Sydney Morning Herald, July 11, 2014

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Sydney Morning Herald


Finding the man (and the piano) behind the songs of Elvis Costello

Bernard Zuel

You can hide in plain sight if you are Steve Nieve, the long running collaborator and keyboard-playing offsider to the more famous, more voluble Elvis Costello.

For a start that name does not appear on his passport or birth certificate: that would be Steve Nason. Nor is Nieve the only name he’s been credited with on a record sleeve: that list includes Maurice Worm and Norman Brain.

And as the pianist, an Englishman in Paris for more than a decade, reveals, none of his many names is even attached to his children.

"I once changed my name to avoid getting married and I adopted the surname of my partner at the time,” he says, somewhat ruefully. “As a result my children ended up with a name that doesn't refer to anybody because her name was changed on her passport.”

But there’s something nonetheless to the name, given to him as a punkish pun moniker by either Costello or Costello’s then manager Jake Riviera (neither of whom, of course, were using their real names either) back in 1977 when the 18-year-old Nason became the keyboard player for Costello’s band, The Attractions.

"The name Nieve I really like it. I didn't like it at the time when it arrived to me but now that I'm older I can appreciate the word naive and I’m going to stick with it,” says Nieve. "I think your name does colour the way you regard things. I'm drawn towards slightly naive things, definitely in the world of piano.”

The term “naive art” often is ascribed to things that look simple or childlike or innocent, without sophistication but, as Nieve says, “when we look at those we find in many, not all, more complicated issues”. And as those who have followed Elvis Costello's career, and along the way inevitably followed that of his most crucial collaborator, would know the deceptively simple and the devilishly clever or wicked sit alongside each other in the piano and organ (and vocoder and Theremin) parts contributed by Nieve.

He may nominally be part of the rhythm section but from the Abba-referencing organ in Oliver’s Army to the classically minded piano in the songs on the album North, in many cases he has been the lead instrument – which is handy as now he will be the only instrument.

Nieve is to tour Australia as a solo pianist playing the songs of Elvis Costello reimagined, rearranged and probably never the same way twice. That variety is no surprise for someone who says that the idea of solo piano playing is “to pile the pressure on and to try to be relaxed about all the pressure” at the same time.

“I can't see the pieces becoming fixed in stone, like a score,” Nieve says. “I think it's because they are such inspiring songs and when you start to feel what the song is about you are [moved] and sometimes in a completely different way to any time before. It's reacting to emotions."

Here is a link to one of the complete recordings, All Grown Up,

The Costello songs are part of a larger project recording material from other artists – “volume one of what I hope will turn into an encyclopaedia”, which will include Neil Young, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Frank Sinatra and Damon Albarn – on piano. And only piano, though as many different pianos as he can find, wherever he can find them, in Paris, Perpignon and beyond.

While on tour in Australia earlier this year with Costello’s current band, The Imposters, Nieve recorded several Elvis Presley songs in a Melbourne studio – "primarily because they have a very beautiful upright piano”.

On a recent trip from the UK back to Paris he came across a battered piano in St Pancras station and, with the portable recorder he carries with him, recorded a version of Costello’s Shot With His Own Gun. And his Australian shows will all be recorded with the possibility of ending up on the coming record.

Of course, this chasing down different instruments is all fine when you’re recording but live it’s not like a regular rock star who can have his roadie pack two dozen guitars into a hard case for the tour.

“It could be,” Nieve says, ever ambitious. “I'd like to have maybe 20 pianos on stage, all with different sounds.”

With or without the 20 pianos, the bigger issue on stage may well be that history of hiding right in front of us as the quiet one up the back. In terms of testing himself, being the focal point of the show, the entertainer not the sidekick, could well be the ultimate challenge for a man who used to rarely give interviews, said even less on stage and tended to hide behind dark glasses, a hat and his bank of keyboards.

It’s hard to imagine him doing banter or looking comfortable doing so.

"I would say I'm not comfortable in any situation. Even just playing the piano I don't feel comfortable,” Nieve says. “But I feel the excitement about it and that's why I am pushing myself to do it all the time. The idea of banter [he chuckles to himself] is something else altogether.”

Steve Nieve plays the Brisbane Festival on September 10; the Basement in Sydney on September 13; Perth’s State Theatre on September 17; Melbourne’s Recital Centre on September 19.


Sydney Morning Herald, July 11, 2014

Bernard Zuel previews Steve Nieve's Australian solo tour.


2014-07-11 Sydney Morning Herald photo 01.jpeg
Fronting up: Steve Nieve, the ultimate sidekick, will take centre stage in his own show.

2014-07-11 Sydney Morning Herald photo 02.jpeg
Steve Nieve says the excitement of doing his own show is pushing him into the limelight.

2014-07-11 Sydney Morning Herald photo 03.jpeg
Steve Nieve has collected pianos from all over the world.


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