Elvis Costello: ‘What you get is this face and this voice that has changed’

The prolific post-new waver on cancer, death, friends and his latest album

Elvis Costello: “What you get is this face and this voice that has changed and that I have used in different ways. Forty-five years of myself, Pete and Steve playing together is going to give you some trust.”  Photograph: Mark Seliger

Elvis Costello: “What you get is this face and this voice that has changed and that I have used in different ways. Forty-five years of myself, Pete and Steve playing together is going to give you some trust.” Photograph: Mark Seliger

 

To paraphrase Mr Kipling, 67-year-old Elvis Costello is in exceedingly good form. The Zoom chat has just begun, but he says he can only see a photo of me. I suggest that perhaps a photo is all he needs to see, but no, he isn’t having that. “I don’t want to look at that all the way through. I’d go funny . . .” I click video start, and we have lift off. Costello’s face brightens up even further. “Ah, there you go! How you doin’?”

One of the most prolific songwriters of the past 45 years, Costello has, unsurprisingly, a new album to talk about. The Boy Named If features a batch of songs written closely together and while some have connecting themes, they were not, he advises, “conceived as one big story”. And yet there is a sizeable physical storybook to crack open, brief story introductions to songs to read, and Costello’s own Art Brut illustrations to look at. In this era of streaming for all, where music can be easily listened to but rarely placed in context, it begs the question: why all the hard work for this particular album?

“The record comes first and that’s what most people will hear,” he begins. “There are only 6,000 of the books, and not everybody will want them, not everybody will be able to get them. We face a time where music is wonderfully accessible in all the ways that we receive it, but . . .” At this point, Costello breaks off from his thoughts, looks past my shoulder, and asks, “I don’t know whether that wall behind you is real or virtual?” It is real, I assure him, but I know why he is asking. 

Scene into song

“You have a lot of CDs, so you like physical records! I like physical records! Of course, it is a bit dismaying when you work on something, you get it just so, and then it’s just tossed into the stream, floats away so rapidly, and it’s never assembled in that determined way again. It becomes part of just one long random playlist. I won’t deny that there’s an attraction about the accessibility of music in this form. It’s getting the balance between the two, so I made a leap – which I seem to be doing more and more these days – to say what if you could open the storybook that’s pictured on the album’s front cover? What if it became a reality?” 

He says he had expected record label execs to say no to the idea, but “nobody said that”. The intros/stories were written quickly. “They came to my mind as being the scene leading into the song, what was going on in the background, or what was going to happen next.” The illustrations, meanwhile, were something he had been doing over the last few years. “I don’t really care whether or not people like them because they’re from inside my head. I’m not putting them in a frame in a gallery – they’re ephemeral in the sense that they’re pop art, truly, because they are connected to pop songs.” 

He was, he says, doing the illustrations in a light-hearted manner. In fairness, he needed respite from some of the weightier issues that had come his way. He allows that in 2018, “I had a bit of a difficult year with one thing and another.” He is alluding to (as stated on his website) “a small but very aggressive cancerous malignancy”. Some people, he offers, “made a big melodrama about this operation I had, but that was the least of it, frankly”. In the same year, his mother nearly died of a stroke. He spent a lot of time at her bedside in Arrowe Park Hospital, Wirral. “Weeks and weeks I was watching her recover. If you have ever been in that vigil situation, there isn’t a lot you can introduce to enliven the spirit, you can’t talk to somebody who’s unconscious. There are also other people to consider in the ward: somebody is screaming, somebody is crying, somebody is complaining, and you just have to be quiet and be there when the person awakes.”

‘Tears at bay’

Costello’s mother, Lillian MacManus, died in February 2021. After a necessary time of mourning (“The passing of an older person,” he wrote on his website on the day of her death, “should be more the occasion for celebrating their long life, good fortune and strong spirit but when it’s your Mam, it is impossible to keep the tears at bay forever.”), he did what he has been doing since he was a teenager: write songs. He sent a batch he had been working on since the summer of 2020 to his long-time friends, drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve (each of whom has played with Costello since the late-1970s in The Attractions and, from 2000, The Imposters) and bass player, Davey Faragher. Like many other prolific songwriters, the quality of Costello’s output over his career has, inevitably, wavered, but it is no exaggeration to say The Boy Named If corrals many best aspects of his wide-ranging musical expression. I suggest the song styles reference a specific era of his career when his music was intensely punchy, taut, aggressive, and the lyrics pithy, eminently quotable – in essence, the years 1978-1982. Costello cuts in, a tad flinty. “I don’t think we were trying to replicate it.” I say I didn’t use that particular word, but he ignores me and continues, albeit less bothered. 

“Maybe if we had thought of a whole bunch of reasons why we couldn’t do it, we would have got tied up.” Photograph: Mark Seliger
“Maybe if we had thought of a whole bunch of reasons why we couldn’t do it, we would have got tied up.” Photograph: Mark Seliger

“What you get is this face and this voice that has changed and that I have used in different ways. Forty-five years of myself, Pete and Steve playing together is going to give you some trust. It also gives you, frankly, experience of life together. We have watched each other go through different changes – marriages, children, the death of parents, all the things that any group of friends would go through, although we haven’t been absolutely side by side through all that. We have also been playing in this band, The Imposters, for 20 years, which is most people’s life in music. Forty years is twice as long, so you would have to almost go out of your way not to sound like yourself.” Perhaps the difference between now and then, he considers, is that the friends/musicians now listen to and trust each other much more acutely than they used to. “We have nothing to prove being rougher and tougher than anybody else because I know that on any day The Imposters could plant any other band. If that’s all you do, however, it gets a bit one-dimensional.” 

Instinctively clued-in

This is something that Elvis Costello could never be accused of. From his 1977 studio debut, My Aim is True to The Boy Named If (as well as the wealth of collaborative recordings), he has been as much an inquisitive explorer as an eager partner. Not everything he puts his name to works, of course, but he remains irrepressibly creative and instinctively clued-in. A touring veteran (although it remains to be seen how many live shows will be allowed to take place in the first half of this year), he will continue to spin the wheels because that’s what he does. Thinking back, he says that by the summer of 2020, he had two records ready to go – the studio album, Hey Clockface, and Spanish Model, a unique reworking of his 1978 album, This Year’s Model, with Spanish artists enlisted to sing over the original backing tracks. 

“By which point,” he brings the timeline up to date, “Pete was at me, saying that we couldn’t go back on the road and he couldn’t play along to Beatles and Motown records for the rest of his life in his basement. I threw him a song and said how about you play along to it? Suddenly, all the songs I’d been thinking about became a reality. Maybe if we had thought of a whole bunch of reasons why we couldn’t do it, we would have got tied up, but we let ourselves get occupied and connected, and before we knew what we’d done we had made the new record.”

  The Boy Named If is on release via EMI, January 14th

Elvis Costello and Pavel Pavilowski: ‘He and his producer and I had a conversation in Paris two, maybe three years ago’

“I Do (Zulu’s Song), a track on my 2020 album Hey Clockface, and The Difference, a track on the new album, are indebted to [film director] Pavel Pavilowski. He and his producer and I had a conversation in Paris two, maybe three years ago, about a possible stage adaptation of his 2018 film, Cold War. I Do (Zulu’s Song) and The Difference were illustrations of how either a scene or even a line in his script could be a song. They weren’t songs from the score – we weren’t planning an actual score – but they are indebted to him in the sense that a line from the song alludes to a line in his script.

Scrabble and crosswords

“It’s very common in that quite often you quote or half-quote a line from an old film, a newspaper article or something you heard someone say in a bar. It’s a peculiar quirk of lyricists that I can look at a newspaper article and other people will read it from top to bottom, logically, yet I will see three words that will become a song title. I can’t do crosswords, I can’t play Scrabble, but I can do that. I don’t know what it is, it’s like a weird tic I have. That’s a stock in trade – be careful around me because I might write down what you say.”

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