When Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet released The Juliet Letters in 1993, fans could not decide which one was selling out.
Critically acclaimed, but commercially unsuccessful, the collaboration was one of the first between a leading rock star and an esteemed classical group. Since then, the album has been recorded in its entirety by other artists, songs have been covered by Bjork and Norma Waterson, and the music has been used in dramatic and dance productions.
Now, the artists have reunited for a new tour, playing tracks from the album, new arrangements of classic Costello songs, and fresh material. Elvis Costello spoke exclusively to N2's Liam Sloan.
How did you start collaborating with the Brodsky Quartet in the early 1990s?
I was in the audience for a lot of the quartet’s classical concerts in the very late ’80s and early ’90s, especially a remarkable season when they played all of the Shostakovich quartets in just a few evenings. Following one of those concerts, we were introduced backstage.
What circumstances led to your meeting and playing together?
Natural curiosity in all parties. We wanted to know what would happen if we wrote and played together. We had nothing to prove and nothing to lose. Some people acted like the Barbarians were at the gates, but that all seems rather silly now.
Was your original collaboration a bigger culture shock for you or the quartet?
Like many people, I thought that classical musicians couldn’t possibly have the time to consider rock and roll or the football results or eating fruit cake. I quickly found that we shared an interest in at least two of these pursuits. I can’t stand cake.
What memories do you have of your early playing together?
We first wrote and rehearsed in a mission that had been converted to a small arts club. The first performance of The Juliet Letters must only have been to about 200 people. We didn’t even use microphones. In fact, it was such a small place that we didn’t really even have to play. We just had to think about the music and it appeared in the imagination of the audience. We were that close.
What have you learnt, musically, from the collaboration?
Listening is important. During the writing of The Juliet Letters, I learned to write down music on the page. I’d always been able to imagine all sorts of sounds, but it got embarrassing for me to stumble around on the piano and expect someone else to write it down.
Now I can orchestrate for orchestra, jazz big band, chamber group or string quartet but there are still some songs that are so simple that you don’t need to write them down. You just have to hit a guitar or a sturdy piece of wood, sing out and the musicians will quickly get the idea. Whatever the method, it helps to have the code on the page sometimes. Music still only comes to life in the moment it is played, regardless of how you communicate to your cohorts.
Eighteen years on, how do you feel about The Juliet Letters?
I’m really glad that we wrote it. We return to some of the songs in our concerts. I like the humour in a couple of tunes. Some people aren’t expecting this concert to have humour in it, they are afraid it is all going to be frightfully serious. It isn’t. I portray a couple of really twisted characters in these songs.
The piece has allowed the quartet and me to play in some very unusual locations, from the Folies Bergère in Paris, to a converted chocolate factory outside Pisa, to a brickworks in Sicily to the great city of Toledo and now, Basingstoke, places I would never visited with a rock and roll band.
Tell me about some of the new musical arrangements for this tour.
The songs come from the beginning of my career to the present day. Well-known songs like "Shipbuilding" and "Accidents Will Happen" but also the original version of a more recent R&B song, "Either Side of the Same Town," before I collaborated on it with the songwriter Jerry Ragavoy. There are two versions of that song, and this is the first draft.
Another new arrangement contains a reference to the Welsh hymn "Ar Hyd Y Nos" (sometimes called "All Through The Night") but you’ll have to come to the concert to see which song it appears in. About a third of the programme are arrangements that have been especially written for this tour. One of the numbers from The Juliet Letters is based on a real letter from a female soldier in the first Gulf War. It ends with violins imitating air-raid sirens. I picked up that sound for the opening of a new arrangement of a very rhythmic song called "Bedlam," which is set first in a refugee camp and then in the Green Zone, where soldiers are waiting to go out on patrol. It is a song about insanity, in which people have to make decisions. It is a challenge to use all the sounds of the quartet and an acoustic guitar to paint this picture. It isn't a pretty picture.
The song is followed by a new adaptation of "Shipbuilding," because the story it tells keeps being repeated.
What did you listen to growing up, and how much do you still listen to today?
My first musical experiences were listening to my parents’ records – Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. I still love all of those artists today and our two-year-old twin boys are just discovering the wonders of Nat Cole right now. "Hit That Jive Jack" is more popular than "Old McDonald's Farm" around here.
My father [Ross MacManus] sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra, so I’d sometimes go to a radio broadcast with him or to the Hammersmith Palais on a Saturday afternoon and watch the competition dancers rehearse. That was an other unusual experience to have as a young boy. It made it seem special and attainable at the same time.
If you’ll forgive me, you’re gradually growing into one of music’s elder statesmen. How does that role suit you?
I have no interest in being a statesman, elder or otherwise. I’ve just followed my instincts from one experience to another. People ask my opinion about things sometimes and sometimes I tell them what I think. Most of the time, I make things up like I’m busy walking my pet iguana, so I don’t have to answer the question.
You’ve no idea how many stupid things I’ve been asked to contribute to in the last 30 years. Sometimes I just say yes, just to see how bad things can get. For heaven’s sake, someone asked me to write my autobiography when I was 24 years old. That’s when I realise that publishing was no better than the record industry. It contains one or two decent men and women, and a whole trough full of gangsters and parasites.
I enjoy my job, which is writing songs and playing shows. I get to record songs, to ‘act’ and be on television sometimes, but that's just a lark.
Do you find it more or less difficult to innovate than when you started? What drives you to innovate rather than plough familiar musical furrows?
It is kind of you to use those words, but I don’t think in terms of innovation. I think in terms of words and music. Sometimes one leads the way, sometimes the other. Sometimes a song arrives all at once, like this song I wrote on a train the other day, "You Hung The Moon." It’s about a family trying to contact a shell-shocked young man who may have been shot as a coward. They are using a glass and a table and the advice of a charlatan. They did that kind of thing back then.
Times have always been tough. We have it easy.
I think we all should plough fields. We may soon need some carrots. Nobody else is going to plant them.