Despite having such a wide-spanning musical catalogue which ranges from country covers to orchestral masterpieces, hosts Scott Bomar and Paul Duncan of the Songcraft podcast attempt to boil down just what makes the legendary musician Elvis Costello thrive as a songwriter.
As a seasoned veteran in the art of seamlessly melding melody and lyrics, Costello has no problem sharing his expertise on the fragile process which occurs when inspiration strikes. Speaking in an abstract way only a fellow musician might be able to decode, Costello advises his peers to consider two things when attempting to capture melody from thin air.
“One is the influence of ambient sound, which can include other music. And the second is the resistance to going to the instrument too soon before it is to some degree formed in your mind,” he says. “I think sometimes when you go to the instrument, it automatically formalizes the shape of the melody, in relation to rhythm, and even harmony, particularly if you play the guitar, a melody will appear to be, really in space and have so much freedom, and the minute you give it form with accompaniment, it loses some of that flight.”
In regards to lyrics, Costello tells a different story. He admits that even though technology helps capture ideas on the go, he still favors the traditional mode of pen and paper. “I think there’s something to writing the words out because you see different patterns to the words,” he says.
Although he thrives both lyrically and musically, his focus has always been primarily on his songwriting. When asked if it frustrated him that critics early on in his career seemed only to focus on his lyrics and wordplay, Costello negated any frustration.
“The ambition I had was to be a songwriter. And then I think I ended up being a singer, because nobody else could really sing my songs,” he says. “ They turned out to be much more difficult in ways that are not immediately obvious. They don’t require a huge range… But they require a lot of rhythmic dexterity to make any sense of them. And they also require point of view.”
One point of view which has been essential in manifesting Costello’s career and his growth as an artist is his ability to transcend boundaries seamlessly and fearlessly. He believes he might have acquired that unique ability early on through the accidental musical education given to him by his parents.
“I couldn’t understand that dance floor music couldn’t be the same as the heartfelt music or the music that was saying something of the moment,” he says. “Maybe it was my luck to be exposed to so much music of an early age that I just didn’t see the boundaries that other people saw. And it was also something to do with the fact that my parents liked a lot of the music that I liked as well. I didn’t even see music as generational. My father gave me my first Grateful Dead record, he gave me my first Joni Mitchell record, my first Charles Mingus record.”
Even more so was the ever-shifting presence of popular music in England which sporadically touched a nerve in Costello that he couldn’t comprehend at the time but eventually found himself expressing in his own music.
“You can imagine the impact of The Temptations turning up on British television, when previously we’d been looking at Herman’s Hermits, you know? … And likewise, Burt Bacharach’s compositions, you know, this is a level of sophistication. I didn’t understand technically what it was. But what it did to me emotionally to hear these songs, even though I was too young to shed any of the experiences described in something like “Anyone Who Had a Heart” or “Walk On By,” I knew there was something in them that touched something that I didn’t even know existed,” he explains.
In this way, down that same rabbit hole of parental and societal influence, Costello discovered the world of country music which wasn’t nearly as prevalent in the UK as it was in the States. Through his discovery and fascination with the genre came the release of his surprising and stylistically interesting country covers album, Almost Blue.
Costello shares stories from the making of the album, recounting a garbage bag full of cassette tapes written by aspiring country singers, to a gun-wielding producer and a long list of old country songs he was determined to cut. Through it all, Costello ambitiously forged ahead in a genre he was never slated to enter.
Originally, his career began in rock, but Costello never let himself become confined musically just because it might be more convenient or comfortable for his listeners.
His ideology stuck even throughout the making of his newest record Hey, Clockface, which Costello described as a process of “Making a noise that I liked and trying to find a way to play rock ‘n’ roll that didn’t have a rule book about it.”
In that regard, music has always been a way for Costello to feed his own creative curiosity while nurturing his songwriting prowess. With that in mind, and as a final call to action, he urges listeners to prioritize the musicality of his work above anything else.
“We’re just playing music. Stop calling it a name other than ‘good’ or ‘for you’, or ‘for another person,’ that’s all I’m asking. Just listen to what it is, not what it isn’t. You decide whether it works for you.” Adding, “It works for me.”
Check out the rest of the interview with Costello and Songcraft through the American Songwriter Podcast Network here.