Interview magazine, May 2002

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Music's master craftsman shares his
songwriting secrets

Dimitri Ehrlich

Dimitri Ehrlich: In addition to your new album, When I Was Cruel (Island Records), you recently did a short tour for the Concerts for a Landmine Free World in Europe, you're currently the artist in residence at UCLA Live, you're collaborating with the playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute, as well as with Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra for your first full orchestral score, and you're hitting the road for a big tour.

Elvis Costello: Yeah. I gotta lie down now.

DE: [laughs] And take a nap.

EC: You're making me tired just saying it. I was fine until you started to list it. I've never thought about it like that.

DE: And, coolest of all, you're appearing in an episode of The Simpsons.

EC: That's a pretty good hit, isn't it, that one.

DE: It's the best. Have you found that as the creative floodgates open in your professional life that you're also becoming more creative in dealing with your personal life?

EC: What personal life? [both laugh] You know where my wife is at the moment? In Brazil, sailing down the Amazon. She went there to get away from me. No, she went there because she wanted to see it, and I knew I'd be working like crazy for a couple of weeks. So that's an indication — I don't get to go on the big adventure because I couldn't fit that in. But I never was very good at anaconda wrestling, anyway.

DE: [laughs] Right. I'd like to ask you about some of the lyrics on the new record. In the song "...Dust" you say, "Now there's a name for you but it's stuck in my throat," and it reminded me of something I read that Bob Dylan said once about how every mean line he ever wrote was really about himself.

EC: I absolutely agree with that. You have to be prepared to address them all to yourself if you're going to have the temerity to address them to anybody else, you know?

DE: One of my favorite "dis" lines is in "Episode of Blonde": "Though she had the attention span of warm cellophane / her lovers fell like skittles in a 10-pin bowling lane." That can't be about you, obviously.

EC: No. But there's a real surfeit of blondeness in the world, isn't there? And I don't have anyone particular in mind so much as the cult of blondeness. And it isn't even the color anymore. It's more of a frame of mind. There is something kind of absurd about people who live in such a comfortable, cushioned, spoiled society tattooing themselves and piercing themselves to make them appear tribal. We're trying to act like we're some sort of tribe that's been discovered in the mall.

DE: [laughs] In "Alibi" you say, "I love you just as much as I hate your guts." It's one of the lines that just pops out of the album, maybe because you encapsulate such a common emotion, but you do it so quickly.

EC: Well, it's not so much addressed at one person. I was brought up Catholic, so I have this terrible tendency to forgive people, you know. A lot of those Catholic ideas are very sound. It's repressing the women and homosexuals part of it I'm not so hot on. But the forgiving everybody and loving everybody bit I'm quite keen about. But the song we're speaking about contains all these excuses — alibi's another word for excuses — and what I'm saying is, I do really want to love my neighbor, but then I also want to hate them sometimes. Also, like anybody vain and stupid — in other words a human — I love myself too much and also loathe myself in equal measure.

DE: Do you consider music religious?

EC: Well, I had this extraordinary experience last year when I was visiting Ethiopia. On Easter Saturday we spent six hours in church, listening to this phenomenal, what I can only describe as a blues Mass, because that's what it sounded like to my untutored ear. It was in this stone-cut church which they cut into the side of a mountain. Nobody knows how it was made. And there were people there who had been fasting literally 40 days. And there were these graves, which have long since been emptied of the first inhabitants, so now there are just these apertures in the floor of the church and people are sleeping in them, so that at midnight they can rise up like Jesus.

DE: Wow. That's church.

EC: That's church. It was the most hypnotic, most beautiful religious musical experience I've had since when I was about nine, when I used to sing the Latin Mass for three hours. And there's nothing like that in the modern Western world. Ethiopians are living very poor, very difficult lives, but in one essential way, there's a connection between the rhythm of this enormously arduous life with all its deprivations and privations, and this kind of belief and this kind of expression, and the mystery of it. Which is certainly lost from most ceremonial music. It's amazing to think we're only 200 years away from nearly all music being ceremonial.

DE: Pop music is so ubiquitous, it's easy to forget it was once considered a radical idea.

EC: Remember, Beethoven was thought of as being some dangerous radical for proposing personal expression outside the realm of music for the great glory of a king or God. And we're only 500 years away from there being debate in the most senior authority in the world about whether there should be harmony in music.

DE: And astonishingly, only one year ago in Afghanistan pop music was illegal.

EC: Yeah, and that's a very kind of crude version, as brutal as it is, of the enormity of this idea that music should only serve religion.

DE: Because pop music serves an audience, I'm wondering how much your listeners' expectations affect you. Are you able to create without worrying about the result?

EC: I care what people think once the thing is created. But as I'm trying to write, usually it comes to me in a very odd way. Most of the time, it comes quite quickly; or if I write part of a song, and then ages later I write the rest of it, I certainly haven't been thinking all the time, Well, how is this gonna sit with those people out there? That might be one small percentage that is the show biz bit of your brain that kicks in from time to time. Bear in mind that I'm not this pure folk artist; I'm not this pure anything artist. There's a favorite film of mine that has a character who's a clerk in an office, and he gives it all up to go and be a modern artist. It's like a satire of England's middle-class modern art in the '50s. He becomes a very celebrated artist, and at the end of it he's asked how he creates his paints, and he says, "In a bucket with a big stick." It's such a brilliant line, because it's the way I feel about what I do. How do I write these songs? In a bucket with a big stick.


Interview magazine, May 2002

Dimitri Ehrlich interviews Elvis Costello.


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