TODAY, January 18, 2013

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TODAY
  • 2013 January 18

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poparazzi

Unexpurgated: Elvis Costello and why what's popular isn't always a good thing


Christoper Toh

ELVIS COSTELLO is calling from Vancouver, where he has a home. Elvis is coming to Singapore for a gig. Elvis and his guitar. Elvis was here two years ago. Elvis led a band called The Attractions. Elvis led a band called The Imposters. Elvis recorded with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, The Kronos Quartet and more. Elvis is married to Diana Krall. Diana Krall came to Singapore for a gig. Elvis is on the phone.

How is this show going to be different from the last show?
I have a lot of songs, and I try to guess at the songs people would like to hear. I know there some older songs people know, and in the two years, I’ve got newer songs. And I like to surprise people by playing a song they don’t expect to hear from me at all. Between all of that, there’s enough to make a contrast with rhythmic songs, ballads… and I think that people are sometimes surprised by the energy of a solo concert. They expect it to be very quiet like folk music. But the good thing is that it can be very intimate if the hall as good acoustics, like the one I played in the last time. If that’s the case, that it’s quite possible I can take them right into a very quiet … It’s just the guitar and me. But it can be a clean guitar, distorted guitar, or acoustic guitar, but within all these things you can get lots of dynamics. Sometimes when you hear a band it can be very exciting at first but after a while it levels off with the same dynamic because the room doesn’t always work well with amplified music. Sometimes it’s hard to control the sound onstage. I have much more control in solo performances because that’s my own thing.

So you prefer solo shows to band gigs?
I’m unfortunate I don’t have to choose. Sometimes inside a week I can do… like last year, I played with one band that had fiddles and mandolin, an acoustic band; and then another day I played a solo show; and then I played with an orchestra and then I played with my rock ‘n’ roll band – all in 10 days. I have to remember to put the right head on.

Talking about new songs, National Ransom, is a great album, but perhaps the masses haven’t quite got their minds around it.
I am aware that some people really like that album. But I don’t think it was heard throughout the world on such a broad stage by very many people. I appreciate that it’s as good a record as I have made, but I don’t think it makes sense to compare records that were made 35 years apart and expect them to have the same mechanism or the same impact. They’re made in very different moments in time and I’m very happy with that last recording that we did. I don’t really plan any more recordings now. I don’t know what form songs and to distribute them is necessarily going to be on record. I glad that the last one was such of strong record.

Do you think the album format isn’t the way to go then?
I think the trouble is that the album has ceased to have the same meaning, because it’s divided up into these little compressed files which actually don’t sound very good. We accept sometimes that the halls we play in don’t sound very good, and we wish they did, but most of the time, we want to play in places where we can be heard and get across to people. And it’s a very direct way of addressing the audience with the contrast and strength of live performance. That’s also can be true of recordings. But the development of the record is kind of dismantled by the very nature of the way it’s delivered and I don’t think it’s worth the trouble really. I think it’s a lot of effort to put in to making something that’s just dismantled. And it really isn’t a lot of respect for the form by the people who distribute it. I would rather really spend my time and my effort on presentations. And if you have new songs, then perhaps we can do presentations of them like the way new shows have evolved. I also never plan writing more songs. I have plenty of songs… and if I don’t write any more then it won’t matter because I’ve got plenty to work it. I don’t have any definite deadline.

Charlie Haden mentioned that the beauty of making music is gone, thanks to greed and technology. What do you think?
Charlie is one of the great musicians and I’d listen to what he has to say. But I tend to take a slightly different view though. I think there’s always been song and dance music, even if you look back into the period where a lot of great music I know that he loves. I mean there have always been a lot of slight songs along with the beautiful songs. The thing is now, the effort and the spectacle of it is not equal to the emotion it’s conveying. But that’s not surprising. And I also don’t think you look to the hit parade for the music that has the most heart and soul. It’s never been there so why is anyone surprised it’s not there now? It’s always been in the corners, in the basement… Only occasionally, it’s more the exception when you have someone like The Beatles, where it’s globally appreciated and also high quality. And I hate to say this, but some people don’t like their music. Not everybody loves it. I think it’s fairly undeniable that it was of great quality and also very popular, but most of the time the things that are very popular are just not very good.

Well, you saw the Grammys…
I was AT the Grammys! Speaking of which, a lot of the things that are really popular are not very good. I’m sure when you’re watching it as a spectacle – I refer to myself as an innocent bystander – it’s like watching road accident in slow motion at times. But you could see that it meant a lot to them what they were doing, and the fact that I don’t particularly care for what they’re doing myself, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I like it or not – somebody else likes it and that’s all that matters, really.

So what’s the big thing here? What’s your life lesson?
I don’t know if there’s anything that would qualify as a life lesson from the work I do. The work you do is so that you can have a life. It’s a job. Someone people get the impression that it’s a tortured driving thing but it’s a job. You hope to be joyful and accomplished after a while. If you don’t get good at it after years, then there’s no point in doing it at all. You should do something else. I’ve have a lot of fortune. And I’m not shy of hard work. And these two together have created a working life which has been very full. I’ve lived a life that’s full. And we’re not done yet.

You know, sometimes being a pop icon can be a caricature, like Spinal Tap.
I think everybody has had one or two – that’s why that show was so charming. I can’t think of any in particular that are equal to the comedy of that very excellently observed piece but I think everybody is capable of a moment or two like that in this business.

So you don’t want to write new songs…
No, no – I didn’t say that! It’s just I’m not anxious about it. I don’t go around obsessing or analysing about whether I should do or why I should do it. It either happens or it doesn’t. Should I not feel moved to write other songs, I would not be as if I couldn’t perform any more. There are lots of songs that people haven’t heard. There are unrecorded songs that haven’t been heard yet, as well as many that have been recorded and still haven’t been heard yet! And I feel certain that there will be songs in the future and I’ll find new ways of making them heard.

So what’s the best thing about being Elvis Costello now?
Well, I don’t think in those terms. I’m just, I am that person living my life, same as you are. The very joys of life… I’m happy being a father again, and having the fortune to have all of my family to be able to speak with them – from the oldest to the youngest – that’s what’s important to me. I don’t really see a down side, do you? There are things you get frustrated about, but these are things that are far outweighed by the good fortune that I’m grateful for.

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TODAY, January 18, 2013


Christopher Toh interviews Elvis ahead of his solo concert on Monday March 7, 2011 at the Grand Theatre, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.


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