Elvis Costello recorded his new album in Nashville with producer T-Bone Burnett, mastermind behind the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Two of the album's songs were originally written for Johnny Cash, and Costello co-wrote another with Loretta Lynn.
At the same time, a clutch of other songs on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (Hear Music) were commissioned by the Royal Danish Opera about 19th century children's author Hans Christian Andersen and his obsession with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. Throw in the album's closing track, a cover of a 1950s-vintage Bing Crosby song, and you have two quite different and even clashing sets of expectations.
Who but Costello could make all that hang together? Probably no one, even if Costello himself doesn't seem particularly impressed with his own accomplishment. Yet making strange, seemingly impossible combinations feel just right is pretty much standard procedure for Costello. From playing with opera stars to New Orleans pianists, punk bands to Burt Bacharach, he's traveled all over the map the past 30 years.
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is just another chapter in his odyssey, although it does represent some backtracking. The album reunites Costello with Burnett, who produced his 1986 roots-music classic King of America.
Both albums share a similar sonic straightforwardness, although Secret is a bit folksier thanks to the stringband format and lack of drums. The new album is also even darker than King of America, a set of songs about "guilt and retribution," Costello says.
Costello is bringing in a crackerjack acoustic ensemble called the Sugarcanes for a Sunday performance in Cary. In advance of that, Costello chatted with us by phone about his new album and other recent doings.
Taking songs written for an opera and rendering them as country stringband music doesn't seem like the most obvious leap. How did you come up with that?
Well, if you have in your head an idea what opera music sounds like, maybe. But it hasn't changed so much. It's just folk music. Andersen came out of abject poverty, and Jenny Lind came from a modest background. My version was about Andersen being in love with this woman who goes to America to make her fame and fortune with P.T. Barnum in the 1850s, and you can imagine the actual musical landscape of that time suggesting something that is not exclusive to what one might think of as "opera" — a woman with a viking helmet and a big dress.
So I had the opportunity to do this acoustic album with T-Bone. And as it developed, I found a lot of connections. "Hidden Shame" and the song I co-wrote with Loretta Lynn ["I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came"] had a sense of foreboding that didn't seem so distant from "She Handed Me a Mirror," one of the songs about Andersen. "Red Cotton" is a serious, considered argument for the abolition of slavery, and it made sense in this context.
What was it like doing your recent 30 Rock cameo, as part of the all-star band performing the quasi-anthem "Kidney Now"?
Oh, that was very good fun. They didn't tell us who exactly they had assembled. I knew the scene, we had a script and I knew I was in it with Mary J. [Blige] and Clay Aiken — he's from your part, right? As more and more people came through the door at the session, it grew more and more hilarious, the voices they'd chosen to contrast. They entrusted me with the mid-song monologue because, I think, of my English accent. That gives me a natural authority, the same kind we used to plant the red flag all over the world.
How do all these cool things you're always doing happen? Do they just come up?
Cool stuff just kind of comes up, yeah. Now you've got to follow up on things, obviously. But I've had good opportunities to write with people I admired before I was invited — I never presumed I'd get to write with Burt Bacharach or Paul McCartney. It's all collaboration, although I don't understand why it's so exceptional. Just being in a band is a collaboration. There's a fixed idea of how the songs should go, but if you don't trust your companions to come up with some ideas, what's the point?
Working with the Sugarcanes brings a radically fresh approach that I like. There's no drums, for one thing. We won't limit ourselves to just the songs from this album. I have a number of others in mind. But I never heard this as a "country" record, although the instrumentation is that. And when you write with Loretta Lynn, chances are it will be country. But my relationship with those traditions is not so different. I'm from the old country, and some of these melodies are in my background as much as anybody else's.
Regarding your statement that this album's songs are about "guilt and recrimination," is that similar to your long-ago quote about how all your songs were about "guilt and revenge"?
Well, the songs on this record are about a slightly different kind of guilt. Those early songs were about guilt over desires, but "Red Cotton" involves a different kind of guilt. Likewise, there's not as much revenge as recriminations. There's lust and longing, like "My All Time Doll," and guilt for dreams — "I Dreamed of an Old Lover." But it's suppressed rather than expressed desire. I know these feelings to be true, but that does not make them my diary. And being my diary does not automatically make a song better. You know, I know about being "Down Among the Wine and Spirits," even if I don't drink alcohol.
Since this album was recorded a while ago, are you thinking about the next record at all?
I don't think in terms of making records at all; I just write songs. There are two things I do, play shows and write songs, and everything else is incidental to that. I record all the time at home or in the studio. But the idea of making that into something you can find in the shop — well, for one thing, try to find a record shop anymore. Records as we've known them, I don't know how much longer it will be a viable ambition to "make a record."
Now I recorded this album a year ago April, and I've written a lot more material since then. As for making plans to release it in some form, that's another matter. What's left of the music business is not set up for the speed I can ideally work at. And sometimes you just have to allow things time, too. I had no patience for jazz or classical as a child. When I got older, I stayed with it until the beauty and interest were revealed to me. It's true of certain groups of songs, too. I know records I made that were dismissed when they came out, then 25 years later they're supposedly great. I don't know where all those people were when they first came out!
When King of America came out, I lost a small fortune on the road playing those songs with a great band. But I don't regret a moment of it. That was a tremendous album to make. I've enjoyed every record I've ever made, one way or another. Well, maybe not every record. But I did get something out of all of them.