Anyone familiar with the music of Elvis Costello will not be surprised to hear that for his next project he's working solely with a string quartet for an album due out in the New Year. Costello has always had a classical bent to his songwriting, and his talents as an arranger are evident in his body of work to date, but in this particular project, Elvis is but one-fifth of an equal and equitable collaboration.
The other four-fifths are the Brodsky Quartet, a group of young, dynamic, classical musicians who first caught the public eye with their bold, new recordings of Shostakovich in 1988. They began working with Costello a year ago, and the fruits of this collaboration will be heard next January when The Juliet Letters will be released by Warner. The album is a cycle of songs unified by the theme of letter-writing, and how this project came about is the subject of a new BBC documentary produced and directed by Philip King, whose Bringing It All Back Home series proved a popular success both here and abroad.
King, Costello and the quartet are currently holed up in Ardmore Studios, Co Wicklow, filming some of the songs from The Juliet Letters in a carefully-lit, minimalistic, autumnal setting. Each song is performed "to playback", meaning that Elvis and the musicians, Michael Thomas, his sister Jacqueline, Ian Belton and Paul Cassidy are effectively miming to the album track. It's more difficult than it looks, but it saves thousands in production costs that live sound to camera would cause. The finished programme will be shown on BBC sometime in the New Year, but Elvis fans and chamber music buffs won't have to wait until then to hear The Juliet Letters. Part of King's documentary will feature a live segment, filmed at the Gate Theatre in Dublin tomorrow evening, at which Costello and the Brodsky Quartet will give a complete, not-to-be-missed public performance.
While waiting to be called by the director for a final take, Costello tells me a little about the writing of The Juliet Letters.
"There's quite a variation of musical emotions in these songs — some of them are reflective, some are quite humorous, and in some the moods get rather thick," he said. "I'm looking forward to playing them use on Sunday night, because I think these songs will thrive on a good, engaged audience.
"This is a five-way collaboration all the way, although in some of the songs you can distinguish the different writing styles. For instance, in this song we're filming now, "The Letter Home," the opening section is written by Ian, while in the middle bit the words are mostly mine."
I suggest a comparison with the way Lennon and McCartney used to write songs, where you could always tell which bits were John's and which were Paul's.
"Well, it's funny you should bring that up." he replies, "because when I was writing songs with Paul for Spike, the parts people thought sounded like me were actually written by Paul. So you can never tell."
Is that because songwriters working together become influenced by each other? I ask.
"Not really," he replies. "I think they learn from each other. It's a musical education, for want of a better word."