In a 25-year career, Elvis Costello has won awards, topped the charts, and worked alongside music legends like Paul McCartney, Roy Orbison and Burt Bacharach.
Ahead of a date at the Royal Concert Hall on Thursday he spoke about the latest album, his distaste for critics — and the opera he's putting together about Hans Christian Anderson.
The Delivery Man album seems to be half love songs and half angry, political songs. Is that how you conceived it?
I started writing it in 1999. For various different reasons that are too tedious to go into I put it to one side and I ended up working on quite a number of records before I returned to it.
It's not to say that I didn't like the idea. It's just that the timing wasn't right and I had commitments to other things. When I returned to Delivery Man enough time had gone by and all the other songs came in a rush and I suddenly realised not only did I have urgent songs to accompany the ballad songs that I had already written but I had these other things.
So I didn't have a pre-conceived plan. I allowed the actual development of the music to come through as we were in the studio but as a picture emerged we arrived at that presentation of the material. I'm pretty satisfied with that.
What factors influence the genre of album you make?
I don't really plan it in advance. Something just presents itself to me.
You often reinvent your own songs. When you first write a song and record it, do you regard that version as just a starting point in that song's life?
I don't really think about it as analytically as that. I think it is just a matter of process. You are in a different frame of mind from the moment that you wrote it, you revisit it like you would anything that is to be reinterpreted.
I don't really think of it in terms of reinvention. I don't really play my songs in bizarre, different arrangements all that often.
The other night we were playing in Rome. I had been a little sick and when we were on stage, I was a little heady. I think I was a bit delirious. We had previously played almost recital concerts with just a piano for this promoter before and they had put us in a concert hall.
It was quite a ritzy concert hall and we turned up with the Imposters and I think they were quite taken aback. We were mindful of the fact that the acoustics would not really suit rock 'n' roll so we were playing on the more controlled end of our repertoire. We weren't trying to prove any point but we were playing quite a lot of rock 'n' roll tunes. I was teasing people down the front, saying, 'You know you can get up and dance if you want to'.
As often happens in these fancy halls, they were a bit embarrassed. I said, '(eff) this, if you are all going to sit down then I am going to sit down too'. I just sat on the edge of the stage and sang two ballads. I brought the microphone down; I had no monitors or anything. I just sat there with my legs dangling over and the next thing I had all these people around me.
It was like I was telling them a story. I finished the song and this girl reached up and kissed my hand so I figured I must have been doing something right.
Pete said to me afterwards, 'Don't you try that in England. You try that in England, they will stone you to death.' I wouldn't be trying it because I just did it off the top off my head. I won't do that again probably but it seemed like the right idea at the time.
Do you think that rock 'n' roll is more of a force for conservatism than it is for radical ideas these days?
In the wrong hands it is but in our concerts we have grown men weeping and women throwing roses so it is a completely different thing. It depends on how you handle it.
What exactly is the Hans Christian Andersen project you are working on?
Well, it has this word opera attached to it because the commission to write it came from the Danish opera.
Of course, the minute opera is mentioned it's like a big, fat woman with a Viking helmet. Everyone sees that image and thinks that it has to sound like Puccini.
What I am actually doing is telling a story about Andersen. I didn't want to set one of the tales because that has been done. There are a lot of interesting things about him and the people he knew. That's pretty much all I can say about it right now. I'm right in the process of writing it.
It is not going to be written for an orchestra and it is not going to be like opera... I'm singing two of the roles in the initial production so it won't be like formal opera.
Do you think there is a mistrust of the word artist and those who call themselves artists?
Perhaps in this country, yeah. They are not as neurotic about it in Europe. You only have to look at the much greater effect that some of the things that I have done outside of the straight rock 'n' roll definition of who I am and what I should be doing.
It's mainly a creation of male British music journalists. It's not actually the audiences who have this view. I have successfully performed in all sorts of different configurations from The Attractions or latterly The Imposters to performing with Steve Nieve, which is sometimes like a recital and other times as explosive as a rock 'n' roll show, and also with the Brodsky Quartet and with Burt Bacharach.
An audience has been there for all of those concerts so whatever opinions have been expressed when I have done something different, like the Juliet Letters, however strident the criticism, I haven't found that to be a problem.
I have just been speaking to a Brazilian journalist and obviously they read the Northern Hemisphere papers and the thing he said to me was that England stood alone in its misunderstanding of North. It was praised everywhere except England. He asked why that was.
It's because England doesn't have any culture. That's one of the reasons. If your ears are tuned to Pop Idol all the time then you can't hear anything. You are not going to be able to hear subtlety and quiet singing if you are used to these people shrieking at you like bad karaoke singers.
Is it fair to say you aren't a fan of the British music journalist?
The people who are doing the sneering never created anything. It's easier to do that than actually think about the content.
There is far too much putting things in a hierarchy than actually getting inside them. This is abdicating the responsibility of being a critic in the true sense.
The only reason for critics to exist at all is to stand between the indulgences, which obviously do exist in performers and artists, and the audience who pay for it. It's not as though the audience can't make their own mind up.
However, there is such a huge volume of stuff coming out that they do want somebody to interpret it for them. Critics must not abdicate their true responsibility and just make facile remarks about what they perceive at first glance and not actually get inside it.