Elvis Costello was midway through a phone interview from the New York home he shares with his wife, jazz star Diana Krall, when two other nearby phones rang simultaneously.
With deft expertise, he swiftly dispensed with both calls at once, then resumed his interview in the next beat.
Beyond reflecting the life of one of pop's busiest artists, Costello's triple phone-juggling feat seemed appropriate for someone who seems to be in constant forward motion.
Last year, on the same day, he released a provocative new roots-rock album, The Delivery Man (which features guest vocalists Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris), and an audacious orchestral album, Il Sogno (which he was commissioned to write for an Italian dance company's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream).
He also co-wrote six songs on The Girl in the Other Room, Krall's emotionally revealing 2004 album, and is now working on an opera to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth.
One would expect nothing less from Costello, who performs a sold-out concert Wednesday at downtown's 4th & B with his band, the Imposters. Since getting signed by Stiff Records in 1977, he has recorded 24 albums that cover a remarkable range of musical styles. He has also collaborated with everyone from Paul McCartney and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter to George Jones and the Charles Mingus Big Band.
"Every single record I've done has a different method," Costello, 50, said.
To illustrate his point, he compared three of his albums – 1986's Blood and Chocolate, 1989's Spike and 1998's Painted From Memory, his Grammy Award-winning duo collaboration with part-time Del Mar resident Burt Bacharach.
"With Burt, there was the precision where he arranged every single note and vocal line just so," Costello said. "That was part of the attraction, that very disciplined style. That would contrast greatly with Spike, where instruments were layered on, element by element, or Blood and Chocolate, which was spontaneously (arranged) in the studio."
The specific studios Costello has worked in have also had an impact on his albums. Ditto his recording expertise – or lack thereof – early in his career.
His debut, My Aim Is True, was made in 24 hours. It was the first of his so-called "angry young man" albums, which some longtime fans prefer to his more challenging work of subsequent decades.
"Early on, I don't think I even had that much command of the studio where I had a choice about what I was doing," he said. "People have great feeling for those early records, but that can dip into sentimentality. I know it's hard for people to get past the impression of your early work, but I can hear them in another light. I can hear the caution in some of them, the fact I didn't have control of the studio, and that this was all we could afford at the time.
"The fact we made anything worthy of that was good going. But to stick with that (basic) approach, and be afraid to go beyond that, would be a betrayal of music. And what's good about that? Each record of mine brought different possibilities. The second record (1978's This Year's Model) was a giant step forward, with a regular band. By the third record, we thought we were being tremendously ambitious, although – looking at it now – it's hard to hear how!"
The turning point for this self-taught music maverick came with his 1981 album, Trust, the first for which he began writing on piano instead of guitar. It would be more than a decade more before he learned to read music, but his composing skills expanded quickly and dramatically at the keyboard.
"The dark register of the piano makes you think differently," Costello noted. "And the models of my songs were changing (in the 1980s), from being based on half-a-dozen pop records from the 1960s and various Motown records. By (1982's) Imperial Bedroom, it was getting to be full range."
Asked to name those six pop records, he replied: "Well, for This Year's Model (1966's) Aftermath by the Rolling Stones was absolutely the blueprint. Not just for the songs, but the whole mood, the mood of discovering a slightly more complicated world, emotionally speaking.
"Obviously, I'd absorbed all the Beatles' records, but I discovered Aftermath the year I made This Year's Model. Other reference points were things I grew up on, like the Small Faces and Motown and dancehall-reggae – what we then called 'skinhead records' – which were post-bluebeat and pre-Rasta reggae."
For The Delivery Man, Costello's first album on the Lost Highway label, he and his band went to the Mississippi college town of Oxford. They recorded in the same no-frills studio where two of the Imposters, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher, had played on blues great Buddy Guy's superb 2001 album, Sweet Tea.
Costello had hoped to record The Delivery Man, a sort of Gothic noir drama in song form, at five historic recording studios throughout the South. After hearing Sweet Tea, which takes its name from the studio in which it was recorded, he decided to record all but one number in Oxford.
"That Buddy Guy album is tremendous, and it seemed to liberate him," Costello said. "He played on it with the fire from his greatest records, so I thought: 'If it works for him, maybe it will work for me.' I didn't want these songs to get 'pretty-fied' and tidied up. I wanted them to sound the way I feel them."
Thirteen songs strong, The Delivery Man traces its roots to "Hidden Shame," a guilt-inspired 1986 ballad Costello wrote for Johnny Cash.
The album's storyline involves several women in a small Southern town, with Harris singing the part of Geraldine, a good-hearted widow, and Williams giving voice to Vivian, her divorced, bad-girl counterpart. Both are drawn to a man with a murderous past, Abel, whose biblically inspired name is deliberate.
But nothing is ever straightforward with Costello, who likes to keep his fans guessing.
Following The Delivery Man's nonlinear storyline requires the active participation of listeners. The album also includes several songs he'd previously written for soul vocal dynamos Solomon Burke and Howard Tate, as well as "Monkey to Man," which he wrote as a musical response to "The Monkey" by New Orleans music great Dave Bartholomew.
"Obviously, one of the things that's not easy for people to hear when they don't know any of the background is that a lot of the songs are characters speaking, or me singing in a character's voice," he said. "It's a collection of songs that relate to the central narrative. I may fill in some of the missing pieces later, or I may want to present it on stage one time, with all the pieces in order. Or I might get in an airplane and do it in skywriting!"
Whatever medium he uses, and whatever the musical subject matter, Costello ultimately strives to please his most critical listener: himself.
"I'm not deluding myself into thinking I will change anyone's mind about anything," he said. "Songs don't do that. They just make you feel less lonely."