Interview: Elvis Costello
It’s morning in Vancouver, where Elvis Costello lives some of the time, and he’s already motormouthing away in a round of phone interviews promoting his latest tour with The Imposters, which will see the band back in Edinburgh tomorrow.
I imagine him sitting back in his pork pie hat and Buddy Holly goggles – I’d ask him what he’s wearing but it’s hard to get a word in, and with 15 minutes and the clock ticking, not to mention a bit of crackle of his Liverpudlian, London, Stateside tones, I want to make the questions count. Interviewing Costello is about lobbing a question into a monologue you wouldn’t want to stop; it’s a case of just buckle up and enjoy the ride. He’s confident, slightly theatrical and entertaining, and when it comes to words, Costello is in charge, which is why the spoken word album version of his 672-page autobiography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, was nominated for a Grammy.
Back on the road with The Imposters (drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and bassist Davey Faragher) and backing singers Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, Costello is raring to go. With a formidable catalogue stretching all the way back to the 1977 Stiff Tour and forward to last year’s You Shouldn’t Look At Me that Way, for the movie Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool starring Annette Bening and Jamie Bell, plus a brand new studio album on which “the paint isn’t even dry”, what will they play in Edinburgh?
“I have NO idea,” he says. “But they’re all gonna be good, I know that, they’re all gonna be GREAT songs and people are gonna LOVE them! They’re probably gonna be the BEST songs you’ve ever heard.” He laughs, then dials it down. “I don’t know.” Then up again… “I’m actually only gonna play songs by other people. I was thinking maybe The Pussycat Dolls, maybe a few tunes by Oasis...”
Costello is toying with me, it’s like a cat playing with a mouse and I manage a squeaky, “that sounds great” before he takes pity on me and says, “the classics. We’re gonna play the classics. Although we played a show in Brooklyn this winter and had two or three brand new tunes in there. Then there are the songs that have sort of stuck around, Alison, My Funny Valentine...
“You know when you start out as a songwriter you sort of hope your songs are gonna reach a couple of people so it’s a big surprise to find that 40 years later somebody wants to hear that tune – not every one of them – but a few. I try not to get conceited about it, but it’s amazing to me that people want to hear a song I wrote so long ago and that’s a big achievement, particularly if you can put it alongside a song you wrote last week, or a song that maybe escaped people’s notice that becomes a highlight. That’s what we found when we last played and I don’t know why we wouldn’t try to do that again, depending on the audience in Edinburgh – we’ve played there many times, you know…”
I remember, the My Aim is True tour with Costello clutching his Fender Jazzmaster like a weapon, the snarl and sweet of his whipsmart lyrics and the Attractions’ tighter than their drainpipes sound, pumping it up, then again in 1980...
“Yeah, the Armed Forces tour,” he says.
The Falklands, The Troubles, British fascism, they were all his targets and it was buzzing, but that was a lifetime ago and Costello’s not one for nostalgia, so does he still get the same excitement from performing now?
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t,” he says. “There’s an element of surprise when you first appear, then you find yourself a few years later trying to work out what to do with your own curiosities about music and the new stories you want to tell. When the novelty of your first appearance has worn off and people have moved on to Wham! and it’s not your moment in the pop spotlight any more. I remember thinking ‘look at this!’, being on the cover of some weekly pop magazine, but that wasn’t my main objective, it was just to be a songwriter and make records maybe, and I got lucky.
“There’s a weird moment when you’re current, then you move beyond that and it’s whether you spend the rest of your life trying to remind people of this brief, unlikely moment of pop stardom, or whether you base it on the songs you’ve got and the stories they tell and how you feel about them...”
He continues, without pause, segueing back to my question about the playlist...
“So if a song doesn’t feature, it probably means I’ve lost the feeling for singing it and I don’t want to be dishonest and sing it for reasons of nostalgia. But if the song still contains some feeling and you can sing it with complete conviction, albeit a little differently because you have figured some perspective on it, then sing it.”
Faced with four decades of music to choose from, the 63-year old latterly went down the vaudeville route with The Spectacular Singing Songbook and its lottery set. It was mixed up even further for the stripped back solo De Tour, and different songs every night, which he performed in Scotland last year.
“De Tour, was related to the publication of my memoir because it took some of the same territory of anecdote and memory and connected it to the songs. I may have said broadly the same thing every night, how I got to the anecdotes from the songs was different. It’s a kind of troubadour track I’ve been on for the last ten years, and it reached a point where I felt like I’d done everything I could do with that, so I thought ‘what’s next?”
What’s next was a musical, A Face in the Crowd, for which he wrote 21 songs, paired with an adaptation of the short story ‘Your Arkansas Traveller’ by Budd Schulberg. Made into a film by Elia Kazan in 1957, it’s about a drifter who rises to fame and power through TV.
“It’s about the power of TV to create monsters – not that we would know anything about that today,“ he says, mildly sardonic.
This is Costello the impresario, a role he prefers to pop star, but the process of aligning the tunes, cast and theatres requires patience, something with which Costello confesses to struggle.
In the meantime, Costello and the Imposters toured the US last summer with Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers, performing rearranged songs from the 1982 album, “and others that kept company with them,” he says. “It was the best I’ve ever heard the Imposters play, because it was a greater variety to tackle, but we don’t want to travel the world doing exclusively a 35-year-old repertoire, so it was ‘let’s record another record’, something I said I probably wouldn’t do again.”
The impetus for the new album, out later in the year, was the song he was asked to write for Filmstars Don’t Die in Liverpool. “They said go and record this, and here’s the money for a string section – I was in my element, and had the idea that a record that was emotional like that would be something I would want to do. I wanted to do some things that are quieter than that – and some that aren’t!
“Of course I’m going to tell you it’s great, cos it is. I’m not going to tell you it’s a bad record! No, it’s a really good record.” He laughs. “It’s the record of how the band sounds now. I got sick of people suggesting I should make the same record I had made before. I’m never gonna do that, you must know that by now,” says the man who’s played his way through country in the 80s, classical music in the 90s with the Brodsky Quartet, New Orleans sounds after Hurricane Katrina, and most recently funky rhythm and blues with The Roots. Punk, new wave, jazz, classical, orchestral, rock, Costello’s done it all.
“If a record comes out where the label says you know those people you used to like, well this will remind you of that time, I think that’s the most cowardly thing you can do. And that’s all that was being asked of us for a number of years. That’s partly the reason I did such different things. I thought I’m not gonna be that, I’m gonna do what I actually want to hear, and if you don’t like it, that’s too bad, buy another record. I like it! Yeah, no-one’s forcing you to listen.”
Costello has a confidence in his choices that came from being born in 1954 into a family where music was the business. His mother Lillian was a record store manager, and his father was musician Ross McManus, who sang with Britain’s leading dance band, the Joe Loss Orchestra in the 1960s and when Costello was young, had a residency at the Hammersmith Palais. His parents split up when he was 16 and Costello moved to Birkenhead with his mother, working in office jobs after school before being signed by a record label and hitting the charts in his early twenties, launching a career that’s seen him win multiple awards, including a Grammy.
As his book recounts in unflinching detail, his habit of “messing up my life, so I could write stupid little songs about it” took its toll on his relationships and he’s been thrice married, first to childhood sweetheart Mary Burgoyne, with whom he had a son, Matthew, then to Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan for 17 years. In 2003 he married the musician Diana Krall and they have 11-year old twin sons, Dexter and Frank, and a contented Costello regularly visits family back in Merseyside, although his father died in 2011. Costello writes movingly about this in his book and how he was comforted by the knowledge his father was listening to his favourite song when he died.
“It was only after he left us that I realised that Yesterdays by Clifford Brown was playing. It was comforting that something of great beauty like that was playing at that moment – it’s something each of us would be fortunate to repeat.”
So what would Costello’s favourite song be, at that moment?
He chuckles at the morose turn of questioning but confirms, “I’ve thought about that quite a lot recently… but I haven’t settled on anything quite yet…”
The PR tells us it’s time for a final question because my 15 minutes with fame is up, so I ask the famously London/Liverpudlian Irish Costello about the remote possibility of him having any Scottish connections.
“Yeah. I’m a Jackson. You didn’t know that did you?” he says, sounding pleased to have confounded assumption. “My grandmother was Mabel Jackson and her father was from Motherwell. I don’t make much of it, I never say ‘oh, I’m actually one eighth Scottish or whatever, but I’m entitled to wear tartan. And I have worn a kilt. My friend told me he was having a Burns Supper and that everyone was wearing Highland dress so I turned up in a kilt, the only one.”
Aw nightmare, I sympathise.
“No! I look really good in a kilt!” he says. “I have the legs for a kilt, I can tell you that. I look like I should wear it all the time. I have the legs of an inside forward, an Ian St John…” and he’s off chortling again. So with his Jackson tartan pork pie hat on, if he lived in Scotland how would he vote?
“In the referendum, or a general election?”
“Well, I’d only get an eighth of the vote anyway, like my grandfather when he came to England. He didn’t get the vote because he didn’t have enough money or an address…” and indignant, he veers off onto franchise, and appointed rather than elected party leaders lacking a mandate, and how inherited peerages preclude the ability of the Lords to act as a check on the self-interest of the lower house, coming to a stop with “It’s a very peculiar time, isn’t it? I’m still not answering your question. I don’t know. There are times in my life when I’ve been absolutely convinced that a republic would be better than a constitutional monarchy, but the horror of the thought that we might end up with President Sugar or President Branson gives you pause for thought. Somebody off a reality show could be president, you could vote by remote like Britain’s Got Talent, you know?”
Our time’s up and we’ve barely got going, but “another time” he tells me and adds “I appreciate your questions – they were unexpected. And now you know something about me people don’t know – that my great-grandfather was from Motherwell.”
Elvis Costello and The Imposters, Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh, tomorrow, 7pm