Montreal Gazette, July 30, 2011

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Osheaga 2011: Elvis Costello likes his music the old-school way

Bernard Perusse

MONTREAL - Elvis Costello makes it quite clear in conversation that he cares about albums. And yet he said he doesn’t have time to fret about the demise of the album format in a post-iTunes age.

“There’s no real commercial ambition to making records anymore – not if you’re sensible. They’re just, literally, a record of what you’ve written that people can refer to and take home,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “(But) I don’t really think any of those predictions of the demise of music as such are correct. What is changing is the business model. I’m not in that business. My livelihood is performing music and my vocation is as a musician. That’s not to say I’m above all commercial concerns. That would be nonsensical. But there isn’t time to worry about all that stuff. There’s too much to do.”

Asked about a hypothetical kid who gets curious about Costello’s music and downloads, at random, the recent One Bell Ringing, the 1978 new-wave-rocker (I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea and the gentle, country-flavoured waltz American Without Tears from 1986, Costello’s voice quickly registered a surprising enthusiasm.

“In a way, he would love the wheel show, because that’s the way we’re doing it,” Costello said. His current Revolver tour features a 12-foot wheel with 40 song titles from his catalogue, both well-known and obscure. Audience members are invited to spin the wheel and its random stops determine the set list.

Costello explained that festivals like Osheaga, at which he performs Saturday with the Imposters, don’t allow the time or space to set up the wheel. He said he also fears that people farther back in a large festival crowd would feel cut off. So Montreal will miss the spinning wheel this time around, as it did when he first tried out the concept on a 1986 tour.

So the iTunes kid, if he lives in Montreal, will have to wait, too. But Costello seemed to like his theoretical song choices. “It’s not a bad thing, if you were just starting and you were curious enough to go all over the place like that,” he said. “The thing that would be a little bit less encouraging would be if it were predictably the same four songs – all you needed to know about such and such an artist – and if they had more to offer.

“Some only have one song. I have 400,” Costello said. “Maybe they’re not all worth your time, but they’re worth somebody’s time. They were worth my time when I wrote them. I don’t know how many (of them) people need to hear. That’s for them to decide.”

Talking to Costello about songcraft is the opposite of talking to, let’s say, Brian Wilson. Even in a 25-minute phone interview, Costello waxed thoughtful about his work, offering frequent insights. He casually illustrated points by explaining the thoughts that produced lines from certain songs or by commenting on specific arrangement choices. It would be impossible to squeeze it all into 900 words or so.

He even expounded on one of his colleagues when his liner notes to Paul Simon’s recent So Beautiful or So What were raised. “It’s far and away the best record you could hear from somebody who’s got a lifetime of experience,” he said. “It’s an incredible piece of composition that’s very beautifully performed.

The sound of Simon’s album impressed Costello as well, he said. “It’s utterly different in approach from the way I record,” he said. “Maybe that’s one of the things that attracts me to it.”

A recurring theme in the interview is Costello’s affection for records that were recorded before overdubs and multi-tracking became the standard. “The red light went on and people made their choices and agreements in the moment,” he said. “That’s what’s thrilling about very old records.”

On his most recent album, National Ransom, Costello said he and producer T Bone Burnett wanted everything recorded simultaneously. “They’re not parts. They’re performances. Everybody’s in the room,” he said. “They could be 78s.”

But that doesn’t mean there’s not more to rediscover in vintage recordings as years pass, he explained. “The records I return to, like Music From Big Pink, (are ones) where you can put it on months apart and hear a different story, because it’s very rich, or a record like (Joni Mitchell’s) Blue, which you can go back to after many years of not hearing and it will still sound beautiful, but it will sound different to you because you are in a different place.

“Albums are like books,” Costello said. “You can reread something and your perspective and your insights have changed. (Similarly) the music affects you differently. That’s not to say that all the music that can achieve that effect is in the past. Plenty of records made in contemporary times have that same feeling to people – particularly if the music speaks of their own experience by somebody of their generation.”

Costello said he welcomed the idea that a young-demographic festival audience like the one expected at Osheaga is not there specifically to see him and the Imposters and, in fact, might not even know his work. They will have to be won over, he said. “We’ll be as good as we play the songs,” he said. “That’s actually better than playing to people who know you. We have to make the case for presenting the songs there and then. If we can pull it off, it means they were listening.”

His parting words suggested the group is intent on making new friends in the audience. “Nothing should sound like you’re tired of it,” he said. “Otherwise, what are you doing up there?”

Elvis Costello and the Imposters perform Saturday at 9:20 p.m. on the River Stage at the Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Jean Drapeau Park. The festival runs through Sunday. For complete details, go to

Tags: One Bell Ringing(I Don't Want To Go To) ChelseaAmerican Without TearsThe ImpostersBrian WilsonPaul SimonNational RansomT-Bone BurnettJoni Mitchell


Montreal Gazette, July 30, 2011

Bernard Perusse interviews Elvis Costello ahead of his show with The Imposters, Saturday, July 30, 2011, Osheaga Festival, Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


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