https://www.thecurrent.org/feature/2022 ... y-named-ifAlbum of the Week: Elvis Costello and the Imposters, 'The Boy Named If'
by Jill Riley and Elvis Costello
JANUARY 17, 20Elvis Costello joins Jill Riley in conversation to discuss his new record The Boy Named If. The two also talk about what it’s like to write music with Paul McCartney, and tells us about his very first visit to Minneapolis back in 1978. Watch the full interview, and read a transcript of the conversation below: https://youtu.be/r5RTOoZbaqM
Edited for clarity and length.JILL RILEY: I'm connecting with a very special guest, one who just played recently in the Twin Cities. There was so much buzz around the fact that he was going to be playing at First Avenue for the first time, which some of us couldn't believe. But then we had to kind of put our thinking caps on and think about the history of First Avenue.
ELVIS COSTELLO: I have to say it marks how long I've been coming to the Twin Cities in particular, specifically Minneapolis, since 1978. I really fondly remember the journey from Portland, Oregon, to Minneapolis, across the mountains in the snow. I think early in, I think it was in the winter. Well, it was snowing a lot I know. We barely made it. The road was closing ahead of us. The road was closing behind us--we drove, you know, this was--you can imagine the first time in America, you're seeing a landscape everywhere you go that you've only ever seen in the movies. And then you go to somewhere that you really don't know very much about, across the Dakotas and everything through the mountains, and then arrive in Minneapolis. As I noted, I think from the stage at First Avenue--First Avenue was then sort of, I suppose the closest thing to studio 54 in Minneapolis, wasn't it? It was a proper disco. A discotheque.Yeah.
I mean, it was a dancing club, there wasn't live music and such. And there wasn't really an obvious venue for us to play. We couldn't have possibly have filled the Orpheum or the State in those days. So we played what I guess must have been a cowboy bar that had decided to book some new music, which whatever they were calling it--New Wave, punk, whatever convenient title they hung on it. We found ourselves at the Longhorn. And then over the next years, we played all sorts of other venues. But all the time that First Avenue was the place to be, we were playing somewhere else. I don't know why nobody suggested us playing there. Maybe because we didn't--our kind of music didn't really fit in there anymore. There was all that Prince stuff going on. You know, you didn't want to get in the way of that. I mean, that was some serious stuff. And all the other people out of Minneapolis. It's a great music place. So it was exciting to come and play and see the the wall with all the names of some friends up there that have played there. I've only ever been in the doors once. That was to see the Arctic Monkeys there when when we had a night off because Pete Thomas had played on their record and become friends with them. And they were in town, so we went to see them. Group from Sheffield, England, you know.Well I hope you're going to get a star on the wall now.
I would hope so. Maybe have a word with somebody about that.Exactly. There was a lot of excitement around that, you know, especially for music fans and those who love First Avenue and maybe couldn't believe that, like, "How could this be the first time?"
When you're on the stage, it's like--there's a handful of places, whether or not you play them on your first visit or your most recent visit, there are places you get on the stage and whatever the scale of it is, you will immediately know why it has its reputation. I've can't explain it because there's lots of clubs that are the same shape. But that one really has a special feeling. And I'm not just saying that because I'm talking on the radio, I'd say the same thing if I were talking to the Tulsa radio about Cain's Ballroom, I would say the same if I were going to Nashville about the Ryman Auditorium, it's a very different sort of venue. And the Olympia old Locarno Ballroom in Liverpool, you know, has that kind of feeling about it. And many, many others. And when you're fortunate enough to travel around as I do, you file those away and look forward to playing those. So maybe we'll do it again. I did say from the stage, let's do this every, every year, let's let's do it every week!Well, you gotta be careful what you promise. We always love to make, you know, any kind of connection in Minnesota. You know, whenever an artist comes through, and we can go, "Oh, there's a connection to Prince," or to even Bob Dylan. I know there was a lot of excitement about Charlie Sexton playing with you on the stage.
Because Charlie has been playing on and off with Bob for many years. At the time when we plan this tour Bob was not apparently going on the road. Now I don't know, that's their business. Charlie came along with us and I'm very happy to have him along and I hope he'll be staying in our lineup for a little while. I went to see Bob Dylan the other night in Philadelphia and you know what? He was just fantastic. Beyond fantastic. It was one of the greatest shows I've ever seen him do. And then the musicians that are playing with him--there's some wonderful players in that band too. A couple of them I know very well, I toured as part of the Bob Dylan show for five weeks, a number of years ago now. And that was, you know, not only was it fun to be in the middle of the show with my acoustic guitar and play 45 minutes of songs, and hopefully surprise a few folks. But of course, I had the tremendous opportunity to watch the show night to night. And, you know, that was pretty fascinating. This was a really great show. One of the one of the greatest I've ever seen by anybody. You don't say that very often.New record on the way in January, The Boy Named If, and we've been playing "Magnificent Hurt" here on The Current and it has such a classic "you" sound to it, you know? From the first--kind of the first open.
Whatever that is.That's good. I hope you take that as a compliment.
I mean, look--you can see me. Radio can't see me, but look, what you see is what you get. This is not getting a lot prettier. You get the face, you have the voice you have. And three of us have played together on and off for 45 years. So there is the personality. It's not a style, you can put a name on necessarily, but it's an attitude. And when called to play rock and roll music, which this song certainly is, that is what's going to happen. It doesn't mean that when we started to do it that we went out with the intention of reminding anybody of anything. I've been thinking about this quite a bit, because I've been asked a couple of questions about this record last week or so. I honestly think that when people that have made a lot of records start out to do a very direct approach to the sound, like a very direct--like you would play without any hesitation on stage as people heard at First Avenue, we have no problem letting fly. You know, we know how to do that. Sometimes when the red light goes on, when you've made a bunch of records, there's some sort of anxiety that creeps into the mind. You've got to go, "Let's make this better than we've ever played before," which is bound to make it hard.That's a lot of pressure.
Yeah, it is. When we were working on this record, because of the circumstances of being 1000s of miles apart--I don't really think it's that different, because you often make records in an accumulation of separate moments and performances, we overdub things, and we add ideas, change our minds about parts. So it is only a frame of mind. But there's something about each of us being utterly inhibited, in our own little space, in our own homes, made it much more fearless than any record of this nature that we've made in recent times.
I think that Pete being down in the basement of his house, hammering into his--the Gretsch kit that he played on this year's model, and therefore the same drum kit heard on "Spanish Model"--the remix in Spanish that came out last year, or this year was it. It just made him play with an abandon and the conversation that he and I were having initially back and forward about these songs, not a conversation of words, but a conversation of recordings quickly developed into the record you hear. And we didn't--just like the first records we made, the only comparison I will make between this and the first record is: we didn't know enough to mess it up. Because we had never tried to make a record of this nature from our respective positions. And it could have been very tentative. It also could have been about very sorrowful, lamenting, isolated feelings which some people have chosen to express. But that just doesn't interest me. Neither as a listener nor as a musician.
My response to these unusual circumstances has been, let's speak up, sing about some things that occurred to me, that matter to me. That's all I ever do. I don't have big intellectual theories. I'm not, contrary to the appearance of writing a lot of words, a particularly well read person, I'm not educated in any formal way. I didn't go to university, I didn't go to college. I never studied music or art formally. I just know the things that matter to me in my heart. And I'm very fortunate to have such great allies in this. Pete, Steve and Davey, who I've played with for 20 years, and in the last 10 years another really great friend Sebastian Krys, who together with whom I've made lots of different recordings in a very short space of time, not just in the last 18 months but since we first worked together on "Look Now," and even before that when I was working on the collaborations with La Marisoul who sang on the Roots record, the song I sang with Vega, which led of course to her being part of the "Spanish Model". It's a continuing story if you allow it to be, of how music kind of builds friendships. All of the most unusual things that I've done that sort of surprised and maybe even horrified people. Like, for instance, working with the Brodsky quartet in the 90s, and making a record with a string quartet--that came out of friendship, it didn't come out of some sort of vain ambition to do something fancy. We'd became friends and we wanted to find a way to work together and do something different. And that's been all of it. And all those major like eyecatching collaborations, such as writing with Paul McCartney, or Burt Bacharach are kind of the exception to what I've been doing the rest of the time, which is writing my own songs, you know, they were, of course, incredible experiences, but they there weren't anything you could have a dream of doing. Who would have been arrogant enough to say you were going to get an invitation to write with such people? You know, when the opportunity came, I tried to make the best of it. It's this record right now, this is about today. And tomorrow and the next day, you know?Sure. I'm talking with Elvis Costello. So again, the new record The Boy Named If due out in January. And you know, I get such a sense from you that, I mean, not only do you make music, but you're in so informed by being a fan of music. You know, you mentioned Paul McCartney, I had listened to the song "Veronica," I don't know how many times before I found out that that was a co-write. And that was such a cool thing to learn about you that you had worked with Paul McCartney, because I mean, talk about having a dream, and who would know that one day that you'd be co-writing with one of the Beatles. And The Beatles are such a hot subject again, it's kind of like this--
That's how they should be. Peter Jackson made one of the great films, I think cinema has provided us with. Something that I think for a certain age of person may be, you know, mid teens to anybody older than that, that might ever consider studying war, should see, "They Shall Not Grow Old". That's a major contribution to cinematic history, that film. The assembly of the human voice and face in the archival footage from the First World War, and how wonderful that all that technology that he used to tell this incredibly troubling and upsetting story about war could be turned to celebrating something which the previous cinematic account was quite depressing, because if you love the Beatles, watching them argue and bicker, and apparently break up before your eyes was very sad.
I don't doubt that at the age they were then there was probably a reason why they allowed that film to come out. Maybe it was like a get out of jail card was my suspicion. Because they didn't have their own lives, they were sort of become other people's dreams. So 50 years later, I'm sure it's a wonderful thing that Peter Jackson has found a way to assemble that into a coherent narrative that allows us to see the most famous group of all time perhaps doing what every musician does, which is sort of willing songs to come into existence by singing nonsense words and blocking about. That's the other part of writing and recording. When you're not in the most intense moment of performance it's both educational, or instructive, and very heartening in some way to see the fallibility and frailty sometimes of that endeavor. With regard to writing, so any songs we pull, yes, of course, it was very unexpected, because I had been in the Beatles fan club when I was, you know, 10. But a couple of weeks ago, I was on the Royal Variety show in London, which is an annual--what it says--variety annual show in front of the--it's a charity for vaudeville or musical artists. And my father played that show in 1963. And on the bill that night, were the Beatles and Marlene Dietrich, whose accompanist was Burt Bacharach. So, you know, if people ask me, "What are you doing at this royal show? That doesn't seem your style?" I went, "Yeah, but I think my dad would have got a kick out of it." I wrote 35 songs in total with those two songwriters, out of the 400 I've written.
When you mentioned Paul--yes, it is really, really something to say that you wrote 15 songs for Paul McCartney because of all the other songs he wrote, and maybe even a few I wrote, but the thing I take to heart most of all is the starting point for that collaboration was "Veronica". The first song we wrote, "Veronica," is a song about my grandmother's descent into Alzheimer's dementia. And the fact that he had the heart to see what story I had brought into the room, and helped me make it into a coherent song where the bright carriage of the music allowed people to hear the song as a pop music piece before they realize what it was about. So I don't so much, you know, as you say, you heard the song before you realize it's a collaboration. I think it's possible to make music that's about serious, even tragic subjects, and have people appreciate the music that carries them before the implication of the lyric arrives in their understanding. That's very true. I have a number of songs on "The Boy Named Death". Not to say that has a facile link to our new record. But it's actually true. If you listen to the songs they are, initially at least, bright, up tempo major key rock and roll songs. If you actually listened to the words of several of them, they are about serious emotional subjects. Not not depressing, but they're not just "Hey, little girl, I want to take you out on a date." I never wrote those, why would I start writing them at 67? There is less time along the road, there's less road ahead than there is behind. And maybe that's why I've written in this moment, some songs that look at how you get to be whatever it is--a man or a person. But you have to come out of being a wonderful child, I mean, a child of wonder a child of imagination.
There's a process that maybe begins around 13, where you lose that unselfconscious ability to be able to skip, sing, dance, stand on your head, invent fantastic inventions that science and physics and logic would tell you are impossible. Then they make you learn algebra and give you sex education, scare the hell out of you. All these impulses are surging up within you that you don't understand. So I decided, rather than writing better songs about that experience, could you capture both the wonder and the terror at the same time in music, and that's what The Boy Named If is about. The idea of an imaginary friend, being a charming adventurer when you're seven--less charming when you're 37. And you're still making those excuses to your wife or girlfriend, or who any other lover you have. Likewise, "The Death of Magic Thinking" is literally the letting go of all those magical possibilities for the uncertainty of the first glimmering, that there are other desires that people will detect in you. And they may detect them before you understand them. Then there are many stories in popular music, that talk about "Oh, she tempted me," that song is very familiar, and there are sadly, many songs more recently relating the sometimes criminal experience of women in some unequal power, struggle with a man. There are not any songs to my knowledge about that this mischievous moment in which a boy or a girl could say, I know something you don't know, I just don't know a song that's about that. And without necessarily it being about control, or it could have some cruelty to it, because it's just a discomfort for them. The actual words of "Death of Magical Thinking," the actual words of the chorus are, "She took my hand in an experiment, put it where it shouldn't be, put it underneath her dress, and waited to see, I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say. It was just a game, I guess. One I didn't know how to play." It's a relatively innocent piece of teasing. But in this it considers that the girl is just that little bit more mature and recognizes that the boy is completely without understanding about the implication of that caress or that movement. And it's neither a crime or a shame. It's just acknowledging that they both really don't know where this leads.
Now the other songs in there speak of similar moments of recognition. I did genuinely have a teacher who I've romanticized into this character Penelope Halfpenny, in memory of someone who taught me very briefly when I was a boy. And the thing I remember about that teacher was that she was not like everyone else. You sensed not that she was smarter or a better teacher, but she was a person that you could recognize from life because most of your teachers you didn't even know their first names. They were miss, or mister, or sister even. I was taught by nuns until I was 11. So you didn't have any sense of personality, certainly didn't have a sense of any desires or dreams, they may have had.Or that they had a home life, I mean, or anything.
Except this one woman who one spring was charged with teaching us English literature, and spent most of the time seeming to be distracted talking about her own life, which, of course, because she had long hair that she'd flick around and wore a short skirt and fashionable clothes was completely fascinating, not in the way that we desired her so much as she represented a life that we could only vaguely glimpse. There was a party going on in the next room that we weren't invited to, that she went to all the time. It wasn't necessarily that thrilling, but to us, it was impossible. There was no entry possible to that. So I thought that's a good thing to write a song about, because it's, you know, it's not a cliched idea of like, "Oh I think there are some songs about being attracted to your teacher." That's kind of creepy. But this wasn't like that. But nevertheless inspires in those kids this sense of like, "I have to go there. I have to go to that place one day," you know, there's a lot of that. Wanting a thing you either don't know what it is or shouldn't want within this record, but there's no moral judgment. And there's no convenient bow tying in the songs. Some of the songs don't resolve deliberately, because you want to leave the listener to do that. If you're going to give people songs that they can live with for a while. You don't want to solve all the puzzles in them. You're taking away the fun.
Host - Jill Riley
Guest - Elvis Costello