Elvis Costello Talks Recording While High, Working With the Roots

The songwriter on composing a musical about a demagogue, reviving his 1982 masterpiece 'Imperial Bedroom' and more

Elvis Costello hasn't released a new album in nearly four years, and he's feeling pretty good about "stepping off that train." He had time to finish his superb memoir, 2015's Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, and is deep into work on a potential Broadway musical based on A Face in the Crowd, the 1957 film about a drunk who becomes a TV star and then a dangerous demagogue. And now Costello and the Imposters are prepping for more U.S. dates on a tour built around 1982's Imperial Bedroom, the album where he calmed the Attractions' carnival clatter into an intricate studio triumph that, until now, he'd struggled to reproduce live. All that, and there may be new music on its way. "Keep an eye out," says Costello, who's enjoying the freedom of working without a record contract. "You never know when the next thing is going to appear."

You're working on a musical about an American demagogue in the age of Trump – how is that playing out for you?
There are people at the heads of television companies who need to examine themselves for their part in creating the brand, and that's what A Face in the Crowd is about. That's the only point of comparison, really. Budd Schulberg's original short story and play is a parable not about a demagogue so much as about the power of television to create a demagogue. So it would still be a good story if there were a different president when opening night comes.

What's it like to write for characters?
They're like all songs, really – they're simultaneously your last will and testament, and something that you created to tantalize other people. They're not always written in your own blood – they can be written in other people's, I suppose. But you have to develop them sufficiently, so it can be the best version of it every night. A song like "Alison" that I've sung for 40 years – some nights it comes to life in my head, and some nights it falls apart. That's a very different set of agreements than you have with the theater, I think.

Onstage, you blamed the complex vocal arrangements on Imperial Bedroom on a "bag of weed." True?
I was making a joke. Drinking was really, in those days, more my way of taking myself out of the picture. And I decided to have a clear head for that record, so naturally I did go and get myself a bag of weed [laughs] to offset that. I definitely had some crazy idea that I didn't want to be one man emoting in the spotlight. So I sang in a more dispassionate way, and I tracked my voice up in harmonies – and it just sounded like 12 of me. I have a very odd voice. But I made up these theories – and this is where the weed may have come in a little bit – that if I handed over, halfway through a line, to a vocal group of me, that somehow it would make it less self-absorbed.

What influenced the general change in your singing in the early Eighties?
I was very smitten with Chrissie Hynde's singing, and I wanted to have some of the warmth she had in her voice, even when she was singing really tough songs. And that connected to people I loved, like Dusty Springfield, who had a more pronounced vibrato – and lots of singers from the 1960s who sang with a warmer sound than we approached songs with in '77.

"Almost Blue" is your most covered song. How consciously were you writing a standard?
I was absolutely besotted with that type of blue ballad, the minor-key ballad. It has quite a debt to [the 1931 standard] "The Thrill Is Gone." It's unusual in the sense that it starts on the title line – but [Cole Porter's] "From This Moment On" opens with the title line, and that's a good song. At the time, those kind of ballads were most of what I listened to – Miles [Davis] and Sinatra and Billie Holiday records.

You had a sense you were washed up on the U.K. charts around the time of Imperial Bedroom, right?
You catch your breath and go, "Ah, was that our time? What do we do now?" And what we did was we made a record that couldn't possibly get on the radio, and actually relished that. We actually went the other way. It was a sort of like, "Fuck you, we'll just do this now." Not to the audience, but to the record companies and radio that don't really want you around. You know what most of those people are doing now? They're either retired or running a carpet warehouse or something. We're still playing.

Your last album was Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs, with the Roots. How do you see that one now?
It was amazing that it happened the way it did, with no real conversation ahead of time. We just literally started playing. I really love the title track and "Cinco Minutos." We have a ferocious live album in the can, with "Ghost Town," by the Specials, and "Found Out," by John Lennon. There was a thought of following it with a live release – until the record companies started crunching the numbers. They have their limits for invention.