Elvis Costello has found himself pondering some unusual questions lately. Like, say, "What does a slightly absent-minded cat sound like?"
On the upcoming animated children's special, Pete the Cat: A Groovy New Year, the quick-witted singer-songwriter plays the titular character's scatterbrained father. The show, which is based on illustrator and author James Dean's popular Pete the Cat book series, premieres on Amazon on December 26th. Jacob Tremblay (Room, Wonder) voices Pete, while Costello's wife Diana Krall plays Pete's mom; other voices include singer KT Tunstall, actor Atticus Shaffer (The Middle's Brick Heck) and Rolling Stones producer Don Was. For Costello, whose sons have read some of the books, it's been a welcome break from routine.
"I have only ever done a little bit of voicing before," he tells Rolling Stone. "Heaven knows I have a face for the radio. But this is tremendous fun." Costello came onto the show through previous work he'd done with showrunner Jeff "Swampy" Marsh, and found character voicing comes with its own challenges. "I had a cold the first day I went in, so I ended up with a very strange, nasal delivery," he says. "I now have to find that voice every time."
In A Groovy New Year, Pete the Cat learns the meaning of a New Year's resolution – something Costello doesn't take too seriously in real life. "If you are in show business, you tend not to like New Year's," he says. "You're usually playing, so it's mostly everybody else's holiday except yours."
Pressed for what his resolution would be for 2018, he says, "To continue enjoying everything that still may be enjoyable in what's left of the world and in what's left of the time [in this world]." He laughs. "You want a hopeful answer? Let's hope for something better, and you can't just enjoy it – you have to try for something better, as well. There is a lot of stuff that needs sorting out." He pauses. "Don't get me started."
Pete has a similar resolution on the show: to combine what he enjoys most – making music, hanging out with his friends – so he forms a band. "I think it's a jolly good idea being in a band," Costello says with a laugh. "Look at all the scrapes it got me into."
His advice for young musicians like Pete? Learn to manage expectations. "You have to really want to do it without the delusion that it's inherently going to change your fortunes," Costello says. "It does for a very small portion of people. I see a lot of my younger friends who are very talented working hard and in another time and place, they would have probably been very well rewarded for their talents, because the business was set up in a different way for a little while. A lot of songs you hear today are about the process of fame and getting attention, and they don't have much else to say. But that's not to say they are no other songs. They're just not the ones in the public eye. Those who are, are mostly people regarding their own reflections, but that's just the season and then there will be time for another thing."
He also says that prospective artists should understand how the music industry works. "I realize now that when [my band and I] were all in a little shop front office, taking 45 records out of blank sleeves and putting them in relatively cheaply produced printed sleeves with a logo on it that there was a bit of magic to that," he says. "The bigger it got, the less personal and less connected it became, which is why you can't really find as many people high up in record companies that know the slightest thing about the thing they deal in. The owners certainly are not even music people at all. They could be counting stocks and shares in some other commodity, 'cause it is a commodity."
"The music industry completely different now," he continues. "I can understand the magic of conjuring something up on your laptop in your room and delivering it straight to your audience. That's kind of the same thing as me recording to reel to reel and then this piece of plastic shows up in a shop and somebody knows my name – or knows my fake name." The singer, born Declan MacManus, laughs. "So you just have to hold onto that thing that you love about it and not have it all bent out of shape by this other stuff that ultimately is beyond your control."
Costello is sticking true to his words and is currently working on an unusual musical project for him: a stage musical adaptation of novelist Budd Schulberg's screenplay A Face in the Crowd. "It's from the Fifties and it's about the ability of television to make monsters," he says. "I have written 19 really good songs, some of which I performed live to a very good response." He's hoping it will be produced within the next year.
He's also writing new, non-theatrical songs but he hasn't committed to making a new album out of them yet. "Making a record is a much more difficult thing than it used to be, because people have to persuade themselves it's worth slapping down the greenbacks to get the songs onto tape or some recorded medium," he says. "Most people get their music these days in some sort of subscription service, so all the songwriter wants to do is suggest what order to listen to the songs in for the best effect. Beyond that, people usually make their own choices."
As for the music on Pete the Cat, Costello is enjoying singing other people's songs for now. "I don't have any reason to write anything, other than singing a phrase a certain way, and I wouldn't call that writing," he says. "People lay claim for doing next to nothing these days. You look at the credits on most pop records and there are 15 people involved. They haven't all been songwriters. They switched on a drum machine or something and that makes them a songwriter. It is what it is. I'm happy to sing other people's songs. Not everything has to be through gritted teeth – or gritted claws."