Few artists can boast as diverse a body of work as Elvis Costello, whose discography leaps from bristling rock to classic country, jazzy pop, intricate orchestral work and elsewhere.
And the title of the songwriter's 1977 debut My Aim is True certainly proved prophetic, too, as that diverse aim hast earned Costello not scorn for muddling his legacy but an increasingly vaunted reputation as one of modern rock's great minds.
"Not every record should be the same," Costello says from a Milwaukee stop on wife/jazz star Diana Krall's summer tour, with his almost-9-month-old twin sons Dexter Henry Lorcan and Frank Harlan James cooing in the background. "There are records or groups of songs where you're driven by different impulses."
On Sunday at Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Costello will pull from a broad stock of those records, performing selections from his ballet score Il Sogno and a collection of his non-classical work, joined by the Nashville Symphony. In advance of that show, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer shared the wisdom behind some of those wide-stretching impulses.
Don't look down.
"I only ever had one piece of advice from my grandfather; he died when I was very young. But he used to say, 'You can't fall, there's nothing to stop you.' Which is one of those pieces of like Irish nonsensical wisdom, you know? I've held to it pretty much my whole life. Because I think if you start convincing yourself that something is not right or you might be wrong in doing something, you'll never do anything."
Don't grow up, either.
"I'm pretty much of the conviction that everybody has a song or story of some kind. It sounds a little fanciful, but we can all draw when we're kids, we can all make up stories when we're kids, and somewhere we get it knocked, beaten, frightened, embarrassed out of ourselves. And those of us that run around on a stage in one way or another doing stuff haven't really lost that part of it. However serious it might seem and however grave or solemn or sad or tragic, even, some songs might be, there's an element of play — dressing up, because you wear different clothes to go on stage usually than you would wear in the street, and adopting guises at different times. And of course in my case, working in different areas in music with different collaborators."
Classical, pop, rock or otherwise, you need lead and supporting roles just the same.
"That's the hierarchical nature of music . . . in a rock 'n' roll band, there's a singer and a rhythm section. If the rhythm section are drawing attention to themselves in every moment away from the singer, the song's not gonna get sung, it's not gonna get told, the story's not gonna get over. (Classical work) really isn't that different, it's just the way we go about communicating is the main difference. The degree of formal training is obviously very different. But ultimately it's with the objective of telling a story, setting a mood, representing some emotional/spiritual longing that's in a song or in a piece of music. That's all."
Sometimes the song tells what it wants to say.
"Feeling is conveyed in music even when there aren't words, and sometimes words are the confirmation of those. If the composition is a really good one, the song is a good one, if you were to play it instrumentally you would get something of the sense that's intended. I think that's really true of the songs that I wrote with (Burt) Bacharach — I found myself looking for confirmation of what I took from the parts of the songs that he composed. . . . The music is proposing a lot of things to you, suggesting a lot of things even before you put words into it."
Success doesn't make creating any easier.
"It doesn't seem easy to me. I think because I've written a lot it maybe makes it seem like it must be effortless or I have millions of songs laying around or that I write all the time, none of which would be true. I don't think I've written any songs much for a couple of years, you know? I just didn't have any occasion to write them. . . . I'm not a compulsive writer, and I don't feel the need to write all the time. I only write when I'm moved to write."
Sometimes a breather and some fresh blood can cure a rut.
"I like to make a break sometimes, and I find that I get disenchanted with the verses, the lines falling on the page in the same way all the time. If I write constantly, I stay in the same flow too much. That was one of the great advantages of working with Burt Bacharach — the different structure of the music forced me out of my convenient patterns."
Follow your muse and don't worry about who's coming with you.
"Well, I think I kind of got over that one the first time I came to Nashville (to make 1981 country covers album Almost Blue). I mean, if I'd worried about that then... I didn't particularly worry about it then, I just did what I felt and I've been doing it ever since... The people that want to talk down, say what I'm doing working with orchestras, 'Will he just come to his senses and make another Armed Forces,' ignore the fact that you can't go back and make the same record again — people would rightly ridicule you for trying to do that. There is an audience for all these different adventures. They sometimes are a different shape, a different constituency, and that's the way I want it to be. I'm not trying to please all the people all the time. I'm not a megalomaniac. I'm not trying to make the biggest audience possible. I'm quite happy for there to be discreet or overlapping audiences for all these different adventures."
Times, they're always a-changin', but some things stay true.
"There's less and less records made, records of consequence made anyway. And I'm less and less interested in recording myself — I'm much more interested in performing than I am recording right now. I don't have any plans to record, because it doesn't seem to be a viable business in recording anymore. The format is changing, and it may take a couple of years to settle down. I don't subscribe to the idea that the Internet is everything. It's just something. But I do think that the event of playing music in a concert and one thing being different to the next thing is very exciting still, as it has been for hundreds and hundreds of years. And recorded music has been a brief interlude in that... I'd rather play concerts, myself. That's just the way I feel."
Even serious musicians need a little silliness.
"I recorded some new melodies for some of my older songs, and for a gag I recorded them on just a cassette player. And I didn't have a microphone so I plugged in headphones into the tape recorder, because you switch them backwards, they work as a microphone. I didn't want to be like a Luddite, so I put them on a CDR, and I put 10 of the CDRs in 10 copies of the best of record that we released in April, and hid 'em in the shops in America, just to see whether anybody bought records anymore. And as nobody's found 'em yet and it's now September, I guess nobody buys records anymore. But somewhere somebody's gonna get a little surprise one of these days... They're gonna be in Wal-Mart or somewhere, and they're gonna buy one of these records and they're gonna discover a little free gift from me. . . . There's not enough fun with the business of music. It's all very serious. The record thing for as long as it's gonna last, it needs a little mischief put back into it."