Elvis Costello is literally as old as rock & roll itself. The British singer-songwriter, whose real name is Declan Patrick MacManus, was born in London on August 25th, 1954, seven weeks after the real Elvis made his first Sun single on the other side of the Atlantic. But in three decades of making his own records and composing some of the most melodically and lyrically accomplished songs in rock, Costello can proudly say he has never written about being a rock star.
“I just am rock & roll,” he says with a grin on a recent morning in a Manhattan hotel room. “I don’t have to protest that hard. A lot of rock & rollers are afraid to do things because they won’t look good doing it: ‘A rocker wouldn’t do that.’ I’ll put on a suit if I feel like it. It’s not about the clothes. It’s about here,” pointing to his head.
Costello is, in fact, wearing a suit. He also looks very much as he did, if not as rail-thin, when My Aim Is True, his 1977 debut on Britain’s Stiff label, announced the arrival of the most original voice of the punk era. Costello aspired to more than that, however. His discography is a staggering library of confidence and daring: his ’78-’84 rush of classics with his great band the Attractions; genre adventures ranging from 1981’s all-country experiment, Almost Blue, to last year’s ravishing, confessional suite, North; songs and albums made with artists as diverse as Burt Bacharach, Johnny Cash and No Doubt. In October, Costello releases two very different albums on the same day: the visceral Southern-gothic opera The Delivery Man, cut with his current band the Imposters over a single weekend in Mississippi; and his symphonic bow, Il Sogno, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and originally written by Costello as a ballet score.
“It’s the same person, the same voice,” Costello says of the new albums, humming a soprano-sax figure from Il Sogno as melodic evidence. “I think you can recognize that, if you have the ears for it.” His refusal to acknowledge limits or deny his impulses is a recurring theme in this interview. In more than six hours of conversation in July, the week after his three triumphant birthday concerts at New York’s Lincoln Center, Costello plunges into a wide range of topics. He speaks frankly, again, of the only blot on his career: the 1979 bar brawl in Columbus, Ohio, in which he drunkenly and regrettably defamed Ray Charles with a racial epithet. He talks at greater length, with candor and color, of his early, turbulent stardom; his musical upbringing; the emotions and methods inside his songs; and his recent collaboration with his new wife, jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall, on her album The Girl in the Other Room.
“It’s a provocation to the imagination,” Costello says, at one point, of the sound and structure of The Delivery Man — a perfect description of his entire life in music.
You have recorded and performed in virtually every pop-music style, as well as opera and now symphonic music. Don’t you ever feel like you’ve gone too far, that you’re dabbling where you don’t belong?
[Smiles] Does it sound arrogant to say no? I don’t take on things I can’t do. I’ve been very fortunate. I’m not pinned to one time by mass success. In England, I’m known as a late-Seventies artist. Everything I released went into the charts. In America, my commercial success was from 1982 to 1991. That’s when I had my hits, for lack of a better word.
I walked away from it. I didn’t want to be bigger and bigger. And it’s worked out. Once in a while I’ll have a hit — a freak like “She” [his cover of a Charles Aznavour song, on the 1999 Notting Hill soundtrack]. That pays the rent and frees me to do stuff that I want to do.
You can go to these extremes, with major-label backing, at a time when many artists in your peer and age group cannot. They can barely hold on to record deals.
They’re not trying to do this. Maybe it doesn’t appeal to them. It does appeal to me. Going to Nashville to make Almost Blue was about affection and curiosity. I didn’t think for a moment what it meant for my career. I didn’t think what it meant to engage [former Beatles engineer] Geoff Emerick to make Imperial Bedroom, with those big orchestrations. It was a money-is-no-object exercise.
I hired the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to do a concert in 1982 at the Royal Albert Hall [in London]. They said, “It’s this amount of money for sixty people.” I said, “How much for eighty?” I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s like I was buying carrots. Everything was done from the back of record sleeves. “Who’s going to arrange?” I got Robert Kirby, who did those fantastic Nick Drake records, which are so beautiful and small.
Are you a man of impulse?
I’m terrifically impulsive, but I see things through. I’m very patient. Maybe I have a misplaced belief in my own immortality. I believe I can wait out any fashion. I waited out the whole Eighties. Those fuckers all went away eventually, with their stupid haircuts and synthesizers.
Many fans, regardless of how much they admire your new work, would probably say the early records are still your best.
I have no problem singing those songs. I can find a point of view in them. I wouldn’t sing anything for nostalgic reasons. I am the least nostalgic person you will ever meet. And I have no concern for posterity. I believe when you’re gone, you’re gone.
You have no interest in the legacy you’ll leave behind?
No. The only reason I would is if there is anybody here I want to take care of, who would earn some money from it. In terms of reputation, who cares? I won’t be here.
If you’re not worried about posterity, who are you making records for — especially albums as different as Il Sogno and The Delivery Man?
Anyone who will listen. When I was a teenager, I didn’t just listen to rock. I remember being smitten with some girl and listening to the Supremes and Temptations doing “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” But I also liked [singer-songwriter] David Ackles. He didn’t sound like a kid. He sounded grown-up — there was Percy Mayfield and Kurt Weill in there.
I was born, coincidentally, when rock & roll started. But my imagination about music doesn’t start in 1954. I’m not exclusively thinking about rock & roll. When I made My Aim Is True, my favorite record was Randy Newman’s first album. Punk was supposed to be the Year Zero. I didn’t buy it: “We’re sweeping it all away.” When the Clash ran out of the motor of those first two albums, what was the next thing they did? London Calling. You have New Orleans music and ska. The Joe Strummer record collection came into view.
Were you more honest in displaying your roots than the punks around you?
I had a different sense of memory. My first album had things related to the Modern Lovers and the Velvet Underground. But “Waiting for the End of the World” has pedal steel guitar. Other songs have rhythms from Motown and the Band.
The Delivery Man is the most American record you have ever made, in its Southern-gothic narrative and raw, bluesy setting. Your guitar work sounds caked in Mississippi dirt.
I was caked more in Mississippi bugs when we were down there. I can’t say I consciously imitated them, but there is a strength to the records by those hill-country guys. They change chords where they feel like it, not where it says in some music lesson. There is freedom in that. In “Button My Lip,” the verses appear where I feel they should, in the moment of singing them. It’s about capturing a feeling, what’s in the character’s head.
Did you begin with a story line or just start writing songs?
I remember the night I played “Heart Shaped Bruise” for the first time, five years ago at Ryman Auditorium [in Nashville]. I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and read a rough draft of the outline. This was long before I had the title song. The story is just a way of creating an environment. Structure should be liberating, not confining. In The Juliet Letters [his 1993 album with the Brodsky Quartet], I used epistles as an umbrella for different forms of expression. There’s a style of film-noir song that I’ve been attracted to since “Watching the Detectives,” that re-emerges as late as “My Dark Life” [on Songs in the Key of X, the 1996 soundtrack to The X-Files]. A particular kind of mysterious figure reoccurs as a motif in those songs — and in The Delivery Man.
“Button My Lip,” “Bedlam” and “Monkey to Man” seem to be more about current events, like radio broadcasts: Here’s the news of the day, and it isn’t good.
The world is tapping on the window. And it’s not tapping; it’s roaring. It’s my picture of a small society — the people in this tale — assailed from outside, by the larger worries of the world. One of the reasons Neil Young’s best record is [1974’s] On the Beach is because it captures disenchantment so well, that period when people just wanted to turn the lights out. That’s because you had a crook in office and you were ashamed.
One of my favorite lyrics about the music business is in “Radio, Radio”: “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me/I wanna bite that hand so badly.” It sounds as relevant now, in the age of Clear Channel, as when I first heard you play it with the Attractions on the ’77 tour. Were you pissed about anything in particular when you wrote it?
It just all seemed disgusting. You could see how people were vampires. If they got too close, they’d suck the life out of you. You wanted to clear the ground around you — a scorched-earth policy in reverse.
Once it got started, the obnoxiousness was to keep people at bay. I recently met Martin Scorsese. I said, “I wanted to meet you all these years.” And he said, “I was at your first show in Hollywood.” I said, “You were?” “Yeah, with Robbie [Robertson].” If I’d known Robbie was there, I wouldn’t have been able to play. I worshipped the Band. I remember being on the tour bus with the Attractions watching a bootleg of The Last Waltz as soon as it came out, until we had it memorized.
You were snubbing people you admired, that you would have liked to meet and know.
I was watching a Sam Cooke documentary recently, and producer Lou Adler came on. I remembered sitting at a table watching Rockpile in ’78 and Adler being on the other side of the table. He handed me a piece of paper. I signed it and handed it back to him. It was his phone number [laughs]. I was being a pop star: Put a piece of paper in front of me, and I’ll autograph it. I felt like such an idiot when people told me who he was. This is the guy who made the Mamas and the Papas’ records. I also went around for a long time where I wouldn’t sign autographs. I felt embarrassed: “What do you want my name for?”
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’d seen pop music as a kid. I’d seen the Hollies walk into the Playhouse Theatre in London — I was nine years old, with my dad — and they must have driven overnight in their van. They had sweaters on like I had at school. And [guitarist] Tony Hicks had a hole in the elbow. I was shocked that someone I’d seen on TV would have a sweater with a hole in it. How come his mother didn’t sew it up? It made stardom seem normal. The mystery went out of it.
You spoke at length about the Columbus, Ohio, incident to Rolling Stone in 1982. But I have one question: Did you ever speak to Ray Charles before he died?
No. I had a heartbreaking moment last year. I was at an Elton John tribute in Anaheim, California. Diana did “Border Song” and killed them. And Ray came out and sang “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” It was fucking unbelievable. As Ray’s coming out, a woman is leading him. He gets to within fifteen feet of us, and they stop. The woman says, “He wants to meet Diana.” I had to turn away. That wasn’t the right moment.
[Long pause] It would never be the right moment, really. It would be one of those things: You have a friend who goes into rehab, and he says, “Remember that ten dollars you lost? I stole it from you.” It would have been like that. Why did he need that?
What about your own sense of resolution?
I still think it would have been selfish. [Pause] I have to live with it, with every Afro-American musician I meet. Do they know? Do they think, “The guy’s being nice to me, but secretly I know he’s a racist”? I’ve heard people mutter it under their breath as they pass by, because they read it somewhere. What can I complain about? It happened. But if people don’t hear the respect by now, they’ve got their ears the wrong way around.
Describe your musical childhood. Your father, Ross MacManus, was a successful big-band singer, and as a kid, you were a member of the Beatles fan club.
I grew up in a house with a lot of music. My mother sold records. When [jazz saxophonist] Lee Konitz played on “Someone Took the Words Away” [on North], I got him to sign the lead sheet for her. I said, “My mother was selling your records in Liverpool in 1951.”
My granddad was a trumpet player. He was a ship’s musician; he went back and forth on the ocean liners. He died when I was four. I barely knew him. But he was the classically trained musician in the family. He played in cinema pit orchestras, right up to the talkies. My grandmother hated Al Jolson, because he put my grandfather out of work.
Between five and sixteen, I lived in Twickenham [in London]. The Rolling Stones were playing nearby, at the Station Hotel in Richmond. The Who were at Eel Pie Island. The Yardbirds lived in the next street. They had a van with “Yardbirds” written on it. I’d see [Fleetwood Mac guitarist] Peter Green in this record shop I used to go to — looking like Jesus in his rugby shirt and long hair.
I was living in rock & roll central, although I didn’t think so at the time. I was into American stuff and the Beatles. I never paid attention to the Who after “I Can See for Miles.” I’ve never heard Tommy. I don’t own a copy of Who’s Next. I don’t own any Led Zeppelin records. I liked Jimi Hendrix singles — the ballads like “Little Wing” and “The Wind Cries Mary,” because they were like Curtis Mayfield songs. “Rocking Horse Road” [on 1994’s Brutal Youth] is a cross between a Curtis song and a Hendrix ballad, with a bit of Small Faces thrown in.
Did you always envision yourself as a singer as well as a songwriter?
I sang as a kid. Because my dad could sing, everyone assumed I could. I was dragged out of class by the nuns to sing for visiting priests. I sang in the choir, but my voice got too loud. I got kicked out. And I had all the usual, horrifying music lessons: violin for a week, the recorder.
My dad was very fond of Spain — we’d driven there a few times — and he bought me a guitar, literally a Spanish guitar, when I was thirteen. I eventually broke the neck. I put steel strings on it, thinking I could turn it into a folk guitar. But I remember the first song I learned: “Man of the World,” by Peter Green.
When did you write your first song?
Right away. It was called “Winter.”
What was it about?
Winter — “and she’s gone” [laughs]. It was a melancholy love song in E minor. It sounded Elizabethan.
I’ve heard demo tapes you made in the mid-1970s with your band Flip City. Some of them sound a lot like ’72 Bruce Springsteen.
That’s who we were copying. When Bruce came to London for “the future of rock & roll” gigs in 1975, we were like, “Who are these johnny-come-latelies?” We’d been digging him for years. I loved The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. The songs are so operatic. Then he narrowed it down. I learned something from that. When he wanted to get over, he wrote “Born to Run.”
How did you end up at Stiff Records?
I had this idea that I was a songwriter rather than a performer. I’d been to all the major publishers. I’d give them tapes with thirty songs on them, go in and make them listen to me play, because I’d seen that in the movies: “I’ve got a song for you.” I had no idea about presentation.
When I saw that Nick Lowe was on a label and it was only two stops on the tube from where I worked, I took off sick one day and took my tape in. They were mostly the songs on the first album. Later I got a call. They thought some of them were good. But they still thought the songs were for somebody else.
What was the label’s first reaction to your real name?
I don’t remember Jake [Riviera, Stiff co-founder and Costello’s then manager] having one. But everybody had pseudonyms then. It didn’t seem unusual. When Elvis Presley died [in August 1977, a month after the U.K. release of My Aim Is True], it got funny for a minute. There was concern it would be misinterpreted as a cash-in.
Too much has been made of it. I changed my name on my passport, in a fit of bravado, for two years in the late Seventies. I decided it was stupid; I wanted my family name back. Then I put MacManus in the writing credits for a while. But I started getting cover versions, songs I actually wrote for other artists, and they wanted songs from Elvis Costello. I’m more at ease with the name now than I’ve ever been.
On the early albums, you seemed to specialize in confrontational songs about emotional betrayal and failed relationships.
Being the patron saint of a certain kind of woman-hating dweeb is not a great career. Let me say that, right out. Can I also say this? I’ve always loved women, to the point of getting myself in a lot of trouble, I used to see the word misogynist in reviews all the time. I would think, “Are these people not listening to the songs?” I’m talking about the ideal: the illusion of fashion as opposed to the soul of a person. This Year’s Model is a very moral record. It was the last time I had that kind of certainty in my life. Then I was all over the place for the next five or six years.
Was there a real-life Alison?
It’s a hybrid of several people. The song is about a person growing up and realizing life isn’t going to be ideal: “I know this world is killing you.” You’re not going to be this innocent girl that I first knew — and it’s me that’s doing it. There’s not a huge distance between that and “There’s a Story in Your Voice” [on The Delivery Man], where I’m singing about a character at a similar moment in later life — and she is realizing that the guy is a liar.
Many of your songs are crammed with words and images, sung very fast. When do you know enough’s enough?
I threw away five verses of “Pump It Up” — it was amphetamine nonsense. Other times, there is a point to the sheer weight. “Tokyo Storm Warning” [on 1986’s Blood and Chocolate] is a travelogue; it’s about claustrophobia.
There are different ways to write. A lot of the Imperial Bedroom songs make no sense. They sketch things: “Beyond Belief,” “Man Out of Time.” That’s the way I felt. My life wasn’t certain. The first excitement of success had run its course. Those are very tortured songs, like “Almost Blue.” Some are disguised. There’s the song about the day John Lennon got shot: “Kid About It.” I didn’t want to believe the news. But I didn’t want to write some John-is-gone song. It had to be more subtle, to have any meaning.
What is a typical songwriting day for you?
I can never say. You never know when you’re doing it. I have notebooks, pens and tape recorders all over. If I’m in a restaurant and suddenly get an idea, I’ll run to a phone and sing it into my answering machine. I’ll record that onto a Dictaphone, so I can finish the idea later. More often than not, the things demanding your attention are the ones worth writing. That was true of the North songs. I couldn’t put them out of my mind.
How was writing with Diana different from your other collaborations?
It was more personal. You’re sharing your life with somebody. She would write pages and pages, like a journal. She wrote almost every image in the lyrics. I put them into order. I did the editorial job. “The Girl in the Other Room” — I wrote two changes and the melodic line at the end of the chorus. All of the other music is hers. It was just, “Tell it to me, write it down.” I would sit in a room while she worked on the music. And we’d put the two things together.
Did you feel obliged to be more tender in your treatment of her words, because of your relationship?
You don’t make special allowances. But the original impulses are coming from someone with a more tender heart than I perhaps have. “Narrow Daylight” is a beautiful song, one I would not have had the courage to write on my own. That is my image: looking out a hotel window at one of those low skies, that hopeful bit of light between ground and sky. Everything else is Diana’s, her reflection on trying to lift herself up after something’s knocked her down hard.
What did you know about Diana’s music before you met her?
I had all of her records. I don’t think she had mine [laughs]. We’d met once briefly. I said she should do “My Thief [from the 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory]. I thought it might be a good song for her.
When did you know it was love, not just musical empathy?
You take a long time to admit that to yourself. I believed we could be friends, compatible collaborators. Then something happens that you can’t control. I’m thankful for that. I’ve never felt better in my life.
Has that changed the way you write for yourself now?
Not so much in the songs as in the freedom I feel. When North came out, I was reluctant to attach the songs so directly to the circumstances in my life. The specifics are there for private reasons. But if the record came out now…. [Pauses] It would never be easy to say it: “Like my record, because it’s about my life” [laughs].
How many songs do you have lying around right now, waiting to be recorded? Your productivity is such that people assume the number is in the hundreds.
There are two or three more Delivery Man songs, maybe four others. I did an interview in which I said I’d written fourteen of my best songs — the North songs. They printed it as “forty” [laughs]. It’s not effortless. I despaired, for a time, of writing any more words. In “This House Is Empty Now” [on Painted From Memory], I meant this house [points to his head].
That’s why I love North. I let myself write without reservation. The album ends with “I’m in the Mood Again.” I really feel that. People will assume, “Well, it’s going to be more of that from now on, because he’s married that jazz girl.”
But you know what? [Smiles] That jazz girl loves The Delivery Man.