Elvis Costello: The American Songwriter Interview

Elvis Costello (Photo by Danny Clinch, courtesy of Universal Music Group)

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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As the writer, how did it feel watching these transformations of the material?

Well, the methodology is so pulled apart and put back together that the definitions of songwriting, producing, arranging all shift. The compositional element is so different from anything I’m used to that you’ll find most of these songs are co-composed, I think appropriately so.

 Do you think it’s true in general that there’s a continual blurring of the roles of songwriter and producer?

Well, this goes back to when I worked with Geoff Emerick. If Sgt. Pepper were made today, what would Geoff Emerick’s credit be on it? It wouldn’t be engineer; it would be co-producer. That’s not to in any way take issue with George Martin’s authority on that record or what he contributed, but by the modern definitions, the things that Geoff did to transform the sound would absolutely be called what producers do today – today the list of producers probably would be nine names long. We just have to be comfortable with, there’s nothing to lose now unless you’re just madly obsessed with status. All that stuff has just gone away now.

Did you have any clear sense of intention for this record as it was progressing?

I’m not being morbid or self-pitying here, but I had made a conscious decision to concentrate on live performance for the foreseeable future after National Ransom. Because that was as good a record as I know how to make, and it didn’t beg the performance of those songs for one show. I had some respectful criticism, a number of people told me they really loved the record, but the whole machinery of the record business had changed so profoundly that whereas record releases tended to trigger live work, this just didn’t.

So I thought well, what’s the response to this record coming out and not buying us the right to go out and play it with the original musicians? And I remembered that when we went out and did the wheel before [on the spinning songbook tour] we didn’t really truthfully have enough material by ’86-’87 … we just told ourselves we did because we wanted to have fun and a little provocation. Now we really do have a bit of a conundrum; how are we going to represent the newer material and have it in balance with songs that people feel we’re obligated to play, and not feel railroaded into playing those because we’ll play them joylessly. So a good way of rediscovering them in the moment is to have them presented to you in an instant, that’s always been my experience. So by the time we got to the second or third tour with the wheel, it just liberated us to pull songs out of the shadows, to play old songs in completely new ways, in an unexpected place in the show – open with “I Want You,” close with “Shipbuilding,” play “Pump It Up” as the third number – dig out songs and make the best song of the night be something where people are going, “Is that a new song?” And that’s been a two-year project, to do the National Ransom tour under cover of darkness – or in this case, under cover of gaudy lights and a big spinning wheel.

elvis costello

 Last year, the Imposters opened a show for the Who, and that was completely the late-’70s Greatest Hits set, essentially all from the first couple of records.

We knew what we were doing. We were the opening act, and we had nothing to prove by playing a bunch of unknown songs to an audience that was there to see the Who at a big charity event. When you do the private events for charity, sometimes behind closed doors to an invited audience, I have no problem if they give me a set list – I feel I can do it justice and not make a fool of myself and disappoint people – because the job is to encourage people to feel relaxed enough to part with a lot of money for a good reason.

They showed me the poster and I went, “Okay, guys, Maximum R&B – our version.” We’re going to fuck ‘em up here, we’re going to set the bar and the energy is going to just … competitive isn’t the right word, but there are a lot of bands that came out of battles of the bands. We would shamelessly try to undercut any band we played with in the Attractions early on, in some sort of way that would just make it impossible. We’d say, “Go right ahead and close – let’s  see what happens.” We had our share of lessons taught to us on the Stiff tour early on, because Ian Dury had this drilled band and we were only a few weeks into our life as a band, we didn’t have all of our ammunition. It took us going to America to learn how to do it. And most of the time we could prevail, but a few nights we just couldn’t follow them. It was a killer band. So you learn from that.

So in that setting, you know which songs the audience is excited to hear. Do you look to that early run of your records and hold it in the same place that your fans do?

No, I don’t. I don’t get it. I think it’s somewhat sentimental. I get that the second record is good, for a band making their first album. I think the songs on the first record are really good, and a lot of the playing is amazing, but they’re always the same song. The first record I made was Watching The Detectives. The others were recordings of good songs, where we’re trying to reach an agreement how to play them. I guess there’s some good songs and some decent singing and some good words, but none of them sound like I had them in my head.

Second record is good, third record we’re trying to find our way around the studio. There’s a couple of good things on it, a couple of novel experiments. The fourth record has got some great songs on it. It’s a snapshot of the way we acted. Each record’s got a new thing – one record I start writing on the piano or Steve’s arranging the strings or we’re trying to make a record for a wider audience, quite consciously without any embarrassment about it. Because you think, well, to move forward and sing your songs to the biggest audience is your objective. And then right after I did that, I went, I’m over that now. Can I just play songs that I like? I think the Goodbye Cruel World tour and the solo tour that preceded it, I was done with pop music. I knew it was going away, we’d already prolonged the life of it, and we weren’t in pop music anymore. If you’re thinking about the charts, we’re not going to get there, you’ve got Daryl Hall in your video and it’s not a hit, stop deluding yourself.

But the speed and ferocity to those early albums is pretty undeniable.

Well, you’ve got the benefit of surprise, which gives it a greater sense of momentum. I was at least an album of songs ahead – and funnily enough, in terms of   this is a process that I’ve used all along. There are lyrics on Trust that were written for My Aim Is True. It’s keeping your notebook so that it’s not a failure, not a writer’s block thing, but there’s a couplet there that’s a beginning – and now I’ve got this theme I’m writing on, and if it’s a payoff that it joins up and that’s the chorus, wow. It’s just the recognition of it.

I found a tape I did in late ’75, maybe early ’76 recently. I did one or two recordings with my semi-professional band just before they split up. I think there’s an early draft of “Living In Paradise,” an early draft of “Radio Radio,” which was a slightly imaginary song about a radio station that didn’t exist called “Radio Soul.” It was kind of based on “Caravan” by Van Morrison, because I was enamored of that Moondance period, and I was trying to write a song that had that same idea, that the radio that you needed to listen to was the one within you. So there’s two I can name – and there’s another 13 or 14 songs that nobody’s ever heard.

So I thought, “Hmm, I don’t even know if I want to listen to this, it might be terribly embarrassing,” but I put it on and there’s some moments of “Oh, I’m being that guy on that one” – but you’re trying to find your voice, all early recordings have that quality of somebody trying to find out how to sing, and thankfully this wasn’t doing it in public. And then I started to notice, that’s a couple of lines from “King Horse,” there’s a couple from “Party Girl,” and I’d gone back to the notebooks and I’d just forgotten I’d ever said any of those lines before.

I spoke to you when National Ransom came out, and you said that it could be the last album that you ever make. You’re now saying the same about Wise Up Ghost.

I didn’t mean that in a melodramatic way, and of course the minute you say that in an interview, people start saying “Oh, he’s quit, he’s such a drama queen.” No, I’m not. I had, at the time, five-year-old, now seven-year-old children, and to my lasting regret and shame, I was not as present for my elder boy’s childhood as I should have been.

I suppose I’ve got freedom of movement to some degree, but I’ve never accrued the kind of great fortunes that are retirement type of money. But I don’t want to retire, I want to keep going. But I’ve reinvested what money I’ve made into making records that I knew had no chance of being successful. I’ve followed what I want to do, and you can say that’s self-indulgent or you can say it’s artistic. I don’t think it’s either. I think it’s just what I do.

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