Otago Daily Times, April 19, 2014

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Still the attraction

Shane Gilchrist

Elvis Costello, one of the highlights of the Queenstown Blues and Roots Festival next Saturday, confirms Shane Gilchrist's suspicions: he's a lyricist not short of a word.

Questions, questions, so many questions. Thankfully Elvis Costello is in a generous mood.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, having flown 20 hours to get to Perth last weekend, he and his band, The Imposters, played for a mere hour, meaning he had little time for extended banter and, being the accomplished wordsmith he is, had a few more tidbits he wanted to share. Perhaps.

Whatever the reason, the result is a conversation that borders on stream-of-consciousness rambling (a bit like the preceding paragraph), albeit mixed with an intuitive ability, on Costello's part at least, to not so much jump as silkily glide from one topic to the next.

Slick songwriting skills notwithstanding, Costello can take a fairly basic question and transpose it to another level entirely.

I ask, does he approach concerts these days with something akin to a curatorial eye, given he has three and a-half decades of material from which to choose?

For instance, does he attempt to create a theme or evoke a mood by selecting certain songs? Costello, on the phone from Melbourne, begins succinctly enough.

It depends, he says, pointing out that, by their very nature, festivals — such as the West Coast Blues 'n' Roots event at Fremantle last Sunday and the Queenstown Blues And Roots Festival next Saturday, April 26 — draw a range of bands and thus a range of people, many of whom might not be in the slightest interested in his material.

"Not everybody is there to see you. Those festival shows tend to tip towards more widely known tunes because you are trying to make a connection with a whole field full of people.

"But when you do your own concert (Costello and the Imposters perform at Auckland's Civic Theatre on Sunday, April 27), people have bought tickets specifically to see you so it's a mix of expectation and surprise.

"If you save all your hits until the end, it becomes a little bit predictable and I don't think you necessarily get the best out of the songs.

"After 30 or so years of performing, I have found there are better ways of presenting them. I try to make a story.

"In recent years, The Imposters have come to grips with about 150 of my songs, probably because of our 'Spectacular Spinning Songbook' shows, in which we used a device to select a song.

"We've put that aside, but it has given us a command of a lot of tunes and we have grown as a band. Combine some of the lesser known songs with better known ones and, suddenly, you can present a fresh story to an audience."

Let's dwell on the concept of "fresh". I ask Costello if his 2003 induction (with original band The Attractions) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame presented him with any conundrums.

Did it feel as if he was being preserved, like a Madame Tussauds wax sculpture, to be considered only in the past tense?

In short, did it leave him uneasy?

(It did, after all, come at a time when he had just released the rather good When I Was Cruel in 2002, to be followed by North in 2003 and The Delivery Man in 2004.)

"I think I was taught to relax about such things, largely by the generosity of friends, who rang me when I got that news.

"They were delighted for me, but I was on the verge of turning it down. But people who turn such things down sometimes end up seeming more churlish than intended.

"Still, it's not like a big finger comes down from the sky and beckons you into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"It's just a bunch of men who have picked you. I'm always thinking of the people who haven't made it into such a club, people way better than I will ever be.

"Since I've been inducted I've made a case for Wanda Jackson being there. I thought it ludicrous she wasn't there, because she was the first woman rock 'n' roll singer. It just goes to show what a boys' club it is.

"You've got to have a sense of humour about it. I've never taken awards seriously. I got nominated for a Grammy in the 1970s and not again until the 1990s. Well, there were a lot of good records made in between. It's just fashion.

"All I care about is playing for people. They decide if you'll still be around. I don't care about committees."

We then flip the concept of validation around. Forget applause or accolades, the chart success of early singles "Watching The Detectives," "Oliver's Army" and "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" or, later, "Veronica," co-written with Paul McCartney.

"Isn't the very act of writing a song a valid enough exercise, perhaps even if that song doesn't reach an audience?'

'It is a strange thing to have lived on your wits for 40 years, which is what I have done," Costello says.

"Once you get a bit of recognition you could just keep writing that guitar riff, but that's just not very satisfying.

"So when people ask me, 'why don't you make another record like that one?', the answer is easy: 'I've already done that'.

"You can go into a room with four guys and just start to play and create something brilliant. But you go and do it another time in your life — with the same people — and it will sound quite different."

Costello is referring to drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve, both of whom have often been by his side, on stage and in the studio, since his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True.

Back then they were The Attractions; since 2001, along with bass player David Faragher, they've been The Imposters. As Costello says, the same, but different.

"We are not the people we started out as. Why would we be? You would hope to take advantage of the fact you've had all these experiences.

"The great thing is we are not trying to find the easy solutions ... there is a playfulness that makes it a pleasure."

There have been solo projects and various other dalliances, including performing with symphony and jazz orchestras.

Last year, Costello released an album, Wise Up Ghost with New York hip-hop/funk outfit The Roots that had some critics raving.

He has also been working with producer T-Bone Burnett on an album inspired by Bob Dylan lyrics. Due to be released in spring here, Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes involves Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons).

In reviewing his wide-ranging collaborations, Costello says most are simply the result of an invitation or friendship: such as his 1993 album with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, and, more significantly, his 1998 release with Burt Bacharach, Painted from Memory, which resulted in a Grammy (for the song "I Still Have The Other Girl.")

It could also result in a stage musical.

There are reports producer Chuck Lorre, whose credits include Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and Mike and Molly is working on a Broadway musical inspired by the lyrics of "I Still Have The Other Girl."

"As always with these things, it takes a tremendous amount of time to get things to the stage. I'm not a kid (Costello turns 60 later this year) and Bacharach (85) isn't either.

"But he's the guy ringing me at midnight asking if I've finished the lyrics yet. You have to say, there is something about this music game."

That brings us to yet another project, the Costello-hosted live-to-television chat show, Spectacle, which enjoyed two seasons on the Sundance Channel in the US (and elsewhere) between 2008-2010.

Featuring interviews and performances, including duets with guests, the show revealed another side of Costello: a music fan who seeks a deeper understanding of what drives other artists.

"Unfortunately, a few people who were guests on the show have passed away: Levon Helm, Lou Reed, Jessie Winchester, who was an incredible songwriter, a voice of modesty and economy in songwriting — all the things I'm not particularly famous for.

"I insisted Jessie be on the show. Well, when he sang "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding," the whole show stopped. The crew were in tears (as was fellow guest Neko Case). I couldn't speak; it was so lovely.

"I don't mean to be sentimental. But it's not all about being in the headlines. It's about doing what you do. Jessie was a good example of that. He wrote songs that people will return to for years to come."

Televised discourse aside, Costello's passion for music and attention to detail is also evident in the meticulous liner notes to many of his albums (which now number 33, not including live albums or compilations), in which he lists a rather impressive range of vintage guitars and assorted instruments. It touches on the ethos of craftsmanship.

Costello, however, is wary of too much polish.

"I think craftsmanship needs to be in balance. You can get lost as you get better. Perhaps a mistake allows you to create a more original shape. You have to be careful.

"You can't just choose to create a classic. Sure, it'd be great if a song turned out that way, but sometimes a song comes out sounding a little bit pompous when people try to do that ... I think it's important not to over-analyse it too much.

"I'm fortunate in that I have a good ear. And I have picked up an understanding of things that I didn't have when I started out. I'm pretty much half-trained. I can write orchestral arrangements, but they may not be as good as a professional orchestrator. It doesn't matter because it's the way I hear it.

"Sometimes three chords will do it. I like pop music, songs that you hear for a little bit then don't care for any more."

On the subject of brief visits, Costello says his time in New Zealand will be limited. He might not have been to Queenstown before ("I like making a debut somewhere after 37 years in the business ... they tell me it's great"), but family life takes priority.

"My wife (Grammy award-winning Canadian singer/pianist Diana Krall) has a show in Portland, Oregon, tonight and then she'll be home (in Vancouver) with our 7-year-old twin boys tomorrow night."

The inference is, he can't justify being away from family just for some cheap applause. The shows need to mean something.

"I don't want music to be some sad ritual. It needs to be alive. Otherwise, what's the point?"

Playing - Elvis Costello and The Imposters perform at the Queenstown Blues and Roots Festival next Saturday, April 26, from 4.30pm, to be followed by the Doobie Brothers at 7pm.


Otago Daily Times, April 19, 2014

Shane Gilchrist interviews EC ahead of his New Zealand dates with the Imposters.


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