Elvis Costello may have come of age at a time when rock stars were supposed to kill their idols, but Nick Jonas is the kind of rock star who hugs his. Earlier this year, the 16-year-old leader of the teen-dream act the Jonas Brothers told Rolling Stone how much he admires Elvis Costello, and, like a rock & roll Make-a-Wish Foundation, we offered to get him together with his hero for a one-on-one interview. On a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, Jonas and Costello — both wearing black pants and mod-ish patent-leather shoes — met for the first time at a Hollywood recording studio, where they talked about everything from writing songs to Radiohead to teen-heartthrob status. Clearly star-struck, Jonas kept his poise as Costello, 54, sat across from him, but after they were done talking and Costello had left the room, Nick exhaled, nodded his head a couple of times and said simply, "That was awesome." Later, Costello praised Jonas as "thoughtful and curious" and "interesting to spend time with." He added, "I warned him about being better-looking than me."
NJ: How many different bands did you have before the Attractions?
EC: Before I was in any way good enough to call myself a professional, I was really only in two bands. When I left school, I was in a band with four guys, and within six months we were a duo. The guy who was the singer — he owned the microphone, so that was the only reason he was the singer — we got rid of him pretty quick. Then I went to live in London and got together with some guys who liked the same kind of music as me. We shared a house for a while — it was like being in the Monkees. Then, for the Attractions, I had already released my first album, and the record company said, "Now you have to go on tour." So they put together the Attractions through auditions. We were so lucky, because we could have had auditions for years and never stumbled onto guys that good.
NJ: Was the fact that your band was put together from auditions an obstacle?
EC: Well, we didn't grow up together. Obviously it's really different because you guys are brothers. My four half brothers were all in a group together for many years, so I know a bit what that's like. When you're in a group, it makes you older, because you have a lot of experiences that somebody of your age just living in a neighborhood wouldn't have. You get famous and you travel, and if you get really famous, you can't go out of your hotel room. I mean, I know the kind of scene it causes when you guys go out. I've seen it on the TV.
NJ: It's definitely something to get used to — it's a shock to all of us. At times, it does get a little frustrating, but for the most part we have a good team that helps us keep it all together. As far as fans g The only difficult thing is when they go in our house. That's, I mean, it's kind of odd for anybody, I think.
EC: I never had to deal with anything that intense, but we were a proper pop group for a while. Around 1978, every single we released in England was a hit. Recently, somewhere in a drawer, my mother found some old teen magazines with a picture of Debbie Harry from Blondie, a picture of Sting, and then there's a picture of me [laughs]. It was hard to take seriously when it was happening, because I just thought it was so absurd.
NJ: I'm reading a book right now that's about you — Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello.
EC: Oh, my God.
NJ: And it talks about the first song you ever wrote.
EC: "Winter," it was called. And it was in E-minor. You can see I got started right away with the cheerful music.
NJ: Is there a recorded version of that somewhere?
EC: No, I was just 13 then, and the earliest recordings I have are one or two songs from when I was about 17. Usually what I did — and I don't know whether you do this — was write into a notebook. I still do it that way. You fill up a notebook and you think, "Well, out of that notebook you might get three or four songs." What about you? How do you do it?
NJ: I keep a lot of stuff on the computer, but I also do it on my phone. For me, typing on my computer is more of a convenient way sometimes to do things, because I don't have much time. I have to put it down quickly. Then, when we're in the studio, I can send the lyrics off to the brothers.
EC: Oh, yeah? I wrote a song recently like that — actually, with Rosanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson. He lives in Hawaii, and she lives in New York, and I was in Vancouver. And she said, "I've got a bit of a song. Do you want to see if we can write it together?" So she wrote one verse. I wrote the next. And it was like a chain letter. Do you ever, like, wake up in the night and think of a line?
NJ: Yeah, all the time. "S.O.S." is actually one of those songs.
EC: Do you ever think, "I'm really tired. I should get up and write that down, but I'll remember it in the morning"? Always write it down — there's nothing more torturing than when you don't write it down and you go, "I know I thought of a line, but I have no idea what it was." I keep a notepad by the bed, and I learned how to write in the dark, so if a line comes in my head I don't even need to turn the light on and write it.
NJ: Do the lyrics usually come first, and then the melody?
EC: It used to be lyrics first, and then it was everything at once. Then for a while it was music first, and I changed it around. I know a lot of groups now, they make the music first. They make a whole track.
NJ: There have been times before when we've had some type of musical idea that we work on first and then come up with the lyrics later. But for the most part I think we pitch it all together at the same time.
EC: Don't you feel like it's a song if you can pick up a guitar and play it?
NJ: Yeah, I usually find that if I try to take a track and write a melody to it, there's no creative experiment that can happen.
EC: 'Cause it's already blocked out.
NJ: What's your take on if you have a pre-chorus in the song and you use the same lyrics in the first verse and the second verse? Because with my brothers it's like, sometimes in songs we'll just say, "Oh, that sounds good here, too."
EC: I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Some songs that are very simple and repetitive are very effective. I mean, I've written a lot of words, and I'm kinda known for piling up images, but that doesn't mean I don't like songs that are very simple. Probably a little bit like somebody with straight hair wishes they had curly hair and vice versa, you know?
NJ: In the last, like, 10 years, is there a pop record that you were surprised to have really liked?
EC: I always said the hardest thing in the world is to have a hit with a good song. I can think of lots of so-called contrived pop songs that are great. Motown was very calculated in the way they did things, but they had brilliant writers. And there are really beautiful melodies in Radiohead songs. Some people are frustrated because Radiohead won't make their records sound conventional. Most good music is like that. One record doesn't sound like the next one. The best things were made out of surprises.
NJ: Yeah, there's this group the Zutons, they're a British group, and their songs invite you to sing along. I wish I could kind of take on their writing abilities for a couple of days.
EC: You know, the Beatles were a pop-sensation band when they first came out. But they didn't stick with what they had first. I remember hearing "Paperback Writer" on the radio when I was 10 or 12, and it was so shocking. It was like, "What kind of music is that?" But by the following week, I couldn't live without that record.
Everybody making pop records has the opportunity to do that, and with a huge audience. That's a really good challenge for you guys: See how far you can carry people into the things that you love, and don't be persuaded to keep making the same record. If being a pop star is your ambition, you're bound to be disappointed. There's truth to the idea that little girls who like you now are gonna wake up one day and be embarrassed they felt that way, because they feel like they're more sophisticated now.
NJ: We get the question a lot — "How are you going to keep up with your audience, and how are you going to stay popular?" I think it always has come down to the songwriting for us, and trying to be as involved in the production of music as well. I think that'll help us have a long-lasting career.
EC: The best thing of all to carry you through that is the genuine love of music, which, it seems from your questions . . . you've got curiosity about music. It seemed unusual at first to hear you're familiar with my music, but then I thought about how, when I was your age . . . how old are you?
NJ: I'm almost 16, in two weeks.
EC: It would be very easy for me to be cynical and say, "Oh, well, a kid like that can't know anything about my music." But I listened to my parents' records when I was that age, and that's how I learned. A career in music is a vocation. It's like you were just born that way, and there's nothing you can do about it. I mean, I'm third in four generations of musicians in my family, and you're from a musical family too.
NJ: Yes. My dad was a musician — he played the piano and sang. And it's just cool that we're able to relate on that level.
EC: I honestly believe that if I hadn't had any of the luck, I'd still be playin'. Sometimes you just have to say to yourself that the music is more important than the rewards of fame. But that's a long way off. You should enjoy what's happening now. The first time somebody asked for my autograph, I actually argued with them. I said, "Why do you think you want my signature?"
NJ: I actually did kind of the same thing. I was about seven or eight and doing a Broadway show. A kid, a family friend, came up and asked for an autograph, and I was like, "You're my friend! Why are you asking me for my autograph?"
EC: I was suspicious of the success, and it was a stupid thing. I was just immature. It took me a really long time to come to terms with the fact that they saw me differently because I wrote songs. Now I realize that I spent a lot of time kind of tussling with that and probably missed a lot of things that I should've just said, "Well, accept it." It's enjoyable, it's not gonna last forever, and I'm lucky if at the end of it I still know what I want.