Elvis Costello’s keyboard player of 43 years, Steve Nieve, has been doing a daily live-stream show from his home in France for more than three weeks, in which he often plays the compositions of his longtime musical partner. Easter Sunday’s webcast featured a surprise half-hour appearance by Costello himself, who joined Nieve for remote collaborations on several old songs as well as a brand new one, with plenty of chat in between about the pandemic and discussing recording projects that are in the can and yet to come.
Costello revealed that in February, they’d gone into a studio in Paris to record nine songs in two days with a group of local musicians Nieve had assembled — tracks that he hopes to release soon if he can get back into a studio to mix them. They performed the “world premiere” of a new song, “Hey Clockface,” near the end of the webcast, a number that, although they didn’t specify, presumably was part of those Parisian sessions. (Listen to the new song at about the one-hour point in the archived Facebook Live video, below.)
Moreover, Costello strongly hinted that he has been working on luring Nick Lowe back into the studio to produce the next sessions he’ll do with his regular backing band, the Imposters, of which Nieve is also a part. He said they’d had time booked at Abbey Road in London last month, possibly with this semi-mystery producer, before the halt of business in England put a premature stop to their European tour as well as the recording dates.
“Let’s be not quite so coy. Usually we are really keen on keeping everything super to ourselves until we’re ready to go,” Costello said. “We were making a record while we were planning this tour. I went to Helsinki and I cut some music on my own. And then I flew to Paris. I was hitting all the hot spots, I have to say! … Can we tell people? Hey, who’s going to stop us, Steve, If we tell people? We were in the studio. We cut, how many, nine songs in two days. And we were gonna start again with all of the (Imposters) band.”
Costello continued, “I mean, the songs that Steve and I cut, they were with a group of friends in Paris. … They were all songs that I wanted to cut in this really unusual way. … Right now I can’t get into the studio to edit or mix or do any of that stuff you do before you release things. Maybe we’ll try and get that out to you.
“Because the other thing that this contagion cost us was three days that we had held at Abbey Road immediately after the show in Birmingham that we had to postpone. We were going into the studio to cut as many things as we could cut in three days while our blood was up, as they say.” Costello said the plan had been to go back in with Sebastian Krys, who produced “Look Now,” the Elvis Costello & the Imposters album that won the traditional pop Grammy in January, “then the border situation changed and he couldn’t do that.
“So I called up a pal of ours. And I ain’t gonna say his name. But I said to him, ‘Would you come and produce this session for us?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, old chap, I don’t really do that kind of thing anymore.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but you know that I know that you can.’ And one of these days we’re all gonna be back in the studio with that gang of people. And maybe it won’t be too long. It’s the way everybody feels right now: When is life gonna get back to normal?”
Costello added that “you can probably guess who that person is if you’ve followed our career,” then cemented the idea that it was Lowe by suggesting that he and Nieve perform “a song that somebody else wrote,” which, of course, was Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
(Lowe produced all but a couple of Costello’s albums from his 1977 debut “My Aim is True” through 1986’s “Blood & Chocolate,” then returned as a session bass player, but not producer, for much of 1994’s “Brutal Youth.” He’s stayed out of the producing game and concentrated on his own work for the last three decades.)
The new song Costello debuted with Nieve is called “Hey Clockface,” he confirmed to Variety after the webcast. Its jauntiness harks back to a more Tin Pan Alley time, with the singer facing off against a clock that demands his lover go away (“Hey clockface, I really wanna know / Why is it when we’re apart you always take it slow / And when she’s here you always say it’s almost time to go”).
“I couldn’t hear a note Steve was playing,” he said later, “but that was the fun of it. It’s not about perfection right now but fun and spirit.”
Because of time lags in their admittedly not advanced technology, Costello turned off the sound he was receiving from Nieve to sing and play acoustic guitar by himself, with Nieve joining in on piano. Besides the Lowe song and the new composition, they also performed “High Fidelity” and “Almost Blue” as a duo. Prior to and after Costello joined the webcast, Nieve played “Beyond Belief,” “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” “Poor Fractured Atlas,” “Monkey to Man,” “Passionate Fight” and “The Favourite Hour.” Nieve’s stepson, Ajuq, who often joins him on the road for his own shows, participated as either vocalist or drummer, as he has every day since they and Nieve’s wife, Muriel Teodori, began their daily quarantine broadcasts.
Nieve’s show, “The Daily Improvisation,” takes place at 19.00 Paris time, 2 p.m. ET and 11 a.m. PT every day. Costello lauded his accompanist’s efforts to perform for a half-hour to an hour every day and said, “I’ll say this directly to you at the risk of embarrassing you. This has been a generous and inspiring thing you’e been doing every day. … Maybe this is one of the lovely things that has come out of this awful moment is that we are reminding ourselves to play. When they say ‘play music,’ sometimes we forget, it’s play like you did as a child.”
(For Variety’s joint interview earlier this year with Nieve and fellow rock keyboard great Benmont Tench, read here.)
Costello discussed the pandemic and how he was waiting for cues from the British government, in vain, as he began to realize he and the Imposters would not make it to the end of their tour in mid-March. He noted that bassist Davey Faragher, who earlier had revealed he was diagnosed with COVID-19, is recovering, and expressed surprise that more people did not have it from “eight of us traveling on a tour bus very close together.”
He also acknowledged two friends that had died in the last week, John Prine, “who was more somebody I greatly admired and (was) really, really lucky to get to know him a little bit,” and “our dear friend” Hal Willner. (Read Costello’s tribute to Willner here.)
“We are isolating as everyone is right now, isolating together, myself and Diana (Krall) and Dexter and Frank. And we are isolated even from the Internet a lot of the time. It’s not so much broadband as narrowband out here. And that’s not a bad thing, except the boys have to do their schooling online, so for hours of the day the grownups of the house have to turn their devices off. Which is also maybe a good thing, because we get time to write.”
He also mentioned a cover he had put up on his social media, of the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain,” a song about self-quarantining and avoiding human contact under different circumstances, that he’d recorded for an online seder he participated in this week. “Because heaven knows if it rained, then everyone would stay in instead of head to the seaside. But it’s a beautiful song to sing any time.”