Elvis Costello is a doting father, friend to presidents and writer of ‘proper’ love songs – but he’s still got the same old fire…
On a roof terrace overlooking Manhattan, an awning flaps lazily in the breeze. The man sitting underneath it is wearing sunglasses, as well he might given that a) the afternoon sun is unforgiving, even in the shade, and b) he is a rock star. Well, rock star up to a point. At 54, Elvis Costello is still leaping from genre to genre like a young pond frog spoilt for choice with waterlilies.
Having produced hit after New Wave hit in the late Seventies with his band The Attractions, he turned a little bit country in the early Eighties. After that came, in no particular order, recordings of jazz, swing and opera, as well as his innovative work with the Brodsky Quartet, a collaboration that is still going strong after 17 years.
Now he is back with Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, an album of bluegrass and traditional American country music, recorded in Nashville. It’s a beguiling collection. Appeals to the heart and the head. And lyrically it reminds you why Costello has been described as Britain’s answer to Bob Dylan – reminds you, indeed, why Dylan wanted to tour with him and why songwriters as great as Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney have queued up to collaborate with him.
But this said, he is still a bona fide rock star and today he is dressed like one, in his black suit, black shirt and black tie – and his purple fedora and matching socks. The sunglasses could not be more rock star, in fact, big as they are with silver frames that contrast with his gingery sideburns and ’tache.
In conversation he is expansive and articulate, but easily sidetracked. And it is disconcerting talking to a man with whom you cannot make eye contact. ‘These?’ he says touching them. ‘I’m blind without them. They have prescription lenses in. Anyway, trust me, you don’t want to see what’s underneath them. I’ve only had three hours’ sleep.’
He and his wife, the multimillion-record-selling jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, live mostly in Vancouver with their twin boys who are two-and-a-half years old. Is the lack of sleep because of them? ‘No, I’m just an early riser and yesterday I flew in from the West Coast so I’m still on West Coast time.’ His son from an earlier marriage – he’s been married three times – is 34. How is he finding being a father again at his age? ‘Wonderful. Being a father at any age is wonderful.’
Who do the twins take after? ‘Thankfully their mother. Light hair and light eyes. I see temperamental things that might be like me. They travel a lot for young children. They’ve just crossed the Canadian prairies on a tour bus with us and they will be here in New York in a few hours, and then my wife is going to Europe to do some television shows, so they will stay here with me while she does that. I have help of course, but it’s great. We can sit and watch football or read The Hungry Caterpillar.’
Anyway, the point is, the twins have been listening to music since before they were born, and I ask Costello if he sings to them now. ‘No, and I don’t think they are all that keen on my songs. It’s Randy Newman they love because he wrote Toy Story. They know the score so they can say what action is happening when. Randy must have a great trick there to imprint that music in children that young.’
The twins, he tells me, by the way, think he looks like Mr Potato Head, or at least that the drawing of him on the sleeve of his new album does. For his own part, he describes himself as a combination of Cheeta, the elderly chimp from the Tarzan movies, and Liza Minnelli. ‘The dynamism of Liza,’ he adds, ‘with the hairiness and long arms of Cheeta.’
Oh, and another aside while we are at it; he was born Declan Patrick MacManus in London in 1954, the year Elvis cut his first record, and he has had his stage name since 1977, the year Elvis Presley died (the Costello part was taken from his great grandmother).
But back to his music. Does his 34-year-old son like it? He smiles a rare, gap-toothed smile. ‘You’d have to ask him. I think so yeah, but I can’t speak for him. I can speak for my wife because we are both musicians, so of course we influence each other in our musical choices, but as for him, I can’t really say. Up to a certain age you can say our life together is beautiful but then the child becomes a separate person with his own identity. I love them all and am proud of them all. And I often don’t feel deserving of the love I get back from them.’
His relationship with his own parents seems to have been equally healthy, even after their divorce in 1972. It was a musical family. His mother sold records, his father was a successful big-band singer and his grandfather a trumpeter, working the cruise ships. Does he ever look in the mirror now and ‘see’ his father looking back? ‘I see both my parents. My dad in some respect but also my mother. I look like both of them. I think we made some of the same choices. They worked hard to make sure I had a decent standard of living. And I’ve worked hard, every single day since I left school. I think I have a protestant work ethic.
‘Never sleep in the day. My mother doesn’t enjoy great health and I sometimes hear my dad’s voice in my own saying to her, “You should take a nap during the day”, but she won’t. I’m a bit like that. I haven’t taken a holiday in 16 years.’
In his case the not wanting to sleep during the day is to do with his insomnia. That said, he now points to a couple of sun loungers on the other side of the roof terrace and suggests that we could always go and have a lie down on them and carry on the interview there ‘side by side, like Eric and Ernie’. Elvis Costello, it seems, is in a playful mood. This isn’t always the case. He has a reputation as a serious man – serious about music, serious about politics, serious about the subject of Elvis Costello.
This is reflected in his physical paradox – he manages to convey an air of slovenly nonchalance and tightly coiled energy. And it occurs to me that his reputation for reticence and being difficult may be something to do with his manner and voice. He is a mumbler. As it competes with the breeze, the traffic and the sirens below, his voice becomes so whispery, I worry it won’t pick up on my tape. He shields the recorder with his hat. ‘See? The hat has two purposes, shields my head and shields your mic.’
His whispery speaking voice is in contrast to his singing voice, which has extraordinary range and power. We had originally been scheduled to do this interview when he was over on a visit to London, but then he decided he would have to rest his voice that afternoon and when I heard the concert at the Barbican that evening, I could see why.
‘You do have to be a bit careful with your voice,’ he says now. ‘It is an instrument. I think when you know the songs, your voice works around them, finds the slots with more ease, but you need to know how to pace yourself because we were doing 10 new arrangements in that show. I try to find the character for each song and I wasn’t sure how much vocal stamina it would take to follow one from the other. It seemed to hold out OK.’
The Barbican audience that night was warm, with many standing ovations; he was in a friendly mood, too, with much good humoured banter. Was this, I ask, a case of him making amends for the comment he made in 2005 that, in effect, he had fallen out of love with England? ‘I don’t care if I ever play in England again,’ he said at the time.‘I don’t get along with it. We lost touch. I don’t dig it. They don’t dig me.’ He shakes his head.
‘That was a mischievous sub-editor taking a quote out of context. I was opening for Bob Dylan and was just coming off stage and I was saying that, compared to America, I feel like I don’t connect any more in Britain. My mother rang up and said: “Did you say you hate England?” You can scour that interview and you won’t find that quote. Then the broadsheets pitched in with arts page editorials about what it all meant. I mean, if I’d known that was all I had to do to get publicity I would have said goodbye to England earlier.’
It’s not the first time he’s been taken out of context. At the end of the Seventies, details of a drunken argument in a Holiday Inn in Ohio were leaked. Having apparently described the soul legend James Brown as ‘a jiveass nigger’, and Ray Charles as ‘a blind, ignorant nigger,’ he woke up with a hangover and called a press conference in New York to apologise.
‘I said some stupid things and can’t blame anyone but myself,’ he says now. ‘I hope I have made amends now and anyone who has followed my career will know I am not racist and cannot doubt my respect and admiration for black singers. But the English thing I didn’t even say. I don’t know whether any one noticed, but I haven’t been in England for 20 years. I moved to Ireland 20 years ago and now I am mainly in Vancouver. But ultimately…’ A shrug. ‘I didn’t get into this business to be loved.’
But loved he is. Besides T Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello has worked with, among others, Bacharach, Brian Eno, McCartney. It’s often said he’s the Kevin Bacon of the music world, connected to everyone and everyone connected through him. ‘I don’t feel I went looking for them, though. Most of the major collaborations came to me. I didn’t go knocking on Paul McCartney’s door.’
Sounds like a cue for a Wings song. ‘Exactly. It’s funny but with Wings, Paul didn’t refer to the musical language of the Beatles at all, he wouldn’t even make passing reference to their harmonic cadences, what he did instead was create another highly original sound. But by the time our collaboration occurred I thought his reluctance to refer to the Beatles was perverse, because everyone else was ripping the Beatles off.’
And as McCartney once said, ‘I think I can do Paul McCartney better than Noel Gallagher can do Paul McCartney’. He nods. ‘Well Noel is deluded about a lot of things, most obviously that he is a songwriter at all. That he even brackets himself in the same sentence as Paul is laughable. You have to keep these boys in line! None of us are Irving Berlin or Burt Bacharach, you know. I sat at the side of the stage recently watching Burt sing Alfie and it was magical.’
He had been a member of the Beatles fan club as a child, so working with McCartney must have been daunting enough, but to work with Bacharach must have been… well, what? ‘We worked section-by-section, phrase-by-phrase, both composing, answering one another, it was a fairly extraordinary thing for him to allow me to do – after all, he doesn’t exactly need to collaborate at this stage in his career.
‘It’s probably what appealed to him. Having a dialogue in music. With him it was a case of finding the lyrics that would confer the meaning of the music that was already in the song. It was so vivid to me.’
Yet this is not the collaboration of which he is most proud – that would be his work with the country singer George Jones. ‘In 1981 I had not a writer’s block exactly but an impasse because I had done five albums and I felt I was no longer saying what I was feeling, so I used other people’s songs and that became the country album Almost Blue.’
To his fans, was that like Dylan going electric? ‘I don’t think it was that big a deal. We joked about it and put on the album – “Warning! This album contains country and western music and may offend narrow-minded listeners.” I didn’t have people heckling but even if they had at least that would have shown they cared.’
He sips his coffee. In his youth he was a legendary drinker. It is just coffee these days. No hard liquor. Did it get in the way? ‘Not so much that really, I just drank my share and it was enough.’
But is it true he split from the Attractions because of arguments fuelled by drugs and alcohol? ‘We just had our time, I think. We thought, “let’s go and do some other things independently.” In the end we were copying ourselves. Self parody. Other people were doing it just as well as us.’
There is something endearingly Eeyorish about Elvis Costello. At one point I find myself in the bizarre position of defending one of his songs, to him – Every Day I Write the Book. ‘It was OK,’ he says begrudgingly. OK! I say. It was the soundtrack to the summer of 1983! ‘I like singing it now, but I don’t much care for the record.’
So the layers of personal meaning and association that the listener brings to it count for nothing? ‘That is to confuse quality with nostalgia. Certain songs have indisputable quality such as I’m Gonna Make You Love Me by the Temptations. Objectively that is a great record with five great vocal performances on it. But the records that were the hits were not always the best songs, they were just the ones the labels put out which caught the mood of the time.’
He even manages to downplay Barack Obama’s request that he be the bandleader at his inauguration. ‘I’ve not met him. My wife has and says he’s very charming. He sent his regards to me, which was nice of him. You’d think he would have too much on his plate to bother with a pop singer.’
The Clintons were fans, too, naming their daughter after the Elvis Costello song (I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea. ‘I think Bill is more a fan of my wife,’ he says. Even so, last year, Costello hosted Spectacle, a chat show series on Channel 4, and proved an able interviewer, his skills honed from standing in for David Letterman.
Guests ranged from Lou Reed, Smokey Robinson, Herbie Hancock, Elton John and Tony Bennett… to Bill Clinton. ‘That Bill took an hour out of his time when his wife was running for president to come on was good of him. That was only the second interview I did. It was bad enough trying to remember the technical stuff, like which camera to look at, without having to think of coherent questions.’
Another week featured what was probably the last television performance by the Police before they disbanded, again. ‘With them it was a case of let’s have some banter with these three guys who after tomorrow night are probably not going to see each other again for a very long time. I had been on the road with them and knew there had been this begrudging tolerance of each other.’
Costello was known as an acerbic songwriter in his early years, as well as a thorny personality. I ask what he makes of the perception that he was an angry young man who mellowed. ‘I don’t think there is any mileage in that. I just think it is a safe thing to say. A safe guess. Mellow about what?’ One thinks of the energy of his early music. Oliver’s Army. Pump it Up.
‘You saw that concert at Barbican, there was a lot of energy in that. A 23 year-old couldn’t have done that.’
What about the anger of the lyrics of Tramp the Dirt Down, in which he looked forward to the death of Baroness Thatcher. ‘Well that was much later. To people who say I have lost the fire of some of my early commentary, I say there are many ways to express things. Shipbuilding is not a ranting song, it is melancholy.
‘The River in Reverse, the song I wrote about [Hurricane] Katrina, wasn’t a pious song, that was an angry song about the lack of care for the victims.’
Besides, often his songs were about love and betrayal. Of The Crooked Line, one of the songs on his new album, he says that it is the first time he has written about fidelity in an unironic way. ‘I think when I was younger I was not very good at writing love songs that didn’t have a twist. You know, Smokey Robinson writes the heartfelt songs, whereas it was my job to write the songs about weakness and failure in love.’
He says it took a long time to admit that it was love with Krall, not just musical empathy. He believed they could be friends and collaborators. ‘Then something happens that you can’t control and I’ve never felt better in my life.’
So The Crooked Line is about finding love and happiness after two unsuccessful marriages? ‘Actually, it was written for someone else to sing. Imagining a much longer relationship to reach a peaceful place. If I was going to write something that personal it would be in the song, I wouldn’t need to explain it. Maybe none of my songs are directly from my own life.’ Note the ‘maybe’. Costello is always careful in his use of words.