving yourself to some other echelon. I've never ever thought that, I mean — I think five minutes in the late 70s, we had dreams of breaking America, or cracking America. That was the thing. But when you get there, you sense the vastness of it.
So you, I think everyone who knows your music, including me, would consider you an extraordinarily creative person. You're the kind of person that people use the phrase creative genius on.
That's really crazy.
It is crazy, but here's my question for you, really. We'll put aside the genius thing that is just a silly, quite silly argument. The creative part, I want to know: do you feel that your work is an exercise in creativity, and you carve out time and place and mood in which to be creative, or is it work for you?
I don't really think in terms of definition like a name tag, but if you actually asked me the difference, I say I was a worker of a kind. I work at what I do. And then there might be moments of inspiration that visit you unexpectedly.
Can you give an example?
Any song arriving is a mysterious sort of thing. I mean it can range from carrying around a phrase in a notebook for four years before it joins up with some other thoughts, or a line of melody that seems to bring it to life and allows you to kind of to represent something that you want to share with people. Or a song can just appear, the whole thing, the words and music. Time stops and —
Really, that's happened?
Oh yeah. It happens.
Anything on the new record that happened like that?
Not so much in these, because more of them were collaborations. So, then obviously, you're making a statement and waiting for somebody else's reply. So it's like writing away for something.
Which of these songs, though, would you say came to you most fully? And when I say fully I mean, maybe it's even just the idea or the instrumentation
Oh, well, the instrumentation, that's a different thing. The instrumentation and the orchestration of the songs was more like, were very complete to me, when the songs were finished. The minute I decided that we were going to do them as a band, then I also started to think.
You're hearing the horns even.
And I was hearing everything, the vocal and the background voices, the vocal arrangements, the string arrangements, the horn arrangements, they were all to my mind almost extensions of the composition. So as we arranged the parts, I wanted the — I wanted — the whole point of the exercise was to trust in my cohorts. We had gone out last year and looked at the songs from the album Imperial Bedroom which, the original band we played it, The Attractions — two of whom played in The Imposters — we truthfully never had the patience to play many of those songs well.
The ones that survived into our live repertoire were songs that were easily adapted to the way we more commonly played, which was more frenetic, and the other songs which were quite detailed in the studio, we didn't have the patience for the little details and nuances — nor do we have the voices. Nobody could sing in that band except me. So, we never had any vocal harmony onstage for the last 15 years or whatever it is. Davy Faragher has been in the band, his bass playing, a singer, a singing bass player. So we've had two-part harmony, but we've also started to incorporate two other singers in our live, so Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee in this case, and on some songs, Davey's elder brother Tommy.
Davey being a very good vocal arranger in his own right, although I sketched out all the parts in my demos, we would, Davey and I, would then discuss what combination of voice is best used, just the same way as I didn't arrange every song for the same configuration of instruments. There's a bassoon on one song, there's a woodwind quintet where you might have expected to hear a string quartet, you could imagine them playing the same parts on paper, but I wanted the sense of something breathing, which the wind instruments brought.
I was hearing all of that in my head and then it's just something that I've learnt over the years which is — whereas I used to, whenever I had something outside of the regular instruments of the band, I had to trust somebody to write it down. Sometimes, it would get a little changed, or something would get lost in the translation, and in the early nineties, I learned how to write music down.
You didn't learn until then? I mean you grew up knowing what music was, reading it ?
But I never had any need to write it down, because the songs I started out with. in some ways they would have been attenuated by writing them down. You had to feel them. But these songs — it was all the process of pairing down the arrangements to the essentials and the rhythm section. And Steve Nieve, who's been my cohort for nearly 40 years, I mean, he's a remarkable musician. I mean, he was a 19-year-old Royal College of Music student. So his education was obviously not complete there, but what he brought to the band, and then what he's developed in all of the music, not just playing with me, but his own compositions. I mean, he wrote an opera. I mean he's explored things, and piano records, where he's followed his own instincts about music. He's the kind of person who can give you lots of invention to any theme you gave him, but also you have to have some discretion about which part of what he's playing is really magical and which complements the song and which —
Is he good at accepting that from you?
I think we worked — I think there are some times when I've just been inclined to let Steve go, and when I think about it later maybe I could have been more discerning, but it was so thrilling to hear him play I didn't do that. So I'm not going to retrospectively re-edit the records. Nearly all of the credit for the production should go to Sebastian Krys. He recorded it. He was the one that made sure the order was kept to things. He got the beauty of the sound. He mixed it. My contribution to the production was really in the editorial of the music, in that I had to be the discerning voice of anything there; I'd say to Pete, "Play a simpler fill," or "give me something different there if you can." "Steve, leave this hole because there's going to be strings there and then you'll play together the next time," I mean, he couldn't know that, because I hadn't told him.
So, you don't let them play through, then edit out?
Well, in some cases we would get in and he'd start to play, and I'd say, "We maybe need to leave more of a hole there," or "Don't do that variation because it's not agreeing with what else is coming." Because we did do everything separately. Most records I've done in the past, 90 percent of them are being arranged from the voice outwards. So, I would sing on a live take and often that would be the take. So, that was a lot of pressure for the band, in that if I got something I liked, they would have to live sometimes with a flawed performance, if you couldn't fix it in some way. In this case, I didn't want to do that. I wanted everything to be — that we would agree what we were going to play and we would draw on everybody's strengths independently.
What was that experience like for you then, as a singer?
That's really like getting my dream to be Dusty of going in. If you see those old pictures of where they had the band in the studio and the vocalist in the booth, that's what it felt like. Because usually, when you're singing in the studio, you're imagining, "I'm going to add some stuff to this." And sometimes when you re-sing a song, it's because the weight of the original performance wasn't quite right. There's nothing the matter with the singing, but maybe it was too aggressive, or not aggressive enough, or not forceful enough, and then when you add those other instruments, the vocal sounds muted. In this case, I had everything to support me. It was like being on stage with an orchestra or an ensemble behind you.
I mean, I don't mean to be a shrink here. But to some degree, was it — your father died a while back?
No, the people said that when I worked with Burt Bacharach, because I wore a tuxedo, but they'd never seen my dad in a caftan. You know what I mean? It was never psychological. I'm not given to that kind of thing. I mean, I just enjoy doing it this way. But equally, when I invited Burt Bacharach to play with the band we had written about 25 songs over the last 12 years for two musical projects, one of which was based on our original album Painted From Memory.
It's quite difficult to thread a story through a group of existing songs, unless it's a biographical show about the songwriter or the artist, and therefore we ended up with another 10 or so songs written for Painted From Memory, but they were also very slow and melancholic like the original collection which, I guess, scared the producers that we were engaged with, and the show seemed to stall. And after a couple of years of no further movement, I asked Burt two years ago if he would consent to let me bring them out into the light, or the ones that I felt I could sing, because I just thought they were too good. I mean it was absolutely crazy, for good songs — in the case of the two that he leads, they were all his music and I'm only the lyricist.
One of the most amazing things to me, and wonderful things, is that Burt entered into a different kind of collaboration 25 years ago than he'd ever had, and he continued to return to that style of collaboration with me. Actually, I think uniquely, I don't think he's co-written music with anybody else but maybe Neil Diamond. So, that's pretty good company to be in. Neil, who has written tremendous songs as well. But Burt was open to a different form of collaboration, a dialogue in music. Why would he need to do that? He's Burt Bacharach. But that just shows the curiosity.
Hey, come on, you're Elvis Costello.
No, but it's not like that. It has always been the beauty of this collaboration that on the one hand, you had somebody who was open to something different, despite all the experience, despite all of his achievements. And the second thing is, you can't get anything past him because he hears everything.
What was the song you said you sent to him and he said, "Nope, it's done."
"Stripping Paper." Because that was also written with a view to being in this musical production. But I'm pretty shrewd about these things, because I've read all my musical Broadway biographies, and I know how many great songs have been in and out of shows that've been cut.
The Gershwin song you wrote that was in three shows.
"The Man I Love." Yeah, unbelievably, in three shows and I think lots of Rodgers and Hart songs went the same way. So, much better songs I'll ever write are being cut out of shows, so I make no apology for being tricky enough to make sure that the song stands up on its own, because I don't really care for songs even in opera where they go, "I'm walking up the stairs, I'm walking down the stairs, it's a lovely day today." I don't care about that stuff, I want to hear about the feelings, or something to do with the story that's unique. And obviously, these songs that we ended up with quite a few of them are about how we decode the way people look at each other.
"Don't Look Now," the second song on the record, is a woman looking at a man saying, "I see you looking at me," and trying to imagine what is contained within the gaze. She's trying to see what's contained within that man's gaze: Is it admiration? Is it appreciation? Is it lust? Is it ill intent? Another song that Burt wrote the music for, "Photographs Can Lie," the story of a daughter realizing, upon discovering her father's infidelity, he falls from a pedestal on which she's placed him. That seemed to be the way these particular songs worked out. They weren't the last 12 things that happened to me. Maybe that's something to do with — Well, obviously, it's something to do with the fact that originally they had a theatrical origin, but even contained within the two or three, four minutes of the song, I just didn't have the feeling of wanting to be selfish and them being my direct experience, rather than the things that I knew to be true, and things I'd observed, the kind of reactions people had to a discovery.
The song, "Stripping Paper," that I mentioned a moment ago, is the words of a woman who's discovered her husband's infidelity and absent-mindedly almost pulls a layer of wallpaper from the wall; and it's just peeling off, and she peels it back and behind it is a simpler pattern that is a symbol of when they had less money, and beneath that another even simpler one that may have been on the wall when they first got that apartment, and where they had drawn a pencil mark for their daughter's, to measure their daughter's height. When you describe it, it sounds a little sentimental, but when you sing it, it doesn't read as sentimental because the idea of somebody having almost, like, this book of their life and including, like, joyful erotic memories that she's wrestling with. I don't think that, that's not something that anybody is going to have any problem understanding. It's not opaque. And the lyrics are pretty to the point on this record, with the possible exception of the first song on the record, which is in itself a sequel.
Yeah, I mean I took the character Jimmy, from my song "Jimmy Standing in the Rain" which I wrote — well, it was released on a record in 2010. And Jimmy was a portrait of a vaudeville singer, or musical singer in the north of England, who was traipsing round doing this kind of — trying to sell cowboy songs to. That would be the worst time in life to try to do that. And I pictured him kind of beaten down, alcoholic, could have TB; he's got the full challenge. He finds some comfort in the arms of a woman who in the throes of passion calls out the name of another man. I mean, nothing about his life is encouraging, and he feels himself abandoned.
And then I just left him there at the end of the song and, I don't know, started thinking about what if he were discovered and kind of disinterred and brought into the realm of light entertainment in England in the 50s? It's only 20 years later. We think of these eras as totally independent, but of course they're not. Now he's on one of those shows where they used to blindfold people and make them guess people's occupation or identity, and he's put in the charge of a young woman who is the production assistant of the show, and they tell her, don't tell him your name don't let him, whatever you think, don't let him drink, because he's disreputable and he might potentially be going to hit on her when they get alone.
And when they do get alone, he is charming and he starts to ask her all about herself and about her boyfriend and about her family. And then you see how he's maybe making, a trap and she almost leans into it and she finds him — you can see he's a ruin but people are fascinated by ruins sometimes, even when they know they shouldn't be.
And then there's the line, "I can't believe this is happening to me." What is that ?
Maybe she's flattered momentarily by his attention, and in that little indecision is the risk. But I tried to make it so that I wasn't judging her or judging him even. He's obviously not right. In the last verse, it says he shuttered his eyes, that he made a very conscious effort not to look at her. And he thought of a drummer and considered a snare, because he's laid this trap before, and he may have even taken advantage of that situation before.
And he's trying to talk himself out of there?
Well, I'll leave it to the listener to decide whether — He says, "you don't get a record if you never get caught." And it's a scene. It's a scene that isn't exactly a new one. It's not made up last week. And it's been there, it's been a scene I've seen, I've witnessed. I just thought that was where we'd leave him. I don't know whether Jimmy'll ever make another appearance now. Maybe, maybe in a stripe-y suit. I don't know. Yeah, I mean that's the terrible thing about it.
Just quickly: what do you do for fun? I'm curious.
It's a family show.
I mean, plainly you read and listen to a lot of music and you have a family and so on.
That's really enough, isn't it? I like to see my friends. I keep in touch with people. Life is full and between the people that you care for and as people get older and more vulnerable in your family, you have to spend time with them because that time becomes more precious. I don't feel that I'm oppressed by anything, really. I'm curious about things. I've never really thought of myself as being cynical. I don't like when I see the word "cynical" attached to me, I think I'm very skeptical.
I think you're right to be skeptical about institutions and the things you mentioned and systems of control, but whether they're the small ones between two people or the larger ones that are governments or corporations, I just laugh at the idea that people tell you, people in my line of work shouldn't make a comment, particularly when the comments are not unsubtle slogans. I try, even in, say it's, "Under Lime," it's got three or four points of view within the song. It's written so the music opens with a strong rhythm and then becomes, as it becomes, there's more doubt in the motivation of what's being said, the music changes, and then it explodes into a more celebratory type of music which I suppose has a meaning in that the show does go on despite all of this, and often the scene in the backstage is something we draw a veil over sometime, or we used to draw a veil over.
That's the same with everything. I mean, problems that I thought would have gone away a long time ago are still there. Everybody sang that song, and it didn't change. So you've got to keep trying. Some people are in a lifelong service to a better way to live. And some people are just jesters. And I guess I'm one of them.
Well, I gather that doing this, sitting down and talking about yourself is not what you do for fun. But I very much appreciate it.
Your questions are not any pain to me to answer. I hope there's been something of worth.
Absolutely. I enjoyed it very much. Thank you.