Scanorama, April 2001

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Scanorama
  • 2001 April

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Tones of love


Christer Olsson

After meeting backstage over a decade ago, rock genius Elvis Costello and Swedish classical singer Anne Sofie von Otter have finally found time to create an album together. Christer Olsson spends an afternoon in the studio with two masters of song.

She stands inside the studio glass doors dressed in jeans, white slippers and a pink sweater. Deeply concentrated, with her hands clasped in front of her, she sways slowly from side to side, sinks into the melody and sings in an intimate, yet crystal-clear voice:

"It's not open to discussion anymore
He's out again tonight
and I'm alone once more.
It's hard to face the facts I'm facing
Baby plays around ..."

The reflections in the glass reveal no emotion in her face. But one hears the pain in her voice, the humiliation and the sadness of being abandoned.

"Were the chords all right?" asks Anne Sofie von Otter as the tones of the piano fade.

Elvis Costello looks up from behind the mixing board and nods as a satisfied grin spreads across his face.

"Could you anglicize the t's a bit," he says. "Get, get, get (pronouncing the t's distinctly)."

Von Otter and Costello are in the Atlantis studio in Stockholm, a cozy, messy. old-fashioned studio with instruments scattered all about. A television team from British ITV is tiptoeing around with handheld cameras to catch the magic as one of the world's best classical singers meets one of the few geniuses of rock, a man who in recent years has edged closer and closer to classical territory. He has, for example, produced The Juliet Letters together with the classical Brodsky Quartet, and in the spring of 2000 Costello wrote the score for an Italian ballet production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The studio is classic ground. ABBA recorded their first records here, and jazz legends such as pianist Bill Evans, trumpet-player and arranger Quincy Jones and saxophonists Stan Getz and Lars Gullin have made many of their finest recordings in this run-down former movie theater on a tree-lined street in one of the quieter quarters of the Swedish capital. The Bohlin grand piano that Benny Andersson played in "Dancing Queen" stands in a corner.


When I met von Otter four years ago she talked about making a record together with Costello featuring music from the 1950s and 1960s. They had just given their first concert together, where they had sung a tender duet of "Baby It's Cold Outside" for an ecstatic Twelfth Night audience dressed in tuxedos and gowns in the magnificent Berwald Hall in Stockholm. Even then, Costello talked about writing three new songs especially for von Otter, on the eve of her European tour with the Brodsky Quartet.

They got together several times during the tour, and their plans for a joint record project began to crystallize. Costello started sending her suggestions for songs they could record: von Otter proposed a couple of his songs. She also wanted to record two songs with the Swedish string ensemble The Flesh Quartet. and asked if Costello would consider writing English lyrics for them.

On paper it is Costello as producer — dressed in suit and tie and wearing a hat to conceal a growing bald spot — who conducts the session. But to me there's no doubt that it's the tall, blonde woman sitting ramrod-straight in front of the mixing table and listening intently with closed eyes who has the last word. Pen in hand. she constantly jots down notes and personal comments on the sheet music.

The recording of Anne Sofie von Otter meets Elvis Costello — For The Stars has been in progress for scarcely one week now, and when it's over von Otter will have recorded some twenty songs, including tunes by Burt Bacharach. Paul McCartney and Nina Simone, a Beach Boys song, old and new compositions by Costello himself, a couple of melodies by The Flesh Quartet, songs by modern songwriters such as Tom Waits — and the ABBA song "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room" with the composer, Benny Andersson, on piano.

It's only songs I like," says von Otter of the selection. And you can tell. (tell her she seems to be extremely focused when she sings. am," she says in agreement. "But I was even more focused when I gave birth to my children," she says dryly, adding a key detail: "Without anesthetic."

It was von Otter's husband, theatrical director Benny Fredriksson, who first suggested over a dinner at home that she and Costello should make a record together. But their history together really dates back more than ten years. "Elvis and Cait O'Riordan — Costello's wife — came to a concert and I was subsequently presented with beautiful flowers and a card saying they'd been there," explains von Otter. She recognized the name and sent a thank-you card, but didn't know much more about the enfant terrible of rock than that he wore glasses with thick frames, Buddy Holly style.

"In 1989 my wife and I had decided to go and see more live music at concerts," Costello says. "And in one of the very first concerts we went to, Anne Sofie sang in Berlioz' Damnation of Faust. Most of the time up 'til then I'd been on the road with my band." After the show both Costello and his wife were deeply moved and decided to go to every concert they could to listen to von Otter. "There was something about her voice, Costello says. "It's great when a voice affects you that way. It's like a guide to music that you previously might have been a bit reluctant to get into."

After a few more thank-you cards she invited Costello and O'Riordan backstage to her dressing room where the two finally met.


The song is Tom Waits' "Broken Bicycles", but after a couple of takes it's obvious that something is missing. An instrument is needed to fill out and color the sound. Someone suggests an accordion. But who will play it? On Home For Christmas, von Otter's record of classic Christmas carols in unusual arrangements, she used Swedish accordionist Bengan Jansson.

This time she suggests a mutual friend — Benny Andersson of ABBA. Costello gets all fired up. Would Anne Sofie phone him, please? Costello is an old ABBA fan, and their sound echoes through his 1980s hit "Oliver's Army." A few days later, Andersson is standing in the studio, an accordion over his arm. The atmosphere is tense. Everyone, including Andersson, is nervous. Costello is tiptoeing around the studio while von Otter talks to Andersson.

But it's not until Andersson confesses that he was "awfully glad that you called and asked if I wanted to come and play" that the mood lightens up.

"It's been quite a humorous session," says Costello. "A lot of people think classical singers are very serious, but Anne Sofie has a great sense of humor in the studio, and it really helps to be able to break the mood if a take is going badly, to get the musicians to relax, make them understand that they're not going to get shot if they don't play well."

Andersson is still nervous about the session. He's used to adding instrument after instrument in the studio, but now everyone is going to play at the same time. "What happens if my accordion leaks into the microphone?" he asks anxiously. "Can you take it away then?"

As Costello and von Otter get ready for "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room," Andersson sits down at the piano. He plays exquisitely, peeling away layers of the melody to reveal its innermost core — just the way von Otter wants it.

"Afterwards, everyone in the control room had goose bumps," says photographer Mats Bäcker, who was present during the session. "That's how well he played."

But Andersson still isn't completely satisfied. He asks if he can take the tapes home and try putting on strings, perhaps from The Flesh Quartet? He turns around and asks studio engineer Janne Hansson if he can listen to something von Otter and Costello have recorded earlier during the week.

When the tones of "Baby Plays Around" stream out of the loudspeakers he exclaims: "Damn, that's good. Who did that song?" Cait O'Riordan blushes, rises from the corner where she's been sitting listening, and runs out of the room. "What was all that about?" asks Andersson, confused. "What did I say wrong?" "Nothing," replies Costello with a smile. "She wrote that melody — but she's so shy."


Later that evening, over a dinner after the recording session, I ask Costello what it was about von Otter's voice that attracted him.

"She has an exceptionally beautiful voice. I'm very attracted by the lower registers. And there's this huge range of understanding of music. An ability to be personal with it, but not get distorted. A lot of singers are too concerned with you getting an idea of their personality or their brilliance. It's such a delicate balance, and I've started to appreciate that a lot more in the last ten years, listening to Anne Sofie. It's something that just doesn't exist in pop. A kind of transparency, you can see the music through the voice."

Von Otter admits with an embarrassed smile that without Costello there probably wouldn't have been a record.

"He has an enormous capacity and he's a great songwriter. He's been the perfect shepherd to guide me in this project. He's very patient and he's stuck to it. I've never had the feeling that he lost interest. I'm more like: 'Oh, where do we start, there's so much material'," she says, with a self-mocking whine in her voice. As usual when it comes to von Otter, it is initially the music, "the tune", that speaks to her.

"But every now and again you find the perfect combination of words and music, and then it can be heartbreaking — special songs like 'Baby Plays Around'. It's really fantastic. When I first heard it I had no idea who wrote it — and it turned out to be Cait and Elvis!" Costello sits hunched up in his corner and grins like a Cheshire cat.

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Scanorama, April 2001


Christer Olsson interviews Elvis Costello and Anne Sofie von Otter.

Images

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Cover.

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Page scans.

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Page scans.


Photos by Mats Bäcker.
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Photos by Mats Bäcker.

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