Q, March 1993

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You hum it, son...

Paul Du Noyer

…and we'll play it! "It's not pop," reckon The Brodsky Quartet, and "It's not classical," says Elvis Costello. So what the hell is this arranged (ha!) marriage between the bespectacled rock polymaestro and his slightly resiny new chums? And how, wonders a quill-toting Paul Du Noyer, did this Juliet bird get involved? On pages 52 to 54, Johnny Black conducts (ha again!) a lightning tour of the whole triumphant history of rock/classical collaborations. Batons at the ready…

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!"

The Juliet Letters is reviewed on page 85. Wendy James is interviewed about her new, Costello-penned LP on page 24.

<< >>

Q, No. 78, March 1993

Paul Du Noyer interviews Elvis Costello.

David Cavanagh reviews The Juliet Letters.

Giles Smith interviews Wendy James.


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Pages 48-49.

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Pages 50-51.

The Juliet Letters

Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartet

David Cavanagh

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An academic in Verona, it appears has taken on the job of replying to letters addressed to Juliet Capulei, Verona; a small story about this eccentric chap was pointed out to Elvis Costello by his wife Cait. It inspired him to make a record about letters of all kinds, be they love letters begging letters, suicide notes, junk mail or whatever. Meanwhile, Costello had become a firm fan of the Brodsky Quartet (and vice versa), and quite accomplished as a scorer of music. To collaborate with them on The Juliet Letters (already performed live twice), then, made sense. Compositional duties are shared (musically and lyrically — presumably Costello was not responsible for "I dialled again, I could not resist / Revealing just the dentist receptionist"). Additionally, his silky voice suits the pure sound of violins, viola and cello remarkably well. Inevitably, the words are more confident than the music, but it's a close thing.

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Photos by Paul Rider.

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Cover and page scans.

Transfusion vamp

Giles Smith

Wendy James, bless her, was the last person on earth to realise that Transvision Vamp were rubbish. Her solution? Write to well-known agony aunt Elvis Costello requesting a talent-transplant. Result? He's written her entire new album! A wide-eyed Giles Smith listens to the rock fairy tale of the year.

Mid-1991, on tour and pretty well at the end of her tether, Wendy James saw the future and didn't realise. "Transvision Vamp happened to support Elvis Costello in Ireland at a festival, and I stood at the side of the stage, watching him and thinking, Well, we've just done a rocking set, but I wish to God it was more like Elvis Costello." This was still some weeks before Transvision Vamp broke up, some weeks before James wrote Costello a letter, some weeks before he stepped in to change her career.

It was hard to miss Wendy James in the late 1980s. The list of magazines she failed to make the cover of starts with Shoot, moves on to Camping and Caravaning and ends there. And here she comes again in 1993, stepping rather timidly into a restaurant in Ladbroke Grove in a big black coat with her hair piled up. "I have no idea," she says quietly, "whether people want me on their television sets or in their magazines. And to be honest, I'm not that desperate to be in the centre of things."

Transvision Vamp sounded like The Clash after synthesizer lessons. And Wendy James sang a bit like Debbie Harry and came over as a big-mouthed pop star, high on self-confidence and a bit touchy at the edges. If you had a pound for every time the words "blonde" and "ambition" were twinned in magazine pieces about her, you would be rich indeed. Yet if you had a pound for every time Transvision Vamp went into the Top 20, you would have a measly £4. Her fame as a media item outpaced her fame as a singer. And then it all fell into disarray.

1991 will go down as Wendy James's annus horribilis. The third Transvision Vamp album slumped on the blocks and refused to budge. MCA appeared to have pulled the plug on the band, promotionally speaking. Still, they were out there on the road, giving it as much as they could muster. But James, who was by then 25, had started to find her role constricting. It chafed away at her nerve ends. At times, she says, she wondered whether she'd be stuck in bubblegum for the rest of her useful life.

"It got harder to sing the songs with any conviction. Bubblegum is fine when you're a teenager, but as I got older, it wasn't ringing true. With no disrespect to songs like Baby I Don't Care, I couldn't sing that song any more, because I wanted to say, I do care, and these are all the things I care about. And I had no solution to this at that point. I would just start calling things shit and getting negative about everything. It was about that time, late '91, I bumped into Pete Thomas with his wings on his back." In what James may well come to look back upon as the key coincidence, Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello's drummer of choice, happened to be in LA at the same time as James, who had gone ahead of the rest of her band to publicize some concerts. "And just off the top of my head I said to Pete, I'm thinking of going solo — do you think Elvis would help me out?"

Now, James and Costello had never met, nor had any cause to assume complicity. It's never actually been reported what Elvis Costello thought of Transvision Vamp, but it's probably safe to assume that when "If Looks Could Kill" came out in 1991, Elvis was probably not down at his local Our Price burying it on all formats. Even so, Pete Thomas still thought it was worth a punt. "He said, if you don't ask, you don't get. Why don't you try writing him a letter? So it was thanks to Pete for not dismissing the idea out of hand."

James went back to Washington, where the tour was opening, took some sheets of hotel paper and a biro from her room in the Washington Omni, sat down in a coffee shop on the university campus, and wrote, "Dear Elvis".

"I'm not a big letter writer, but I think I can script a fairly good one if I have to. It was a bit like a letter to an agony aunt. I wrote down all the reasons why I wasn't really a happy person — not with my emotional life, but with my musical life. It would have served me as a diary if I hadn't posted it. But I sent if off and fatalistically tore up my copy the next morning, thinking, well, you're living in cloud cuckoo land. Not that I asked him for any specific help. I simply said, I need to get better, and you're what I consider is better. So can something be done?"

She heard nothing for two weeks, until Pete Thomas phoned her, in a state of some excitement, saying, "I can't tell you what's happened, but you're going to like it".

"And then I got a letter from Elvis's publisher, saying, 'He hasn't just written you a single, he's done you a whole album. And he's going to demo it up for you with Pete while you're on tour and it'll be here waiting for you when you get back. If you like it, it's yours.' I went screaming into Nick's hotel room with a ridiculous grin on my face saying, you'll never guess what: Elvis has written me an album! He's written me an album!"

The Transvision Vamp tour terminated in San Diego in late December, and with it their career. James returned to London and found the promised package waiting for her at her flat. She says she took the tape out, put it in the machine in her living room and sat on the edge of her seat, staring at the speakers and "dying for the first chord to come. When it did, there was this really great riff, played by Elvis with the guitar cranked up full volume. It was a very rough demo, which I love. Elvis played guitar and bass and a bit of piano on the ballads and Pete Thomas did the crazy drumming.

"To my knowledge, they did one run-through on each song; they didn't waste much time. The third track was a ballad, and I thought I'd landed in heaven. It was a one-woman fan club in my living room right there. I probably played it about five times in a row, just grinning and getting used to it. Then I phoned the publisher and said, Yes please, I'll have it. It was only later it dawned on me that it was now down to me to do something with it. It was a frightening realisation."

What she did with it was keep it raw and essential. Chris Kimsey, the Rolling Stones' engineer, was brought in to produce with a live feel. The album's spirit is pretty much in keeping with early Costello albums and the lyrics frequently reveal their author's familiar hand. For example, in accord with Costello's commitment to pushing the lyrical envelope, this is almost certainly the first pop album to rhyme "Fanny Ardant" with "hard-on".

But the extraordinary thing is, these are not just ten knock-down Costello numbers, plucked at random from the unpublished back catalogue or picked off a dusty shelf. Lyrically, they seem, at least in places, to be drawing on James's own life and times. "All Elvis knew of me was what anybody who had read a certain amount of music press knew, and what he could ascertain from my letter. Yet here was my own personal Elvis Costello album."

Take "Puppet Girl," for instance, a piece about having your strings yanked ("Hey there, puppet girl, who put the mouth in all the things you say?"). Or take the Ladbroke Grove satire, "London's Brilliant," which snaps at those "still digging up the bones of Strummer and Jones" and warns that "a cool profile down Ladbroke Grove won't make it no more". Or take "Do You Know What I'm Saying," James's personal favourite, which includes the line, "The past prima donna in buttons and bells was speaking what's left of her mind as the audience rebelled...

"There's not one song where I got off easy. That one reminds me of that state where you're drunk and you find yourself pointing at yourself in a mirror. It's a song about any place where praise is given unduly and things are built up out of proportion. And when I recorded it, I was feeling like I wanted to put a few holes in my old self, give that self a slap round the face."

But perhaps closest to the bone is a song called "The Nameless One." "It represents my bubble being burst and the horrific revelation that you're not as great as you thought you were. To a large extent, what happened in 1991 did that to me. The song is a list of B-movie actors, singers that never quite made it — not your first-rate talent. When I recorded that song, it all fitted together. It's why I chose it as the first single — so I could start at the very bottom, the lowest ebb and then see what happens."

James did finally meet Costello. It was backstage after a U2 concert at Earl's Court last year. She is convinced it was just a coincidence. "But we were given an introduction, and obviously I said thank you and he wished me luck and said have a good time. And that was the conversation. There isn't any more to it than that. Strange. Strange but true.

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