Elvis Costello is as unpredictable as life is, and he likes it that way.
"I never plan a next move," says Costello on Tuesday a few hours before going on stage at the Tennessee Theatre. "I don't have that ambition to say 'I have to do this that way this time.' You'll be disappointed. I just find myself doing things. You just follow it through the best way you can and get the most out of it and have the most fun you can have doing it."
That goes for this day, as well. Costello hasn't done any previous interviews for his current tour. His new album, Momofuku, named for the creator of Ramen Noodles because the album came together almost instantly, was released on vinyl and digital-download only in April and on CD last week. He hadn't wanted to release it on CD, feeling CDs are a dying media form and vinyl is the way "nature intended" recorded music to be delivered.
Over a two-hour lunch at Sullivan's Saloon, Costello was a far cry from the angry young man he was once reported to be.
He jokes easily: "I have the blood pressure of an 18-year-old. Unfortunately it's an 18-year-old Labrador," he says just before ordering a salad and a baked potato.
Costello is gracious with fans wanting autographs and photos with him, seems optimistic about the future of music, talks of being happily married (to singer/pianist Diana Krall) and the father of year-old twin sons (and an adult son from a previous marriage) and how much fun he has working on a new TV show for the Sundance Channel. He also says that before recording Momofuku, he really didn't have plans to ever record again.
"I sort of got myself in the frame of mind that it wasn't any fun anymore because the business was so screwed up that it sucked out all the things I liked about it," says Costello. "That ended the minute you handed the record in. But I really like playing so I thought, 'Let's just do that.' Then I thought, 'No, that's crazy. Change the business if you don't like the way it is. Don't give up on it now.' "
The world became aware of Elvis Costello in 1977 when his album My Aim Is True marked the arrival of a literate and edgy new British singer-songwriter. He was lumped with the punk movement and later new wave, but Costello continually confounded expectations. He recorded an R&B album, a country disc, collaborated with pop master Burt Bacharach and later released music in the jazz and classical categories. Revered as one of music's greats, he has also been criticized for his eclecticism.
"People just get way too serious about everything," says Costello. "They overanalyze it and try to solve this big jigsaw puzzle and get all indignant in some of the write-ups: 'Only do what I want and everything will be allright.' Well, obviously, I'm not going to do that! I'm doing this over here and it may not be to your taste and you may not like it, but I'm doing it so I can find out about it and have those experiences. I don't want to get down to the end of my life and say 'Well, I kind of had the chance to sing with an orchestra or to play with some different musicians and do some types of things, but I was too timid to do it.'
"This juvenile idea of 'our music and their music' is ludicrous. There is no 'our music and their music.' There's just 'music.' If you don't understand it, at least have the honesty to admit you just don't or that it just isn't for you. … The biggest misconception is that you're doing it to look clever. … It isn't exactly difficult to be the cleverest person in the room in show business! I don't think I'm anywhere near the cleverest person around, but it's so overestimated. The last thing I would do is to make myself look smarter than the next person. I'm just not interested in being smart. I'm interested in feeling things."
It was the feeling that inspired Costello to record Momofuku. Costello was doing a guest spot on a new album by Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis and he enjoyed the experience so much that he decided to unite the crew from Lewis' disc with his own band, plus some friends, and record his own disc.
Costello had a song he'd written with Rosanne Cash in hand as well as a couple of tunes written with Loretta Lynn. However, the bulk of what would become Momofuku was written in the two weeks that Costello was waiting for the other musicians' schedules to allow them to record.
While Costello says he didn't intend to write confessional songs, a few of the tracks are among the most personal of his career.
"I just wrote what I was thinking about at that moment," says Costello. "Sometimes you play them and you don't have time to think about them. They're just exactly whatever you were thinking."
That includes the song "My Three Sons."
"Some people are going to be a little bit discomforted about it and think it's too sentimental," says Costello. "But they're not me. They have the idea that I have to be angry all the time or I don't perform to their idea of who I should be. But I am who I am now. It doesn't weaken you to love someone. It strengthens you. All people."
He says the song also contains some regret and fear.
"Obviously when you're older and you're a father you have to think about how long you'll be on this Earth. Those things temper the joy. It's not a universal experience, so I don't expect everybody to understand it. But for what it's worth, that's what the song is about."
Costello recently filmed four episodes of a new talk/music show, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… which will premiere on the Sundance Channel in November. The first guests are Tony Bennett, Lou Reed, Elton John (also the show's co-producer) and President Bill Clinton.
"I'm trying to get the most busy people in the world," says Costello, smiling.
The show has been filled with surprises. Clinton talked about how much music influenced him while he was growing up in Arkansas. Reed, a notoriously difficult interview, was engaging and discussed his love of R&B. John talked about obscure songwriters he loved and Bennett, unexpectedly, invited Krall, who was in the audience, on camera to perform with him on "I've Got the World On a String."
Costello says he has no idea what the future will hold, but he isn't worried.
"The last couple of years have been amazing. Considering becoming a father again and setting up a new home in another country (he generally lives in Krall's native Canada), I've done an amazing amount of work. We've been fortunate that our boys have been healthy and have traveled with us. The rest of the time I've had to travel and be away for short periods of time. But I got to go to Merlefest last year. I got to play a group of dates with an orchestra, and a summer tour of Europe with Allen Toussaint and Steve Nieve.
"I think the record business has gotten a bit overheated in the past few years. It started to resemble the blockbuster movie business - how many it's sold in the past week. Tell me how many it's sold five years from now and tell me how smart you were. Most of the people making the judgements about what to do and the way things are in the business are people who have been there five minutes and won't be there in five minutes. I've always taken this as a vocation and taken the position that I'm going to be here a long time."