Q&A: Elvis Costello On Songwriting, Honest Self-Assessment, And Music Blogs Vs. Record Stores
Given their shared propensity for outward-looking creative excursions and a general excitement about the possibilities inherent in pushing the boundaries of musical genres, the current collaboration between Greatest Living Songwriter candidate Elvis Costello and crackerjack all-star band the Roots might feel something like an inevitability. Provided enough turns around the firmament, two such massive comets cannot help but collide. Thankfully, the resultant release, Wise Up Ghost, is an energetic, exciting, and occasionally harrowing document that ably highlights the vaulting strengths of each of the individual parties. On previous big-ticket collaborations with fellow songwriting legends such as Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney, Elvis has periodically succumbed to the understandable impulse to sublimate his own vision in the service of the masters he was working alongside. That too has resulted in some incredible music — witness “Veronica,” McCartney’s best-ever song since the Beatles, or Bacharach/Costello’s soul-crushing wonderment “God Give Me Strength.” What has been too often lost in these inarguably valuable endeavors is the voice of Elvis himself — the stunningly prolific, caustic genius who has rendered into our culture as many great pop songs over the past forty years as Cole Porter managed in the era before him. In large measure, Wise Up Ghost amends this shortcoming — Costello’s own vision rings loud and clear throughout a profoundly political amalgam of soul, funk, and jazz, recalling nothing so much as Sly And The Family Stone’s untouchable 1972 masterpiece There’s A Riot Goin’ On. During his interview with Stereogum, Costello was open and insightful, eagerly expressing his enthusiasm for his new project, reflecting on his storied career and lending priceless insights into both contemporaries and forbears.
STEREOGUM: You obviously have worked with no shortage of extraordinary musical ringers throughout your recording career, including the Attractions, James Burton, Bill Frisell, and Allen Toussaint, to name but a few. Still, in the case of the Roots you have one of those rare bands, like NRBQ or the J.B.’s, where the musical possibilities literally seem to verge on limitless. Is the experience of having access to that kind of sheer magnitude of talent ultimately more intimidating, liberating, or some combination of both?
ELVIS COSTELLO: You’ve said a mouthful; I don’t know where to begin. You’ve gotta understand that I’ve had a band now for eleven years, the Imposters, with two members that I’ve played on and off with for 35 years, so we have a lot of accumulated experience — shared and independent — and we’ve hired a tremendous bass player. So I take for granted that, when I get on the stage, I can go to any place in my catalog for these Spectacular Spinning Songbook shows [The Spinning Songbook is a long-running and much-loved Costello touring gimmick in which a garish wheel of fortune dictates the set list, frequently spun by a celebrity MC, ranging from Tom Waits to Questlove], and we’re almost certain that we’ll be playing songs we didn’t anticipate, and you have to do them on your toes. And that’s sort of not that dissimilar to what the Roots do night to night where they have all these people coming in, whether they’re backing them on the show or they’re playing some sort of subversive commentary to the speaking guests or some kind of affectionate commentary for the entrance of one of those guests. And they’re working day and night in their little tiny TARDIS of a studio in the hallway of NBC, making records with other people, or Quest is going off to work with D’Angelo all night. So the power of the band is undeniable, but it wasn’t something that I don’t have access to. We just obviously come from a slightly different starting point. But the more we work together… we didn’t actually have too many conversations about what we were doing. I went on the Fallon show three times. By the time I’d made those appearances, it was obvious that we had a rapport and we had some of the tools we needed to make a record. All we needed was the will to make it and to figure out what it was going to be. And one of the first ideas was to revisit songs from my catalog, and I wasn’t satisfied with just simply re-arranging them. I wanted to start deconstructing and telling a new story using a collage of verses, at least for a few songs. I saw a common thread in what was being said in a couple of old songs and with a couple of other songs that I had written later. Then we started to write songs which complemented those first few tunes, making the musical foundation and writing an entirely new lyric or an entirely new melody, with no reference to anything else from the past. So they’re all similar investigations when you take a step back from it — the making of something out of the past. I guess that’s what all rock and roll, or for that matter hip-hop, has ever been — the collisions create a new thing.
STEREOGUM: As longtime fans will know, it’s not uncommon for you to repurpose your songs in different styles or try them in different ways to begin with.
COSTELLO: That’s just musical rearrangement — sometimes when trying to pursue the ideal way to play a song, the versions that you heard later are the unsuccessful attempts to play the song as we judged them at the time when attempting to find the right arrangement. And then you listen back to the tapes ten years later and you’re gonna go, “There’s something to that arrangement.” You know, “Watch Your Step” was a slow song on Trust, but somewhere there is a fast or ska version of it. It’s obviously not better, but it’s not uninteresting to hear it if you like the original song. This is the other way around. I find no fault with the original recording, whether we’re talking “Pills And Soap” or “Bedlam” [two older Costello tracks reimagined for Wise Up Ghost]. I think they’re two of the best records I’ve ever made, but the story told in those verses that I’ve chosen from those two songs can accumulate to a new narrative with this new music even if it has some musical references to the original songs. It’s a new composition and it has a new refrain, even if that is lifted from somewhere else, or it’s entirely new music, as in the case of “Refuse To Be Saved.” In some ways, those new versions bring more force than the original source.
STEREOGUM: It certainly would be hard to pick a darker song than “Pills And Soap” from your catalog to re-imagine in a radical way, and it works wonderfully.
COSTELLO: Well, some people will not like it, I guess, because they’re too married to the original version, but I think this rendition is something different. “Pills And Soap” plays off to a refrain where we’re going to be put into the mincer like something out of the war. It was the dark ’80s with no future. It might be fashionable to despair for some people, but I’m not about to. I’m in the resistance here. I’m in the resistance to this. That’s why there’s the absurdity of the elite’s position in National Ransom — that’s why I wrote the lyrics to “Viceroy’s Row.” That’s about a mogul you can probably recognize in a lot of people — people that are now in jail, people that should be in jail, people of one nationality or another that maybe fly above the stratosphere above the nation state. And sooner or later, they’re going to knock on the door and take them away. I think we’ve got to wish for that day. I’m not talking about some fantastic dream of a revolution but eventually they’ll be called out for the things they’ve done. And if you don’t believe that, then we might as well pack it all in. At least we can work towards that now, can’t we? That’s what I say.
STEREOGUM: In the past, you’ve conjectured that even the greatest songwriters are consistently judged only through the prism of their first four or five fully realized efforts. Is collaborating with bands like the Roots or challenging yourself with projects like The Juliet Letters or the Bacharach collaboration representative of your desire to break free from this initial template?
COSTELLO: It’s not a thought you have going into it, it’s something you find yourself doing. When you’re writing, it’s all about enjoying it, getting something from it, trying to give something to it. You hear that kind of criticism about almost everybody that’s made more than five records — it’s all about that first one. And everything now, in the shoot-from-hip way that you can broadcast your thoughts now before you have time to actually think, you see a lot more of that “It’s all great” or “all terrible” in place of proper thinking. So, of course, I have to take a step back and let the records that were deemed a catastrophe when they were released, and see people say, “Oh I get it now, ten years later.” I’ve been through that experience like half a dozen times now. But even from my own personal view, I’m not arrogant enough to believe everything I’ve done is… well, everything I’ve done is, of course, perfect. But I know which are the strongest moments and records.
I have a much lower opinion of some of my better-known early records. I think there’s some great songs on My Aim Is True, but I believe a lot of folks overrate it. There’s a couple of good performances on that album, don’t get me wrong — I think Watching The Detectives is my first real record. But when you go through it and you’re the songwriter you tend to go, “What are the songs?” And in the process of the last three years of doing The Spectacular Spinning Songbook and, during that time, getting to know the Roots, and even Ahmir getting up at one of the Spinning Songbook shows and playing drums — actually coming up as a contestant, spinning the wheel and then playing “Black And White World” with us — and we’d just done it on the Fallon show the week before or something. That is all that process of going, “Actually, I’ve got lot more at my disposal in those five songs then I could think about at the time.” Because some of these songs, I didn’t get them right and that’s why they’re not well known. Maybe I should play them again. Maybe I should get inside them a bit deeper and not be so satisfied that I got everything I could out of this. Maybe I haven’t played the definitive version. Maybe I could play it better. So you keep going forward and even though the song isn’t brand new, it’s brand new in the moment you play it.
STEREOGUM: Bob Dylan has often described the phenomenon of, over the course of a long career, going through his back catalog and finding certain songs which he connects to, and other ones which he acknowledges are great songs but he doesn’t understand anymore. He doesn’t feel like the same person who wrote or performed them, so he doesn’t perform them. Is that something that happens to you, with such a huge and distinguished catalog?
COSTELLO: On different occasions… I don’t sit around here making plans that much, I make plans for how I’m going to arrive at them. I found that the wheel used in the Spectacular Singing Songbook was first, superficially, just a fun vaudeville trick. What I’ve learned about performance is that the best kind of songs are unexpected moments in a show where spontaneity takes precedence. And that means, whatever the song, that you’re not preconceiving how you sing it. You’re singing it like when you first had it in your hand. And then I also realized that the whole structure of the spinning wheel show offered me a second chance to make certain songs that I valued, some of them quite recent, into the standards of this repertoire. In other words, I could determine to place a song like “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” at the key point in the show where it would have to carry all the weight that you would need. I’m not sentimental about it, but some people in the audience are. I want it to come alive to me; otherwise I don’t think I’m singing it right to the people that feel that way. It’s got to surprise me again, and some nights it does. It’s hard to get there every night if you’ve written it to the same place every night. That’s what I get about what Bob said. Which, by the way, have you listened to Another Self Portrait yet? Have you heard that record yet?
STEREOGUM: Yeah! I was thinking of that when you were talking — we’re huge Dylan people and always liked Self Portrait and grew up with the Greil Marcus “What is this shit?” sort of, you know…
COSTELLO: You know with Greil… the trouble with making a smart remark, that’s like a Twitter remark. I think it’s also that review and that first line that everybody quotes, and Greil’s written extensively about Bob’s work, so you know that it’s more thoughtful than that implies. That said, take a listen to “If Not For You” from Another Self Portrait. Take a listen to how beautiful the version is that just came out. And how much more yearning it is than the upbeat version that everybody knows. There’s something much more tender in the recently released version, which you could argue would be the quality you would want in a song called “If Not For You.” But for whatever reason at the time, he didn’t feel that was the one he wanted to reveal, and that’s his choice. And I’m kind of glad that it came out of the bag now.
STEREOGUM: You’ve spoken articulately about the democratization of music distribution and the meaning of the Internet for hard distinctions between genres. You came of age amidst the sort of dog-eat-dog competition of pub rock versus prog or “Can I buy my independent album in stores or will I simply be swamped by Jackson Browne records?” In terms of accessibility, those concerns have largely fallen away. You’ve talked a little bit in your bio about not really wanting to characterize this collaboration with the Roots in genre terms and rather just let it exist. Do you think those things are all related and do you think there’s a sense that genre is less important now and, if so, is that’s an exciting proposition?
COSTELLO: I think so. I mean obviously there has to be some sort of filing system because there’s so much music. I used to have to come to America and hunt down secondhand record stores to find albums by people who I previously only owned one song by on a compilation and suddenly, wow, I could buy their whole catalog secondhand for like ten bucks. And you can sort of do that with a couple of clicks now. So that’s sort of, on the face of it, like being able to go into the library and take all the books out. And I think the real conduit are stores where there’s still a human, where you can still go into a shop and somebody will go to you, “You’ve got to hear this” or you have a friend that goes, “You’ve got to hear this.” When I was a kid there was always a shop you would go to that could tell you, “This is the record you want,” whether it’s an old one or a new one, and those were the places I gravitated towards. If you’re just at home with a blank screen you need… somebody, I suppose? That’s the role you guys fill, I guess, sort of. It’s a little bit different than the music papers, which were sort of a wing of the record company, and certain people were in favor and certain people were out of favor. I’m sure you guys get accused of having your favorites, too, but there’s a range of people writing. You also have a lot of mad people out there — just crazy people critiquing your work.
But you know, there’s a whole world of possibilities for how we hear music in the future, and I don’t really think all this stuff about piracy… people get so overexcited about it. It’s a cat that’s nine feet tall and it’s never going back in the bag. People know what’s right and wrong in their hearts and, more importantly, they know what’s good for them. And you know, if your starting point for music is what I grew up with, I’m going to hear music differently than you, and your experience is different from the next person and it’s different than the person right next to you now. You know, presumably the whole point that two people write together is that you hear things differently. You can be good cop/bad cop, or you can be bad cop/bad cop. You could be Starsky and Hutch. You could be Kojak and that other guy. And on that happy note, I better get going — we don’t want to let them think we’re having a good time, and you know, I think we would have had even more fun if we had talked about a bunch of records by other people.
Elvis Costello and the Roots’ collaboration album Wise Up Ghost is out now on Blue Note Records.