In the basement room of a house in Vancouver there's a jukebox and an upright piano. A little Kay guitar stands propped against a wall. Above it, an Elliott Landy photograph of The Band's Rick Danko is staring straight at Elvis Costello. "It's my good luck charm" he tells MOJO.
Costello was on a UK tour with the Imposters when the pandemic cut it short and he had to fly home. Covid-19 also put on hold a musical he was working on, an adaptation of Budd Schulberg's A Face In The Crowd. He says he's just got off the phone with his mum, who turned 93 the othe day, and he's sad that he couldn't have been there with her. But he's not complaining, he emphasises. He's grateful to be in Canada, where things are relatively safe and sane. He speaks daily to friends "who are in places that are much more challenging, trying to talk them down from the ceiling." And an upside, he says, is "the day-to-day time that I wouldn't have had with Diana [Krall, his wife, the jazz singer]" and their 13-year-old twin sons.
When the lockdown began, the family holed up for a while in a cabin on Vancouver Island. He'd take daily walks along a wild trail that led to rocks and ancient trees "that look like the stuff of fables". It's where Diana took a photograph (see previous page) of Elvis looking wholly off-duty: hatless, out-of-uniform, windblown hair and salt-and-pepper beard. "Of the many things there were shortages of, it seems razor blades were some of them," he says. Back in the city now, "my only trips are to the store to get supplies."
But mostly he's been busy working. Really busy. "It's obvious that not everybody fares well with isolation," he says, but clearly he's not among them: "I've written four scripts and I'm hard at work on a huge stack of songs" - a couple of them for a collaboration with Tommy McLain, the now-80-year-old Louisiana singer who did a version of Sweet Dreams that Costello covered on 1981's Almost Blue. There's another project with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the upcoming Armed Forces box set reissue he's been overseeing and for which he's writing a new set of notes (see p48). But the pièce de résistance is a brand new album, his 31st, the 14-song Hey Clockface.
Dense and delicate, noisy, quiet, cinematic, poetic, strange and strangely beautiful, Elvis says he had no idea what his new album would be like, other than that it would be unlike the one before. Look Now (2018) featured the Imposters and a handful of songs he'd co-written with Burt Bacharach and Carole King. It won a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal, beating fellow nominees Barbra Streisand and John Legend.
The new album's contrasting styles weren't "perversity" or "hubris" on his part. "I mean there isn't one true church from which I stray, let's make that clear," he says, prickling a little. "For me every one of those things is a whole-hearted thing, not detours - other than the [2015-2017] tour I called Detour as a satire on the idea. It starts from the place of I make the record I'm making, not the record I'm not making. Because I can make the other record. Maybe," he muses, "once you make one thing one way, it frees you a little bit. It makes the surprise of noise and rhythm into something you want to jump into again. That last record, I had everything worked out. This record is the opposite."
Something else he finds freeing is “travelling to a new location where nobody knows me. The sense of adventure. “It was February 2020. You could still fly. So he got on a plane to Helsinki. “I’m not as well-known there. I’ve only been there twice in 40 years. But I found this little studio and it was the jolt I was looking for.”
Suomenlinnan Studio is tucked away in an 15th century fort built to keep the Russians out. You reach it by ferry from mainland Helsinki. “A great way to start the day,” recommends Costello. “Walk down the main drag in Helsinki, go up to the top deck to get a lungful of bracing air, then work for eight hours.”
Alone bar the engineer, Eetü Seppälä, he spent three days recording three songs. “I went there to record as much music as I could, but when you’re playing all the instruments it slows you down a little bit.” Because Costello doesn’t play drums he sang the kick part into his phone and Seppälä’s team turned it into a sample. Then Costello sang over it, playing piano or guitar. “The Helsinki Sound,” he dubbed it.
All three of the songs he recorded there have been streaming well, ahead of the release of their parent album – the bitter No Flag the longest, since June. “They are to some degree commentary rather than emotional,” says Costello. “They’re not love songs, are they, any of them? Even in the three days there were three different moods. No Flag has a degree of anger; Hetty O’Hara Confidential is kind of humorous, and We’re All Cowards Now is more melancholic.”
There was a report in a Helsinki paper saying that Costello had gone there to make a protest song. “There might be something lost in translation,” Costello says. “People want to see No Flag as a protest song, but I didn’t see it like that. You’re writing and it’s like what does it feel like when you get to the end of your tolerance? What does that place look and feel like? I guess that’s what No Flag is. But I don’t send out pamphlets telling people what my songs are about and how you should feel when you listen.”
From Helsinki, Costello flew to Paris. “I went to celebrate Steve Nieve’s birthday and him getting his passport – he’s a Frenchman now, dual citizenship.” The Attractions/Imposters keysman had booked a quartet of classical musicians into Les Studios Saint Germain for the weekend.
“Steve had transcribed the songs in chord charts” says Costello. “Classical players always tend to want a sheet of dots in front of them, but these musicians were very open-minded, cross-the borderlines.” And in the end, much of the music was organised on the hoof, with Costello singing live.
The plan was to finish the album in New York, but first there was a UK tour. It found Costello in high spirits. “It opened really spectacularly at the Liverpool Olympia,” he says. “My mother came to the show. They had her on a platform where she sat in a wheelchair. It was so emotional, because she had danced in that ballroom as a girl in the mid ‘40s after the Second World War.
“It was a beautiful way to start, and then the final show in Hammersmith…” he’s momentarily lost for words. “If that were the last time I was ever on-stage, it wouldn’t have been a bad show to end on. That tour we did in England before all tours had to stop, was, I felt, the first time that we had been heard in 10 years. “
“I felt that the audience was hearing who we actually were, not who they imagined us to be. They didn’t seem impatient, if I sometimes played piano. We got to show them things that only the American audiences had seen. We had backdrops for the whole show instead of having just a bank of lights. “I just felt,” he pauses, “as if we were all on level ground for the first time in years in the homeland. And it felt good. I really felt good on that tour.”
And then the world went into lockdown. Costello flew to Canada, and Hey Clockface was completed, like everything else post-Covid, digitally and long-distance. Two late additions, Radio Is Everything and Newspaper Pane – the first a noir poem, the second equal parts cool and urgent, almost Dylanesque – are collaborations with guitarist Bill Frisell and trumpet/flugelhorn player Michael Leonhart. Hearing the contributions of the latter, it’s hard not to be reminded of Chet Baker’s 1983 work on Costello’s Shipbuilding. Had Costello made that connection too?
“That would be a very good connection,” he says. “Chet coming in and playing on that record was to make it distinct from Robert [Wyatt]’s original [1982 single] version. I had this idea of a trumpet. I couldn’t believe we got Chet Baker and how beautifully he played. But I wasn’t thinking of echoing that however much I love it. I love the flugelhorn. It has a slightly rounder, more mellow tone.”
While some artists of his generation grumble about the process of recording in 2020 – flinging sound files around the world, with parts and mixes flying back, there’s only going to be more of it post-Covid. So Costello is minded to embrace the digital connectivity. It allows even more opportunities to collaborate and work.
“I was hooking up with Steve Nieve every Sunday morning,” he says. “We were cheating physics! We’d worked out a way we could play together on Facebook to a group of people who’d been tuning in to these 45-minute or hour improvisations, with his partner Muriel narrating and her son singing. We tried some tunes that I wouldn’t normally sing, songs that people would never hear you sing on a stage. It was a way of connecting with people because we didn’t have the prospect of doing that in person for a while.”
His partnership with Nieve has spanned five decades. How would he define their working relationship?
“It was always me and Steve,” he says . “Steve and I have a huge repertoire of piano, voice and guitar. We can literally play anything we can remember. He’s a remarkable player. He can find music in all sorts of corners. I can predict in advance what he might do to something I give him – or he can completely surprise me, and he continues to. When Steve and I play together, just the two of us, in some ways the scope of the music is much greater than when it’s the band.”
Stuck in lockdown with a jazz pianist, did Elvis find himself making music with Krall, or did they work in their own man/woman caves?
“Diana has a record that I think might even come out before mine (Krall’s This Dream Of You is due in September. Hey Clockface, November),” reports Costello. “I know it’s my wife but its been absolutely thrilling to hear her pull a record out of these beautiful performances – and the way she asked Al Schmitt [Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan], who is one of the great engineers, to mix them was something quite different. They have an immediacy and an intimacy that you sometimes don’t get on modern recordings, and some beautiful piano playing.
“So that will be going in one part of the house,” he continues, “and there’s one boy mixing in one room, and another boy has got the room set up with every kind of computer for video games, and I’m out on the back porch writing a song. This isn’t my man cave. My lads populate this part of the house most of the day – they’re just not up yet! I have a man porch. I like being in the open air. If it’s not too windy I can record out there. So it’s a busy house.”
A final question. Elvis and I last spoke five years ago, in Vancouver. He had just published his 688-page memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. If he were writing that book today, how might he see two big things that have happened since: cancer and his OBE?
“I have some things to say about those two subjects,” he says. “One, cancer. Steve rang me up an said, “Don’t even say it.’ And the only reason anybody know about it was because I overestimated my own energies: I’m so used to being able to carry on regardless, and I just went out on the road before I had my strength back to do the job. I regret announcing it – although I had to – because people that I hadn’t got around to telling personally yet got alarmed, and because other people go through so much worse. I have friends who are no longer with us. I lost a couple of good friends. I was so fortunate to avoid serious illness. There’s nothing more to say.
“The other thing” – he doesn’t spell out its letters – “I took the gong because my mum wanted me to do it. I don’t even know how you can get an Order of the British Empire when there isn’t an empire. It’s a ludicrous idea.”
Of good Irish stock, Declan MacManus/Elvis Costello’s views on the British establishment have not been warm. Oliver’s Army, Tramp The Dirt Down, Shipbuilding again, have referenced its iniquities and hypocrisies. Moreover, there was a score of sorts to settle with Buckingham Palace on behalf of jazz singer father Ross. “I wanted to see the inside of that place one time,” he says. “My dad went in the back door. I went in the front door. Playing there in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s with Joe Loss, my dad used to go in through the service entrance. Eventually they’ve got to look you in the eye.”
How did it go? “Nobody was unpleasant. I know symbolically some people don’t like the idea of it, but to me it doesn’t mean anything. I’ve been to see for myself something that’s been building up in my mind for a long time. After my moment, the military band played ‘Consider yourself at home / Consider yourself one of the family’ [from the musical Oliver!]. Somebody there” he laughs, “has a sense of humour.”