Interview magazine, October 2004

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Elvis Costello

Elton John

He's gone from being the "angriest man in music" to one of the busiest, collaborating with bigwigs, composing orchestral pieces, and continuing to rock like it's 1977. Now, with his credibility still intact, music's most restless troubadour stops to smell the roses with the rocket man.

You've always been the sort of artist who's willing to experiment and change your tune, from your rock 'n' roll albums to your orchestral work and all your collaborations. But your new album, The Delivery Man (Lost Highway), really marks a return to the classic songwriting of records like Imperial Bedroom (1982), Blood & Chocolate (1986), and When I Was Cruel (2002). How did you go about making it?

Well, the main thing to remember when you're making a rock 'n' roll record, and have made as many as you and I have, is to take yourself out of yourself. If you start becoming analytical, it turns into another kind of music. There is an element of spontaneity you need to be able to take yourself somewhere — either a place in your own head, or a physical place like Oxford, Mississippi, which is where we recorded The Delivery Man. I knew of a great studio there called Sweet Tea, because the rhythm section in my band, the Imposters, had worked there on this fantastic Buddy Guy record which was named after it (Sweet Tea, 2001). Buddy made a lot of records in the years before he recorded at Sweet Tea that kind of stuck to a formula. But once I heard the album he did there, and how working at that studio liberated his playing, I wondered if that environment could do the same thing for me.

I was listening to that Buddy Guy record recently, and I have never heard a bass sound like the one on that album — it's just enormous. That sound comes through on The Delivery Man as well. Is there something about that studio?

Both Davey Faragher, our bassist, and our drummer, Pete Thomas, really knew the studio well, so we were able to get that ferocious bass sound when it was appropriate. It obviously wouldn't work for a ballad like "Country Darkness," but on up-tempo tracks like "Button My Lip" or "Bedlam," it's great. Being American, Davey also has a different approach to rhythm. I think my old band, the Attractions, in its prime was as good as any rock 'n' roll band that ever came out of England. Like the Who and other great English bands of the time, it was a lot of people doing their own thing. But Americans tend to work differently, really supporting each other — The Band, of course, being the prime example, where everybody's playing a part that on its own would sound like nonsense, but together sounds like music, and everything is interlocking. So Davey added a lot of color to the songs, just doing the right thing all the time.

It's such a joy to hear Lucinda Williams hoot and holler on "There's a Story in Your Voice." She really rips it up.

Lucinda famously reworks her own records and agonizes over them because she hears things in such an individual way. Her work isn't a dazzling flood of words; there's an incredible economy to her songwriting, so there's a huge amount of craft to her spontaneous side. For example, when we did the song "The Delivery Man," I said to her, "Look, you're portraying this woman Vivian [in the song] who comes around to her friend's house every day and tells a load of lies about her love life. She's actually a sad person, but she tries to make out that she's a wild woman. That's who you've got to be." She took on the character and really let loose. Emmylou Harris, who takes on the other character on "The Delivery Man" — this stoic woman who is trying to bring up her daughter in this righteous way, but is tortured all the time by her friend's intimations of Vivian's wild life — has a kind of gracious and dignified quality to her voice. So I couldn't have asked for better embodiments of the two characters.

The sound of the piano on "Country Darkness" reminds me of "Love Letters" by Ketty Lester because it's so incredibly rich, which is amazing since you recorded it using an upright, didn't you?

Yeah, we did. We were a bit worried initially that we would miss having the richness of a grand piano. But once we got settled in, we started to love that piano. It's tiny, but when it comes in, it sounds like an orchestra because it has all these mad overtones, whereas a grand would be perfectly in tune.

A lot of those great old soul songs from the 1960s were recorded using upright pianos.

They were. Things that we'd all figured were intentional were probably just them having to play around keys that were stuck. [both laugh] Somebody recently said to me that their favorite moment on The Delivery Man is when it sounds like someone has walked into the studio and started dusting the piano in the middle of the record — like someone has just bumped into it. [both laugh] Those are the kinds of things that people love about great records: There are mistakes left in, and there is character. I think an awful lot of the mystery has gone out of albums because they've become so pontifical. But it's the limitations that ultimately make the record.

With certain older records you can't even describe what it is that makes them sound so unique, whether it's the studio or the group of musicians. Those elements just had a way of working in conjunction with one another.

Everything was crushed together in a way that was so interesting. People tie themselves up in knots trying to re-create the limitations of the past. But we didn't do that. We used as many of the modern advantages of recording as we felt were appropriate. We actually recorded two of the songs, "Either Side of the Same Town" and "The Judgement," on successive takes — both first takes. Interestingly, both those songs were also originally written for other singers. "The Judgement" was written for Solomon Burke — I actually got to be in the booth with him as he sang it, which was amazing to hear. "Either Side of the Same Town" was written for Howard Tate, the great soul singer. Howard did a record called Get It While You Can (1966), one of the unsung soul records of the 1960s, and had been out of the picture for nearly 30 years. But last year he came back and made another really terrific record (Rediscovered, 2003). I met Jerry Ragavoy, Howard's producer, at one of Howard's shows, and Jerry invited me to visit them as they were finishing Rediscovered. After I heard Howard's voice in the studio, I went home and wrote "Either Side of the Same Town" in rough draft. Then Jerry made some changes to it, and we ended up making it a collaboration.

While we're on the subject of soul singers, I also hear a lot of James Carr on The Delivery Man — Carr, of course, being another underrated performer from that era.

You know, we musicians can get a bit sentimental about our songs, and can be accused of trying to elevate ourselves to the status of people in whose league other ears may not put us. But I did put an acknowledgment on this record for some people who have been important to me as a listener. One of them is Dan Penn, the great songwriter whose songs James Carr made famous. "The Dark End of the Street," which Dan Penn wrote, is almost like the missing track from this record. Another is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's guitar player, who I've met on a few occasions. He is an absolutely sweet man whose daredevil approach to the guitar is something that I wish could match. And of course, there's James Carr. I don't know whether you want to go to the place he was living in his head — he was always quite a tortured character and not a happy story. But his records are so vivid because they don't sound morbid or self-pitying; they just sound really emotional.

The Delivery Man comes out the same day as another one of your records, Il Sogno (Deutsche Grammophon), which is an orchestral piece you did based on A Midsummer Night's Dream. Was that just a coincidence, or was it planned?

I did plan to release two records this year. Inevitably, though, from a media point of view, you're going to get people playing one off against the other. It almost gets to the point where they're asking, "Which is the real you?" But, of course, they're both the real me because they both come from my imagination. I am making records for the people that want to listen. Putting out two albums on the same day was not a stunt or a trick; I've just turned 50, so it was just a great way to celebrate having arrived at an age which, at one time in my life, I would have not put such good odds on my reaching.

Earlier you mentioned collaborating, and in rock 'n" roll terms you've probably worked with more people from more areas of the music world than anyone else Paul McCartney, Butt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet, Anne Sofie von Otter, T-Bone Burnett, and the list goes on. You seem to have a real hunger for new challenges, constantly searching beyond the confines of rock 'n" roll and pop music to stretch yourself as an artist.

I have always just done things as they have appealed to me. It's not like I've had a secret list of potential collaborators where I've been checking them off — you know, "Oh, goodness! I've missed doing something with Frank Sinatra!" Of course it would have been great to hear him sing one of my songs, but the situation never presented itself. For me it's been more about taking advantage of the opportunities as they've come along. I was in the Beatles fan club when I was 9 years old and never had one thought that I would ever sit opposite Paul McCartney and write a song with him, but I got an invitation to do so. I was asked to write a song with Burt Bacharach, which led to our collaboration on Painted From Memory (1998). I was a fan of the Brodsky Quartet and Nancy Sinatra; eventually somebody noticed I was coming to a lot of their concerts, so we were introduced, became friends, and found that we had much more in common than I might have imagined. A lot of people don't let themselves do things because they're afraid of how it will make them look.

Working with artists of that caliber can be scary, too, because all the people I just mentioned are great in their own fields.

It is scary, but you can learn a lot from working with other people. Those who are critical of what I do, working with musicians in different areas and making albums like Il Sogno, just have it the wrong way around. I've been taken phenomenally seriously since the beginning of my career — sometimes too seriously — so I don't need to do anything as difficult as writing an orchestral piece to make myself look more grandiose. That idea has never occurred to me.

I know that your last album, North, was a very important record for you from a personal point of view. It is probably one of the most near-to-the-bone albums you've ever made. Were you stung by some of the criticism you got for it?

Well, I just felt a lot of the criticism was ill-informed. North grew out of a particular time in my life. Those songs were written on the back of a hugely painful, and later very joyous, transition in my life: going through a divorce, then meeting my wife (singer Diana Krall), falling in love, and eventually getting married. None of us can ever object to somebody saying that a record doesn't appeal to them. But when something that purports to be criticism is just a bunch of spiteful insults — especially when they're not even aimed at you but rather the person who is perceived to be the subject of your songs, and that person is someone you love — you're going to feel defensive about it. If you're doing something which is rare in its content like North, you have to be prepared that it's probably going to appeal to a smaller audience. I don't have any problem with that because, on another day, I can unite a broader audience with something that speaks to them more directly. But a record like North is different; it invites you into a world, and if you don't want to come in, then you don't want to come in. I understand that some people want me to make music that they recognize in the context of what I've done in the past. But what I can't tolerate is people describing an album in a dishonest fashion; that will always irritate me.

I want to talk about your background a little, because you grew up in a house very similar to mine, which embraced many kinds of music. Your mum worked in the record department at Selfridges in London — in fact, she ran the record department. And your dad, Ross McManus, was a singer and a bandleader.

I was aware of classical music and jazz from my parents' interest in it, but for nearly everybody in the 1960s it was the Beatles, it was Tina Turner, it was Burt Bacharach; and later on it was the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Band, and Joni Mitchell that got us going. I also started to appreciate everything that was happening with songwriting — what Randy Newman was doing, what David Ackles was doing, what Joni Mitchell was doing, and at the risk of sounding like we're complimenting each other in some sort of complimentary tennis match, what you were doing as well. All these kinds of music were different, but when you're a teenager and you're very passionate, you don't necessarily feel this need to box things off from one another, especially if that's not the impulse in an environment where you've grown up.

There was so much innovative music arriving in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. A lot of people were making very great, very different albums.

My dad listened to a lot of music. Even when my parents separated, my dad would come to visit me and bring records he'd been listening to. I remember one day he gave me a sack of records, and it had in it Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's United (1968), Lou Rawls's Live! (1966), Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow (1967), the first Grateful Dead album, the first Joni Mitchell album, and the first David Ackles record. That's a phenomenal amount of stuff to digest. Also bear in mind that I was living in a house where there were Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra records. A lot of my friends' parents just didn't want to hear of anything from the younger generation; but my dad had been involved in the business of pop music, albeit interpreting songs for radio fans, so he was obliged to consider the new stuff even if, underneath it all, he was a Clifford Brown fan. [laughs]

Well, at the end of the day, as a bandleader, he had to sing the new songs, and there were some great songs to sing. An awful lot of experimentation was going on with the British scene at the time.

A lot of people really took their cues from Ray Charles — people like Graham Bond, Stevie Winwood, and Georgie Fame. Georgie is not very well known in America, but when I was a kid, there was something about his being a part of the same generation as the Beatles that didn't make him seem like an old guy who was teaching you about jazz. He was the same age as the other groups that were out there; his tastes were just different. I think Georgie was the first person to introduce people of my generation to Mose Allison. He was the first person I ever heard sing "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," even before I heard James Brown sing it. A lot of musicians in the 1960s took very different paths after that. Some went into fusion music, into art-rock, into jazz, into heavier things — and they were all obviously very indebted to Ray Charles.

Ray was able to have enormous commercial success with all kinds of music, from the country-and-western records to the gospel songs and the jazz albums. The British artists in particular were picking up on the Atlantic Records stuff, songs like "Drown in My Own Tears," "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Take These Chains From My Heart," and "Hit the Road Jack."

You know, there's always a lot of talk, particularly among jazz critics, about the Great American Songbook, and they speak about it as if it must not be reinterpreted. I think we all share respect for those songwriters, but if you're genuinely saying it's the Great American Songbook, shouldn't Dan Penn be in it? Shouldn't Felice and Boudleaux Bryant be in it? Shouldn't Willie Dixon be in it? And Hank Williams? I suppose this album of mine, The Delivery Man, is my composer's version of doing the songs of that time — but focusing on the strength of that music, which is that it told stories. Some of the songs are about heartbreak, some are about looking out at the world, and some are just telling a tale. In the case of The Delivery Man, some of the songs are actually linked: There are characters that appear in one song whose stories are told in another. I've tried to make a record where the telling of the tale is done with a light touch so people don't feel like, "Oh, I've lost the thread of the story, so now I can't enjoy the record." You should be able to listen to every piece of it separately — you don't have to remember the story of the gold digger of 1933 or whatever to enjoy the song. The one thing that I wanted to do with The Delivery Man was to make a mobile record, the kind where you could set up your equipment on the back of a flatbed truck and play the songs, and the music would sound all right.

Well, there are a lot of songs on The Delivery Man that you're going to be playing for a long time, because there is such a timeless quality to them. As a songwriter, you can't really do any better than that, can you?

And once you're done, you want to do the next thing.

Elton John's next album, Peachtree Road, will be released in November.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Brant Publications, Inc.


Interview magazine, October 2004

Elton John interviews Elvis Costello.


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Photo by Jesse Dylan.
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Photo by Jesse Dylan.
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