Elvis Costello is feeling just fine, thank you very much. Reports of a “battle with cancer” were wildly exaggerated, he says — earlier this year, doctors found an isolated malignancy, and removed it without complications. He got the news three-quarters of the way into the recording of Look Now, his first album in five years, and, if anything, he just threw himself harder into the process. The album turned out to be his best-received work of this century, combining immaculate, expansively arranged pop compositions (Burt Bacharach and Carole King were collaborators) with the elegant savagery of his band, the Imposters — which is, of course, his original crew, the Attractions, with a new bass player, Davey Faragher. “This is a different group than the group I started out with,” Costello says. “We have strengths in different areas than that first group, because, obviously, the three of us who have played together for 40 years should’ve learned something, you know?” (See above for the video version of this interview.)
At a listening party in New York, someone asked you what your twentysomething self would think of the new album. You got so annoyed that your old self actually seemed to come out.
Well, that old self hasn’t gone away! It’s like, be careful what you wish for there, sunshine. That was a stupid question! You would not walk up to a judge and say, “When you read a book about the law when you were 10, what would you think if you saw that stupid wig on your head?” Only because there is an eternal-youth thesis about rock & roll, which is nonsense, obviously, is why you would ask that. I don’t know many people who question themselves in that way. And the ones who do tend to refer to themselves in the third person.
The offending implication was that you had your head straighter as a kid, right?
I was lucky if I could get to the end of the set some nights. I don’t know about having my head on straight.
As a fairly advanced musician, what do you think of the tendency to worship the primitive in rock?
I maintain certain elements of that myself, particularly in regard to the guitar. But it’s a contrived formula, and it’s the same as a book-learned musician looking down on the musicians you’re describing. The feeling is the feeling. And agreeing to pretend you don’t know more than three chords is a conscious artistic decision that some great bands have made. I don’t know too many who really didn’t know any other music. The Stooges were listening to Albert Ayler.
Was that ever a pretense you engaged in yourself early in your career?
I don’t know whether I was ever pretending. I definitely made a conscious choice to speak up a little bit more, because you discover that people talk over the music, so you have to try and command the room with volume a little bit without wrecking the song — and then it’s a short jump to writing a song that fills the space, and that’s what I did on the first album. But my first record references lots of music that wasn’t particularly groovy in the hipster book of ’77 — Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye. The rhythm to “Sneaky Feelings,” whether it sounded at all like it, was taken from “You Ain’t Livin’ Till You’re Lovin’,” by Marvin and Tammi Terrell.
Another semihidden influence back then was Bruce Springsteen. How did he affect you?
I wanted to somehow make magic out of the things around me the way he did on his first two records before he broke through. The original version of “Radio Radio” [known as “Radio Soul”] was really indebted to the Bruce who wrote The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. And then it was the strangest thing for Bruce to ask me how we got the sound of My Aim Is True — and I told him, “No money.” He asked me questions that were sort of like the ones that I might’ve expected me to ask him! So that’s when you find out everyone is standing there wondering, “How did they do that?”
You described Look Now as “uptown pop.” What does that mean to you?
I was just trying to distinguish it from a little-box-with-people-going-mad-in-it kind of rock & roll record, where you put the red light on play and hope to get the magical take. This is the other kind, which is: You work out what you’re gonna play, and then you go in the studio with confidence. But all records are arranged — even the most raw ones have some sense of where you start and stop. It’s nonsense to say you’re just playing open-ended.
Did you have any models in mind?
When we started this album, I said, “If we could get the scope of Imperial Bedroom with the romanticism and beauty of Painted From Memory, we would have something.” But does this record sound like either of those? Not really. Imperial Bedroom does have some sort of connection to this record in that I said from the get-go, if we could get that kind of scope for this band that that band had for that record, then we would get somewhere that we wanted to be. Still, Imperial Bedroom is 35 or more years ago. I can’t go back to the first time that happened any more than I can make This Year’s Model again and make it sound the same as if I didn’t know other stuff. That would be a phony thing to do. But records don’t start from the point of “Let’s make one the way we did that one.” We just say, “Let’s make one of these songs.” It’s about now, even though it’s founded on these things that I’ve learned over the years and the little bits of technical ability that I didn’t have to begin with.
You’ve learned to read and write music, which is highly unusual for a rock star. How does that influence something like this album?
Well, one, I’m not a rock star. I’m not! It doesn’t say on my business card, “Rock star.” I’m just a musician. I’m a songwriter, and needed to gather the skills to communicate my ideas more clearly, and not necessarily have my ideas bent out of shape by arrangers. I’m glad I did it now, because it’s opened up the possibilities of doing something like this record, where I could sketch out all my ideas in advance for the orchestration, and then work with [pianist] Steve Nieve, who could’ve filled every available space on this record, and would’ve done so gladly and wonderfully, but that would’ve been a different record.
Do the arrangements go straight from your head to notation?
A lot of the time it does, and with this sort of music I think you can hear the instrumental motifs in these songs are really part of the composition, they’re not added like a spice. I’m trying to actually put people in the environment where the drama you’re describing is occurring.
It turns out you kept collaborating with Burt Bacharach well after you made Painted From Memory together in 1998. What’s the story there?
Twelve years ago, somebody approached us to turn that into a stage musical. Most musicals made out of collections of existing songs only seek to tell the story of the songwriter or the performer, like the musical about Buddy Holly. They’re not a narrative that’s threading through a series of songs that have their own narrative already, so it’s a tricky thing to do. And we realized quickly that we would need to write more songs, but because of Burt’s and my disposition, we ended up with a greater accumulation of slow, melancholy, intense ballads, and I guess that just scared the proposed producers because it didn’t involve any tap-dancing. I went to Burt two years ago and said, “We’re gonna wait forever for these songs to be produced in the structure that we imagine. Why don’t I record a couple of them and bring them out into the light, and then if somebody is curious to hear the rest of them, great.”
You wrote “Burnt Sugar” with Carole King, and somehow the combination came out sounding like a good Steely Dan song.
It never occurred to me it sounded like that. I mean, I like that group. I particularly like the early records. People always say that! “I like your earlier records, the early angry ones.” And I’m very pleased to say Carole loves the recording, because I knew she was going to give her opinion — imagine her being 15 or 16 and going in the Brill Building and going, “This is how it goes.” Imagine the strength of mind it must have taken to be a teenager writing those songs that are now over 50 years ago and people are still singing them.
During the day or so when the world mistakenly thought you were battling a serious illness, were you at least able to appreciate the outpouring of support?
Of course it’s very touching, and I had people come up to me in the street when I was in Liverpool recently and they’re emotional. It was very, very, you know, affecting to realize that people who you’d never met cared. And of course, you get one or two people going, “I never liked him anyway, I hope he dies.”
Did that get you contemplating mortality?
I took my mother to see Bob Dylan in Liverpool, on her 70th birthday, which was 20 years ago, and it was only when I was sitting with my 70-year-old mother — who now I realize was still relatively young — that it struck me how many Dylan songs were surrounded with a sense of mortality, and I’m not talking about the songs written since, say, Time Out of Mind, I mean songs written when he was 24. And I could point to “I hope I die before I get old” or “What a drag it is getting old.”
Or “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.”
Yeah, I was 22 when I wrote that, so I don’t think you have to be closer to the end than the beginning to have those thoughts. You’ll have to wait and see what the next record brings — if there is one.
A number of the songs on this album are written from a woman’s point of view. Did that give you pause at all?
I mean, writers of books do it all the time. And nobody remarks on that. And they bring people to life and then they kill ’em off and they never get arrested! The difference is it’s my voice, so it’s obviously a male voice singing. My view is it’s not so much about male/female as it is about human nature.
What did you think of Paul McCartney saying that he hears your voice in his head when he’s recording?
I love that quote! “McCartney, no!” We had those kind of conversations when we were producing together, not when we were writing. The writing was completely flowing. But I wanted to keep the Flowers in the Dirt record very basic, and then we agreed to disagree about that. So maybe that’s what he’s referring to, because I was the guy that was always tipping toward the stripped-bare kind of approach. And he doesn’t have to explain anything to anybody. He can do exactly what he chooses.
Do you think of your legacy at all?
I won’t be around to worry about it. I don’t think that you go to some conscious place. What I believe about what happens when we leave here is . . . I can’t explain in two seconds. Why would I? That’s for your confessor, if you have one. I don’t think about legacy. I think about the actual songs and how are they going to make a place in my next show.