Elvis Costello and The Roots may seem like an unlikely musical pairing, but according to Costello, he and the Philadelphia hip-hop group, are cut from the same musical cloth.
"I've never really felt that we should be bound by one identity in music and they're the same way," says the legendary English rocker during a recent phone interview. "(Like myself) in everything they've done there's a journey going on, there's a curiosity. So there's perhaps more joining us together than there is separating us."
That mutual love of experimentation brought Costello and The Roots together for the collaborative album Wise Up Ghost, which was released in September. Costello is currently promoting the album on his solo U.S. tour. As part of that tour Costello will perform on Thursday, Nov. 21, at 7:30 p.m. at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Connecticut Storrs campus.
The seeds of Costello's collaboration with The Roots were planted when he appeared as a guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon where The Roots serve as the house band.
"I came in to play the Jimmy Fallon show," he recalls. "I had come to talk about the television show that I was hosting at the time, Spectacle, so I didn't have any repertoire that I really was anxious to play. We ended up playing an old song of mine that they arranged based off of a bootleg recording of the way the song was played for about five months in 1978. They'd done quite a lot of digging, and that's the mark of the way we both work, we listen into little corners of the repertoire, trying to get ideas of ways to make something new. Over the next few years I was brought on to the show a couple of more times and we had similar experiences. By the end of it, it seemed obvious that we could do a more sustained collaboration, and we just took it from there."
The resulting album is a dark and haunting musical journey that pairs Costello's lyrics and sarcasm tinged punk-rock vocals with the slick smoky grooves of The Roots, who are led by drummer Questlove. The album is not quite hip-hop and not quite rock, but whatever it is, Costello does not want to put a label on it.
"You see the working method of it in the record," he says, when asked to define its genre.
The Jorgensen Center show will feature songs from throughout Costello's career stripped down to their most basic form.
"Solo shows are inevitably the most intense because it's you and the audience and nothing else," he says. "More than in any other type of concert you might play, the lyrical content is important in a solo performance because when you don't have the distraction of a big arrangement, or the volume of a band, you're making the feeling and the meaning of a song really the key."
He adds that his solo shows are meticulously planned because he likes to establish a theme between the various songs, but he still leaves room for spontaneity.
"I always like to have a way to change things in a moment because each night is different," he says. "The audience is a different group of people everywhere you go, you can't make any bland assumptions about who they are and what they want. You have to be able to take a detour from any plan that you've made, and that way you're left with each night being the way it should be – something you can't get in a bottle. "
Costello was born Declan Patrick MacManus in London in 1954. Costello's father, Ross MacManus, was a musician and bandleader. Costello's stage name was a combination of his father's stage name, Day Costello, and Elvis Presley's first name. Costello was discovered while performing as part of London's 1970s pop rock scene. In 1977, he released his celebrated debut album My Aim Is True.
More recently, in 2003, Costello married jazz piano-vocalist Diana Krall (he had been married twice previously), and in 2006 the couple had twin sons.
Although Costello's been a very big hit in the music industry, he says he could have enjoyed greater financial success if he'd been more willing to compromise.
"I could have been astronomically more successful, but I wasn't disposed to making certain choices along the way," he says. "I've had a tremendously exciting time basically doing what the hell I want. So I can't now say, 'I should have been more successful in numerical terms,' because you can't have both."
After Wise Up Ghost came out The Roots and Costello played a show at the Brooklyn Bowl. So far that's been their only live show together, but Costello is hopeful there will be future performances with The Roots and other collaborations.
"Our show was tremendous fun and we're currently looking for the next opportunity to do another one, but given that I'm on this tour, and they have their responsibilities on the television studio, it is quite difficult to make plans. I'd be surprised if we don't do something more together, but I can't tell you what that will be right now."