Elvis Costello Explains His Songwriting Secrets - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Features

Elvis Costello Explains His Songwriting Secrets

“I haven’t got a lot of time for the false snobbery of hipster music of any kind,” Costello says

elvis costello reviewelvis costello review

Elvis Costello released 'Look Now,' his first album in five years

Stephen Done

The new episode of our podcast, Rolling Stone Music Now, features an extended interview with Elvis Costello, who just released Look Now, his first album in five years. Costello talks about mortality, working with Paul McCartney and learning from Bruce Springsteen, as well as the evolution of his band and his songwriting over the years.  To hear the entire discussion, press play below or download and subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.

Some highlights are here. More below:

Why swapping out one member — Davey Farragher joined on bass in 2001, replacing the Attractions’ Bruce Thomas — made the Imposters a different band altogether.
“The Imposters is a different group than the group I started out with. We have strengths in different areas than that first group, because obviously the three of us that have played together for forty years should’ve learned something, you know? We should have gathered some things and maybe put aside some other qualities of music that seemed all important when we started out. If you just stay with the same playbook, it wouldn’t be very interesting, and Davey brings a lot of different things to it, because he’s a guy who plays with a predominantly rhythmic feel. He can still come up with nice melodic inventions, but that isn’t his main thing. It’s the groove, and he’s a great singer – it’s arguable whether I was a singer early on.”

On Painted From Memory, Costello’s classic 1998 album with Burt Bacharach, and his continuing collaboration with Bacharach
“They weren’t big commercial hits, but people know those tunes nonetheless – ‘God Give Me Strength.’ I Still Have That Other Girl,’ ‘This House is Empty Now,’ and ‘Toledo,’ those particularly. I think the songs that Burt and I wrote on this record are very different. They don’t stretch over such a wide musical compass; they’re much more intimate. The two, ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘Photographs Can Lie,’ are entirely his music. I was in a sort of puzzle of how to resolve ‘He’s Given Me Things’ and he suggested a change to the third stanza which changes the harmony, which sort of made that into some kind of bridge, and that allowed us to sustain this sort of slightly claustrophobic music. If we didn’t have that shift that he suggested it perhaps wouldn’t have been as strong a piece. That’s one of my favorite pieces on the record.”

On being inspired to write 1980’s “Temptation” at a Bruce Springsteen show
“Bruce has got all of this mythology, and then I saw him in Nashville [in 1978] when all of that really had traction… I could see a trap that was being laid, and I suppose that’s as close to writing songs about the predicament of the performer as I did earlier on. I remember I wrote a few songs about what I’d observed around my dad. [1986’s] ‘Suit of Lights’  was inspired by watching my dad play around the clubs and this sort of loneliness and the presumption of the audience and the lack of respect, ’cause it’s still a working job! You’re still doing a job! You don’t come up to somebody and go ‘You see that pencil there? I’m going to knock it out of your hand. Now how good are you at writing?’ Nobody does that to you, and that’s not self-pity. I’m just saying that it’s acknowledging that it’s still a job. There’s part of it that’s a job, and there’s the other part of it that’s massively over-rewarded.”

On the influence of his journeyman musician father
“I don’t know. It does puzzle me that I knew so much about the workings of the business like from childhood. I could tell that there were people who were quite calculated. There were opportunities that came to my father that perhaps weren’t ones he should have taken. He was just trying to make a living, so I don’t judge anybody. I might’ve expressed strident opinions about things at different times about fashions of music. But in the long run, I tend to think, ‘Well you know, they’re just doing their job, whatever it is.’ I haven’t got a lot of time for the false snobbery of hipster music of any kind, whether it be jazz or rock and roll, because it’s just like, you don’t have the guts to try – that’s what it is, really. You’re holding yourself back because you think you’re going to be judged by some little chorus of people who couldn’t do what you’re doing anyway, so what does it matter?”

Download and subscribe to Rolling Stone Music Now, hosted by Brian Hiatt, on iTunes or Spotify, and tune in Fridays at 1 p.m. ET to hear the show broadcast live on Sirius XM’s Volume, channel 106.

In This Article: Elvis Costello


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.