It's impossible to calculate just how many characters and ideas inhabit the Elvis Costello songbook — harder still to imagine how they would unravel and bond together in story form.
That's one of the many creative conundrums the 50-year-old songwriter has confronted this year.
When he's not writing for the opera or the ballet, or recording a rock album, or penning songs with his jazz-singer wife Diana Krall, he finds time to write what he hopes will be his first published book, drawing from the subjects of his many songs.
"I have no interest in formal biography," the singer said in Sydney yesterday, while admitting to enjoying fellow troubadour Bob Dylan's recent memoirs. Of his own book, he said he didn't know how long it would take to write, "because I have lots of other things going on. But it's a good thing to put creative energy or frustrations into".
Costello, who began his latest Australian tour last weekend, rarely has a shortage of projects to keep him busy. This latest outing with his rock band the Imposters follows the recent release of his album The Delivery Man, which coincided with the CD of his music for the Italian dance company Aterballetto's production of Il Sogno.
The latter is a rare diversion even for Costello. Ballet is an artform he knew little about. "I did it because I enjoyed working with the other artists," he said. Now he's writing songs for the Royal Danish Opera, for a production based on the work of Hans Christian Andersen.
Costello's multi-faceted output suggests a man driven by work and still ambitious despite his years of success. However, he says: "I've never had any ambition, ever. I think maybe for about 10 minutes in 1978 I thought, 'Yeah, I can have the biggest band in the world' — those crazy thoughts that bands have. That was more an objective than an ambition, but then I thought 'why?'."
Fans of the veteran songwriter can enjoy an extensive trawling of his back catalogue on this tour. He plays more than 30 songs in a show stretching beyond two hours, and he changes the set list each night.
"Whenever you put out a new album there's always something in your catalogue that has some sort of kinship with it," he said.
His recording and touring leaves little time to spend with Krall, his wife of one year. "She comes to visit me in a beaten-up dance hall in Glasgow and I get to see her at the Albert Hall," is how he describes it. This week she is performing in Vienna as part of her world tour. Perhaps they'd get to share more quality time if they went on the road together. "Neither of us really needs the other's help," Costello said. "But we like to write together. I'd like to do more of that."
Elvis Costello and the Imposters are touring until December 5.