For his new album, Elvis Costello has joined with classical string players The Brodsky Quartet, and together they've written a cycle of songs entitled The Juliet Letters, after the fictional heroine of Shakespeare's famous play. Right. So the Quartet are slumming, and he's being pretentious. Next!
This, at least, is the verdict you might deliver if you'd ever hankered after Elvis Costello sending his manager round to break your legs, or something. For the truth is our eminent and bespectacled singer-songwriter sounds immensely protective of his new offspring. He punctuates his account of its making with growls of warning aimed towards some shadowy regiment of fools he believes — maybe correctly — are ever on hand to misunderstand and slander his work, the more especially when it's of such an unusual type as this.
(He always adds that he's not bothered by the fools, mind you … except you get a sense that he doth — in the old words of Juliet's creator — protest too much.)
Sample: "I can't be bothered to think about people who have some vision of me as a pop singer or a rock 'n' roll singer and that this should prohibit me from entering into collaboration with so-called serious musicians. I'm a serious musician. I don't have the technique that these people do, but I'm completely serious about what I'm doing.
"Already I've seen certain articles where they're saying what it is and they obviously haven't heard it. Either it's a string quartet that I've written, my 'first serious composition' — the fact is I wrote my first serious composition when I was 15 — or it's that my next bunch of songs happen to have been arranged for string quartet. That's not it. They're written for string quartet.
"And I thought, this is just what you expect. People are stupid to jump in like that. Why not wait and hear what it is?
"I don't see this as a classical or a pop record. It's a record of some songs we've written, and it's there for anyone who'll listen. They'll be disappointed if they expect to find 'Death And The Maiden,' by Schubert, or equally if they want to find some cherished record of mine, if such a thing exists. They may be disappointed if they come expecting a certain sound they have fixed in their heads as 'what I do'.
"But of course I haven't exactly stayed with the one sound over the years anyway. Anyone who's really followed what I do would be ready to expect something different. I'm just looking for something inspiring. I defy anyone to find a calculated angle to it. There is no Achilles Heel of ambition over content here — which you see so much of in collaborative things. It isn't there. If anybody says that, they're just wrong."
Nobody should doubt, then, that his intentions are honourable, but will his aim be true'? Letters to Q in recent years suggest that even some die-hard Costello fans are in an unforgiving mood after Spike and Mighty Like A Rose (the two albums he's made since signing to Warners) which have never inspired the same warmth of support that earlier records did. And cutting a concept record with a classical string quartet is not the surest route to the public's bosom, is it? What are its commercial expectations?
Loyally, Elvis credits the Warner people with the courage to sponsor this thing, and says he's "pretty certain they were pleasantly surprised by it ... My apprehension about this is not its commercial expectations. Because I know what happens when we play it to people: there's been a tangible feeling of emotion in the room which you get when you play good songs. That's the only thing I think about. If anyone wants to make glib assumptions about it and chop it down at knee height then they're just showing their ignorance."
The Brodsky Quartet, though young, have been together for 20 years and can be counted veterans of the international circuit. They've made about 12 albums and are widely noted for their recordings of Shostakovich. Being a string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) their usual turf is Chamber Music, a form more or less defined by Haydn 200 years ago, traditionally used by composers as a vehicle for their most intimate, personal works. Even so, the Brodskys have done a sherry ad on telly, played at fashion shows and done PR photos sitting on motorbikes, so they're scarcely Old School in outlook. Michael Thomas, Ian Belton and Michael's sister Jacqueline Thomas played together as children in the Northeast. Fourth member Paul Cassidy is from Ireland and came along later; he's now married to Jackie. The writing credits on The Juliet Letters mix their names (plus that of Michael's wife, Marina) in with Elvis's name in all sorts of permutations. Nobody specialised in words or music, they all did bits of everything; Elvis acted as editor on the lyrics, but in no sense do the Quartet act as his "backing group". "This was a five-way collaboration," they insist, "with everyone on equal standing. There were big egos at stake."
How did their paths cross? Paul Cassidy: "A few years ago someone came backstage at one of our concerts and said, I was sitting next to Elvis Costello! And we were saying, Don't be ridiculous. Then slowly but surely we began to realise he was coming to a great many of our concerts." (They believe, in fact, he goes to far more classical shows than they do.) Then they exchanged CDs with him by post. In 1991, a mutual friend at Warners arranged for them to meet after a lunchtime recital at the South Bank. They adjourned to a wine bar, got along famously and stayed there all afternoon, "until we said, Sorry but we have to go, and we stood up and said goodbye, not realising we were all going across the street to Mahler's Sixth."
Even at the wine bar summit there was talk of working together. In time they arrived at The Juliet Letters, using the string quartet plus Elvis's vocals, its lyrical theme prompted by a news item: there is, or was, a professor in Verona, Italy, who receives and answers all the letters that people write to Juliet (and seemingly many have done, despite the inconvenient fact of her being non-existent). All the songs on the album use letters of some kind as their basis: junk mail, chain letters, suicide notes, postcards and so on. The music is as varied as the lyrical moods; it's true the finished results are neither classical nor pop in character (in parts it's reminiscent of a stage musical, especially something in the Brecht/Weill line, with angular verses draped in strings, the rhyming patterns all oddly askew). In the past, strings have typically been added to pop to sweeten or gentrify the song, but the Brodskys say they took pains to avoid what they call "the Eleanor Rigby syndrome" on this project; and Costello points out that even Chamber Music has never been as sedate as we might imagine: "Some of it can make punk rock look like a trip to Disneyland."
According to Elvis, "There are several pieces of luck apart from simply meeting and finding compatibility as people. One is that the tone of the Quartet seems to blend with the natural tone of my voice; and another is that the musical form is very suited to this kind of intimate storytelling, which a letter is."
Letters to Juliet, though — it puts you in mind of those folk who write to characters in Coronation Street, doesn't it? "Yes, but Coronation Street characters at least have the illusion of life on TV, whereas Romeo And Juliet is quite clearly a play, even if you'd seen the Zeffirelli film of it, and she's quite clearly dead at the end of it! Which is more bizarre." Paul Cassidy observes that, in the letter writers, you're probably looking at people who are "less than 100 per cent."
Elvis, meanwhile, liked the flexibility this structure allowed him. "I'd never envisaged singing as a little old lady, or as a child, or a jealous woman, as I do here. I've been deranged in a few songs. Which is not to say there isn't something of me in the songs. I'm quite practised at using characters to express my closest feelings without necessarily saying, Here are my wounds."
The Quartet have played together for years and years. Two are married to each other. Two are brother and sister. How was it for Costello to come in to this close-knit group as an outsider? He smiles. "It was a bit like being Mick Taylor joining The Rolling Stones. And finding that Bill and Keith are married. And Charlie and Mick are really brother and sister ... There's a certain irony to working with a group of musicians where two of them are named Thomas (as in his old muckers the Attractions, who featured Bruce and Pete). Inevitably, there are things between the Quartet that I can't gatecrash. But you've seen us together:
It's not like. Oh, the singer's arrived. I think we get on great."
Their collaboration was made the easier by Costello's decision to learn how to read and write music, as they do. He says he made up his mind to Jo it after working with Richard Harvey on the soundtrack to Alan Bleasdale's series G.B.H. He found a sympathetic young composer in Ireland (Elvis has kept a home in Dublin for a few years Row) and took a crash course.
"He's learned musical notation incredibly quickly reports Cassidy. "When we met in November '91, he didn't know what a crotchet was. By the end of January he could write a foolscap four-part. It's no mean feat. People take years to do what he did in a month. Soon he was sending us his ideas on paper."
Elvis: "Now I look at the freedom its afforded me. And all that stuff about how it might inhibit the natural flow of things, for me that's proved to be a lot of hunk. I mean, I've written 50 songs in 1991, or had a share in them."
A minor irony (or a sign of the times) in this partnership is that the pop guy, Elvis, is older than the classical people — the Brodskys and he are all thirtysomethings but at opposite ends of the decade. Maybe this blurring of generations helps dissolve the barriers between the two musics., rock is not just for kids any more, no more than the classics are for geriatrics. Elvis agrees, and argues that class barriers don't apply much nowadays either: "You look at the New Rich, the new aristocracy, and they're rock 'n' roll people, the next generation up from me. I played the Chelsea Arts Ball last year so I could sing with the Count Basie Orchestra. I was just working there. just one of the minions, the entertainment. But the nobs there, the aristocracy, were Sting, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton ... They've probably got a lot more 'class' in their self-image than a lot of the people who were born to it."
The Quartet, too, are optimistic, even if Jacky foresees a snob-problem in some buffs' view of The Juliet Letters: "Some classical dedicatees may be upset that we're playing with someone who doesn't have a trained classical voice, who isn't an accepted tenor. Perhaps they'll look down their noses at that. But there are beautiful aspects to his voice which are way beyond what trained singers can get."
At the early concerts they've given together, Their two audiences have apparently mingled without undue bloodshed. (In Dublin, "We literally had people in fur coats next to people in leather jackets," remembers Elvis.) Paul recalls the learnedly classical crowd at Dartington Hall, who gave an unprecedented display of laughter and cheering: "The piece is very human, it has truth
to it. I think it reaches even those parts Heineken has failed to reach ... We're learning a lot from this. Our music (classical) is so full of rules, so it's important we don't make our lives full of rules as well. We've got to be open. I'm hoping people latch on to this and it opens avenues for everyone."
Cassidy's quiet Irish brogue, in fact, takes on an evangelical edge when he rails against classical music elitism. "It's anti-social and it stinks. The awful thing is that people love clubs. If you find a good place to buy shoes, or a good hairdresser's, you don't go round telling everyone where it is.
We all love that. People don't want to turn up to the Wigmore Hall and find queues of young yobs, they want them to keep going to the Hammersmith Odeon. And that's wrong. Classical music is for the masses."
Elvis has put his chin up again. "I'm not on a little five-minute trip here. It's 16 years now. There's nothing to fear. Stupidity and misinformation are the only things that get in my way. And lack of integrity. When people change their opinions as the wind changes — that gets on my nerves, and is unforgivable. But you live on. You don't die. Somebody says some-thing mean about you, it doesn't kill you."
Elvis Costello says of The Juliet Letters that "it has a couple of the best songs I've ever written. They're the best realisation of what I started out to do with music and words. There's a lot of preconceived ideas out there, misshapen ideas. But who cares? I think this is a great record, I really do. But then," he relaxes a moment, "I think all my records are great, so what do I know?"
Conversationally, Costello's pleasant enough in manner, despite the broadsides, and he talks 13 to the dozen when he's on a topic that's close to his heart or promotional agenda. But if an interview begins to drift he'll pull up the drawbridge pretty damn quickly. Sample: a couple of questions about his other projects, currently. What news, for example, of Idiophone, which is the working title of his next album after this? He'll only say, "It's a record. Same as this is a record but it's different music."
Well ... is it a rock record?
"Don't know. Haven't made it yet."
Who are you making it with?
"Me." (He smirks at his own colossal unhelpfulness. Then grins apologetically.) "Me and some other people."
The point, of course, is to keep our attention on the Brodsky project. But we press on. What about the promised LP of cover versions, Kojak Variety? "That's a record that we made before Mighty Like A Rose. It's just a bunch of songs I like. I had the opportunity to get this group of musicians I've worked with, we went in for two weeks and recorded an album. I'm going to make at least two of them if I'm still alive in 30 years. I've done from 1930 to 1970, 15 of my favourite songs, and I'll put it out when I feel like it,"
And a real curiosity: the songs you've written for Wendy James ... (She being the blonde songstrel of trash-glam popsters Transvision Vamp, now disintegrated; her solo album's entitled Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears, it comes out in early March, and Elvis and his wife Cait have supplied songs written loosely around a theme of Ms James's life, partially based on a long letter she wrote him when she first requested some material.)
"That's going to be funny. They were written Friday to Sunday, in between some of the Brodsky work. Literally. It was an exercise. Just a bunch of songs."
Are they thematically linked?
"Not really. Sort of. I can't really say. It's her record, I'm only the writer. They said, Do you want to do this? I said, Yeah. Me and Cait went to the park, took a piece of paper, and we'd written the songs by the time we got back. I always said I could write songs just like that. Certain kinds you can. I'm not demeaning them, there's some pretty good songs. I think they're funny."
And then there's a "musical drama" he's hoping to do for late '93, although, he says, work on that has been delayed by his Brodsky/Juliet commitments. He's even knocked off a little something, again by request, for Zucchero: "It's getting like a business. But that's OK. One benefit of it is maybe it clears the way to what you want to write for yourself."
And as to The Juliet Letters, meanwhile ...
"It's what it is. It's not what people think it is. Well, it is to them, I guess. But if they want to juggle it as part of their cocktail party patter, that's them wasting their lives. I don't want to have my life wasted by that shit. I'm having too much fun."
Perhaps I look unconvinced. "I am! I'm having a great time! Fifty songs in one year! Ha!"