The Word, April 2003

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The Word

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Nobody talks like Elvis Costello


David Hepworth

On the eve of his second quarter century Elvis looks back, sideways but most of all forward. "I've started to sing from directly inside of me... It feels like I've been struck by lightning."

One evening last November I sat in a Fulham Road tapas bar and talked about music with Elvis Costello. The conversation referenced, among others, George Harrison, The Vines, Charlie Mingus, Buell Kazee, Gustav Mahler, Burt Bacharach, Deep Purple, Kitty Wells, Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, Lucinda Williams, Al Jolson, Robert Johnson, Bing Crosby, The Fairfield Four, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, The Mississippi Sheiks and the Rolling Stones.

"Let me tell you my Rolling Stones story," he offered by way of a break. "I was at school in Liverpool in '72 when they were on tour and the whole school took the day off to queue round the block at the Empire for tickets. I went down there, took one look at the queue and said to myself — The Rolling Stones, they're over — in a teenage way. Then I went and bought Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane — so who was the mug?"

"So I'd never seen the Stones until this year when they asked us to support them on one show in Cleveland. They were great to us, made us feel welcome, asked us to have our pictures taken for their archives and we all get in a room together and they're all just like you want them to be, Mick going, Where's Woody, 25 years too late as usual? All these jokes they've told hundreds of times before. Woody and Keith put their arms round me and say, thanks for doing it. I'm thinking, maybe we're not getting paid! Then Charlie comes out and says, thanks for doing it and I think, we're definitely not getting paid!"

"When I watched them that day I realised that the Stones are a big band in miniature. They're got this front man who's a cheerleader, not like a singer in the conventional sense; he doesn't hold notes, he's got this presence that you can't help watching, tremendously fluid in his movements. All this stuff about him getting old is nonsense. There's people who are 25 who can't move like him. Then you've got Charlie who is actually a swing drummer and Keith is the horn section. Everything he's playing is like a horn part. His guitar is the most awesome single sound I've ever heard on stage."

"The only thing I'd say is that it doesn't accumulate. The dark things that are in their songs I don't think they really inhabit as they once did."

"It's a theatrical performance. Whereas when you watch U2 on a similar-sized stage they build something much bigger than themselves. All U2's songs are about love in one way or another. That's a very courageous thing to do. They let go of themselves and when they do a song like One the feeling is unbelievable. I saw seven U2 shows last year and I could not see them enough. Their shows were the only shows I've ever seen that work in an arena. Everything else is bullshit or a trip to the circus."

"The Stones is this fantastic circus of music and spectacle but emotionally it doesn't accumulate. Personally I could have used one or two of their really beautiful melodies that they've written. If I'd written 'She Smiled Sweetly' I'd play it every night. I love that kind of music where they just discovered the decadent life before they started to become The Devil. Totally sexy things like 'Play With Fire' and 'Off The Hook,' which they wrote as soon as they got posh girlfriends. When they became desirable and they knew they were it wasn't the same."

"They had one totally embarrassing bit in the show when they had this cartoon naked manga girl writhing on a Rolling Stones tongue and you thought, if a fourteen year old had drawn that in his school book you would be embarrassed for him! But then I looked at the audience and I was the only person thinking that. The level of comprehension at the average rock and roll show is not great."

I include that anecdote for no other reason than I thought you might enjoy it and there is something in the way it embodies the young fan's enthusiasm, the fellow pro's technical analysis, the critic's aesthetic expectations, the purist's preference for the B side and the puritan's disappointment with popular taste that is quintessentially Elvis Costello.

I first met him in the summer of 1977. His first album My Aim Is True had just been released by stiff and l was briefly charged with delivering him to radio interviews. One early morning I arrived at the Alexander Street offices of Stiff to find him already waiting outside. Had he been waiting long? It's OK, he said. He had a song to finish. We drove to Capital Radio where he plugged in and performed the newly-composed "You Belong To Me" and "Radio, Radio" (with the line that goes "radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anaesthetise the way that you feel") for an audience of me and the programme director.

Twenty-five years later Elvis Costello clearly still has a career but what kind of career? In some senses it is the career he begun with My Aim Is True, the first of 19 albums of occasionally inspired, sometimes overwrought, always grown-up pop. New Elvis albums are scrutinised for signs and portents when they might better be allowed to trickle into the public consciousness. "Nobody knows what I'm doing over here," he says. "If I went under a bus today they'd still play 'Oliver's Army' on the radio."

In 2003 he and his band are due to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame alongside fellow "punks" The Police and The Clash. This sort of recognition further mixes the already mixed feelings of the middle-aged men who were the cover stars of NME and Sounds during the heyday of the new wave. Musicians often find it hard to face the fact that they will never equal the impact they made in their mid-20s. In pop you start off with that most precious commodity – mystique. The only way to hang on to it is to become either reclusive by choice (in the way of a Bob Dylan) or so massively successful that sheer scale furnishes you with whole new layers of charisma (as U2 have done). Elvis is neither.

On leaving Warner Bros in 1997 he released a compilation called Extreme Honey which is a good reflection of the breadth of his personal mainstream: politically-inspired polemics like "Tramp The Dirt Down" (dedicated to Margaret Thatcher), ventures into percussive impressionism like "Hurry Down Doomsday", collaborations with masters like Allen Toussaint ("Deep Dark Truthful Mirror") and Paul McCartney ("Veronica") and plenty of the kind of pungent, exhilarating pop which could tempt you to drive round the M25 just for the experience ("The Other Side Of Summer"), Extreme Honey also illustrates the problems his marketing men face: Elvis is too abrasive for Adult Contemporary, Americana, Country or Classic formats; too white for urban, too old for pop, too sensibly-dressed for alternative, too pop for classical and not ingratiating enough for a music business that has been taken over by TV.

"By some corporate somersault I ended up on a hip-hop label," he says of his deal with Def Jam/Island and the making of his last album When I Was Cruel. "The money and all the decision-making is done in New York and the sensibility of the company is largely hip hop. That's where the money is made."

"I just thought, I'll make a rock and roll record in a sonic language that these guys can understand, with a ferocious amount of bottom end on it. It'll still be my songs and it'll still be rock and roll but on a superficial level it'll sound like hip hop."

But in this formatted world, where most cues are visual, it's difficult to get anyone – record company, critics, fans – to focus on what you actually sound like as opposed to where you're thought to fit.

"We did Later With Jools Holland and Mary J. Blige was on opposite us and there was a bunch of thirteen year-old kids who had come to hear her. We did our first number and they were stony-faced through '45' and then we did 'When I Was Cruel' and Mary J. was starting to listen to the sample that's running through it and you could see it on her face. She's thinking, this is something I understand but I don't know what it is. Then she started getting into the groove of the thing and her backing singers got into it and of course all the little kids were watching her and in the end we were doing 'Chelsea' and she was flinging herself around and the kids were digging it. All music used to be mixed up like this. It's just a kind of rhythm and blues. It's back to whether people can hear. Most people can't hear.

"It's worse over here. The audience is older and there's no way through to the younger people. We had a number one college radio record with When I Was Cruel in the US but nothing like that would happen here. You have to accept that it's difficult to engage younger people because their heads are full of this nonsense and they don't know what you're talking about. We played at the V Festival in Chelmsford and it was the longest 50 minutes of my life. All these sullen little Thatcher's children looking up and sneering because we were old and we were on in the middle of the day between the Bluetones and Supergrass. We played abominably. It was just the age thing. Everybody had those long-peaked baseball caps on and they're looking at you and you're thinking, I don't like you as much as you don't like me. They're just the people you can see – these pinched-faced devil's children. Go home and listen to your Posh Spice records." Then he smiles. "I don't mean that, that's not fair, they probably love everything, probably go home and listen to Cecil Taylor records. It's just some days you're in a mood and it doesn't work."

After twenty five years the prospect of settling into a heritage role can be tempting. Elvis confesses to having been "very sceptical" of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame invitation. He had put out a statement that "putting rock and roll in a glass case would choke the life out of it".

"But it was other people's reaction, their being thrilled for us, made me think I would be ungracious if I didn't do it," he said. Then he added "I'm not going to get into any phoney reunions or insincere forgiveness. I only play with professional musicians. I play with the guys who are in my band now and that's it."

I realised he was talking about the former Attractions bass player who is persona non grata. "I have absolute respect for the contribution of the original line up of the Attractions to what I've done. I always speak with respect of Bruce Thomas and his playing but he's a fairly unbearable human being and I don't want to spend any more time with him."

You will spend a lot of time interviewing people in show business before you will hear the words "fairly unbearable human being" while the tape is running. But just as his early albums, currently being reissued with illuminating, self-critical sleeve notes by the artist, have been supplemented by an extraordinary number of extra live reworkings, promotion-only specials and cover versions as if he was never entirely happy to leave well alone, so Elvis's conversation is inclined to run on where more cautious souls might stop short. He is an entertaining conversationalist and occasional bitchiness is part of that entertainment.

Talking about Burt Bacharach he said "I was nervous for him when he came over in that time when he was being championed by people like Noel Gallagher" before taking a detour to say what he thought of the Oasis leader: "Noel's not a bad lad, he's written, let's face it, five songs and all the rest are just re-hashes and none of those were particularly original to begin with, all of them are just rewrites of old songs. They were good, they were in their moment, they've had their success now just shut the fuck up and write something better."

There are not a great deal of people who can be counted upon to have remarks to make about both Noel Gallagher and Bing Crosby. Vanity Fair magazine has wisely made great use of his talents as a musician/critic in their annual music issues. In the 2000 edition he picked and annotated a list of five hundred great records. This had a freshness and originality that made all those critical referenda look tiresome by comparison. "If in doubt, play track four" was his standard instruction.

"It was simultaneously a parlour game and very personal," he says of the list which started with Abba and progressed through Clifford Brown, Crowded House, John Dowland, Edward Elgar and Graham Central Station to Richard Thompson, Robert Wyatt and Lester Young. This year he picked music to get you through the day. At six in the morning he suggested Palestrina; Skip James at three in the afternoon; Joni Mitchell's Blue at eleven o'clock at night (adding that most of today's singer songwriters should spend a year listening to this album before sharing their pain with us).

Elvis turns up for our conversation unaccompanied, directly from a session with the Brodsky Quartet. With his black homburg, attache case, coat and scarf he passes unnoticed on the Fulham Road in a way that would have been difficult back in the late '70s when his mere presence seemed likely to spark a confrontation. "I don't remember us enjoying ourselves," he says of his early tours with The Attractions. "We were just trying to upset people." As a 48 year-old man who did his growing up in the '60s, began his musical career in the midst of punk, has worked with an array of notables in every area from pop to classical and demonstrated a furious curiosity about all forms of music, Elvis is well qualified to comment on the health of "the scene" into which When I Was Cruel was lowered. What does he think of mainstream rock right now?

"I don't know whether there is such a thing. I like The Vines. I saw them on some awards show and I thought they were pretty ferocious. I like the Strokes' stance but I think they need to stop drinking and write another record. They're having too much fun. 1've been there. I somehow managed to do both things for a long period of time. I think they'll wake up one morning and not like the way they look if they're not careful. They're starting to look like they've been punching each other too much.

"All those groups are in that moment where I was and then it passes and you then have to decide what you do with it. If you want to be on a 17 year-old girl's wall as a poster you had to do what it takes to be there – like Justin Timberlake or someone. But if you want to be a musician all your life you've got to not care if they take the poster down out of embarrassment after the season when they felt that funny way about you. You've got to decide whether you're in it for the long game or whether it's all about fame which is what it's all about in this country. You ask people what they want to be they say, a pop star. They don't say, a musician. They don't even know about that."

His attitude to many young performers reflects David Hockney's argument with the art schools – where are the basic technical skills? Elvis is quite clear about the problem: "They just can't sing. I blame headphones. It's made everyone go deaf to pitch. Everybody sings like a karaoke singer. All that TV ritual humiliation music like Pop Idols, all the singers sing exactly the same way. Technically speaking they have the ability to create sound but they have no pitch. The few times I've had the misfortune to catch those programmes and those people are called upon to sing acapella they can't stay in the home key for half a verse. They're not meaning to modulate, they just drift, they have no sense of pitch at all because none of them play instruments. They're used to singing along with records. You take the record away and they can't sing.

"Nobody today can sing with anything like the confidentiality of those vocal jazz records of the '50s – Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan. People today haven't heard those records – they've heard Mariah Carey, who in some ways has an amazing voice but absolutely no taste. That's 90 per cent of singers today – no taste. Just sing the bloody melody, what's the matter with you? If you want to get into a trilling, melismatic competition just ring up Stevie Wonder because he will kick your arse every time! Nobody's going to sing that kind of phrasing better than Stevie Wonder so why bother? What's it proving? It's proving that you can't hold a bloody note, that's what. It denotes some kind of nervous energy that's supposed to be sexy or something.

"This whole divas thing is complete bullshit. If you want to hear that done properly buy Aretha In Paris, then you'll hear the real thing. Hear 'Never Loved A Man' at half the speed of the studio recording. Amazing."

What counsel would he give if he were a judge on one of these programmes?

"Don't come on this programme. There's a peculiarly English delight in other people's embarrassment and humiliation. It's so tedious and small-minded. It promotes the people it deserves – these people whose sole claim to fame is the sheer volume of pap they've foisted on a gullible public. They're in the industry of music but not the art of music."

This distinction between the art of music and the industry of music is a favourite theme. Elvis comes from a family of musicians. His grandfather was a bandsman, his own father Ross MacManus was a singer with Joe Loss and still performs occasionally and his own son has played with Elvis "though each of us got into it differently. It's not like we handed each other the keys to the organ loft."

"I'm a working musician. This is what I do. I say this without any embarrassment at all. I am an artist. I am vocationally an artist who happens to be a musician and I happen to make my livelihood at it. I create works of imagination. I had to come to terms with the fact that it doesn't fit in. Being gifted with words in rock and roll is not exactly difficult. It's not over-populated with geniuses. Put me in among a bunch of philosophers or serious literary people and I wouldn't seem so smart. I have a one trick talent which is to write songs. I've understood it instinctively since I was tiny."

Before we met Elvis had announced the end of his 15 year marriage to Cait O'Riordan. The news passed without much newspaper interest. ("They think I retired long ago.") He has since been seen around town with the Canadian singer Diana Krall.

Two days before our meeting he had been to the George Harrison tribute show at the Albert Hall: "It was a lot of music to listen to. The second half was just George's songs back to back – really great but hard to listen to that many songs in a minor key Very, very dark disposition in harmony. What was just really thrilling was the amount of deep love that was expressed. Even Clapton – a musician that I find very frustrating because he's very reticent when he plays, as brilliant as he is technically – he played 'While My Guitar' and he was away, he was off through the roof. It's so great to see players like that confound your expectations. Joe Brown stole the show, came out at the very end after 'Wah Wah' and 'My Sweet Lord' and Paul doing a great version of 'All Things Must Pass' and sang 'Dream A Little Dream of You' on the ukelele almost to himself. It was a very nice way to end, very personal. Then they let these petals down from the roof and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. It was really well done, really decent."

Alongside his pop career and the sideline in punditry he has cultivated a second life as a versatile modern man of music. No other candidate for the rock and roll hall of fame has shown the same appetite for extending his range. "It creates separate 'books', as musicians used to say." These have ranged from adventures in the more luxurious end of pop like Painted From Memory, his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, through jazz with performances with the Charles Mingus orchestra, for whom he wrote and sang lyrics to old Mingus themes like This Subdues My Passion, all the way to the fringes of art music with The Brodsky Quartet and The Juliet Letters.

"It's a way to the future," he explained when asked what he derives from all these activities. "You can create songs in different ways to get different moods. I love to play with a rock and roll band, I love to play with a jazz band, love to play with a chamber orchestra. I don't see why I can't do all these things. I'm not in the pop continuum. I don't have to protect my brand. I don't give a fuck about that. I just want to explore different things and at different times the possibilities are that I'll get an invitation, there will be a one-off concert and you'll pour everything into preparing and it'll be done and you'll move on to something else."

In 2000, quite out of the blue, he was asked to write the music for a ballet based on A Midsummer Night's Dream for an Italian provincial company. Despite having no experience of dance or writing for an orchestra he took it on. It took him ten weeks to write it out into full score which was a huge advance considering that eight years earlier he couldn't write music at all.

When stymied he would ring arranger friends for advice. The ballet was performed in the Teatro Communale: "I couldn't believe I'd imagined all this music."

This music has already been recorded under the terms of his contract with Deutsche Grammophon with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting: "He gave me a really intelligent, sensitive and compassionate critique of it. I made huge cuts and rewrote some of the transitions and then in April we went into the studio and I sat there agog while he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra performing my music which then sounded unbelievable. Michael is a lovely man with huge experience. This is the man who played James Brown records to Stravinsky so there's nothing going to scare him. He's a pianist, a conductor, a premier interpreter of Mahler so there's nothing I'm going to throw at him that's going to phase him. He was very generous and encouraging. He knows that if nothing is added this kind of music will just die out."

There is every chance that Costello's "legitimate" career, which meanders according to taste, serendipitous invitations and the power of his strange name to open doors, could yet prove more commercial than his straight pop output. Elvis has released scores of singles from his mainstream albums since "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" went to number four in 1980. Few of them have done much more than flagged up the release of an album. Like his collaborator Paul McCartney he has found that there's a strain of artful, narrative pop which has no home in today's chart. However he is regularly called upon by people looking to cast a singer for a particular job and these can have undreamed-of outcomes.

In Japan he was asked to record the Charlie Chaplin song "Smile" for the soundtrack of a TV detective show. The discipline of working to a commission clearly suits the new, musically literate Costello. "I had eight days to sort out the arrangement and I recorded it in New York with an eight-piece string section and a band of downtown guys playing live, did it like last house at the Folies Bergere showbiz arrangement, and then they wanted a slower version so Steve Nieve got some musicians together in Paris and did another track which I then sung over in Dublin and we had an A and a B side and suddenly we had a hit. That's my second international crooner hit after 'She'."

There was a similar approach from Notting Hill writer Richard Curtis. "He rang me up and said, I'm going to ruin your reputation – I want you to sing She. It's like a character actor like Walter Pidgeon suddenly getting to be Cary Grant. I'm getting to play the romantic lead for the one time in my career. So I just sang it like I really meant it – and I do when I'm singing it. I'm singing it live with the London Symphony Orchestra and looking at Julia Roberts that high on the screen while we're doing it. How often do you get to do that?"

There are love songs on every Costello album from My Aim Is True to When I Was Cruel but they are often so booby-trapped with irony that we feel uncomfortable borrowing them for our own devices in the way that we need to. There's an irony in the fact that since 1980 Britains most vital singer-songwriter has enjoyed more hits with other people's songs – 'I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down', 'Good Year For The Roses', 'She' and 'Smile' – than he has with his own personality vehicles. She probably connected with more people than any Elvis song since 'Oliver's Army' and also showcased a more tender and unambiguous vocal performance than he has usually been associated with.

"A few years ago I would have thought that would make me look too vulnerable because I could write a truer reflection of my own feelings than that. There's always got to be an escape clause in the last verse of a love song for me. I'm getting over that now as I get older, just writing straight out what I feel. I thought, that's not what people want from me. Smokey Robinson can do that open-hearted thing better than me. I write the twisted version because I understand it and somebody needs that."

But there are also people who want the simple idea which resonates, who aren't bothered about what the artist was trying to put over so much as taking something they can use. During his week in London Elvis went to see Elton John play a benefit for the Royal College Of Music: "He was fantastic. I'd never seen him before. He's one of those people you lose sight of as a musician because of the whole celeb aspect. It's strange. A song would begin and I'd go, bloody hell, I know all the words of this! I remember coming up around here somewhere and buying his second record and getting halfway home and passing a music shop somewhere and seeing a Joni Mitchell songbook which I hadn't seen anywhere else and I'd spent the last of my money on that. I thought, I'll never see that again! I'd just come from Twickenham but then had to walk home.

"The Joni catalogue I know backwards but I hadn't sat down and listened to an Elton John album in years and it was fantastic. He sang really soulfully with a band and then with an orchestra from the Royal College of Music. It was a restatement of him the musician. I think you have to admit to yourself that in the past you've broken with things you'd like because you didn't like the cut of their jib."

Earlier in the conversation we had been talking about the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music which places highly-arranged formal music alongside the rootsier material we have learned to regard as authentic. "The way we edit music history is very interesting because Robert Johnson apparently knew other songs – they just asked him to play the blues. As an entertainer he had to know minstrel songs, which is why a group like The Mississippi Sheiks are so interesting because some of their songs sound like Jimmie Rodgers, some sound like blues and hillbilly music and in their music you can hear the connection between Charlie Patton and that and even Hoagy Carmichael. It's all connected through a group like The Mississippi Sheiks who play the entertainment music that they know. They'd do jolly songs and then a blues. They were a proper group. Like The Beatles were at first. They had to be able to do Besame Mucho because the public demanded it. Nowadays if that kind of thing is done it's ironically with all the subtlety of a falling anvil."

Elvis agreed to do this interview, at a time when he has no new product to plug, because he was interested in the idea of WORD, because he likes to talk about music and also because he's, if anything, overexcited about his immediate plans: "I just wrote forty of the best songs l ever wrote in the last eight weeks. Most of them I wrote in a two week period. I can work at work but right now it feels like something quite different. It feels like I've been struck by lightning."

The recording of the ballet music was being kept in the can for a year and was to be prefaced by two other Costello projects to take advantage of this lightning strike. One was to be an album with his band The Imposters (Pete Thomas, Steve Nieve and Davey Faragher) recorded on the road in the Southern states of the USA. The idea was to book a tour of towns like Mobile and Memphis, play small theatres and then go into local studios to capture some of that flavour. Then they were going to make what Elvis calls his uptown record, "a record with some of the orchestral colours in it. We'll go and record songs that will range from art songs to some of the Mingus tunes, but mainly my own."

A few days later he called to say that he had changed his mind about the Southern adventure. (You will interview a lot of rock stars before getting the "I changed my mind" call.) "When I sat down with everybody I realised I was being more than a little idealistic," he said. "It would have meant something like ten albums in twelve months, including all the reissues and a soundtrack project. I still intend to do that Southern thing. I just don't want to cram it all into one year.

"I feel I should go with my strongest songs, the ones that I feel most deeply about. That's never a bad thing to do. When I Was Cruel had a lot of panache and a lot of attitude but it didn't have a tremendous amount of heart. The nature of the subject matter didn't bring it out in me. I'm feeling it differently now, everything.

"Eight to ten weeks ago I started to sing from directly inside of me. Maybe it was the revelatory experience of seeing a couple of concerts that made me feel that maybe I was keeping too much distance between me and what I was singing. I saw Steve open up for us in Paris and I was so moved by the open-hearted way in which he sang. Sometimes when you're on a big long rock and roll tour the showman aspect can take over and you stop getting deep inside the material and you're more concerned over whether people are moving their feet. Heaven knows, I'm not in a dance band. I love it when people move but that's best when it's spontaneous and the less we worried about it the more it happened. People were flinging themselves at the stage by the end of the tour and yet we were playing nine ballads back to back. The fervour got much stronger and I had this 'l must make my witness' feeling, like Peter Finch in Network. On my way to the stage sometimes you feel, it's in me and it's got to come out. It's a soulful feeling."

Then he adds feelingly. "Because I've turned a phrase or two people think I'm not emotional. Well they read that wrong."

In the last issue of WORD Neil Tennant talked about older musicians "maturing in an interesting way". Musicians of Elvis's generation approach the prospect of their fiftieth year having watched Jagger and Dylan closely enough to know that this is not the end. The challenge is to occupy a second phase with work that is more than a mere echo of former glories. For Elvis the breakthrough into what he calls "more formal kinds of presentation' may be the answer.

"Rock and roll, being such a conservative format, is easy, really. You just turn it up and it's there. When you get it right it's fantastic. Think of all the times people don't get it right and bore you to tears.

"When you make these intricate rock and roll records you often lose the thread. I think I can make this record in the spring without doing that because: 1) I'm feeling the songs I've just written very acutely and; 2) I can now write the arrangements in total in advance if I want to bring in other colours. I'm not doing things by trial and error and adding things and subtracting them in the mix. I'm actually planning to play them live with the entire band playing them at once even if it's a twenty-piece ensemble. Those things will be notated very tightly and then performed and then you get a cohesion with everything breathing together.

"When you're making a record with the cautious approach you don't know whether you've judged the rhythm section too heavy or too light and then you add the strings and they seem like a separate entity. They seem like they're in another room because usually they are – in another room recorded on a different day. The air's different, your mood's different. Then you have to glue them together and you end up turning up the rhythm section to balance it, instead of just playing the way you would. Here, even if the musical values are less abrasive, they're delivered as vividly as if it were a spontaneous rock and roll performance. Vivid is where the feeling is and it's all about feeling."

Since the '60s it's been the norm for pop performers to build records one layer at a time. This made allowances for lack of formal training while also ensuring a level of density in direct proportion to the recording budget. When you know you're going to hand out the sheet music, tap the stand and count in a bunch of musicians a different vocabulary follows:

"Boldness, curiosity and adventure," says Elvis. "Those are the three words."

Then, being Elvis, he adds some more: "And joy. And beauty. That's the missing quality in a lot of music. There's no aspiration to beauty. I've been guilty of that. I've always looked for the escape hatch from feeling for putting it out there. The get-out clause of irony or sarcasm or double meaning. That's been the way I have felt when I wrote them but that isn't the way I'm feeling right now. That's the big difference.

"Things are moving very fast for me. I've recognised the need to put what I'm writing right at the centre of what I'm doing, without losing feeling or losing my nerve about it. There's been some things that I've been putting distance on and I need to stop doing that. You have to keep looking and trying and failing as well. The minute you know it all you've tied yourself up in some kind of knot. I don't want to know everything. l know nothing."

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The Word, No. 2, April 2003


David Hepworth interviews Elvis Costello.

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