Hailed only last week as "a rock 'n' roll icon" by US chat show king David Letterman, Elvis Costello has secured his place in the popular music pantheon as a nonpareil pop musician, wordsmith and collaborative artist.
It might seem a little strange then that Costello should decide to record an album of cover versions for his latest release.
The album, Kojak Variety, was recorded in Barbados during a two-week break on his 1991 tour. "I was going to release it when there was a breathing space after Mighty Like A Rose," says Costello. "But The Juliet Letters [his classical collaboration with The Brodsky Quartet] cropped up and then I recorded Brutal Youth which got me back together with the Attractions, and that breathing space just disappeared. Anyway, I'd waited 30 years to release covers of some of these songs, so what difference does a couple more years make?"
Costello says that the tracks were always intended for release as a collection, a break from his usual approach of sprinkling covers across B-sides and one-off singles.
"There is a consistency to the tracks," he adds. "They all have that vintage quality, and it was interesting recording them in such a short space of time, because those were the conditions under which they were originally created."
Following the European dates to support Kojak Variety, Costello will start rehearsing with the Attractions for his next album. "I'm going to cover some of the songs I've written for other people such as Johnny Cash and June Tabor," he says. "When you write for other artists they tailor songs to their own styles, so something that starts out as, say, a three-piece suit ends up as a Hawaiian shirt."
Costello's creative streak has always been unpredictable. Since the release of his first single, "Less Than Zero" on Stiff Records in 1977, he has displayed an unwillingness to be pigeonholed, coupled with an uninhibited energy to test the boundaries of his craft. His will to experiment has led him from Nashville to the Festival Hall.
Occasionally dipping his toe into TV themes and film soundtracks, Costello's collaborative powers are second to none and an indicator of his burning passion for music in all its forms. A host of artists, from Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and George Jones to Robert Wyatt, Aimee Mann, Jimmy Cliff and even Wendy James, have benefited from the Costello touch.
The 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters, may have conspired to distance him in the public imagination from the world of pop.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Classical music, both contemporary and traditional, has been yet another area of investigation for Costello.
Over the next few weeks he will prove that his creative influences and skills remain as diverse as ever, via his organisation of the week-long Meltdown festival, which takes place for a third year at London's South Bank Centre.
Previously, the festival focussed on contemporary composers George Benjamin and Louis Andriessen. The invitation to Costello was part of a conscious decision by the South Bank Centre mandarins to include artists working in more popular forms.
"The main thing we knew about Elvis was how often he came to concerts here," says South Bank Centre music director David Sefton. "The idea of Meltdown is that it melts down all the art forms via the experience of a composer, and we didn't realise how diverse this event would be until we started working with him."
Although Costello has been engaged in full promotional duties for Kojak Variety, he has remained at the core of decision-making on Meltdown. "I'm very much involved in the nuts and bolts of putting it together," he says. "It seems like a good opportunity to put together an interesting mixture of musicians in a variety of settings."
Costello himself will feature in a number of the Meltdown concerts, including singing alongside Deborah Harry with the Jazz Passengers and in collaboration with Attractions keyboard-player Steve Nieve, New York producer/guitarist Bill Frisell and the Fairfield Four. He will also play a selection of covers and new songs with The Brodsky Quartet and take part in the grand finale alongside Jeff Buckley and UK singer June Tabor.
The event will also provide an opportunity to see artists like Ireland's Anuna, Pakistan's The Sabri Brothers and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as an appearance by reclusive US eccentric Moondog.
"In fact he took very little persuading, and we got nearly everybody we wanted," says Costello.
Kojak Variety is out on Warner Brothers now; Meltdown 1995 — Elvis Costello On The South Bank is from June 23 to July 1.