The artist formerly known as the Angry Intellectual of British Pop sips honey-sweetened tea and... smiles.
Elvis Costello is short of sleep. He still hasn't been paid for a weekend appearance at a New Zealand festival — the worst treatment he's received in a 21-year career, he told journalists — but the man who defined vitriolic pop in the '70s prefers to heap praise on his songwriting partner Burt Bacharach rather than engage in further recriminations.
"It was a great gig... that's the main thing," he said of the New Zealand affair.
Costello is in Sydney to give two concerts at the Capitol Theatre accompanied by Steve Nieve, the keyboard player from his former band The Attractions. They're as likely to draw on the raw three-minute songs Costello wrote in the punk era as the big orchestral ballads he penned with Bacharach for the recent Painted From Memory album.
"I find a way onto the stage and a way off," he said. "Everything in between is down to my mood."
To the uninitiated, Costello's pairing with pop sophisticate Bacharach might seem an unlikely, even preposterous union. After all, Costello's lacerating anti-war song "Shipbuilding" was a hit the same year Bacharach's syrupy "Arthur's Theme" was wowing the MOR crowd.
But Costello, the son of a big-band singer, is a long-time fan of the American composer of classics like "Walk on By" and "Anyone Who Had a Heart." "I had an appreciation for ballad singing before the Beatles took my imagination away somewhere else," he said. "I had a sense of the essential strengths of what he [Bacharach] does long before I knew the words for it."
Costello finally got his chance to work with his hero when they co-wrote a song for the Brill Building movie Grace of My Heart. It was an opportunity — like his 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet — to push his writing and performance in new directions.
"I don't see the guitar combo as the be-all and end-all of music," he said. "Making a noise still has its attractions, but I want to make a different noise."
Bacharach delivers a knock-out punch without resorting to "the tyranny of rock's heavy beat", Costello said. He also attracts a broader crowd.
"Rock becomes younger men and boys and has a tendency to exclude women," Costello said. "Burt's a bit of a love god. He's been a babe to many women."