Elvis Costello is speaking like a man who has just become a father for the first time, as he approaches 40. He's so excited about his latest musical creation that he claims he has no desire to talk about anything else. One almost expects him to whip out a set of instamatic snaps of the manuscript and start flashing them — even over the phone.
Like a truly egalitarian parent – or a pop star far from subtly attempting to manipulate the media – he also stresses at the outset of this interview that I really should be talking to at least one of his co-creators in this project, the Brodsky Quartet, with whom he composed The Juliet Letters. This innovative and, at times, deeply moving musical collaboration will be his next album and is the subject of a Philip King documentary which receives its world premiere on Sunday on Network 2 at 7 pm.
Despite his not undeserved reputation for being "difficult," Costello is also a man who can be garrulous when it comes to praising his co-workers. The mere mention of producer/musician Philip King, with whom he previously worked on the series Bringing It All Back Home, has the London-born singer reaching for the verbal equivalent of that set of instamatic snaps.
"There was a couple of people considered, but Philip was so much more sympathetic to the project," he explains. "I really liked his concept of just filming the finished songs. Who wants to see musicians getting things wrong? I'd much rather see a well-framed, sensitively-lit visual representation of the finished product, rather than interpretive film-making in the sense that a director imposes his own imagery on the music, like you see in too many crap videos these days. That, too often, can contradict — as opposed to reinforce — the mood of the music. What Philip has done couldn't be more right."
The Juliet Letters, a group of songs inspired by the story of a Veronese professor who decided to reply to a series of letters addressed to Shakespeare's Juliet, couldn't be further removed, stylistically, from Elvis Costello's earliest work on pivotal punk era albums like My Aim Is True. Yet Costello, born Declan Patrick McManus to a family with roots in Ireland — he now lives here — has always been rock's great pluralist gleefully absorbing influences from folk through vaudeville to jazz, country, Tin Pan Alley, Tamla Motown and Memphis soul.
"Even so, there are very few examples in popular music of voice and string quartet integrated to the degree we hope we achieve with this work," he suggests. "Generally, strings are brought in by the truckload and they usually denote ‘sophistication' or ‘sweetness', as in country records. Ours is more akin to chamber, or even folk music — or to my own similar musical experiments, like going to Nashville to record Almost Blue.
Not all rock critics agree with Wire magazine's recent description of Costello's stunningly eclectic body of work as "the greatest songbook of modern times". The newly-published Rolling Stone Album Guide claims he "mangled country standards" on Almost Blue and that King Of America is "a bloated, over-reaching mess." He claims to be "unconcerned" about the possibility that a similar critical response may await The Juliet Letters.
"Why would I care about what a bunch of idiots like that might write about what I do?"
"Rolling Stone is a joke as far as I am concerned. They disqualified themselves long ago in terms of credibility, he says.
But isn't he worried that the song-cycle may get lost between two audiences — with rock snobs perhaps, dismissing it as "po-faced and pretentious" and classical music snobs mocking, maybe, a lowly rock star's attempt to write "real music"?
Dismissing the classical snobs, he says: "Those people can't create anything. All they can do is go to cocktail parties and bitch about things. And if they can't accept something that's done wholeheartedly they should go see a doctor. And any rock fan who thinks The Juliet Letters is "po-faced", having truthfully entered into the spirit of the thing, really has a problem with their own conceptions about music and art, in general."
Clearly Elvis Costello's concept of music — and art, in general — has been almost fanatically altered over the last five years, largely as a result of his ever-evolving study of classical music. Central to this process was his introduction to the Brodsky Quartet, whom he first heard play Shostakovich's chillingly apocalyptic String Quartets Nos 7, 8 and 9 in 1989.
"Two things really hit me with equal force on that night," he recalls. "One was the obvious intensity of their performance. And I think that people who find classical music a closed book to them simply miss the ‘personality' aspect — which is sometimes all there is in pop music. Shostakovich's later string quartets, on the other hand, vividly reflect the fact that he endured a form of living death during the Stalin era. And it made me realise that any perceived repression that has ever been visited on rock 'n' roll is tiny compared to the conditions under which his music was composed. Likewise, Shostakovich's string quartets also reveal any perceived rebellion in rock 'n' roll to be the foot-stomping nonsense much of it is."
What would Costello say to social commentators who might suggest that the black blues base in rock 'n' roll similarly resonates with echoes from the oppression of a people?
"That's what white sociologists say it is, but I believe that blues — and rock 'n' roll — is a lot of people having a good time because, basically, their life is shit. That's what most music is. But a composer like Shostakovich was trying to create art in conditions of such emotional and political repression that it is little wonder his works are still so powerful and potent. I'm not necessarily saying they are superior to forms of self-expression in folk or blues, but they are not the same thing. And on some intrinsic, personal level I responded to those quartets with the same excitement I'd feel on hearing a great Billie Holliday song, or Hank Williams song that also seemed to embody some sort of unspoken spirit. It really was a revelation to me."
Elvis Costello, who normally deflects attempts to read his songs as fragments of autobiography, nonetheless admits that "some of the most naked, autobiographical songs" he's ever written are contained in The Juliet Letters. "But because all five of us contribute on a compositional level, I prefer to have those elements of self-revelation juxtaposed with other people's thoughts. In that way there isn't that sense of ‘look-at-my-open-wounds', which is what I really dislike."
One of the many powerful songs on the Costello/Brodsky song-cycle, "I Thought I'd Write To Juliet," is based on a letter Elvis Costello received from a female soldier during the run-up to the Gulf War. He reveals that although, later, he "couldn't help but be moved by the letter", his initial response to her expression of despair was "serves you right for being there". Would he agree that this response probably epitomises the continuing public perception of Elvis Costello as the eternal cynic and "bug-eyed monster from planet guilt and revenge", which is how he once described himself?
"I keep fighting this notion of cynicism defining my work, and philosophy," he says. "I see myself more as a sceptic who, at least admits to a possibility of faith — whereas cynics don't. They just take a negative view of everything. I don't. But those old labels, lie the one you quote, still attach themselves to me. That comment passed by a long time ago, But the point is that when you are younger you do only know how to get at certain emotions; like rage. That's why I believe there is no way I could have written my contribution to The Juliet Letters when I was 22.
"Yet just because these songs, on the surface, seem less aggressive, people shouldn't mistake the intimate nature in the dynamic of the music for a lack of passion on my behalf. Or, indeed, a lack of rage."
Rejecting media speculation that his marriage to ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan has "mellowed" him and dismissing the concept as "a terrible cliché", Elvis Costello similarly claims that The Juliet Letters shouldn't be seen as signifying that he has "renounced" rock 'n' roll. He has already recorded some of the tracks for his next solo album, to which he will be returning after a short tour with the Brodsky Quartet to publicise The Juliet Letters.
However, true to his cutely cantankerous nature Elvis Costello concludes this — his first shot at publicising the television documentary/album — by lodging a complaint. In a manner that is irresistibly representative of his songs, he wraps a snake up in a velvet glove and softly suggests that we "didn't talk enough about The Juliet Letters". God, but one can never please these first-time fathers.