Why Elvis Costello won’t go back to his roots
Wise Up Ghost is the latest in a long line of collaborations by Elvis Costello – this time with Questlove and The Roots. Teaming up with others has always been at the heart of his music, says the singer-songwriter
Two-hander: Elvis Costello and Questlove
There’s a hush when Elvis Costello walks into the basement room of the London hotel where we’re waiting to hear Wise Up Ghost, his new collaboration with The Roots. The small talk, gossiping and laughter drop a few notches as Costello, like the teacher of an unruly class, strides in with his hands behind his back. He nods at a few people and heads to the sound desk. When the master is ready, the music starts to play.
As you’d expect from a union of two of pop’s most venerable marquee names, Wise Up Ghost is adventurous, ambitious and audacious. Led from the drum kit by Questlove, The Roots twist and turn and swing and sway the music in an abundance of directions.
Costello spikes the moody, sleazy, greasy funk with dazzling wordplay about power, lust, desire, fear and terror, as well as lyrical samples from his back catalogue. Glance to the back of the room during the playback and you can see Costello’s hat nodding along to the music and swivelling around as he makes sure everyone is paying attention.
The meeting of minds that produced Wise Up Ghost came about via Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, the TV show on which The Roots are the house band. “I made three appearances on the show,” Costello says. “I also went and sang on one of the songs on the album they’ve done of Squeeze songs, which hasn’t appeared yet. Right at the root of it was that we were getting to know one another and our working methods and the process by which they prepared for work on the TV show.
“When we did the last appearance, when we did the Bruce Springsteen song [Brilliant Disguise], we were on mutual ground. It wasn’t my song, it wasn’t their song, it was Bruce’s song, and we were free to go about it in the way we wanted to. That kind of freedom really set us thinking about if we could do something together.
“The next thing, we were exchanging musical fragments and laying down sketches. It’s like Consequences, that game where you fold over the paper to reveal the word. We didn’t talk about it; we just did it.”
Wise Up Ghost is another collaboration from someone who feels he has been collaborating all his life. “My Aim Is True was a collaboration with Nick Lowe, but because I wasn’t known – and because I didn’t have any history – at that time, no one commented on that.