Irish Independent, August 21, 2004

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Irish Independent

UK & Ireland newspapers


Elvis Costello

Craig McLean

Newly married after splitting from ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan, Elvis Costello has moved to the US after living in Ireland for most of the past two decades. As he prepares to celebrate his 50th birthday and the release of a new album, the singer-songwriter finally seems to be happy. But, Craig McLean soon discovers, it's perhaps best not to mention critics or ex-wives

Elvis Costello picks up a tiny guitar-like instrument from its plush case, cradles it lovingly and picks out a little melody on the vintage ukulele. "Beautiful sound," Costello murmurs to his mandolin as he coochy-coos its strings.

It's a Sunday afternoon in SoHo, New York, and Costello cuts a regal but vaguely battered figure. Less in evidence is the pinched, frowning Elvis Costello of repute. The singer-songwriter has long had a reputation as a very intense man. His ever-more-infrequent interviews hardly seemed comfortable, never mind fun, for any of the parties concerned. The sleeve of his last album, North, told you everything you needed to know: Costello, suited and booted, striding down a street in the rain, in black and white, unshaven, glowering.

But North was the sound of Costello in transition, deploying wrenching, orchestrated piano ballads to deal with what he calls "the change of heart" after he split with former Pogues bass player Cait O'Riordan and began a romance with the Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall. Now married to Krall, they are blissfully in love. As a result, this year's model Costello is more relaxed, less clenched, almost playful. It is surely no coincidence that his upcoming album, The Delivery Man, is exciting, energetic and soulful. (The same cannot be said of his other new album, Il Sogno — that'll be Italian ballet-inspired classical adaptations of Shakespeare for you.)

"I'm definitely, unashamedly happy," he says with very un-Elvis-like giddiness. His voice is precise and confident, his accent polished, occasionally lapsing into mild Scouse. "I don't see my wife enough; we work a lot. But we try to keep our separation down to a minimum. We're in contact all the time. I know where's she's at. It's the best thing..."

Today, Krall is on the other side of America, playing at Los Angeles' Greek Theatre. Her husband talks rhapsodically of writing songs with her for her latest, very successful album, The Girl in the Other Room. She had never really written before, but he assiduously plays down his role. The music, he says, was mostly hers and the lyrics largely came from things Krall had written in her journal. Costello took "the essence" of her ideas and moulded them into shape.

"The thing is, it's about trusting yourself. I really do believe that everyone can write songs. They just don't trust themselves to do it. We can do it when we're children, we can all draw and sing. And then it's either beaten out of us, scared out of us, or our own inhibition doesn't allow us to do it any more. And one of the great things about music is the freedom in it. Not rock," he says with visible distaste, "as we know it now, that commodity. But rock 'n' roll at its purest. It's about freedom."

Costello had plans for his 50th birthday, big plans. He had booked Carnegie Hall for the night in question, August 25. Although he has toured America almost every year since 1977, he had never played the legendary New York venue.

Then, New York's Lincoln Centre phoned. Did Mr Costello want to do three nights at its annual, august festival? Three different shows at which he could showcase his repertoire? "So I let the Carnegie date go," says Costello. "This was really a better opportunity."

And so on a hot summer night last month, Costello took to the stage of the Centre's Avery Fisher Hall. It was Saturday, and this was the last installment of his trio of performances that had begun with an engagement with Holland's Metropole Orkest.

That was followed by a rock show at which Costello and his three-piece band The Imposters barrelled through a two-and-a-half-hour set that roamed freely over a back catalogue numbering some 400 songs.

The lengthy set also found room for a raft of new numbers from The Delivery Man. The acoustics of the hall weren't overly kind, especially to the unfamiliar new material. But Costello, being Costello, had relished the challenge of tackling architecture. He would later reflect that, while "it was exciting-sounding, I think clarity was difficult with the new songs, for lyrics and everything."

Finally, on the Saturday night, the capstone on Costello's current career activities was lowered into place. The Brooklyn Philharmonic was performing Il Sogno, which is based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, and some of his pop classics. Costello sat in the gods and watched as the orchestra played the 63-minute piece. He seems to have woven elements of swing, jazz and Bernstein's West Side Story into more traditional sounding classical textures.

"I thought {the orchestra} did an excellent job," Costello reflects the following afternoon in his suite in the Mercer hotel. He says any success wasn't about whether the score was written down accurately — having taught himself how to write musical manuscript, he had spent 10 weeks writing 200 pages of score in pencil — but whether the musicians "can feel it".

Because he can talk about the nuts and bolts of music until the cows come home, he expounds at length, with one hand on his lightly bristled chin, a leg swung over the other, his vaguely ursine body moulded into a too-comfy hotel chair. There was the thrill of importing a "jazz drummer who does a lot of Broadway work" into the orchestra, the possibilities offered by the few bars where he had given the saxophonist the opportunity to improvise. It all sounded very impressive and thought-out. He'd clearly put the hours in.

For the second half of the previous evening's performance, he and pianist Steve Nieve hopped on stage for orchestral versions of some of his more familiar songs. The sound was chaotic and flying out of control. Costello loved it. He beamed and bowed as he received a standing ovation, exited stage left, came back for more cheers, then trotted off again, his leather coat wafting behind him.

Costello has left Ireland. Home these days is the New York apartment he shares with Krall, whom he married last December at Elton John's mansion.

For much of the 17-year duration of his marriage to Cait O'Riordan he lived in Dublin. But this departure is more than geographical. Of his two new albums, Il Sogno was originally written as a dance piece for an Italian ballet company, while The Delivery Man is a rootsy, vaguely thematic rock set recorded in the deeply Southern environment of Oxford, Mississippi. Assuming no other idea has barged its way into his big, restless brain — and by the time you've finished reading this article he's likely to have had at least one new creative notion — his next project will be a piece of musical theatre on the life of Hans Christian Andersen, commissioned to celebrate next year's bicentenary of the author's birth.

The diverse nature of these ventures leads us to the most fundamental part of Costello's leave-taking. If he were still in the Ireland of his ancestors or the England of his birth, he wouldn't be "allowed" to pursue his relentless high-art fancies. North was savaged in the UK. Following on from album-length collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter and Burt Bacharach, Costello was accused of having ideas above his station.

He's prepared, he says, for Il Sogno to receive a similar kicking, not least from classical purists.

"There will be some people who, even if it were the greatest piece of music ever written, would say it was terrible. Because they're defending a citadel against invaders. And you get it with jazz, you get it with pop music, and you get with classical music for certain."

Does he get a kick out of offending purists?

"It's not my motivation but I'm ready for it. I know that I'm going to read patronising dismissals of Il Sogno simply because I wrote it. By people who won't have heard it. I had the same thing happen with North. People dismissing it, and describing it in terms that really proved they hadn't even heard it."

"But, you know," he says, with a defiant prickle in his voice, "if North got the worst reviews of my career in England, it got the best reviews of my career in Germany. It was number one in the jazz charts in America. I'm not very with the English sensibility, I haven't been for many years. It's very distant to me and seems very small and, I don't mean this to be rude, but kind of insignificant. That's not to say the people of the country are insignificant — I have some of my closest friends there, my family lives there. But the cultural scene and its seethingness doesn't interest me."

This is Costello at 50: still criticising the critics, ever convinced of his own infallibility. He zealously pursues his own agenda, and will stoutly defend his right to take whatever musical path he pleases. The truth is, rock music was never broad enough to contain or satisfy him.

It is all about reinvention and regeneration for the angry young tyro who ditched his given name (Declan MacManus) for a deliberately provocative stage name, has had a succession of deals with different record labels, and recently transferred his business affairs to the care of Krall's high-powered management.

As far back as 1981 Costello was banging the drum for his right to experiment. The sleeve of his album of country music covers, Almost Blue, bore a warning sticker: "May produce radical reaction in narrow-minded people." The album was slated at the time but history has been kinder and the album has just been re-released and lovingly expanded.

Love seems to have chilled Costello out. When Krall phones up from LA during our conversation he comes back almost gooey. "It's an amazing thing to fall in love with somebody and find that you can write together," he murmurs. "I imagined I would just be a collaborator with her and I didn't try to become what I have become." He goes quiet for a moment; it's a rare, un-self-conscious moment for one so controlled and controlling. "So for it to have worked out the way it has, is extra."

The best evidence of the new lease of life Costello is enjoying is the vibrant, organic-sounding The Delivery Man. It's a cracking record, at times hungry and enthusiastic, at others simple and heartfelt. It's his least mannered, most unforced album in years, even as it ambitiously aims to encompass parts of a Gothic story-cycle about the character of the title, meditations on the War on Terror, and more general thoughts on the nature of violence and fear.

He considers "Bedlam" to be as vitriolic about the Dubya era as "Tramp the Dirt Down" was about Margaret Thatcher. He aims a few digs at the Jessica Lynch capture/rescue fiasco. "She's Pulling Out the Pin" is a classic piece of Costello lyrical imagery, twinning the plight of the female suicide bomber with that of the pole dancer letting down her hair.

In contrast to the beefy, beardy, dishevelled figure he was in the early 1990s, Costello's 50 years sit well on him. He's the first extant icon of the punk generation to raise his bat for a half-century and unlike his peers, he is less of a hostage to his past. He complains about Britain's tall-poppy syndrome, yet his gently declining sales, a tricksy image and a dogged eclecticism give him a creative freedom and a general leniency that isn't afforded, say, Sting.

He thinks dance culture offers the "greatest musical choice", more so than any other genre, and positively bobs with enthusiasm for The Streets's A Grand Don't Come For Free. He sees Mike Skinner as part of a continuum of storytelling English songwriters, from Ray Davies through The Specials and Madness.

Ask him how he feels about hitting 50, he says: "I never wanted to be young, it just never appealed to me that much. I always thought the adults seemed to be having all the fun. And now I am old, and I'm having lots of fun." Has he had a chance for a post-mortem on the New York shows yet? "Ah, it was what it was. There's no point in a post-mortem. It's on to the next thing."

The Delivery Man is released on September 11 on Lost Highway; Il Sogno is released on Deutsche Grammophon on September 20

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Irish Independent, August 21, 2004

Craig McLean interviews Elvis Costello ahead of the release of The Delivery Man and Il Sogno.


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