As a musician and recording artist for more than 30 years, Elvis Costello has participated in his share of interviews. Now he's on the other side as host of a new weekly talk show infused with music, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With ..., which starts Wednesday on the Sundance Channel.
Each week he'll sit with musicians like Jenny Lewis, Jakob Dylan, Norah Jones, the Police, Rufus Wainwright, James Taylor, Tony Bennett, Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, John Mellencamp and Renee Fleming — all in the first season.
Also sitting in will be a couple of celebrated non-musicians — former President Bill Clinton on Dec. 17 and artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel, who pops up during a session with Lou Reed on Dec. 10. The 13-episode first season, produced for an international audience, was taped in New York this year.
Costello, an erudite observer of music who has written authoritatively in his own liner notes and in several articles for Vanity Fair, says he got the notion he could interview others when he sat in for an ailing David Letterman a few years back. Even so, he said he didn't have Letterman or any other particular host in mind as he created his own show.
"Because the show is going to be seen in several countries," he says, "if you said Dick Cavett, then they might not know who you were talking about in Australia. So I think it's better to be yourself."
Asking questions comes naturally to him, he said in a session at a recent TV critics' press tour in July. "I've been curious about the things that make people motivated to make music throughout their life," he says.
The concentration on the art of songwriting, music and influences already sets Spectacle apart from other interview shows that pay more attention to who John Mayer is dating and to Amy Winehouse's rap sheet.
Indeed, Costello says, "it's not a show about trying to uncover a dark secret that somebody's got hidden; rather, their opportunity to talk about some things that they don't get to talk about in the regular showbiz interview."
What's more, Costello and a stellar band introduce each hourlong episode with a rendition of a song connected with the guest. He and the guest often collaborate on a closing number.
Perhaps because Elton John is also one of the producers of the show, Costello lets John, as a guest, almost lecture him about music that has influenced both of them, from Laura Nyro to David Ackles.
"The fact that he came and really spoke for most of the time on the stage about other people's music was a visible surprise," Costello says. "What really is within him is his love of music."
It's the same when Costello talks with Tony Bennett, though the names that are dropped are not as obscure.
"To be able to talk to him about Johnny Mercer and great songwriters like that was a wonderful opportunity," Costello says. "And the fact that he could then get up and sing a song that Johnny Mercer wrote, and do it so beautifully ..."
Part of Costello's interview style is letting his guests speak.
"Lou [Reed] came with the intention of speaking with generosity about people that matter to him, like Little Jimmy Scott and Doc Pomus — people who have been influential upon his life," he says. "Elton came to celebrate David Ackles and Laura Nyro and Leon Russell. Tony Bennett, of course, can talk about friendships with Johnny Mercer and Fred Astaire, and how incredible is that? So sometimes it's just a question of shutting up and letting them speak."
Why get a former president as guest?
"I think it's very interesting for us to have some people who are not performers," Costello says of Clinton. "I mean, people would speculate that the president would be playing the saxophone, but there's more to it really in the way in which music has run through his life as a thread. Frankly, I'm sure he was relieved to be speaking for a couple of hours mainly about music and the place it's had in his life rather than arguing about some political point."
Costello also is able to draw out personalities who have been notoriously difficult to interview, such as Reed.
"I think the problem is that people tend to ask the same questions over and over, and they reiterate information that we actually know, and they want him to relive his career in stages," Costello says.
"And perhaps Lou Reed's reticence in some interviews is completely justified because the questions have just simply been provocative. They never assumed that he has this passion for other musicians. And given the opportunity to speak about them, he actually told a joke during the taping, which even took me by surprise."