ELVIS Costello is slouched on a sofa, dressed in a sharp, black suit, with his hat slanted down over his trademark dark glasses. In his sedentary state it’s hard to gauge what effect the music coming from the giant, state-of-the-art speakers in front of him is having. But for the occasional nod of the head and his fingers drumming lightly on a water bottle, one might suspect the collection of songs had sent the acclaimed English songwriter into an early evening slumber.
We’re in Studio A of the Metropolis Studio complex, housed in the imposing Victorian structure known as the Powerhouse in west London. The building was so named more than 100 years ago because it generated power for the trams operating around Chiswick. For the past 25 years, however, music has been its purpose. The Verve recorded Urban Hymns here. Amy Winehouse’s landmark Back to Black and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill also took shape within its sturdy red-brick walls.
Bob Dylan, who is touring Australia, hasn’t been to Metropolis. Yet it’s down to him that Costello is in Studio A, holding court, along with renowned American producer T Bone Burnett, to share with an invited few the new music the two of them have made together. They were joined in this enterprise by four other musicians — Mumford and Sons’ Marcus Mumford, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith from the Los Angeles band Dawes and Rhiannon Giddens from the Americana outfit Carolina Chocolate Drops. Only the music belongs to them, however: Dylan penned the words.
Until last year all of these handwritten lyrics by one of the most revered songwriters in history had sat in a box folder in Dylan’s possession, with a label marked “1967”, the year of their creation, the only key to the unseen, forgotten riches that lay within. That’s the year Dylan and members of the Band recorded the Basement Tapes at various houses in and around Woodstock in upstate New York, where they had taken up residence following the singer’s debilitating motorcycle accident a year earlier. Dylan wrote ferociously during that time and with the Band recorded more than 100 songs, on basic equipment, most of which surfaced on bootlegs before an official album, The Basement Tapes, was released in 1975. That album contained 24 songs (eight of which were recorded solely by the Band), including This Wheel’s on Fire (co-written with Rick Danko) and You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.
Dylan found the discarded lyrics from that period last year and handed them to his friend Burnett, suggesting the producer may be able to do something with them. That’s how Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes was born.
At 66, Burnett is a dapper elder statesman of Americana music whose production credits include the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand. He also has a history with Dylan, having played guitar on the singer’s famed Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975-76. He’s uncertain about Dylan’s motives for passing the lyrics to him, other than that the great songwriter may have been prompted by his involvement in a similar project, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, in 2011.
“I have no idea,” Burnett says. “I can only conjecture. He found a box of lyrics. What do you do with them? He could have left them in the box. He could have thrown them away. He could have sold them as original lyrics.
“My guess is he had been part of that Williams project and probably just thought he should do that.”
As it turns out, while Burnett has been introducing some of the recordings to the assembled guests, Costello has been far from asleep on the sofa. He has focused on each of the tracks being played, some of which, including the title song, feature his lead vocal. All five musicians wrote music for a number of the same Dylan lyrics, which the ensemble then played together. There are in the region of 55 tracks for the 24 lyrics, with titles such as Kansas City, Lost on the River, Liberty Street and Spanish Mary. We get to hear, for example, James, Mumford and Costello’s diverse musical treatment of the same words. Costello is particularly attentive during playback because, as with everyone in the room bar Burnett, he is hearing these final mixes of the Lost on the River songs for the first time.
“Everybody had their own idea of how the tune went,” Costello says, sitting next to Burnett when the listening session is over. The two men have a warm friendship and a mutual respect that stretches back almost 30 years. Burnett has produced four Costello albums, starting with King of America in 1986, the most recent of which was 2010’s National Ransom. He also produced Costello’s wife Diana Krall’s most recent album, Glad Rag Doll.
Costello likes to talk and spars easily with his more senior collaborator, recalling with humour Burnett’s gentle, restrained authority in the studio. “I’ve known T Bone a long time and we’ve got into a lot of interesting scrapes together,” he says, “but this is one of the best.” Costello is animated too when explaining how he and his four songwriting colleagues, having answered Burnett’s call, got to grips with the task before them.
“There was a box file with all the original manuscripts in it,” Costello explains. “So we got to see the way they were actually written on the page. It was obvious Bob didn’t edit any of these at the time. For whatever reason, he set them aside and never set them to music. So you would sort of say that, ‘Well, maybe they’re not the best things he wrote’, but then we started working on them and all these surprising things would happen.
“Some were very funny and others were quite moving. When you started to sing … find music for them … it was funny how the same musical cadence would develop for two or three of us. But of course the opposite would happen as well. Some would set a lyric differently.
“One lyric came out as a jump blues from one person and a Hawaiian tune from another, or another would sound like it was African. That was the story that developed.”
THE story of the original Basement Tapes is a complex one. After his accident, Dylan retreated to his home near Woodstock to recover. He had enjoyed great success with the album Highway 61 Revisited and the double album Blonde on Blonde, but the batch of new songs and cover versions — some recorded in his house, others in the basement at Big Pink, the house occupied by the Band’s Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel — took his music in several new directions, tapping into all sorts of strains of blues, country, folk and rock ’n’ roll. Along with the Band’s guitarist and singer Robbie Robertson, who lived nearby (drummer Levon Helm was absent) they spent the first few months recording whatever came to mind, before Dylan began to write, often on the spot while they were playing. I Shall Be Released, Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn) and Please, Mrs Henry are some of the songs that emerged. Tracks that appeared on the official album, such as Apple Suckling Tree and Clothes Line Saga, reflect Dylan’s rural and domestic lifestyle at the time.
Costello, always a Dylan fan, has a particular connection to the Basement Tapes in their early form. “I saw the original songs for the Basement Tapes as sheet music first,” he says. “By sheer chance I came across a folio that was published in England about 1969 and I bought it because it was cheap. The only song I knew on there was The Mighty Quinn (a hit for British band Manfred Mann). No other songs had been recorded at that point. I didn’t buy bootlegs. I was 15. I didn’t know how to read music then either. I don’t really now, although I can write it down. I couldn’t have sight-read those songs so I had to imagine what they were like. I could read the lyrics and they were intriguing, but I had no idea what they sounded like until they were released six years later.”
The “new” lyrics contain words, themes and topics common to the old published ones. Eskimos, for example, feature in several of them. On the song Nothing to It, Dylan seems to be addressing his destiny as a rock star, citing the path set for him by the likes of Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly.
I knew that I was young enough
And I knew there was nothing to it
For I’d already seen it done enough
And I knew there was nothing to it.
“That was something he couldn’t say personally at the time,” says Burnett, “but it’s him talking about becoming the biggest star in the world and how easy it was for him.”
Burnett, from St Louis, Missouri, but raised in Fort Worth, Texas, was playing in bands in Los Angeles when he got the call from Dylan’s collaborator Bob Neuwirth to join the Rolling Thunder Revue, a tour also featuring Joan Baez, the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. It was a learning experience he looks back on fondly. And he has great respect for Dylan as a musician and for his legacy, including the newly discovered batch of lyrics.
“Everything I need to know about show business I learned on those few months of the Rolling Thunder Revue,” he says. “It was a theatre piece; it was a revue; it was pure storytelling. My impression of him at the time is that he went for the groove. He was a groover. That was the main thing I felt about him. I didn’t feel like he wanted to be a genius poet or a messiah.
“There have been people who say Dylan is not a good singer or harmonica player or not a good musician, as if all he does is write mysterious lyrics. But he is a great musician; great singer. He’s one of the greatest singers of his generation, if not the greatest.”
THERE is no shortage of good singers on this latest manifestation of Dylan’s craft — and versatile ones at that. The basement that served the project wasn’t in upstate New York or in west London, but in Los Angeles, at the famed Capitol Studios, where Costello and his four collaborators joined Burnett for 12 days to lay down their interpretations of the master’s words. They could have brought in session players to back them up, but chose instead to be the band as well as the writers and singers. There were a few ring-ins, including actor Johnny Depp, who played guitar on one song when Costello had to honour another booking out of town. Mumford took the drum stool for some of the sessions. Giddens, a versatile violinist, banjo player and singer, contributed all three, while the others took turns on a variety of instruments. That, Costello says, “was in the spirit of it”.
“We weren’t trying to kid ourselves that we were either Bob or the Band,” he says, “but it was kind of fun to find a solution to how to play these tunes we’d come up with between us. None of us is primarily a bass player.
“Taylor’s a pretty good bass player but it’s not his main instrument. Jim and I could get around on the bass. I played a bit of keyboards. We all had a go on guitar, and obviously Rhiannon’s very good on banjo and fiddle.
“We didn’t always want those instruments. It was very, very good fun and it constantly surprised me. It was a licence for us to just enjoy ourselves. Anything was a possibility if we could just get it on to tape.”
There are several versions of the title track. Costello’s gets an airing in London and it is one of the most powerful — a towering, melodic anthem with the singer at his most melodramatic.
“That one just jumped out at me,” Costello says of the lyric, which he read while sitting at Burnett’s kitchen table early in the piece. “I went in the back yard and wrote the melody.”
He believes that although they are only words on paper, Dylan’s lyrics have a subliminal musicality to them that can steer a song in a certain direction.
“It didn’t take very long to write the music for that one,” he says. “I made an editorial decision to jump right in. I took something quite different from it than the others. It was about getting over that sense of tying your hands by being intimidated by who had written the lyrics in the first place. If Bob had wanted to finish these songs he could have done it.
“He knows how to write songs. He clearly knows how to write lyrics. And he is tremendous rhythmically. Trust me on that one, because I know how to cram a lot of words in. It’s really challenging. With this process a lot of it was recognising the rhythm that was implied. “
For the 12 days, Burnett was the quiet man in the control room. His way of working is to let the music guide him, rather than the other way around.
“I try to use as light a touch as possible,” he says. “I try to set up an environment that engenders generosity. I’m at my happiest when I don’t say a word and just listen. I feel I just listen these things into existence.”
The end result of this collaborative effort by a bunch of like-minded talents is an album containing 20 of the 55 tracks, which is due for release in November. There will also be a documentary. Filmmaker Sam Jones, best known for his revealing portrait of the band Wilco, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, was on hand for the entirety of the project. There will also be a few shows to promote the album release, but most likely only in the US, given the heavy schedules of the individual participants.
The remaining tracks will follow later, possibly in two more instalments. There is talk also of more recording.
“Maybe we can just release bootlegs of our own Basement Tapes,” Costello says.
“I don’t know how we might do it. All I know is it was a gas.”
Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes Vol 1 will be released through Harvest Records/EMI on November 7.