Elvis Costello: “There are many reasons to make records, but none are economic”

Elvis Costello’s career has spanned new wave, country, pop and punk, but what crafted his sound more than anything was watching his dad learning to play The Beatles


Mention Elvis Costello to anyone and immediately a gamut of assumptions, visual pointers, and cliches present themselves. NHS glasses and sharp suits; wordsmith lyrics sneered through a gap-toothed snarl, and someone once ideologically labelled an angry young man (and grumpy interviewee) by the music press.

Some of these things may be true but, as we talk on the phone from his Vancouver home, he is nothing but warm and erudite, cracking jokes and kissing his wife goodbye as she heads out the door. A quintessential English songwriter, Costello hasn’t lived in England for decades, and this is reflected in his hybrid accent of Liverpool, London and hint of North America.

Radio Radio
Born as Declan McManus to parents of Irish descent, it was almost inevitable that he’d become a musician. In Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink – his doorstep memoir published last year . Costello revealed that his grandfather Pat was a trumpet player who performed on transatlantic cruise liners, but that seeing his father Ross MacManus play had a bigger impact on him.

“I think everyone has that music story of ‘I heard that song on the radio and it changed my life’, or ‘my brother gave me that record and it opened the door’.

“In my case, it was my dad, in the front room of our house, learning how to play Please Please Me by The Beatles, when my pals were in their houses being told to ‘turn off that bloody thing off’ by their parents. My dad had to learn the hits of the day to perform them on radio, because until the foundation of Radio 1, all pop music at the BBC was performed by wildly inappropriate ensembles . . . sometimes dance bands, or orchestras. The amount of recorded music played every day was quite small, so when you did hear the record, it made it very precious.

“But because of my father’s mjob of singing hits and adapting these songs, I heard the workaday aspect of music being assimilated and learned. I’d hear him rehearsing, and occasionally go with him to the radio broadcast. Between their songs, young guys – who turned out to be The Hollies and The Mersey Beats – would come in with their instruments and amplifiers. To see behind the curtain obviously changes your perspective.”

MyAim is True
After a series of jobs, a demo landed him a record deal and he began a period of intense productivity. Starting with 1977’s My Aim is True, he released a hit album every year (two in 1981) until 1984, from when he usually released something every other year.

“I’ve always made music at that pace. You capture the public’s mimagination with relatively simple stories, and some people will move on, but many will stay with you, wanting to see what you’ll do next as an artist. After a while, it changes for everyone, there’s a period where you have everyone’s attention, and you say your statement, and after that it’s just a question of whether you just want to repeat that for the rest of your life, or go off and do other stuff.”

This has always been central mto Costello’s work. Even at the beginning of his career when he was making the kind of music that established him, he released Almost Blue, an album of country-music covers. He admits that at the time, he found it hard to write about his own feelings and that it was easier mto sing other people’s songs.

“With Good Year for the Roses, a whole other audience came to that, although I’m sure some people ran away horrified too. As they did when I worked with the Brodsky Quartet or Burt Bacharach, but there’s a balance too, and a lot of people liked it.

“I want to just enjoy the music I’m playing, and trust that there’s going to be enough of an audience to make the wheels go around.”

He has also composed Il Sogno, an orchestral score for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and released an album with The Roots drummer Questlove. Collaboration is a hallmark of Costello’s work, and his biggest US hit to date, Veronica (about his much-loved grandmother) was co-written with Paul McCartney.

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash
He has turned up as backing singer and guitarist on many albums, but Costello has produced many acts, including a McCartney solo record, The Specials, Squeeze and notably The Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. The Questlove collaboration happened back in 2013, but it’s been six years since his last solo album, although this is not due to weariness – Costello explains that are a couple of factors, namely money.

“I’ve just replaced the release of records with the creation of stage shows as the motor of my working life. People think I don’t have to work anymore, but I DO have to go out and play live. I don’t have any great fortune stored up, and there are not fortunes to be made from releasing records, unless you’re Taylor Swift. There are many reasons to make records, but none of them are economic.”

There is little chance of Costello giving up though. He can’t imagine not making music, and still tries to work consistently. He has fallow patches like any artist, but has never found himself in a studio without a reason to be there. Recently, he wrote several songs very quickly, which was both fun and unnerving.

“I was driven on by a story. As soon as I finished one song, another came into my mind. Sometimes it’s upsetting – and thrilling – when it happens, and you can go years without having that experience. I also know that if I forced myself to go into the studio every day that wouldn’t happen. But I do obey the impulse when it starts to arrive.”

If the countrified heartbreak of Almost Blue has its roots in his temporary inability to express himself, Costello is rarely lost for words. He can sweep from the political context of Pills and Soap to the raw hurt of Baby Plays Around. Vocabulary matters to him: he chooses specific words in his answers as we talk, and he says that while there are layers of fiction and revelation in songs, lyrics – not music – “are the true story of the song”.

As an artist in the second half of his career, Costello is not alone in feeling the need to keep touring, even if he says he loves the buzz of live shows. He is on the road consistently, but is content at home in Vancouver with his wife, the musician Diana Krall.

Musical marriage
The pair have worked together, and he played guitar, ukulele and mandolin on Krall’s Glad Rag Doll album (under a jokey pseudonym). They have twin nine-year-old sons, and, earlier this year, Costello had plans to bring them to Anfield to see their first Liverpool game, but dates got moved around. He’s really looking forward to coming back to play Dublin, and explains that he “lived there at one point, up in the hills”.

“In the US, people talk up the idea of their Irishness, but my dad’s family were from the North, and I put my time in, living in Ireland for years. Even though I’ve lived on the other side of the Atlantic for decades, I’m still really connected to England through family . . . my older son lives in London and my mother lives on Deeside near Liverpool.

“Actually, on this tour, I’m playing the Royal Philharmonic Hall on the eve of her birthday. She was at the show last year, and still comes to see me play.”

Costello’s conversational train of thought hops around, just as his autobiography does. In it, he’s both effusive and guarded in telling his own story, and the book is vehemently anti-chronological. It works well, weaving between the celebrity anecdotes, life story and musical craft we expect of good music biographies. The structure of the book feels random, but was he says very deliberate. It also reminds me of Costello’s Revolver tour, where each night’s setlist was chosen by the spin of a wheel of songs.

Declan MacManus may be older and less angry, but he still embraces chaos, and likes to do things exactly the way he wants to.

- Elvis Costello plays Galway Arts Festival on July 15th, Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens on July 16th and Belfast’s SSE Arena on July 19th. Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink is published by Penguin