As she might be said to have started off a trend for confessional songwriting with her 1971 album, Blue, we have put together as part of our celebration of Joni Mitchell's 70th birthday a list of the 50 most soul-baring singer-songwriter albums, the compilation of which reminded me of a conversation with Elvis Costello I had many years ago about this very subject, about which he inevitably had some pretty forthright opinions.
It was May, 1989, and I was in Dublin to interview Costello about Spike, his new album, just out, but we had somehow ended up talking about an unhappy earlier period in his life, the turmoil of which often found its way into his songs, many of them notable for their unsettling candour. It had seemed to some that he may have courted emotional distress for inspiration, a suggestion that led to the following exchange.
"Was I purposely fucking up my life to give myself something to write about?" he chuckled mordantly. "I think I did that for about a year," he added with a weary laugh. "And that's at the very most. Then I began to mistrust the results. Because if you do that, it's like when they pour acid into rabbits' eyes or something. What does it prove? It proves that it hurts the animal. Very smart. It's unnecessary research. And I guess I did some unnecessary research for a while. Then I'd write something that would scare the hell out of me. Like there's a couple of songs on Get Happy!! that when I read them back, I just scared the hell out of myself. And I thought, 'Uh-uh. Better not think any more about this. It's going too far.' Because you can think too fucking much, you know. And it gets a bit fucking evil.
"I can recognise sometimes when I went too far. But then again, I was never really that specific. I mean, people who really do pay too much attention for their own good have tried to peg certain songs to certain people. It's like a game, isn't it? That started in the '70s with people like Joni Mitchell. People always wanted to know who those songs were about. And people have tried that with me, and they've always been wrong.
"Do I resent people looking for the autobiographical in my songs? No, I don't resent it. I just blame John Lennon. It's Plastic Ono Band, that album started it all. After that, everything was supposed to be fucking confessional. The early '70s were full of people baring their fucking souls for public scrutiny. There were records whose authenticity depended on their confessional aspect, and if you read certain magazines and the background interviews, you knew what these songs were about.
"And, for me, that always used to spoil it. Particularly when you found out what dickheads some of the people were that they were writing about. I'd rather have them be like Smokey Robinson songs, which could be about anyone. I don't think it's important that people know who 'Alison' was about. It's none of their fucking business. It's a song. 'I Want You' is a song. It doesn't matter who it's about. It's just a song. It's a really well-written song. It's also very personal. But you don't have to know the whole story to be touched by it. But there are still people, yeah, who want everything I've ever done documented and explained — but we're really getting into something else here," he said, perhaps recalling what we're actually here to talk about, which is his new album. "Like I say," he went on anyway, "it's all in the past. None of it means a damn. You can't go digging around for ever in the past. It's history. Let it fucking go."