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Interview with Elvis
Rolling Stone, 2002-05-15
- Rob Sheffield


Elvis Pumps It Up

Costello reflects on life, love and Destiny's Child

Elvis Costello has been a busy man the past few years. The forty-seven-year-old songwriter has been traveling the world with his wife, former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan, visiting places from Ethiopia to the South Pole. He's collaborated with Burt Bacharach, opera star Anne Sofie von Otter and the London Symphony Orchestra, for whom he just composed his first-ever symphonic score. But he has also gotten around to something he hasn't done in years: writing and recording a bunch of top-notch Elvis Costello songs. Although he sounded dusty on most of his Nineties projects, he kicks away the cobwebs on When I Was Cruel, his fastest, funniest and best album in fifteen years. Jovial, charming, every inch the gentleman rock star, Costello took time in his posh New York hotel room to reflect on life, love and Destiny's Child.

People keep saying this album is a return to your rock roots. But it doesn't sound like any of your other records.

No, I don't think so, either. I'm just raising my voice again and hitting the guitar. We cut the record as a trio. [Keyboardist] Steve [Nieve] couldn't make it for the first six days we were in the studio. He was the musical director for a girl called Vanessa Paradis, the French singer, and he was on tour in France with her. And I had to manage to get [drummer] Pete [Thomas] and [bassist] Davey [Faragher] from the Ally McBeal show. So it was a funny thing -- I had these little, skinny women standing between me and rock & roll!

You sing about your wife a lot on the new album.

They're not your typical love songs. "15 Petals" is a song about the way love picks you up and hurls you around the room. That's a great feeling -- it's a great thing to happen to you. "My Little Blue Window" is a note of thanks for someone who comes and redirects your gaze away from the melancholy view. I definitely need that. I'm naturally inclined to the melancholy side of things.

An Irish trait.

I suppose it is, yeah! I've had it since I was a little kid. I was an altar boy when I was a child, and I always used to get the funerals to do. I guess I had a somber face for a little kid. "Get him -- he looks sad!"

But aren't all these happy love songs going to ruin your image?

Well, maybe I've written something different, which is always the aim. Like, somebody came up to me recently and told me, " 'I Want You' [from Blood and Chocolate] is the most beautiful love song ever written." And I thought, "Wow, that's a dark thought!" But you can never tell, you see, how someone's going to hear something.

Some people think "Alison" is about a murder.

Yeah, which it isn't. It's about disappointing somebody. It's a thin line between love and hate, as the Persuaders sang.

My favorite album is Trust. I never convince anyone to agree with me.

Oh, that's a good record. I think it has one of the greatest Attractions performances, "New Lace Sleeves." Neil LaBute, who's making a film at the moment, wants to use "Lovers Walk." It's nice when someone suggests a song I might have almost forgotten about. I remember when The Sopranos used "Complicated Shadows" in the first season, and then "High Fidelity" -- they used songs to actually extend the drama, rather than just sticking a fashionable ballad at the end of the film.

You've been in a lot of films the past few years.

Yeah, haven't I? One I really liked that never did anything -- though I think it'll probably be a little cult film in years to come -- was 200 Cigarettes.

And Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me?

Heather Graham, what a doll. That's a hard job, isn't it, watching Heather dance around in that dress all day?

You've gone through so many musical changes. Do you have a favorite?

You mentioned Trust -- that's a record that falls between the cracks a little bit. I like the second one [This Year's Model], out of the early ones. And then I like Imperial Bedroom, King of America and Blood and Chocolate. I like Mighty Like a Rose, which a lot of people don't. Success isn't always the measure of it.

Is it a relief leaving the "angry young man" baggage behind?

You can't completely leave everything behind, because people will remind you of it. But for me, I left that game behind years ago. I don't really have an ambition for fame. I was out of that game in 1979. I got close enough to see that I didn't want to be there. I can walk around the street, you know. I have friends who can't do that.

I was listening to a Dylan bootleg the other day, from a New York show, July '99, where he brings you onstage to sing "I Shall Be Released." He says, "Here's a man who needs no introduction -- it's an honor to have him here: Mr. Elvis Costello!"

He said that? I'd love to hear that! I loved that show -- that's my favorite show I've ever seen Bob do. He did a lot of unusual songs, like "Boots of Spanish Leather." There were a couple of young girls up front flirting with him outrageously, and I think it had a very positive effect on the show.

Any younger songwriters turning you on these days?

Cannibal Ox. Have you heard that record, The Cold Vein? It's an extraordinary record. I've bought it a few times, because I keep giving it away to friends. That kind of fluency and imagination, the words as well as the sounds -- it leaves most bands in the dust. And I listen to a lot of R&B. I want Destiny's Child to do "Spooky Girlfriend." I wrote it for them, actually. I think they'd do it great! It's absolutely made for them!



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