Thirty years of doing the same job will give you lots of perspective. It might also bore you to death.
Elvis Costello is a rock 'n' roll legend who's never allowed the former to lead to the latter.
With his first and most-famous band, The Attractions, Costello led the '70s punk and '80s new-wave explosion with a handful of albums that deftly combined snarly rock bravado with acerbic, witty and exceptionally sophisticated lyrics. But Costello also brought his considerable skills to experiments in country, soul, jazz, classical and pop vocalese that blended wicked ambition and undeniable passion, whether they hit or missed the mark.
His concerts with the Honolulu Symphony Pops this weekend are his first-ever shows in Hawai'i. On the phone to talk about them, a witty, talkative and every-bit-the-music-geek-you'd-expect Costello, 51, spoke about My Flame Burns Blue — his new, live CD of energetic, jazzed-up new works, obscurities and reworked old favorites — and went over some history.
Good morning, Elvis.
"That's right. Good morning to you, it is, I suppose. What time is it there?"
It's 11 a.m.
"How is it there?"
Uh, it is dreary, unfortunately.
"Oh, no! I don't want to hear that. I don't want to have that mental picture in my head."
We've been having dreary weather for weeks. Is it any better where you are? You're in New York, right?
"I am in New York. It's bright and cold here so, you know, be careful what you wish for."
Well, you're still a couple of weeks away from coming here. Maybe things will work out in your favor.
(Laughs.) "Yeah. ... It's unusual isn't it ... two weeks (of rain)?"
It is, a bit. It gets rainy here in the spring, but it hasn't been this bad for a few years. Anyway, at least your concert isn't outdoors. You escorted (wife, vocalist) Diana (Krall) out here last year when she did a show with the symphony at the Waikiki Shell ... which was rained on.
"And it rained all the way through the show, yeah."
Is she returning the favor?
"I don't know whether she's going to be able to come with me. She's currently in the studio. So hopefully, uh ... I just don't know. We're still trying to plan that. We try to make, obviously, the best of our time together. We've already been to Hawai'i once this year for a short holiday at the beginning of the year. It is a wonderful place. And, of course ... if we can travel there together, even better."
Correct me if I'm wrong. You've never done a show here, have you?
"No. No. The only performing I've ever done in Hawai'i is on the beach in 1978 when we shot some sequences for a video for one of my records back then."
That was the only thing I could find in our archives.
"That's right. I don't know how it's never happened before. It seems crazy. I mean, I've been working my way around the states, you know, and I figured, well, eventually I had to get to Hawai'i."
Well, 30 years can go by in a blur.
"No, not a blur. I remember every moment."
This symphonic tour you're doing isn't a big one ... 13 shows in just 10 cities. Honolulu, I have to say, is rarely one of the lucky few cities chosen by musicians like you for tours of this size. Why did you want to include Honolulu and Maui this time around?
"This tour is unusual in its nature in that I have a record out currently called My Flame Burns Blue, which is a live album I recorded with the Metropole Orkest at the North Sea Jazz Festival two years ago. And I also have a record — that came out the same day as my last rock 'n' roll record (2004's) The Delivery Man — (of a) ballet suite that I wrote called Il Sogno. It was music I wrote for an Italian (ballet) adaptation of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'
"So combining the two things, we had invitations from a number of symphony houses to perform in which a suite from 'Il Sogno' (would) be played (with) a repertoire of (my) songs that can be played with orchestra.
"Obviously, the Honolulu Symphony is not a big band. But the ballads, at least, adopt very easily. And I have other surprises in the show that come from other records (I've done) that have orchestral accompaniment.
"It is a short tour (as far) as the number of dates because, of course, in between those days you have to rehearse. It isn't like you're turning up with a band that already knows the songs. You have to rehearse in every city. So you see 10 or 12 dates, but there are at least 24 days involved in doing that so the tour is spread ... from the end of March until the middle of May."
You sound like you were having great fun on stage on My Flame Burns Blue.
"I hope so. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it was a great night. The Metropole Orkest is a wonderful orchestra. The material wasn't all just arranged for that night. I had adapted a lot of those songs over the previous 10 years, and this was an opportunity to play all of that music in one night with a band that could really do it.
"And, I have to be honest, I didn't listen to the (sound board) tape (of the concert) immediately. I was on to other things. I was playing with The Imposters and touring the songs from The Delivery Man. So I didn't really listen to the tape for a number of months. And then when I did hear it finally, I was so shocked that we had caught so much of the music in one evening.
"Once Al Schmitt mixed it, it really came up sounding really vivid. And I'm really proud of the record. It's a lot of music (and) a lot of contrast even inside of this. But to have a group that can do all of this is quite a joy."
You write in the CD's liner notes, "This record may explain what I've been doing during the last 12 years when I haven't had an electric guitar in my hands." Take me back that far. What initially inspired you to begin exploring work with ensembles, chamber groups, jazz big bands and symphony orchestras?
"First of all, I was asked to write some music for a television drama (the British multi-part series 'G.B.H.' in 1990). And I was collaborating with a composer, Richard Harvey, who contributed the arrangement (heard on 'My Flame Is Blue') of the song 'Speak Darkly, My Angel.' That meant that I was composing themes at the piano, or on a keyboard, which somebody else had to write down because I couldn't write music down at that time.
"Although I'd written more than 200 songs — maybe 250 songs or something like that — I couldn't write music down on the page.
"Then I became friends with the Brodsky Quartet, and I wanted to work with them. And it became all the more embarrassing that I couldn't write music down, because I couldn't make my ideas clearly understood. So I got to grips with this strange mental block I'd had about notated music.
"I didn't really feel it changed me in any way as a writer. It just gave me the ability to write songs for different groupings of musicians. And then opportunities started to come my way to work with chamber groups, chamber orchestras, big bands.
"I worked with the Mingus Big Band, a jazz orchestra that plays Charles Mingus music mainly, and I was writing lyrics for Mingus compositions at (wife of the late jazz bassist) Sue Mingus' request. One of them is 'Hora Decubitis,' the opening track of My Flame Burns Blue.
" 'Speak Darkly, My Angel' was written for the Brodsky Quartet and (mezzo soprano) Anne Sofie von Otter, who I later produced. 'Put Away Forbidden Playthings' was written for some friends of mine who played the viol, which is ... an Elizabethan-era instrument.
"So some things came from collaborations with classical musicians, some came from collaborations with jazz musicians ... and, of course, some of the songs on the record are ballads that I've written over the years like 'Favorite Hour' and 'Almost Blue,' ... one of my collaborations with Burt Bacharach 'God Give Me Strength,' and one of the songs that I'd written recently for the album of piano ballads (2003's) North.
"It seemed like a pretty rich repertoire to take into this concert with the Metropole (Orkest). They are unique in being a big band with a string section. So they were able to play both the classically influenced things and also arrangements like 'Watching the Detectives' and 'Clubland' and 'Almost Ideal Eyes' and 'Episode of Blonde' ... (songs) that began with a rock 'n' roll sound augmented with horns that now have more of a big band feel."
"Almost Blue" seems tailor-made for a orchestra like Metropole, given that the song was written with the voice of Chet Baker in mind. But did you originally write any of the other early career songs on My Flame Burns Blue — like, say, "Watching the Detectives" or "Clubland" — with a jazz orchestra even a bit in mind?
No, obviously I didn't. But what I did have in mind when we made even the original record of 'Watching the Detectives' was television and film detective music. I really always loved Bernard Herrmann and Neal Hefti and ... those sort of arrangers and composers who wrote for film as well as for concert music or arrangements for big bands. So it seemed, to me, natural.
"Obviously, some people are going to be shocked with the transformation of 'Watching the Detectives' from a very sparse, tense record like the original recording to something with a swing band feel and a big band. But, I mean, when I was a kid growing up, detective shows had themes like this. And the song describes a woman looking at a detective show. So in my mind, it just became the music that was on the show, you know? (Laughs.)
"And also, you know, I think people can sometimes lose sight of a sense of mischief in music. And humor. That song has been repeated so many times I think that it's time to have some mischief with the song. So ... when the horns hit on some of those little stabs (Metropole) play, I do imagine, actually, (that a) big cartoon (balloon) should come up in the air that says, 'Biff! Bang! Pow!' like in 'Batman,' you know?"
"Detectives" does have sort of that vibe on "My Flame."
Absolutely! Absolutely, which is (influenced by) Neal Hefti. ... That's one of my favorite arrangements on the record — even though that sounds a little egotistical because I wrote it. But I've enjoyed opening up the songs to these new possibilities.
"In some cases, you give a song over to somebody else — like Sy Johnson's ('My Flame Burns Blue') arrangement of 'Clubland' — (and) he takes a lot of the things that are the original Attractions recording and he just transposes them and transcribes them for the big band.
"A song like 'Episode of Blonde' is (Metropole conductor) Vince Mendoza (adding) a whole layer of strings swirling around that sounds like a Bollywood movie. I love the fact that he had the imagination to do that.
"I had written lyrics for Billy Strayhorn's 'Blood Count,' which is a beautiful and very difficult composition, and imagined that it might be a vocal piece. And Vince brings this arrangement, which is so extraordinary. The actual writing of the arrangement — the close harmonization, which is in Strayhorn's original composition — (is) so richly orchestrated. I mean, you would be absolutely a fool not to enjoy the experience of singing these pieces.
"And I think the fact that we did (the CD) on the stage as opposed to in the studio gives it a little sort of danger and a little rough edge here and there, which I think makes it open to people rather than some very grand thing that people maybe can't find their way into."
Did you ever consider taking Metropole Orkest into the studio and re-recording these songs as opposed to releasing the live 2004 concert?
"I did at one point, after the recording of 'Il Sogno.'
"The suite from 'Il Sogno' is an added disc in this ('My Flame Burns Blue') package. But the original recording of 'Il Sogno' was ... written in two years, and in 2002, we recorded it.
"I knew that it was going to be difficult for people to accept an instrumental piece from me because I wasn't known for that, except for the music I'd written for television in England for which I'd actually won a British Academy Award. But it wasn't like something that I was celebrated for.
"I knew that people would be a little cautious about an instrumental work by me. So my original plan, actually, was to record much of the repertoire that ended up on 'My Flame Burns Blue' in the studio.
"But then what happened between the recording and release of (2002's) When I Was Cruel and the release of Il Sogno was that I wrote North. As a consequence, North really was a very different sort of thing. It was a very concentrated, very intimate, very personal record. And that, of course, was urgent to me in that it expressed something that I wanted to say right then.
"Though it did use orchestra, (North) didn't really build the bridge for listeners from the rock 'n' roll sound of When I Was Cruel to the sounds of orchestras I've used in Il Sogno. I can understand why people would not follow the thread. If you see My Flame Burns Blue as the record that lies in between, I think it's easier to understand.
"If you hear When I Was Cruel and then you hear My Flame Burns Blue — which contains 'Episode of Blonde,' but also contains 'Speak Darkly, My Angel' — you can hear the relationship between my thinking about orchestra in some of the ballads on this record. And then if you listen to Il Sogno you can hear how those ideas are worked out in the telling of the tale of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' I mean, that's if you care to do that. ...
"Some people will just say, 'Where's the chorus? Where's the hook? I know him as a singer. I don't get it.' And obviously, Il Sogno is presented to people that want to listen to instrumental music. I don't expect everybody who bought 'Pump It Up' to like this piece. That would be an idiotic conceit. But I know there are people out there who appreciate (it).
"The performances of Il Sogno that have taken place so far, I think, again, once people see something in person, they connect with it much more. I think even people that are not used to hearing an orchestra. When they come ... (and) there's an orchestra right in front of them and this music is coming at them, it can be pretty overwhelming, whatever the music is.
"Having been to Diana's concert (at the Waikiki Shell) — and obviously outdoor concerts are a little bit different, because the sound is more diffuse — we're playing in a concert hall on our visit. And I know the symphony is really good.
"I'll be working with Matt (Catingub). We'll be putting together the program the day before (the shows). We have the suite from Il Sogno ... (and) a really good program of songs. It's not exactly the same as (the tracks on) My Flame Burns Blue. It has a couple of those titles and some other songs ... some very well-known songs and a couple of surprises. I think people will get a kick out of it if they come along.
Speaking of the fan base, do you still get a lot of gripes about the fact that you'll likely never do a "My Aim Is True, Too" or "Back in the Armed Forces" — or have they just accepted that, musically, you'll just do whatever you're interested in?
"Well, I don't know how you would possibly know that. Unless you actually go around and ask people personally, how would you know what anybody is thinking?
"I think the bland assumptions that record companies and radio-station programmers make — and even sometimes people that write in the press about music — (are) because they have a limited imagination and think that everybody else does. ...
"People come up to me all the time and say all sorts of things. They'll say, 'You know, I really listened to your music when I was in college.' I'm at that age now where I have people reminiscing about some experience where the music was particularly important to them at a certain time of life.
"I have people come up to me with their children — who are now adults themselves — who were named for the song 'Alison,' and younger kids that were named for the song 'Veronica.' Obviously, music is important, if you do something like that. But it's just as likely that somebody will come up to me and say, 'I really loved that record you made with Burt Bacharach.' ...
"Obviously, the people who are rigid in their thinking and believe that I should make 'Armed Forces, Too' don't want to hear this. But I have people come up to me all the time and say, 'I love The Juliet Letters or 'I really like the record that you did with Anne Sofie von Otter.' I know it's not a hugely popular record, but I think we all knew that it wouldn't be a massive success. In terms of classical-music sales, it was a big hit.
"I've now had two Top Five jazz albums, for what it's worth. (Chuckles.) I mean, it's a crazy thing. North was a No. 1 (jazz) record. My Flame Burns Blue was only kept (out of No. 1) by Michael Bublé. Whether you measure a success by those things or not, I know that I did things heart and soul (on) all of the records that I've made. I don't make records for idle reasons.
"I see sometimes a criticism — one that's expressed more stridently in England than it is in America — that I do things to make myself look important. I think that is a conceit of journalists, really. There's so much work that goes into everything that I do. ... I'm not thinking, 'How does this make me look?' I'm thinking, 'Am I enjoying this?' (and) 'Do I really want to do it?' (Laughs.) You don't do something like My Flame Burns Blue to make yourself look clever. Or to write Il Sogno. It's too much work! It's a lot of work. You do it because you love it. And that's why I did it.
"I loved writing (Il Sogno). It was a really different experience to hear the music played back for the first time in Bologna (and) to hear it played again by the London Symphony Orchestra with Michael Tilson Thomas on the recording. (Also) to hear it performed in a concert hall by the Brooklyn Philharmonic and recently by the Sydney Symphony. And it will be just as exciting to hear the suite played by the Honolulu Symphony. I'll be sitting in the audience, because you hear a different interpretation each time. This music is there for those 50 or more musicians to bring to life.
"And that's something that people who are rigid in their thinking, that think the only sort-of authentic music is rock 'n' roll because it's sort of raw and primal ... they don't understand the raw and primal that's even in notated music.
"This is people breathing and moving their arms and using their physical being to bring a sound into the air that has been imagined by one person. Whether it's timeless or whether it's of huge value, only time will tell.
"I didn't (title) this piece, 'Symphony No. 1.' It is a series of episodes that reflect the scenes in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' so it's playful. It's comedic sometimes. I'm hopeful it's touching. There are some rhythmic surprises in it. And I'm just trying to present a piece of music that will engage people. And then for the rest of the concert I sing, which is what I'm more readily known for."
You mentioned that you've never made a decision on what to record that was half-hearted, that you've entered each project with a passion for it. Are you enjoying your work — both live and in the studio — more than you ever have?
"I'm having a ball! I mean, I tell you, you would not believe the work I've done in the last month.
"I'm here at Sirius Radio, where I've just done a radio taping of some of the songs from my next record The River In Reverse, (which) I've (been recording) with (New Orleans R&B legend) Allen Toussaint since the end of last year. In the last couple of weeks, I've played up at Levon Helm's 'Midnight Ramble,' (live sessions where) Levon is having shows in his house and inviting people up to play. Allen and I went up and played with him.
"Diana and I went to Tony Bennett's studio and recorded a track each for his 80th (birthday) celebration record. Then I went and played two nights at the Grand Ole Opry. The following Monday, I played with Allen at Joe's Pub (in New York City) for a launch of The River In Reverse. The following Saturday, I sat in with a band with Levon Helm, Jimmy Vivino and Hubert Sumlin playing Howlin' Wolf songs.
"Monday night, I played with Allen, Robbie Robertson, Buckwheat Zydeco and the Wild Magnolias closing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (induction ceremonies). And last night, I sang two Motown songs on a Motown colon cancer benefit organized by Katie Couric.
"I mean, I'm having a ball.
"That isn't my main job. These are things I get to do because, you know, I've been doing this for a while and people say, 'Give him a call. He might sing a song on this.'
"Pretty soon, I'll be on this tour with the orchestras. And as soon as that is finished, I go on the road with Allen playing with ... the Imposters, his horn section, his guitar player and Allen on piano. We're going to tour for a month and a half."
As a lifelong music fan, do you still get starstruck or a bit nervous playing with a legend like Toussaint?
"Well, I mean, yeah. I'd met Allen before in the '80s, so I did know him a little bit. But I have to say, when I was rehearsing yesterday at this big gala — and there's everybody from Tony Bennett to Sting to the Muppets on the bill and we're all singing Motown songs, and I'm there singing 'Bernadette' — and I look down at the audience and there's Smokey Robinson? Yeah! (Laughs.)
"But he could not have been nicer. And then to hear him sing and hear him rehearse, that's pretty magical."
Reach Derek Paiva at email@example.com.