Elvis Costello: The American Songwriter Interview

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This story appears in our January/February Legends Issue.

“I don’t know what anyone else knows or what they don’t know or what they care about,” says Elvis Costello.“I’m just doing what I’m doing now, and I know what the value of the songs I’ve written is to me. I perceive what certain members of the audience have invested in one or two songs, and that some people know every note you’ve played. I just don’t see myself in those terms, with these sort of adjectives that crop up in reviews, which can be flattering or even ridiculous hyperbole.”

Thirty-five years into a recording career, Costello is well aware of his standing in the pantheon of pop. From writing alongside Paul McCartney to hosting the Spectacle television show, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has long been looking for opportunities to experiment and challenge with his music, to use his accomplishments as a way to boldly go places his peers might be afraid to tread.

Most recently, Costello took on perhaps his most surprising and risky project yet, collaborating with The Roots, the world’s greatest hip-hop band, on an album called Wise Up Ghost. As he describes below, creating this record alongside long-time Elvis superfan Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson led him into entirely new methods of songwriting and recording, ultimately resulting in a sound that clearly drew from both rock and hip-hop but can’t be pinned down in any category. (The process was extended even further with the release of the Wise Up Thought remix EP in late November.)

In the midst of running around Manhattan to promote the album, 59-year-old Costello bounded into the office of legendary Blue Note Records executive Bruce Lundvall. He went straight to the room’s walls, which are covered with signed sheet music and photos of jazz titans, offering a story about a favorite song or an encounter with many of them. When Costello settled in to talk, the lunch he carried in mostly went untouched, as he reeled off a virtual monologue expressing his excitement and wonder about the new album.

He used the example of the Wise Up Ghost track “Wake Me Up” to illustrate how the new songs often developed out of fragments from his catalog, and said that 2004’s “Pulling Out The Pin,” the starting point for the new track, was one of the best songs he ever recorded with his band, the Imposters. “It might seem odd to some people that I would want to re-record those lyrics,” he said. “But that was how confident I was right off that what we were doing was going to offer me a different opportunity – not superior, just different.”

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Where does the story of this album begin?

Ahmir will tell it as a trap, a very attractive pit they dug. But for me, the invitation to play the (Late Night with Jimmy) Fallon show came when I was publicizing Spectacle, so I was in a situation where I was playing with all these people that I could never imagine sharing a stage with, but I didn’t have my band assembled. So I thought, how am I going to play the show? I could see how a retrospective song could be a good move, because a lot of the Spectacle idea was to look back at what people loved about music, and I didn’t think I wanted to do it solo, it seemed a bit too dandy for that show. I got in touch with Ahmir, and I went in there to find that they had called an arrangement of “High Fidelity,” a slower arrangement I had dropped in ’79 and hadn’t really thought about since. I thought that was great, really different – that’s exactly what the investigation of Spectacle was about, it illustrates the lack of fear about things, and it sounded great.

We did a version of “Chelsea” and, as you can imagine, Ahmir took hold of that drum pattern, which was pretty great to begin with, and did something with it. And then the next time I went in, we did “Stations Of The Cross” and “Black And White World,” and the third time we did Bruce Springsteen songs. So we had the tools we needed over those three appearances, we just needed the recognition on both of our parts that it was worth pursuing for more enduring recorded music.

Related: The Top 20 Elvis Costello Songs

What made you think that there might be an album in it?

After those three appearances they said, “We’d like to do some songs from your catalog and look at them a little deeper – let’s start with ‘Pills And Soap.’” And I thought that was curious, because with “Pills And Soap,” you could be tempted just to fill it out with a full arrangement; all that’s on the record is a LinnDrum and a piano. And curiously enough, that song was the result of me hearing the first commentary rap records, things like “The Message,” which connected to things I knew earlier, like the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron or Dylan even. There was no way I was going to adopt the performance practices of that music and be that literal-minded – The Rolling Stones moved beyond imitating Howlin’ Wolf to taking that blueprint and creating all this incredible stuff. One minute you’re doing “Little Red Rooster” and the next you’re doing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” but you can see where the root is.

 So how did you start in with “Pills And Soap?”

They sent me a loop, very spare and a different feel from anything I’ve done. So I sketched out a version of “Pills And Soap” over this loop and kind of pulled the structure apart. The theme of the first verse is the horrible intrusiveness of a camera in a moment of tragedy. The song opens up out of that to look at a number of different things in the way it was in England at that time. So I inserted a verse that came out of a song called “Hurry Down Doomsday,” because that was the next time I returned to that theme, and I realized those verses would flow over this new rhythm.

That second verse starts with one of those novelty stories that you read in the footnotes; “woman gets divorced because she will not remove the shirt of Jim Reeves from her husband’s pillow at night,” which was an actual story I read, and that’s just too beautiful an image not to put in a song. Underneath that, I put “and the parents of the kidnapped children start the bidding for their tears.” Now, when I wrote that, that kind of hadn’t really happened – the song was a futuristic song – but it sure as hell happens now. You see whole industries of people auctioning their tears. When something really terrible befalls them, the first thing they’re thinking about is the reality show about it. So then it had to have something that rejected that, so I lifted out “Stick out your tongue/ Drink down the venom,” which had come out of a verse of “National Ransom,” which was a different kind of commentary song, utterly different kind of music. Some other lines from “National Ransom” seemed to continue the thought, and then we returned back to some adapted lyrics that I hadn’t recorded for “Pills And Soap.”

Now, that could just be a magic trick, if the music was not carrying you through. Steven and I went into the studio in Vancouver, and I played the simplest sketched parts, the electric piano and the bass, a couple of stabs on the guitar, sent it back to New York with him. Next thing the mix comes back, there’s all this processing on everything, there’s a horn section playing my keyboard part – this is compositional, as well as arranging. By now I’m back in New York and we’ve cut some things out, dropped some things in other places, distorted things, dropped beats out, things that are very common to dub and to hip-hop, but in rock and roll if you do that, it usually sounds like a mistake.

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And this direction was all evident from the beginning – it’s not like there was a turning point where it clicked in and you could see what was happening?

Another song is probably most instructive of the working method, and why we didn’t have that penny-drop moment. Steven had made a couple of samples based on my sources – one was a two-bar sample from “Radio Silence,” the other was from “Wise Up Ghost,” which begins with the string introduction of a ballad of mine called “Would You Be True.” He sent that to me, and I sent back a sketch of a song, recorded on my laptop because we were still on different coasts. He came out and I recorded all of the vocals just to that loop, just strings and piano going round and round. It was very satisfying because it was completely unprecedented – the fact that it was from the introduction to a song, never referenced the harmony of the song, none of the music, just the string introduction. I recorded the whole lead vocal and all of the backgrounds, but there were no other instruments. And each mix that came back to me – now there’s a low bass drum, suddenly in the third verse there’s an electric guitar and horns, and it gets to the middle and I can’t even hear the sample anymore, it’s gone.

So all this different methodology, which we began with on that first Fallon show, comes before we got to writing songs that were completely new. The foundation of “Cinco Minutos Con Vos” is the chord of G and F being cycled round and round from a rehearsal jam to do “High Fidelity,” the very first thing we did, but does it reference any of “High Fidelity” harmonically or melodically? Absolutely not. And this is where people’s slight suspicion of this as methodology gets in the way of listening to it as music. If I picked up the guitar and played 16 bars of music with an acoustic guitar you wouldn’t have any problem with it. But how would that be different from the 16 bars of drums, bass, and wah-wah guitar which we then sample, layer a horn melody, and then start to sing a song which has an utterly different melody from the song which it’s allegedly derived from?

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