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10 Pressing Questions: Not-so-mellow Costello

Despite a subdued new album, Elvis says he's still a rebel, if now a sober one.

By GINA VIVINETTO
Published February 19, 2004

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[AP photo]
Elvis Costello’s latest release, North, is as quiet as Costello used to be loud. But the rocker assures it’s only part of the whole.

Elvis Costello comes to town this week to perform music from the new North, his slow, and, some critics complain, too somber album of piano music.

In an unusual move, Costello, 49, will play back-to-back shows at two venues, but promises wildly different sets. Calling from New York, Costello answers 10 Pressing Questions about disgusting food and the role his wife, jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall, plays in his music.

(1) So, North - it's a slow, moody record, yet its tone goes from despair to hope. Is it autobiographical? It's something that happens to people and I suppose you can say it happened to me. . . . But I hope it's written in a way that isn't too selfish.

It's not everybody's taste; I'm aware of that. Some people want their music more abrasive. But I've made plenty of abrasive music. And I'll make it again. I'm not proposing this is a change of style altogether. I'm proposing: THESE SONGS GO LIKE THIS. And, to do them any other way would do them a disservice.

So, you haven't "abandoned rock 'n' roll," as some reviews are proposing? Oh, that's such nonsense! Rock 'n' roll is actually a musical language, or it's a state of mind. In some ways, this is a radical thing. . . . Surely doing something that is completely radical is more in the spirit of what we call rock 'n' roll for shorthand, for not being cautious and timid.

So, that could be doing something very gentle, couldn't it? To do something very intimate.

(2) It sounds like you're developing a more trusting relationship with your own singing voice, like you're falling in love with it, finally. It's a little dangerous. You can start singing in that narcissistic way. That tends to happen to people who are only very, very able, with that effortless vocal capacity, which I don't have. There's a decent amount of struggle in my singing. The majority of my songs are nearly impossible to sing - there are a tremendous amount of words! It's a feat to remember them, let alone utter them against the music.

But I think the most beautiful narcissistic albums ever made were Al Green's 1970s records. Where he sang like he was singing to himself looking in the mirror - I mean that as a compliment. He was so beautifully self-possessed.

(3) Do you have a favorite torch song? I heard you do Billie Holiday's Gloomy Sunday on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz on NPR. Oh, you heard that? I love that show. It was great fun. She is lovely. I made a promise to come back and do some songs I've known and never performed because the (American) songbook is so deep.

Except now it seems like everybody has to be releasing a standards record. The last thing I want to do is join that race. Be like Michael Bolton and Rod Stewart (laughs). There must be very few of those big microphones left, those big RCA microphones. You have to have one of those and you have to have your tie undone (laughs). When Rod and Mike are doing it, it's time to get out of town.

Your favorites? I don't know - Billie Holiday is, of course, fantastic. Jazz is fantastic. Only the Lonely or When No One Cares by Sinatra. So many individual tracks by one singer - it could be a torch song, it could be a song from the fairly recent past, it could be Don't Make Promises (You Can't Keep) by Tim Hardin. It could be Mr. Fool by George Jones. It could be About A Girl by Kurt Cobain.

(4) You're known for your collaborations. Is there someone who's no longer alive that you would have liked to work with? I lament my laziness and my narrow-mindedness at an earlier age for not seeing some people (when they were in their prime). I never saw Duke Ellington play. I never saw Miles Davis. But nobody I wanted to have collaborated with. I would have liked Frank Sinatra to have sung one of my songs.

(5) Do you have a favorite rendition of an Elvis Costello song? I've got a few that I really think are pretty great. Johnny Cash's Hidden Shame is pretty amazing. I tried to write it so much suited for him. To have him do it that vividly is pretty amazing.

Howard Tate did a recent recording of a song of mine (Either Side of the Same Town) that I like. Solomon Burke's The Judgement.

I wasn't that confident about sending songs out to people when I was younger, so I often had a model in my head to help me write the song, but I was really writing it for myself. I wrote, like, Stranger in the House for George Jones with no notion of it ever reaching him, and then it did. And, not only did it reach him, but I was asked to come sing with him on it, which is really weird.

The most unusual one was Chet Baker. He played on a record of mine and I gave him Almost Blue, which was written with him in mind. He did record it before he died. But I didn't know he recorded it, and he died before I could thank him for recording it.

I have no apologies for any sentimentality this may suggest to you, but truthfully, my favorite version of any song of mine right as we speak now is my wife's version of Almost Blue, which you haven't heard yet. It's the best version of it that's ever been recorded.

I'm so . . . I'm, I'm . . . (speechless). I'm so thrilled by it and it's all the better when it's the person you share your life with. She played it in concert when we were just friends and I was (mumbles to himself), "Wow, she can really sing that song."

Is her version better than your version? I think so. (6) Some critics suggest North is influenced by Diana's style. But piano music is something you've been interested in for decades, wouldn't you argue that? Obviously, pointing back to songs pre-1980 - it's not as if I've never referred to pre-rock 'n' roll song form before.

These songs (on North) relate much more to an earlier form of songwriting, to what we call classical songs or "art songs," for lack of a better term, songs I've listened to . . . by Debussy or Schubert. There's just as much influence as listening to that kind of music as any standard form or jazz.

It's a really lazy and easy thing to say because jazz musicians appear (on the record) that this is a jazz record. . . . Some of the harmonies have their origins in jazz composition, but they have just as many in lieder or folk music.

Now, the influence of my emotional life is profound upon the mood and the text. But not an influence on my music. I certainly didn't need any instruction in this musical form from my wife.

I love her records, but I don't think we influence each other in that very facile surface way. I think it's down deeper, as it should be.

(7) What's the most disgusting food you've ever tried in all your years touring the globe? (Laughs) Oh, my God, I have no idea! Come on, you must have tried some weird stuff, octopus, things like that. I love octopus. Octopus is my favorite. Do you have octopus in Florida? I'll be looking out for the octopus down there. I don't eat meat so that narrows it down quite a bit. I eat fish, but I don't eat meat, so the disgusting possibilities are a lot less if you're trapped in a land with no food like Germany and the one thing you have to eat is like, sheep's eyes or something. How long have you been a vegetarian? Well, I'm not a vegetarian. Okay, a pesce- (Dismissively) Yeah, whatever it is. I just don't like the taste of meat. Like I don't like the taste of alcohol.

You're not a big drinker? I'm a non-drinker. People wouldn't think that, you're such the rock 'n' roller. And, I used to be a big drinker. But I just lost the taste for it. I'm very lucky.

(8) Do you have a favorite era in time, one you might have liked to live in? (Heavy sigh) What do people always say, they always say, (affected tone) "Paris in the '20s." I don't know about that. There's a book I read (about Paris) and it talks about how smelly people were even in the 1950s. Cleaning wasn't as familiar and there was no deodorant. So maybe you would think you'd want to go back and then you'd be like, "God, it really smells around here." (9) So, what gets you angry nowadays? I have a frightening amount of vitriol aimed at North particularly in England, where they hated the record. What's funny is, after 27 years of doing this, is that you can make people so furious by singing love songs. I guess they think I've abandoned my supposed punk roots. They don't realize what a punk thing this is. Quiet is the new loud. Quiet is the new loud - and tangerine is the new cranberry (laughs). . . .

There's a war going on - it's turning into a Belfast kind of reality. Iraq is kind of a Belfast. You have these troops shedding blood every day forever and forever, and it's going to cost you millions of dollars to process a war that you can never win and will never end. And so your president suggests going to Mars (dramatic pause) as a distraction. . . .

I never, ever, ever thought there would ever be an administration that would make that bunch of inefficient crooks that used to work for Nixon look good, but you've managed it, your country. It's such a sad thing, because it's such a fantastic country. I've spent such a long time here now. People are very, very welcoming, open. The best of it here is so good.

(10) Do you go to bed at night, ever, content with your career? You hope that whatever it is you do in life, you're doing as well as you possibly can. You don't want to be even more a burden on the draining and the wasting of the paper and the effort in whatever endeavor you're in. . . . You also hope you're humble enough that you can remember why you started out to do it. . . . On a scale of 1-10, how are you doing? Once or twice you look and, go, "That song, or that concert, or that record was as good as I could be at that moment." It's not the definitive statement of my life, because that effort's still ongoing. . . . Why do we (artists) share these things? Because we feel we can communicate. Well, you do a very good job, still. (Burst out laughing) Well, thank you, thank you for the reassurance! You've got the stuff, kiddo! Thank you! And, weren't you even on The Simpsons , as yet another feather in your cap? (Both laughing) You bet. You've done it all. It is the absolute pinnacle, to have them accept me, me and Rupert Murdoch, except I don't think Rupert did his own voice and I did.

- Contact Gina Vivinetto at gina@sptimes.com

At a glance

Elvis Costello plays at 8 tonight, Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. $42 to $77. (727) 791-7400.

Also 8 p.m. Fri., Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $42 to $77. (813) 229-7827.

[Last modified February 18, 2004, 11:10:11]


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