Sorry, Morrissey, no dice, Sting, and better luck next time, Bono — Elvis remains the King. Taken together, his 20-plus albums reveal a towering figure on a par with the best pop artists of the 1960s and early 1970s; people like Joni Mitchell, Elton John, and Neil Young. In addition to developing his cliché-blasting lyrical gift into a definitive voice for a crucial moment in time (à la Bob Dylan), Costello has created a vital sonic universe that’s proven prescient despite the changing mainstream and independent pop landscape of the last 30 years. Ever since the staggering opening bars of “Watching the Detectives” in 1977, Costello has lead the way toward a sophisticated amalgam of pub rock passion, dub reggae roots, American soul, and power pop punch. Married in recent years to jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, Costello now has two small children (twin boys, Dexter Henry Lorcan and Frank Harlan James) and spends the bulk of his time in the United States and Canada. Restless in his search for new challenges, Costello continues to pump out great records, including 2009’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, recorded in Nashville with the likes of Jerry Douglas and T-Bone Burnett, and a popular television program, Spectacle, which just completed its second season on the Sundance Channel.
When I spoke with Costello recently by phone, he was buzzing with ideas and energy, clearly excited about the prospect of taking to the stage at the Arlington for his April 13 concert, one of the crown jewels in a stellar season of programming for UCSB’s Arts & Lectures.
How do you plan to approach the solo concert setting? I haven’t played many solo shows in the United States recently, and it is a long time since I have played the Arlington, which is such a wonderful theater. I would like to help the people out there who are looking at the notice for an Elvis Costello solo show and wondering, “What’s that going to be like?” right now. I’m sure some folks are out there and they’re thinking, “Is this going to be an evening of madrigals? Does Costello do folk music now? What is it that Elvis has planned?” Well, I’m not really a folk singer, and I haven’t done any madrigals lately, so I will play lots and lots of songs, many that you already know and some new ones, as well. I can play quite loud on my own, so you can be sure that I will rock out from time to time.
Seriously, the point of these solo shows, from my perspective, is that they are the way I find out how my new songs are working. My experience has been that when you tour with a band and you go into the new material the audience often takes that moment to nip out for a drink or to go to the bathroom, but when you’re alone onstage, if you craft the setlist and control the dynamics just right, they will stay with you for the new ones and give them a fair shake. I feel like there’s an accumulated story when the new songs are interspersed with all the hits, and it’s then that the recent material gets more of a chance to take hold.
You’ve been writing a bit lately your website, mostly about the loss of some old friends like T-Bone Wolk, Charlie Gillette, and now John Ciambotti from the Clovers. How does the web fit into your day-to-day? That’s true, it’s an outlet that I use, and I’ve been on there lately primarily because of these unfortunate losses, as you say. We’re actually in the process of launching a much more detailed website at elviscostello.com. Look for that very soon, within a few weeks of the Arlington show. It will have a lot more things to do and hear and read. It’s been a struggle for me, accepting that this medium would become the new reality for distributing music. For someone who began his career working with computers, I’m afraid I’ve been slow to adapt to the digital revolution, and I still believe that the digital distribution model should be in proportion to all the other ways that an artist’s work reaches the fans. We’ve seen the dissolution of the album format over the last decade, and now its up to us to tell a coherent story through digital media such as the web, but it still has to be done by the artist to some extent, because a third party may be good at the technical aspects, and yet miss the point of the artist’s expression. It’s also a challenge to compose an experience that hangs together in a medium that is inherently fragmented. For me, going online feels a bit like I’m Alice down the rabbit hole — you don’t know where you’ll end up. I start out looking for country, and the next thing I know I’m deep in Django Reinhardt. It’s so easy to be drowned by your own curiosity.
As for my own writing on the web, I do appreciate that I can put my thoughts out there as they occur, although I am sorry that so many recently have been memorial posts. There’s one thing I won’t be doing, which is to tweet about every little detail of my life. You won’t be hearing what flavor of coffee I’m having, so don’t look for it.
Are you spending any time in England these days? I’m not particularly close to anyone in England anymore, except for my family. I’ve lived in this country for most of the last nine years, and of course now that I’ve married Diana we spend a fair amount of time in Canada, which is wonderful.
You started out on Stiff Records and, at least in England, your rise to fame is often associated with the independent record label. How do you see the relationship between the indies and the so-called majors? Well, the glory days of the independent record labels were in fact a mixed bag, and even some of the majors, like Atlantic Records, actually began as independents. The true independents — the ones like Sun and Specialty — I have conflicted views toward them due to the way they treated their artists, so I don’t idealize independent labels for their own sake, but I do see the importance of them to the music, historically. Once the large companies saw a pound note in them, most of them got bought up. At least the owners were usually music people. Today, it’s unusual to have someone who is in charge of a record company be someone from the traditional music business. People who have come to their roles from other things run contemporary labels. “The opportunity business” is probably a better name for it than “the music business” with the way it is run now.
Even as late as the 1970s and 1980s, when I was coming up, there were still some major labels that supported genuine artist development. Think of the albums Warner Brothers let Prince release before he finally connected with a mass audience — five albums worth of soul searching, including 1999, a double record, all of them released before Purple Rain became a huge hit. But that’s partly because Warner had Van Halen to pay the bills while they took their time with Prince. But that’s all gone now — no one can afford to operate in that way today, with the top acts subsidizing the developing artists.
Did you feel like an outsider when you were starting your career? Every niche in the music world has a different history. For me, access to the scene in the late 1970s required some adjustments. For one thing, it was not the right time for one-man, one-guitar efforts. If I had come along five years earlier, it might have been different, because there were so many singer/songwriters on the charts at the beginning of the 1970s; people like Jackson Browne and James Taylor. But by 1977, it was glam and all that, and I didn’t wear lipstick, and I didn’t do shows in drag, or whatever. I found my way into the scene; it just took a bit of doing. And as soon as I arrived, there seemed to be others who had come up kind of the same way — putting out their own records and playing lots of shows — and who had some of the same do-it-yourself sound about them, groups like The Smiths and R.E.M. Of course that doesn’t mean that there was anything really ragged or unprofessional about them, just that they sounded like maybe you could do it, too. I also had that gritty DIY sound at first, but soon I wanted to go beyond it. And it wasn’t long before the whole thing got co-opted, and there were slicker, more heavily produced versions of the so-called new wave sound.
Whatever kind of music you are talking about, there are generally cycles, including earlier periods where the ideas are first getting worked out in a somewhat primitive form, and then later periods when it’s the same things, but in grander versions. Now that I say it though, I am reminded of the exceptions. Motown was certainly fully evolved from the get go, and there was never anything wishy-washy about the Beatles. They had it all there right from the start.
Describe the process you went through in recording your first album, My Aim Is True. I was surprised to find myself in the studio with a group of professionals, Clovers, and delighted with the fact that they could execute my songwriting ideas. I suppose the indifferent technique that I brought to the session myself gave it that roughness that we all seemed to find so appealing at the time. In the end, it was a very good thing that I had those musicians there to make My Aim Is True work.
Was there a moment when you knew that you had something special, a track for instance that stands out because of how you felt when you first heard it? Yes, sure, there was a moment like that. We were listening to the playback of “Watching the Detectives,” and I thought, “This is it. This is the sound that’s been in my head. This is what I have been aiming for.” So that was an important breakthrough. But then putting together The Attractions, and having the experience of playing together every day and testing things in live setting, that also gave me a new set of criteria for judging success and failure.
You are a veteran of much successful and disparate collaboration. What is it about working with other musicians from other branches of music that keeps you coming back to it? At a certain point, I felt it was time to branch out and start making records with other people, but the impulse came primarily from my own artistic temperament. It wasn’t like there was a demand. It’s actually the opposite. Even people who like your music aren’t necessarily out there thinking, “I wish he would collaborate with a string quartet, or make a record with a really good mezzo-soprano.” For the fans, this is all somewhat suspicious, like I’m somehow just doing it to make myself look clever. But the proof is in the music, which I like to think is quite good.
So the collaborations are labors of love, is that it? Yes and no. Just because I try something once doesn’t mean I want to stay doing it forever. A lot of what I have done by way of collaboration stays with me in subtle ways that someone on the outside would never notice. The great experiences of collaboration, for me, go on to become these invisible influences. I certainly don’t expect people to listen to the songs I’m doing now for evidence of my interest in string quartet music, or in Burt Bacharach. If I’m known for anything these days, I would have to say it’s for not doing the same thing twice. But the experience of working with great people is so rich that it is bound to affect you. I had the pleasure of recording with an outstanding string band recently in Nashville, and the thing that I came away with was the feeling that this was actually not bluegrass, it was rock ‘n’ roll, but with no drummer. It’s not better or worse than the supposed “real thing” of rock, it’s just different.
You recently wrapped the second season of your artist profile T.V. show, Spectacle. What has that experience been like? Spectacle has been a really interesting project. Although it often confirmed things that I suspected about the guests I had, as far as musical influences and so on, we did whatever we could to make sure that for the songs we did together, for instance, nothing’s the arrangement that they ordinarily play. We felt that creating unusual combinations and unexpected juxtapositions would make for a richer picture of the artist.
The Sundance Channel has done a great job with the series in New York and Los Angeles, but they don’t have the penetration elsewhere in the States that you would get on a network, or even on basic cable. In Canada, where CBC carries Spectacle, it gets a much broader exposure. The reality is that the Sundance Channel doesn’t get as many casual viewers, so your grandmother doesn’t necessarily see the show the way she might in Vancouver or Toronto. But still, the quality of the listening is always the most important thing, so I’m grateful for the targeted Sundance Channel audience, because they really do love the show.
How’s the family? The twins are three years and two months old now, so they really are full of beans. We try to do something as a family every day, and we mostly succeed, even though we’re out on the road a lot. Diana and the children will be with me for 10 days, around the time when I play Santa Barbara, and that will be great for me because I will get to be with them even though I am on tour. When I was recording in Nashville last spring, we spent quite a lot of time together, but otherwise it has been a very busy year for these working parents. We both took on something extra this year. I did the television show, and Diana toured and did a lot of producing. Fortunately, now we’re a little more focused and can be together more.
What can people expect from your April 13 show in S.B.? These solo shows are an opportunity I’ve been looking for because of all these new songs I’ve got. When you’re traveling with a band and you start in playing new material, for some reason, people often take it as their cue to leave for a moment. What I’m working on with this solo act is making the new ones so shockingly vivid in the way I have of playing them and positioning them in the set that people will fall for them the way they once did for all the old ones. That’s what I’m out there for — to make these new songs into the next crop of good old ones.
Arts & Lectures presents Elvis Costello at the Arlington Theatre on Tuesday, April 13, at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.