The Australian, February 25, 2011

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This Elvis still hasn't left the building

Iain Shedden

A Florida newspaper recently described Elvis Costello as "the Alison singer". It was a curious summation of the artist's career, picking out his second single from 34 years ago, when he has had much bigger hits and has written hundreds of quality songs since then.

"That's as big as I get in Palm Beach, I think," Costello says, laughing it off.

He is a hard man to pin down in just a few words. Aside from his voluminous catalogue, stretching across 32 albums, not including live collections, collaborations and compilations, Costello has taken on a wide variety of guises as a performer and recording artist since emerging as the champion of new wave in the late 1970s.

His upcoming visit to Australia, which includes two appearances at the International Blues and Roots Festival in Byron Bay over Easter, sees him accompanied by the Imposters, a band that features two of his longest-serving collaborators, drummer Pete Thomas and keyboards player Steve Nieve, both of whom served in Costello's first chart-topping outfit the Attractions.

It's Costello's third trip to Australia with that line-up, which also features bassist Davey Farragher. If the shows are anything like the ones he did here previously we can expect a barrage of popular material from his pop-rock cannon, perhaps interspersed with one or two from his recent, largely rootsy albums, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane and National Ransom.

The latter of these albums, he announced to The Australian two weeks ago, is to be his last.

Costello will continue to release new music, he says, but feels the old album format is no longer for him in the age of digital downloads.

"There will be new songs and new places to put them," he says. "If there's a new way to do it that feels satisfying I'll do it, but I don't have a recording contract and I'm not seeking one. You can't work for other people doing something which isn't, frankly, going to make a difference. Plus I have plenty of opportunity to play new songs."

Indeed he does. If Costello's appetite for the traditional album has waned, his enthusiasm for the stage is undiminished. The conundrum, as he describes it, is in finding the right songs for a particular audience.

"I think if I were to go on a stage at an English festival and play "Alison" there would only be a small proportion of the people who would know it," he says. "It hasn't stayed in people's hearts as much as some other tunes. In other parts of the world it would be different songs again. I can't leave the stage in Holland without playing "I Want You" (a song that is particularly popular in Australia as well).

"Same goes for Turkey," he continues, "who also likes She, so that's two songs that are very contrasting. There you have the conundrum of putting a set together."

The material is subject also to Costello's choice of accompaniment. Since the Attractions had their early successes with "Watching the Detectives," "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea" and "Pump it Up" their leader has gone off on many tangents, performing on his own, with string quartets and with orchestras as well as bands.

An orchestra, for example, "is a different book. The Brodsky Quartet is a different book. With Steve (Nieve, with whom he toured Australia 12 years ago) it's different again.

"I don't miss any of the others when I'm doing the thing I'm doing," he says.

"It never becomes mundane. Over the years I've had these great opportunities to play with different musicians."

Such is his wealth of material the 56-year-old singer could choose a different set list for each of his five Australian performances this time and come out with a quality show for each. On that basis he has taken to letting the audience decide at some of his shows in the US, introducing a spinning songbook from which fans can pick their favourites.

As Costello says, "it's never predictable".

What's certain is Costello, just as he has turned his back on the conventional album, is taking stock of his career in other ways, in particular how it affects his personal life.

"I have a lot of other responsibilities now, some of which are nothing to do with music," he says. "You can't spend your entire life enjoying yourself in everything you do do. You have to choose."

Chief among those responsibilities is being a father to his four-year-old twin boys, Dexter and Frank, a task made more complicated by the fact that his wife, singer Diana Krall, is also an international touring performer.

During our conversation Costello breaks off to take a call from Krall, who is on her way home from a performance in Dallas. He has been home dad "with the lads" for a few days.

"They're at an age now," he says, "that I won't talk too much more about them. When you're a new parent you want to talk about them all the time, just out of the joy of it. When they get to school you reach a point where you don't want to do that. We owe it to them to not tell everything about their every move."

His pride, however, is evident. "They are a joy," he says of the boys, "and it takes a lot to get me out the door. My wife and I constantly balance wanting to be with each other and with our boys with what we do for a living. Over time it works out."

Another concession to family -- although not solely that -- is his decision to end his flirtation with television as a chat-music show host. His series, Spectacle, screened here on the ABC, earned rave reviews. The format of interviews with and performances by big names such as Bruce Springsteen, Bono and Lou Reed was a winner, but there will be no more in the foreseeable future, he says.

"We could return to it," he concedes. "It's a good idea, but we did 20 that were of a very high standard and I don't really want to drop the standard by compromising."

One less commitment might allow Costello more time with his family, but it might also let him sit at home more and listen to music, something he still does with a passion when he can. He's especially fond of old 78rpm records from the pioneering days of blues, jazz and country.

"I'm a single song kind of fan." he says. "Most of the music I listen to on my own at home, I listen to 78s. I listen to a batch of them. Currently that's something I'm really interested in. You can find wild, untapped caches of music that way; music you've never come across before, and you don't do that so readily when you're listening to albums."

He says there's a "direct communication" in 78s, scratches and all. "There's a magic to it. You're a little closer to it, keeping in mind that some of the people stepping up to the mic on these recordings were doing it for the first time. They knew that whatever they did in that moment was what went out.

"When you hear a classic recording like Wild Man Blues by Louis Armstrong coming out of a 78, the feeling is like he's just through that door over there. That's a really incredible thought when you have it. It's beautiful."

Elvis Costello and the Imposters play the West Coast Blues and Roots Festival in Fremantle, Western Australia on April 17; Sydney April 19; Melbourne, April 21; and International East Coast Blues and Roots Festival, Byron Bay, NSW, on April 25 and 26.


The Australian, February 25, 2011

Iain Shedden interviews Elvis Costello about his forthcoming Australian tour.


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