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Elvis Costello on Touring, Surgery and Opting to ‘Look Now’ at Record-Making Again

When Elvis Costello announced in July that he was canceling the last few dates of a European tour due to lingering effects from an earlier surgery, it put a fright into fans, about whether he’d be able to tour again in the near or even long term. They’d already been through a previous scare, albeit one that had nothing to do with his health, when the singer-songwriter had spent a good part of this decade suggesting that he might be finished making new albums altogether.

Neither of those dreads has come to pass: In October, Costello released his first batch of new material in five years, “Look Now” — and it’s by far his best-reviewed collection since “Painted From Memory,” his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, 20 years ago. Meanwhile, he and his band the Imposters set out on a 20-date North American tour this weekend, and the 25-song set list from the opening night (including 10 songs from the new album) indicates the passing health crisis didn’t put any crimp in his epic performing style.

Prior to the tour kickoff, Costello got on the phone with Variety to discuss his new label deal, the surprisingly different style of “Look Now,” ongoing collaborations with Bacharach, his appreciation for recently passed former producer Geoff Emerick, and why he favors George Gershwin over “square” rock music.

VARIETY: People are still curious to hear how you’re doing. If you hadn’t felt you had to cancel the last part of a European tour in July, the public wouldn’t have known anything, so that must have been a hard decision for you to make, knowing that people would take it as: “He’s in mortal danger.”

COSTELLO: I was extremely fortunate to have this thing detected when it could be dealt with with a single surgery. And I would have kept it as a private matter. To be told that there’s something that could turn into cancer is obviously shocking to you — nobody would invite that — but it was all under control until I miscalculated what it took for me to do my work. I just didn’t allow for the fact that the operation would knock me out quite as much as it did, like it does everybody. And I suppose it was a good lesson in what it really takes to do my show well. When I got into the tour a little way and I was finding one night was great and the next night was out of my control, I didn’t like that feeling. I didn’t feel it was right for the audience or right for the band. I was putting too much on them to carry the shows where I wasn’t at my best. And once I made the decision, then I lost all the anxiety that was building up, and the last few shows were really great. It was almost like, “Well, I could actually do this, maybe!” But I know that if I’d pressed on, I would have paid a price for it. So it was a miscalculation which obliged me to make a public explanation. And then with the way it is in England, they got ahold of it and put it in the tabloid papers and made it sound as if I was at death’s school, which was really unfortunate, because it’s deeply disrespectful to friends of mine that were actually, really dealing with serious illness.

You became aware you would require the surgery while you were still making the album, right?

The only way in which it had any impact on this record was just the deep breath that I took before I sang the lead vocals, because it was just before that, as we were laying down the horn and string parts, that I found out. It maybe sharpened my wits up a bit, because I knew I might have a little time ahead where I wouldn’t be able to work, so I wanted to get it right the first time. That’s only got to be good. But I never was ill or ailing in any way. I never felt, “Oh, I feel sick.” It was really a great piece of fortune and expertise on the part of the technician who spotted this little thing and said, “Oh, that don’t look good. Let’s find out what that is. Ah, it’s this — it’s gotta get out.” So that’s reason enough to say to people: Make sure you keep up with your checks. It could get you out of a whole world of trouble.

When we last spoke with you a year ago [when he was promoting his song for “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”], the subject of making a new record came up, but you still sounded dubious about that happening.

We were actually due to start an album then, when we spoke, but I didn’t want to (talk about it prematurely). There was a company that wanted to make it, but their bosses didn’t seem to feel the same way about it, so we had to put the brakes on for a moment. We were all set to go and had the studio booked and even the debut performances booked (a canceled residency in Las Vegas in February and March), and that all had to be reworked. But nothing bad ever comes out of that, because it gave me the time to consider a few different songs, and I think the balance now is better than it would have been. In that time I wrote “Mr. and Mrs. Hush” and “Dishonor the Stars,” and I rewrote “Under Lime,” and they’re three of the best songs on the record. Eventually Concord stepped up, and we worked out how to do something of this scale and relative complexity in the minimum amount of time, in the kind of budget that anybody can afford these days.

And how do you accomplish that kind of quicker, economical approach?

That was mainly by (the band) talking to one another in advance about what we feel about the music, and therefore how we intend to play it. And once you’ve figured out all the things you don’t need, it’s much easier to play with complete feeling and abandon. Even when you’re playing the gentlest, most sensitively poised song, you don’t want to be thinking too much. You want to be feeling, and responding to one another. And because we worked out what we didn’t need in advance, it was actually kind of… I won’t say effortless, but it wasn’t anxious work. It was all very joyful — even though the songs themselves are quite often quite tragic tales.

Not everybody who is 31 albums into a career can say they’re making a record that doesn’t exactly sound like any of the ones that came before.

Well, thank you. I think that’s what we set out to do. We should be somewhere different than we were a long time ago. I’d be disappointed if we hadn’t gathered some things of use. I can make my ideas very clear now, and I knew where I didn’t want people to play. And in that way we weren’t fighting one another in any sense — fighting for space. I knew that sometimes I had to say to (keyboardist) Steve (Nieve), “Don’t fill that hole there, because as great as that idea is, there’s actually something else that’s contrasting that’s going there. Just trust me, when it’s all together, it’s going to be great.” And Steve was great about that, because I watched how he was produced by Nick Lowe, and even from the get-go, he could go on and give you so many variations with such imagination. But sometimes it’s necessary for somebody to go, “That’s the thing that sticks in the mind. Let’s play that, and don’t change it.” So I think we’ve probably gotten better at listening to one another and trusting each other.

You give Steve Nieve more space than you give your own guitar, by a long shot. Any guitar you’re playing on this album sounds pretty subliminal.

I wanted to ensure that the arrangements left space for the voice to live where it does, so that I didn’t have to sing with tremendous force to break through a lot of stuff. For one thing, it’s just deciding to put the guitar in the rhythm section and not in the foreground with a lot of fuzz-tone. I mean, it’s not that kind of music. Why would you play it like that? It just needs to be in the rhythm, whether it’s an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar on the backbeat or some little line just tucking in with everything. That’s as much a joy to play like that as it is any big blown-out thing.

As recently as 10 years ago, with “Momofuku,” you made a loud, guitar-based album, and you still do that live, but it didn’t interest you for this album.

Well, I know it sounds like I’m being argumentative when I say this, but I really don’t like rock music. Like, that square kind of rock music is boring to me. It always was. The Beatles were a swinging beat group. Tamla-Motown records were swinging; they were mostly played by people who had come out of jazz. All the rock ‘n’ roll records that I love, that I grew to love because the Beatles played Little Richard songs, it’s Earl Palmer, a jazz drummer. That’s why I like a lot of dance music, because even if it’s made with machines, at least it’s got all these trippy rhythms. I don’t want to hear that square beat all the time. You won’t find a lot of my records that lie there. When you put the guitar up loud, then it gets into that. Now, I love noise records — records that you can barely be in the room with because they’re so abrasive. But that square thing just doesn’t do it for me. I like this thing that we’re doing now, which I think is much more swinging. You listen to (bassist) Davey (Faragher) play on “Mr. and Mrs. Hush”  — I don’t even want to put a label on it; I don’t even know what kind of music that is.

Quite a few times over the last decade, you made it sound as if you might never make an album again, and indicated that reshaping your repertoire on different tours was perfectly fulfilling.

Well, I was enjoying (touring), but I was also being pragmatic. I mean, I didn’t feel that there was an obligation to make records, and there was also no entitlement to the means to make them. And I started out as a songwriter, so all the shows I built over the last 10 years were all different ways of looking at the songbook, whether it was the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” revival or “Detour” or, latterly, “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers.” The “Other Chambers” part of it was the key thing, wasn’t it? It was like, what company did those songs want to keep, as we looked at them in 2016-2017? We didn’t play the songs in the order that they appeared on the album and we weren’t trying to completely recreate the album arrangements. We looked at the songs and in some cases turned the ball around. A combination of me, Steve and Davey came up with the “Tears Before Bedtime” arrangement, and it felt much closer to the feeling of the lyric than the original recording ever did. So it was in realizing that songs are not stamped goods, edible goods, that go off. They can change shape as you revisit them. And the fact that anybody wants to hear a song that I wrote 40 years ago is remarkable to me. But I wanted to do some more of what I started out to do, which was to write songs that did stick around. So I didn’t really think there was anything else to do but set off to work on another record — if somebody who wanted to take the gamble would pay for it.

“Look Now” has newly written songs but also some “trunk songs” with “Look Now,” given that fans heard you play some of these songs on tour years ago. I think three songs date back to the mid-1990s, right?

“Unwanted Number” was written before “All This Useless Beauty” was completed (in 1996), but it wouldn’t have fit on that record, and that band (the Attractions) couldn’t have played it. This band had to play it. It took me until now to feel like the song belonged to me. And then how could I have taken “Burnt Sugar is So Bitter” to the “Painted from Memory” sessions (in 1998) and say, “Burt, it’s great to work with you. Would you like to record a song I wrote with Carole King?” How would that conversation have started? Or more importantly, how would it have ended? And I wrote “Suspect My Tears” right after that, but look at the records I’ve made since ‘98 and tell me which record “Suspect My Tears” could have been on.

You have three co-writes with Burt Bacharach on this album, and then several that sound like they could have been, even though he wasn’t involved in the others.

You’re right in hearing Burt’s influence upon things like “Why Won’t Heaven Help Me.” And I can obviously hear the echo of my work with Burt in the writing of “Suspect My Tears.” That was the very next song I wrote after “Painted From Memory” was released. My original intention 20 years ago was to follow “Painted From Memory” with a record that sounded like “Suspect My Tears.” I wanted to make an uptown pop record that had a rhythm section that did what this rhythm section does, with space for the voice and a pop orchestra of a kind, whether it was strings or vibraphone or guitars or voices — sort of the way we’re using instruments here. And, I guess, then other things happened. [Laughs.] Lots of things, in fact! They took me all over the place, and I wouldn’t have changed anything.

Bacharach co-wrote three songs on this album and plays piano on the two for which he entirely wrote the music. What was that like?

Those songs were written to turn the corners in a plot that was being developed for a proposed “Painted From Memory” musical. I’m pretty shrewd about these things, and I know that musicals don’t work out, so I wanted to make sure the songs made complete sense without prior knowledge of the plot. And then just the idea of him coming into the studio and playing with the Imposters, it amazes me that it happened. Not because I don’t think they’re capable of it, but I couldn’t have imagined it even a little while ago. And it was such a beautiful session. He came in and put us through the paces the way he does with every band that he leads, and everybody listened and responded. I even sing live on those two, and they have a different kind of feeling, because we were all right in the room. The others on the album were pictures that I wanted to build up so that I could sing them the way I do — things like “Under Lime,” where I wanted the whole story (to be painted instrumentally) before I sang it.

“Under Lime” is one of a few songs on the album with brass or strings. It’s interesting hearing you return to that more ornate style you did with Geoff Emerick when he produced (1982’s) “Imperial Bedroom,” now that we’re thinking about him having just passed away.

It’s very poignant to read of Geoff’s passing, because I would have loved to have played him this record. I think he would have appreciated that we were trying to use the studio in the same way — to create a different result, I hope; we didn’t want to make the same record again. “Imperial Bedroom” is often described as baroque, and I guess “And in Every Home” is quite baroque, and maybe the harpsichord on “You Little Fool.” But what kind of music is “Almost Blue”? That’s my most covered song. That’s very spare. So is “Long Honeymoon,” although there’s some French horns on the end of it, and an accordion that we played with three of us sort of wrestling it. It’s not really all orchestrated, but some things were. We’d not done anything like that before that time, and Geoff had the incredible patience to wait while we burnt off all the excess ideas that we didn’t need. The more manic approach to recording that we’d just about managed to pull off on “Trust” didn’t work for those songs. It sounded ridiculous, and Geoff was the one who sat there while we fought with ourselves for about 10 days and then came to our senses and started to make the record that we ended up with. And that band (the Attractions), everybody has a moment where that’s the best of their playing. Pete (Thomas)’s drums on “Beyond Belief,” Steve’s piano on “The Loved Ones,” Bruce (Thomas)’s bass on the end of “Shabby Doll”: that’s some of the best stuff that that those guys ever played. But Geoff’s the one that put it all into a picture where it could live with all these crazy vocal overdub ideas that I was doing — not all of which I would necessarily do the same way now, but were really truthfully the way I heard it at the time.

Emerick built quite a legacy out of those Beatles albums, even without being the producer of record.

(Co-producer) Sebastian (Krys) did an amazing job on this new record, and if you listen to the way he actually puts particular echo on voices, it has the subtlety and the response to the music that Geoff would appreciate. I believe I’m not just saying that in a sentimental way because of what just happened. Geoff was obviously the reason why we know how to do a lot of these things, because he was obliged to create those sounds and make those things that we now all take for granted come into existence — him and people like Ken Scott and the other guys that worked at Abbey Road, in response to the imagination of the Beatles and the Zombies. They all had to make that stuff up. Stuff that you now get as a plug-in on ProTools, it was something that was made out of bits of tape and pencils and an old broken spool — a homemade device and a one-time-only effect that you wouldn’t be able to exactly replicate. When people try to copy it, you end up with a pale imitation, whereas now everybody has access to all the same presets.

Elvis Costello
CREDIT: Stephen Done / courtesy Shore Fire Media

Are you done putting out archival material? Fans have wondered if you might ever explore what’s in the vaults for the post-Warner Bros. years, too.

I’ve no idea what the will would be to make physical packages of things again, because of the actual expense of making them to the volume possibly sold of anything these days… There’s 11 albums of music that are currently out of catalog — the 11 albums’ worth of music that were the second CDs of the Rhino editions (in the ‘90s)… I think we’ve tested the case for Universal’s argument that streamlined versions of my records (in the 2000s) were somehow superior. We’ve proven that was a fallacy. I knew it was when they did it, but they were convinced that was the way to go. And then they made a series of ill-starred moves to do with the catalog I tried to help with. The only two really imaginative compilations that have come out in the last 15 years were my doing. They got rid of everybody that knew what they were doing, and the people that were left in charge of these things don’t know the music, so they don’t know what they’re looking at. But I don’t think it would be right to put those on sale again, in some way that obliged people to get some rare stuff by adding a couple of things you couldn’t get before. It’s all got to be in some way more accessible, but with some way that you could find your way through it if you were in any way interested.

There will always be an interest, even if mediums change.

But it’s getting to be old, that music, now. Maybe we should just burn it or something, you know? Does it need to exist? I mean, old things, aren’t they kind of not needed anymore? I don’t know!… I don’t have any ambition for it, really. Because to me, the songs that people want to hear, they come to hear me sing ‘em if they want ‘em. I would be more interested in recording more unheard music, really, myself. I mean, I’ve got the 21 songs for the score of (the proposed Broadway musical) “A Face in the Crowd,” which is gonna be workshopped again soon and will move toward production next year. There’s the other songs that I wrote with Burt. There’s some very beautiful tunes in among those, which I think it would be a shame if they just existed on sheet music. I would love them to be heard, whether it’s me singing them or somebody else.

You know, the one thing about time and other things happening in your life is like, look how long I waited to record “Burnt Sugar.” I think that “Burnt Sugar” is a pretty good song, right? I didn’t rush to record it the minute I wrote it. I waited until it was ready. Songs can outlive the writer, too. You know all those songs that my wife just recorded with Tony Bennett? Don’t they all sound great? Listen to the way Tony Bennett sings “Who Cares?” on the end of that record and tell me that doesn’t sound like it was written yesterday. That’s the perfect explanation of why George Gershwin will always be a modernist, always be a revolutionary. I’m not writing anything that’s that startling. I’m just writing things that I learn along the way, and the words are the thing — the stories and the feelings of the thing. I don’t make any pretense to innovation musically, though I do think there’s a couple of original tunes on this record.

But the main thing is the feeling that we’ve got while we’re doing it, and the fact that we’re doing it all together, at this moment, now. That’s what really matters to me, that it’s happening and we’re here to do it. It’s gonna be great! Let’s go! When do we start? [He laughs long and gleefully.] I must be high on coffee.

 

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