Musician, February 1993

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Elvis Costello interview

Claudia Buonaiuto

Your new album, The Juliet Letters, is a collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, a classical chamber group. How did that come about?

Over the course of a couple of years I went to a lot of their concerts. It turned out that a couple of the members of the quartet had been coming to my concerts for a while. So we arranged to meet and we just got on instantly. We talked about music, really became friendly and from there talked about ideas of collaboration in very general terms.

You won a British Academy Award for your score for the TV series GBH. You slipped a couple of those motifs into The Juliet Letters.

If you look at the history of classical music, it's littered with self-pilfering. Particularly Rossini. He would set an entirely new aria to an existing tune or transpose the overture of one opera to another because he was pressed for time. Well, I wasn't pressed for time — I just thought some of this music had been used so fleetingly that it had another life and I wanted to hear it sung. Mainly by me!

You wrote words and music with the Brodskys. How did that work?

On, say, "Taking My Life In Your Hands" Jackie (Thomas) came up with that tune, and I took it away and developed it some more. That character seems to be quite fragmented, because a lot of us wrote the words. It became apparent that the person we were dealing with in that song wasn't all there. He was like some of the people who write me letters — they're very nice one minute and threaten to kill you the next. In "Swine" the character is not entirely in charge of his faculties — it's graffiti.

It's an epistolary libretto. Each of the songs is a letter.

We tried to stretch out the possibilities of what a letter could be. We started with a list of suicide notes, love letters, a child's letter. The music to "Swine" seemed to beg something a little bit more crazed. It's a bit of the "Poem on the Underground Wall." The character in it is exasperated with humanity. "Was she your mother or was she your bride?" refers to the earth. But I didn't want to make that abundantly clear, because then it would become a preachy environmental song, which it isn't — it's just a thought caught in passing.

Gee, I thought that line was a subtle way of calling the swine "motherfucker."

Ah! I think that's great. One of the great things about writing songs is that sometimes not filling in all the blanks allows that sort of imaginative misinterpretation. That's entirely valid. It's not a game where we're setting up a trap for the audience. In the notes to the record I refer to "the crafty language of the songwriter." It's craft but it's also crafty, and everybody has their own vocabulary. Somebody once told me that they had counted the number of times shoes were mentioned in my songs — and it was unbelievable! I don't have a thing about shoes, don't get me wrong, but I had a thing about the word shoes.

Was your record company at all nervous about your making such an unusual album?

It's not like they indulge me to do anything I want. I described it to (Warner Bros. President) Lenny Waronker and he said, "Well, that sounds interesting." Compared to the money they're throwing out on people like Madonna, it's nothing, it's pocket money. But nonetheless, in the relative scale of things it's a bold move and I think Warner Brothers showed great imagination in supporting this.

In all musicians and artists there is always the fear that the game is going to be up for you sooner or later — even though you think what you're doing is really good — and somebody is going to say, "What you do is now invalid and the conventional wisdom is that you shouldn't exist anymore." I had the distinct feeling that that day was imminent for quite some time, but I think that day has come and gone. I no longer feel that I have to worry about cramming all of the things that I'm interested in into one record. But this isn't a calculated thing to show off my versatility. This was just a collaboration that came by being friendly with some people who happened to be musicians from a completely different world. I mean, I don't see it any my "next step." Nothing's my next step. I think a big mistake of critical or journalistic perspective is to see everything as the next step which denies everything that went before. It's not some 12-step plan, "How to cure yourself of rock 'n' roll."

The attention to detail that is lavished on a piece written for voice and string quartet would not be even considered in most pop music, where a lot of the frequencies cover each other up. A lot of what's exciting about rock 'n' roll is because all the registers are all doubling one another and the left hand on the piano is playing something at variance with the bass. In classical music, all of these things are problems to be solved, to make them clearer. The attention to detail allows you to be more expressive, to be more vivid. And if the next week you want to run in a room and scream your head off and bash an electric guitar, that would be a different thing you're trying to say, and it would be just as right if that's the kind of song you want to sing. And in my life that day is approaching very fast!

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Musician, No. 172, February 1993

Claudia Buonaiuto interviews Elvis Costello.


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