Glasgow Herald, January 24, 2020

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Elvis Costello

"I've always thought of myself as more pop than rock"

Keith Bruce

Tomorrow, a month before he embarks on a tour of the UK with his band The Imposters that visits both Glasgow and Edinburgh at the start of March, Elvis Costello is surprised to find himself among the nominees at the Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

His album Look Now, released just days into the qualifying period to be eligible for this year's prizes, way back in October 2018, is rubbing shoulders with recordings by John Legend, Barbra Streisand, Michael Buble and Andrea Bocelli in the "traditional pop" category. That the first recording he'd released for eight years was even eligible for an award had bypassed everyone involved in making it.

"It was a big surprise, especially given the company that we are keeping," Costello confesses. "I try to make good music but beyond that I don't really want to describe it, although I've always thought of myself as more pop than rock. But it is as well that it is a music contest with Barbra — because if it was arm-wrestling, she'd win!

"Seriously, though, if being nominated means that some new people discover us and the record, that is only a good thing."

Costello is not exactly a stranger to the Grammys. It was there, as a presenter of an award in 2002, that he met his wife, the jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, and over the years he has clocked up 15 nominations in a dizzying list of categories (including rock and folk) that speak of his eclectic and diverse music-making over the years. His only win came two decades ago in collaboration with Burt Bacharach on the song "I Still Have That Other Girl," but his first nomination was 20 years before that. Selecting the winner of the new artist category in the 21st awards back in 1979, the judges inexplicably went for Taste of Honey, of (only) "Boogie Oogie Oogie" fame, from a shortlist that also included The Cars, Chris Rea and Toto.

Costello's decision to play a small gig in nearby Pasadena rather than attend that beanfest turned out to be justified, but he admits that it was more because the glittering occasion "did not seem our sort of thing".

That angry young man of the post-punk New Wave scene was a different character from the more mellow musician speaking to me earlier this month from his Pacific coast home, somewhat further north, in Vancouver. He has come to his management company's office straight from the school run. The twin boys he has with Krall, Felix and Dexter, are now 13 and the daily commute has been complicated by an unusual fall of snow, a much rarer January occurrence on the west coast of Canada than it is in the east. If the boys are destined to follow their parents into a musical career, Costello says he can't tell.

"They enter and depart from musical interests so rapidly, I can't keep up," he says. But if they are learning that being a musician is a working job, that will be exactly what Costello says he learned from his big band singer father, Ross MacManus.

"I saw that it was not the same thing as being in The Beatles. All the travelling around was not obscure to me as a child, and I saw that it was about going to work, and not very glamorous, and that prepared me for my life after my brief time in the '70s and '80s as a pop star."

Costello turned 65 last year and his last tour had to be curtailed after a performance at the Edinburgh Playhouse when it became clear that he had come back to work too soon after "a procedure" to treat cancer. He now regrets not just cancelling the dates but also having to reveal he had been ill.

"It was a private matter and the last time I toured nobody knew that I'd had that surgery. The problem was that it took so much out of me. My health was secure, but my energy was not restored."

Although the Edinburgh performance had gone well, when Costello and The Imposters arrived in Newcastle for the next night's concert, he knew he couldn't continue.

Proper rest turned out to be all he needed, however. This past year he and the band were on the road a lot in North America, co-headlining a tour with Blondie — "a lot more fun than I expected" — and then with their own Just Trust tour which is now coming to Britain.

The punning name for the dates is intended to convey that the ticket buyer should have no expectations of the content of the set-list and that the band's repertoire is so large they are able to change it nightly to keep themselves interested, but it has created some false expectations. Costello's fifth album, released in 1981, was entitled Trust.

"It's not based around that album," he says firmly, although some tracks from it may feature. "It just means you have to trust us. We did a tour which featured the Imperial Bedroom album and that made some people think that was what this was, but we won't be playing the Trust album from top to bottom."

The composer of a vast back catalogue feels that would be to hog-tie his cohorts unnecessarily.

"The Imposters know so many songs and play them so well. We might decide to put a much better song into the set than one we played last night."

The recent arrival of two backing singers, Briana Lee and Kitten Kuroi, has further extended the possibilities.

"They can learn to do a song in the afternoon that we'll play that night, or I can just launch into something without rehearsal and they'll follow me."

What is not in Costello's mind is providing the audience with the hits they may know.

"If that's your reason to buy a ticket, then don't buy it. That can't be in my head when I start to do a show."

He points out that those favourites vary around the world in any case, with the harrowing epic "I Want You" his best known song in Holland, for example. Which means that, Grammy success or not, even songs from Look Now are far from guaranteed.

"Or perhaps we'll play different songs from it in February and March. We are always revising what we play."

It is a record that he is proud of nonetheless and one he hopes people will be listening to in 20 years time, like Imperial Bedroom or the Bacharach collaboration, Painted from Memory.

"It was not about spontaneous performance; it was arranged meticulously and played very carefully. Going into the studio and letting loose can work too, but I couldn't have made that album 30 years ago."

Look Now, as well as including further collaborations with Bacharach and one with Carole King, is festooned with credits for Costello arranging vocal parts, strings and horn sections. A characteristic Costello composition like "Stripping Paper," for example, is garlanded with a beautifully scored wind quartet of alto flute, alto sax, French horn and bass clarinet. Its writer says that the instrumentation was designed to match the lyric and be akin to the sound of human breathing.

Among the songs that make the setlists in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland's Costello aficionados will also be listening out for the possible inclusion of ones from another current project, a musical based on the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd that is set to open in the coming year. Costello's interest in musical theatre can be traced back to a commission from Nottingham Playhouse in the early 1990s and some of his 21st-century albums have included songs derived from stage projects that have not made it to full productions.

A Face in the Crowd, which boasted a sharp script by Budd Schulberg and was director Elia Kazan at his political best in the original film incarnation, looks to be just as pertinent a comment on American politics in our time and, although it has been gestating for the best part of five years, its time could well have come.

Its composer is both confident and pragmatic, pointing out that these things take the time they take.

"Hamilton was over ten years in development," he points out, adding that his own way with the songs is no longer the important issue. "We are now at the time when we have to hear them in the voices of the theatre artists."

Just Trust Elvis Costello and The Imposters comes to the SEC Armadillo, Glasgow, on March 5 and the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on March 10.

Tags: GlasgowEdinburghThe ImpostersBriana LeeKitten KuroiJust Trust TourLook NowJohn LegendGrammy AwardsDiana KrallBurt BacharachI Still Have That Other GirlA Taste Of HoneyTotoRoss MacManusThe BeatlesBlondie & The Beastly E.C. TourBlondieTrustImperial Bedroom & Other Chambers TourImperial BedroomI Want YouPainted From MemoryCarole KingStripping PaperA Face In The CrowdBudd SchulbergElia Kazan


The Herald, January 24, 2020

Keith Bruce interviews EC ahead of concerts with The Imposters, Thursday, March 5, SEC Armadillo, Glasgow, and Tuesday, March 10, Usher Hall, Edinburgh.


2020-01-24 Glasgow Herald photo 01 px.jpg
Photo uncredited.

Photo by Mary McCartney.
2016-04-30 London Guardian photo 01 mc.jpg


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