There was a time when he was known as the king of punks. Now Elvis Costello, 44, seems more intent on ruling the pop world, and he's enlisted the master of the field — Burt Bacharach — to show him how.
The idea for the unlikely duo's new album, Painted From Memory, was hatched after they collaborated over transatlantic phone lines in 1995 on "God Give Me Strength," a ballad written for the movie Grace of My Heart. Costello (born Declan McManus) and Bacharach, 69, consummated the partnership in person last year, writing 11 additional songs for the new disc. They're planning on taking the whole thing on tour this month with a 30-piece orchestra and backing band, but in the meantime Costello was eager to discuss this unusual project.
How did Burt Bacharach first enter your life?
It was "Magic Moments" on the Perry Como show. I never recognized that as a Burt Bacharach song as a little kid. It was just a song I heard every week and liked and would sing along with.
Did you ever use his records to seduce girls?
I can't remember doing that ever, even though I think "The Look of Love" is one of the sexiest records ever made. People tell me songs can have that effect, but I always thought that was slightly ludicrous. It seems a little strange to have to put a record on to get in the mood. I'm just in the mood all the time.
Did the two of you get along well while you were making this record?
There had to be some sort of rapport. We brought different things to it, obviously, and I left a lot of musical interests of mine to one side in order to write with him. I didn't want to bring a lot of harsh, aggressive sounds that I favor and force them on him. I have enough appreciation for the type of songs we were working on that I felt there was plenty to be said without trying to make some hideous hybrid out of our respective musical experiences.
Didn't you feel competitive as songwriters?
Not before or during this. He has an unbelievable catalog of songs that are unassailable, so there would be no point in envy. I've never envied anybody's songwriting. People always ask me which song I wish I wrote, and I always say, "My next one." There are many of Burt's songs that I hold most dearly, but it's more a question of admiring them rather than wishing I had written them.
Was he worried that you were going to be a punk?
No. I think even when we first briefly met in a Los Angeles studio in 1988 he knew that I had nothing particularly to do with that. That would have been a lingering memory by then. That was 11 years after I had started out, so there was plenty of time for people to have a number of different impressions of what I did. He knew that I liked to explore different aspects of music.
What is the biggest misconception about Burt Bacharach?
He's not at all the cool, laid-back guy that people imagine. He's an elegant person and softly spoken, but he gets quite distracted by music. He'll wake up in the middle of the night with ideas going around his head. The more we got to know one another, the more we found a curious compatibility in our obsession for music. Even though we're different in personality, we both experience this disturbance that music creates.
Was he always talking about the good old days?
He doesn't reminisce very readily, except if it's to make an example. I heard more of his really fascinating musical history in the course of him being interviewed. We never just sat around and talked about things. It was very mundane. Our working schedule together is so intense that time is precious. The five hours we would spend together we would just be talking about the thing on the television, just like regular working people. It was just casual talk, not the intense discussion of anything in particular.
You've now worked with Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney and Shane McGowan. Who's the sexiest?
You definitely would find people who would say the most unlikely of the three, but that's not for me to say. Burt has a real charm about him, and people really seem to almost fall in love right when they meet him. It's not just limited to his personal magnetism. He's obviously struck a chord through his music.
Are you ever going to stop writing love songs?
I don't think I can. Love and desire are the reason we're all here. How do you exhaust that as a topic? With these songs we made a decision to look at it, not in a detached way but with cumulative experience to synthesize everything that has happened into something other people can recognize. I want people to see themselves in the picture rather than only me. I'm sure people will. People will recognize these characters. They are universal. There are patterns of behavior, and how we look at them changes, and that's what makes love a never-ending source of inspiration.