With his new album The Juliet Letters, Elvis Costello has, by some people's reckoning, reinvented himself for about the thousandth time. Naturally, that's the sort of terminology he finds foolish.
"I've been hearing that sort of talk for, I don't know, the last 10 or 15 years," he says. "It's not like that. You're just doing things. I'm too busy doing the stuff to think, 'I think I'll reinvent myself today.' What am I, Superman?"
Well, seemingly, yes, sometimes. Early in his recording career Costello became legendary for his maniacally prodigious output, issuing a brilliant album or two a year. The pace has slowed since, but the ambition is no less unbridled. Gloriously risky and satisfyingly accomplished, The Juliet Letters is a song cycle written and performed by and for string quartet and voice.
Costello collaborated with the well-regarded London ensemble the Brodsky Quartet, and they found their loosely unifying theme in a newspaper article that told of a mysterious Veronese academic who answered letters sent from around the world to the very late Juliet Capulet — a sort of romantic continental equivalent of those American folks who might take it upon themselves to answer Santa's mail.
Only one song on the album is explicitly based upon this real-life touchstone, but all lyrics take the form of missives, ranging from standard lost-love letters to hate mail to battlefield correspondence to wistful notes from beyond the grave.
Most of the album's 20 pieces of music — and its lyrics, too, surprisingly — were written in full collaboration with "the Brodskys," as Costello calls his comrades in Capulet-isms. Costello and the quartet will perform Juliet in concert at Royce Hall on March 14, along with surprises, as promised in this recent conversation.
Question: Were you surprised to find out the members of the Brodsky Quartet were coming to your shows in London after you'd been going to theirs for some time?
Answer: I was. I suppose some people in the classical world imagine all people in rock 'n' roll are barbarians. And equally we have the misconception that they're all very, very refined people, that they're probably all sons of counts or something.
And, of course, the truth is that the contrary case applies to both worlds. There are some wild animals in rock 'n' roll music and in the classical world, and there's some genuinely sensitive people — and some affectedly sensitive people — in both worlds as well.
I think a preconceived idea of people who have no knowledge of classical music whatsoever is that the string quartet is some nimsy little thing with people in powdered wigs — sort of playing in the corner in a shopping mall, the way they sometimes do to denote sophistication. Well, play those people Bartok's quartets, and tell me that it isn't as wild and abandoned as any punk music that's ever been made up — yet it's all composed, it's not accidental. You can bring both things to it.
Q: You've probably considered the fact that this album is bound to be viewed as some sort of pop/classical "crossover" ...
A: Let's hope not. I don't see it that way. I just see it as music. Perhaps because people from these worlds rarely work together, when they do it's usually either a conceited folly on the part of a rock person with no ideas or warped ideas, or even worse still, some bankrupt idea from a record company to squeeze a little bit more money out of the celebrity of a famous opera singer or pianist or conductor, playing Gershwin or singing Rodgers & Hart. And I think if people from the different worlds all exchanged their musical ideas more readily, perhaps this wouldn't be such a shock.
Q: Did collaborating on an entire album pose some obstacles for someone who's basically written alone through most of his career?
A: Maybe. But any time I felt like there might be an obstacle, I kept reminding myself how much more of a jump they were making in terms of the compositional writing process. Because although they're constantly engaged in the making of music, most of them have not composed since they were in college.
And that isn't to say that because they have no experience they don't have anything to offer. Because like any inherently musical people, they have lots of music within them, they just needed the catalyst to bring it out. And I've always had the firm conviction that everybody has at least one good tale to spin, even if it's over a couple of drinks in the bar. And in this case the impetus was there to go home one night and try and write — particularly as we had a letter form, and everybody can write a letter. Now, not everything that they wrote was brilliant, but neither was everything that I wrote brilliant. But little by little we assembled a text, and I'm sufficiently experienced to recognize a good line when I see one, and I acted as an editor.
Q: "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe" is the song that sounds the most like a classic sort of '60s pop song, but that's one of the ones you were least responsible for musically.
A: (Quartet member) Michael Thomas is, entirely. And there's the irony illustrated graphically, isn't it? I really like the song, and I think it serves the purpose — to people with conservative ears — of possibly allaying their fears that this is some impenetrable art-music thing that they can't possibly relate to, if they hear that first. I like hearing the drive in the cello where you would otherwise expect to encounter a rock 'n' roll or R&B rhythm section.
And on the other extreme, some of the music that I've composed is quite unlike anything else I've ever had occasion to write. But it's not an affectation. ...
Q: Given that you've been compared over the years to classic pop songwriters like Cole Porter, was there any process for you as a writer of letting go of certain things?
A: Well, I feel I've let go of a lot of things that are attributed to me for quite a while. I feel there's almost like a standard review of my record that gets trotted out in certain publications no matter what the content of the record is, and "wordplay" is always brought up. I fail to see where it's been for quite some time in my writing.
Not to say that I feel I have to write in totally banal and simplistic language to get the point across. But I don't think there's any tricky stuff. On reflection, some of the things I wrote way back when, I was playing with words for the sheer fun of it, and that was fine and dandy when it was happening. But I wouldn't want to keep on doing it for the rest of my life — and I haven't. Not that some people would have noticed, because I'm being constantly told that I do it.
And in this, of course, because we're trying to speak in the voices of the imagined characters of these songs, it behooves us to have them speak in real language. Sometimes they fly into flights of fantasy or fancy, but people do, don't they, in letters? Sometimes they suddenly go from the very matter-of-fact into some dark and quite poetic flight, particularly when they're speaking about their innermost feelings.
The curious thing about writing in a three- or four-way collaboration is that I was amazed how much very, very raw autobiographical stuff got into some of these songs. Once we got to know each other more, some of the things that were said in some of the darker, more intense songs, there's some very personal stuff there. Sometimes you find that you do that in a form that isn't so obviously attributable to you.
Q: Can you give an example of how the collaboration might have produced unexpected results?
A: In the song "This Offer Is Unrepeatable," which takes the form of a chain letter, Michael proposed the rhythmic figure that underpins the whole thing, and I went to the piano and improvised the top line. And when you heard the two component parts, it sounded like I was playing the top theme from a (Thelonious) Monk tune, and he was playing the rhythm figure from Bartok or something. When you put the two things together, it sounds like it came out of Guys and Dolls. But it seemed to fit perfectly well, because you've got this guy trying to sell you eternal life, so it should sound very brash and, I suppose, show-like.
Q: What form will the concert tour presentation take?
A: Because, of course, the piece is of a peculiar length in terms of a rock audience's perception of what a concert is — it's an hour and 15 minutes, and that would be on the short side for the average pop concert — we're at the moment working on a few surprise pieces that we may have in our repertoire.
They won't be integrated with The Juliet Letters — that will be played out as a piece, that's the main stuff of the concert. But should things go well and the audience want to hear something else, then we want to be able to do something with that. We don't want to just come out and do some string-quartet-type arrangement of "Alison," because what would be the point?
We want to do something where we apply the same criteria that we have on The Juliet Letters to songs by myself, by others in the quartet, or by other writers. We've got some surprises in store for the audience. But we're not gonna go for any cheap and easy applause.
Q: So the shows may include some of your older material reworked?
A: Well, a few songs, but we've deliberately chosen songs which might be a little unexpected, rather than simply your best-known songs. Because I think that would be like denying the quality of the rest of the work, to simply choose them whether or not it's really suited to being arranged. Don't hold your breath for "Pump It Up" with string quartet.
Q: As far as your other projects, it's been at least a couple of years now since you recorded an album of old rock 'n' roll songs called Kojak Variety. Do you think that might actually come out someday?
A: Yeah. Really, I don't want it to arrive when I haven't done something for a while and it must arrive with a huge big roll of the drums, because all it is is a bunch of songs I like. And I think that we should have that ability that they used to have in the '60s, when I first started buying records, like Sam Cooke would do Night Mood or something and it would just be a night mood. Or Somebody Goes Latin.
It was kind of an unpretentious thing, just to do some songs in that style, and it didn't have to be dressed up to be something more. But the amount of money that's involved in the release of a record makes it impossible to do something so simple as just releasing the record. So I'm hoping that we can get that out under those circumstances, and that it won't just vanish then.
It's a great little record, the rock 'n' roll covers record. I'm really proud of it. Kind of the longer it goes on before we release it, the better. They're getting to be like old records of mine now!