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Elvis Costello: an interview

Our editor writes:

I first saw Elvis Costello and The Attractions in 1981. This was at the old Ipswich Gaumont, and it was something of a Damascus Road experience: The Attractions sounded like God's pub band and Elvis himself threw everything into it. At one point, he got down on his knees and, as he was yelling into the audience, I thought: I want to do that too. I never did, but it's very nice indeed to be able to feature the following interview, conducted by Aidan Semmens before Elvis was due to visit Ipswich.

AS They tell me you like playing in Ipswich, Elvis, is that right?

EC Er... yes.

AS Why particularly?

EC Did they tell you that?

AS I wondered if it was a bit of PR-speak?

EC It sounds like a complete lie to me! Whenever I have played there I've had a good time, but I think it's only a couple of times that I've been there at all because I suppose out in your part of the world the regular gig that people used to play would be Norwich University. When we used to do tours that stopped every fifty miles or so, which we don't do so much now, Ipswich would tend to get left out.

I've tended the last couple of years to fall into a bit of a trap of just playing the major cities. The last tour with The Attractions I maybe just went to Liverpool, Newcastle, places like that. This time a couple of the places we've been to, like Plymouth, I understand it was nearly twenty years since we'd been there.

AS It's perhaps a more intimate environment somewhere like that, or Ipswich. By the sound of it it's a more intimate sort of performance you're doing. Do you prefer that, or is it just a change?

EC I've been doing this now for the last couple of years, since I've drifted apart from the rest of the band. I've done a number of things. I've been a guest of other artists, I've performed with them. Then of course in the last year I've done the single "She" and played with a vast orchestra. And when I did the record with Burt Bacharach we played a few dates – I think we just did one in England, at the Festival Hall, with a thirty-piece ensemble.

With a thirty-piece of course you can recreate something like the sound of the record, while, if you play with just the two of you, particularly people who have worked together so long, you can really look at songs again. Sometimes you can go right back to the way they were written. Of course, after maybe twenty years the emotion of the song might have changed, but musically speaking you can go back to the way the accompaniment was.

I don't want to give everything away, but we've got a few tricks up our sleeve. I don't want people to think it's like music in a gallery; Steve doesn't just play acoustic piano, he also plays electronic instruments, and I play some electric guitar, so we've got changes of texture in there. It's certainly not a recital – we're not looking for reverent silence or anything, but we really don't mind. If people just want to sit and listen and be very still the theatre can offer you that. We have experienced both things on this tour: in Nottingham people were really appreciative at the end of numbers but the silence was almost eerie during numbers. In another place they were more boisterous and the atmosphere was a little bit like we were a rock 'n' roll band. We're also playing a lot of rhythmic stuff.

AS You write such good songs that deserve listening to. I wonder sometimes if the big productions have drowned that.

EC I don't know if they have or not. I suppose people know the lyrics in the main from the recordings, if they've got the records. So if I'm singing songs, whether they're from last year or twenty years ago, it's how I sing them; it's the emotion. There's also something in the order in which songs can be presented on stage – a sort of story can be built up. For example, if two songs have something in common lyrically, if you put them back to back on stage, there can be a cumulative effect.

AS Do you have a given set on this tour, or are you changing it from night to night?

EC We have a structure we've developed. It's a little different from the structure we had on the tour in the States which we've just concluded because there are songs which are well known over there that are not so well known over here. At the same time, inside that structure there are places where we can rotate a group of songs that perhaps rhythmically or tempo-wise will do the same job. To stop ourselves from getting stale we change it from night to night. I don't feel we're obliged to play all the hits every night because people might say "I might as well have sat at home and listened to the record". There'll be a selection, but there's enough over twenty years that we might not play them all.

Even since our tour in the spring we've got a lot of new material. There's a song that Steve and I wrote on the road, one that we've been working on for a while and about five songs that I've written on my own. There's one I wrote with Carole King and two that I wrote for a movie I've just been doing in America that's very different in character and obviously in content because it relates to the story. It's a musical but it's a serious story. I play two characters in the movie so I have two little songs that represent them, but I play them as one piece because they are related musically.

AS So that's another new departure for you.

EC Another new thing, yeah – very different because it's with a lot of people from R&B and hip-hop so I'm the odd man out. It's called Prison Song, it's directed by Darnell Martin and co-written by her and Q-Tip, who was in A Tribe Called Quest and is now a solo artist, and he plays the lead.

It follows a kid from when he's a nine-year-old to when he's a young man. He ends up in prison as the title suggests and it's a pretty critical film, very powerful. I think it's going to come out next year. It's still in production. I just did my little bit. It's only a small role but it was very good to do.

AS Is that following on from the Austin Powers thing?

EC It's different. That was great, a lot of people have obviously seen that, it's nudged their elbow about me I think – along with the song "She", which is not particularly typical of the music I do, to say the least. I enjoyed singing that song, I'm not going to deny it. At the time I thought it was a bit of a challenge: would I be able to carry it off because it's so different from everything else I do? Put aside whether you like Charles Aznavour's voice or not, it's quite a beautiful composition. To sing a straight song was a bit of a challenge because so many of my songs have got a twist in the tale; it was like having to play straight for once. So I suppose this Prison Song thing was equally a challenge in another direction. I'm not playing myself for once.

Most of the movie roles I've had have been a sort of parody of myself, they've been light-hearted things, I just did them for a gag. But this is a serious film and to be a part of it and to try and be a credible dramatic character, it's not like I've suddenly got to take on a huge volume of lines to say, but I still have to represent this person believably.

AS Is Elvis Costello a character? I've sometimes wondered that. When My Aim Is True first came out there were suggestions that it was a character put on by Nick Lowe, and then we found out it's not, it's you, but I was wondering...

EC Yes, at the very beginning there was an identity created which I sort of stepped into. Then beyond that the preconceived ideas about that character would have been a complete straitjacket if I hadn't said "Well I've got to go beyond this". Rather than do a Mike Yarwood and say "And this is me" after two years you've got to be realistic, you've become known by that, at a commercial level you'd be cutting the ground from under your feet – but I've done a fair amount of work over the years trying to indicate different aspects to a person beyond the name.

It is a little bit maddening. I can't say I lose sleep about it, but you're bound to react to the laziness of thought of somebody who says to you after twenty years of very diverse work, much of which you've put your heart and soul into, "So you're known for 'Oliver's Army'...". Only somebody who hasn't been paying attention would say something like that.

Maybe when it comes to the sort of level of attention exhibited by something like Stars In Your Eyes or Frank Skinner's parody of me, of course they're going to pick that song because for the age group of people watching those things that's the song they're going to remember most. But recently there was another take-off of me on the TV and it was of me singing "She", so maybe in twenty years time they'll see me on TV and say "Oh look, there's that bloke who sang 'She'".

Right now I've got a situation where, completely out of the blue, I'm the most requested Anglo artist in Brazil – more than Ricky Martin, who strangely enough counts as an Anglo because he sings in English, and more than The Backstreet Boys. If they had singles in Brazil we'd be number one. They just have radio charts and we're number one in that.

In another part of the world they might never know that I wrote "Shipbuilding" or any other song that if you know my stuff you might like, but "She" is the only song they know me for. So it might be if I go to do concerts there they'll say "He doesn't sound like 'She', does he?"

AS No album really sounds like any other album throughout your career, does it? Has that been conscious?

EC Not sounding like other people and not having all your records sound the same is a thing to aspire to – to try to present a genuine different view each time.

AS Have you got a favourite among your albums?

EC Like anyone else it depends upon my mood. I don't sit around listening to them. Inevitably the most recent things are the things you feel closest to. Even after a year I like Painted From Memory. I really like those compositions. It was a big adventure to write with Burt.

Similarly, things that are very different from where I started out from, like The Juliet Letters. I can find fault with my own performances in any record, but it's a record that has the strangest spell on people. I hear every tentative moment in it and I hear the fact that it was recorded very cheaply, and that it doesn't sonically carry the clout of the later records with The Attractions.

This Year's Model tends to be of the earlier ones my favourite, and I like records like Imperial Bedroom and Blood And Chocolate, which are pretty contrasting. But then I'm also very fond of King Of America.

AS King Of America and Blood And Chocolate make quite an interesting pair, don't they, because they came out in quite close order and sound so different.

EC At different times we've been lucky to be able to break down the record company conveyor belt. Back in 1980 we'd released I think about forty songs, which was uncommon, then we released those two albums in about nine months. But if you bear in mind, back in the 1960s, when I started buying records for myself, people did release records at five- or six-month intervals, it wasn't unusual.

I think if you have something different to say you should say it when you want to say it. Equally, if you want to take a couple of years, as I did just after that, to explore other things and not feel obliged to record, what's worse than putting out to the public a record that you had to record because it said so in the calendar?

Right now I'm in a situation where, having had a big success with the Best Of recently, I'm getting the encouragement to record very quickly. Well, I've got a lot of good songs right now, but they're all from different sources.

There's some I've written with Steve that perhaps belong a little more in the recital hall – very intricate songs that have the complexity of The Juliet Letters, though they're very different material. Then I've written some songs for a story that I'm working on, that I haven't really worked out in my own mind how I want to present it. It's called The Delivery Man. The songs are mostly in the voices of characters, and it might be that when I come to it I want other people to be my guests and sing parts, or I might decide to sing it all myself. I don't know, I haven't made up my mind because I haven't finishing writing it. What's good is to have a willing enough group of listeners in the audience that I can come on stage and sing a brand new song and they'll listen to it. That way I get to learn a little bit about it and I get to present it at this stage of development. So I've got two songs from The Delivery Man. And of the rest of the new songs that I'm singing one was a one-off that I wrote with Carole King, just for the hell of it, and the other's a song that I just wrote this summer.

When people ask me after the show "When can I get that on record?" I say I don't know, I might scrap all of these songs and write ten more. I don't feel obliged that the next ten songs will necessarily make the next record: what should happen is that the next ten songs that hang coherently together will be the next record and the others will emerge later in the right context.

I learned from the records that I made in the early nineties that were so diverse. I understand the logic but others find it hard to listen through because to have so much diversity – one minute it's rock and the next minute it's something else; one minute it's in quite understood musical barriers and the next it's on Mars – is asking a lot beyond that trust that you do require in your audience. They're paying you by buying your record or your concert ticket – they're paying for your view, for how you order your music.

AS You did that very successfully in King Of America, because every track sounds very different and yet the whole thing hangs together as a very coherent piece of work.

EC Thank you. I think it does. We spent a bit of time there juxtaposing the different groups that played on that album. I took that to an even more expanded position with records like Spike and Mighty Like A Rose, which we had a lot of success with, but we did get a bit of backlash, particularly from critics, that the records weren't coherent or didn't work. To me they just had ambition and they were about discovering things.

The strange thing is that as time goes by certain songs do prevail. A song that has been very important on the current tour is "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4", which is the final song on Mighty Like A Rose. Just about every night people come up and say, "Where is that song from? It's my favourite song of the whole evening".

It's happened time and time again. The other night in Plymouth, a woman came up and said she recognised the melody because it was in GBH – which it was, in the soundtrack for GBH, the Alan Bleasdale TV series – and it made me feel very happy that somebody could recognise it just as music when she had literally never heard the song. It's not a facile pop tune, it's a dense sort of melody, and the lyric is quite a considered thought, so there's a place for that in the concert hall alongside things that have a lighter heart.

Then again I might sing "Falling In Love Again" if the mood takes me – the song I did in Austin Powers. Every song has its emotional weight: if every song is very intense you'll feel after a while that you're in some Lenten ceremony, that everyone should be wearing purple robes.

AS You do a long show, I gather...

EC Shows have been two hours and three hours. It depends on the audience. If the mood is there we'll keep playing, if we get the impression people want to listen. We do a set programme of stuff, then we might improvise within that, then we can improvise some more after. Some nights we go into a much more concentrated mood, where it will be all slow ballads; another night it turns into a rock 'n' roll show.

AS So it's sort of make it up as you go along...

EC Well, we know combinations of things that will work. If everybody is standing on the chairs or in the aisles it doesn't necessarily follow that they want to dance. It might be they're just gathered together and want to hear more.

AS It sounds a much more two-way thing than most concerts are.

EC Because of the volume we're playing at, it is.

I'm not saying we want people to jump up on the stage and join in; or if they want to start heckling, calling for their favourite song, that doesn't work either, because what you pay the money for is to let me present it to you. The song will probably turn up, but there's a time and place for each song. I've got to judge when I can best sing it.

If you just feel that you're on a conveyor belt, or you're a jukebox and people just push the buttons, then there's nothing creative, you're not really doing anything – that's the best I can describe it.

AS It makes a lot of sense. Just one last question if I may, Elvis: you've worked with an astonishing range of people – you've appeared on lots of people's albums; lots of different people have appeared on yours (I can't imagine anyone else has worked with both Donal Lunny and Burt Bacharach, for example) – is there anyone you've been particularly thrilled to work with?

EC If somebody had said to me when I was growing up, when I first picked up a guitar, "One day, young man, you will play with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, and it's really true, it's not just a fantasy" – obviously you'd be lying if you didn't say "Well, that would be pretty amazing". But all these other people that I may not have had any knowledge of before I was in the flow of this business, people that may not be household names, each one of those experiences has been truly valuable.

The whole point is presenting something different to me and hearing something different to what I do. Like John Harle asked me to work on his Shakespearean settings, and it's not really fair to compare that with, for example, working with Burt Bacharach or writing "Shipbuilding" with Clive Langer.

I saw David Bowie on television the other day and someone asked what his favourite song was and he said "Shipbuilding". I never knew he liked that song! Somebody who's had all the ambition he's had in his career, of all the songs he could have picked, he picked "Shipbuilding"? It's amazing!

AS Good choice, I think.

EC He chose Robert Wyatt's version, rightly, as the definitive version.

So I can't really pick one person ahead of another, and I don't really have one person I long to work with. It'll come out of a chance encounter, or you can be friends with somebody... There isn't one above any other – they've all been something I wouldn't trade. Very few things I've got into and thought, "Well, this is a waste of time". In fact, none really, because you don't get that deep in if you realise it wouldn't work.

AS Well, thank you very much for your time, Elvis. I know you have to go now.

EC I look forward to seeing you in Ipswich soon.

AS Wednesday week...

This is the full transcript of an interview conducted in 1999. Aidan Semmens is the author of, among other collections, Life Has Become More Cheerful, There Will Be Singing and The Jazz Age. For several years he was a weekly columnist for the Ipswich Star and the Eastern Daily Press.

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