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Elvis Costello reflects on nature of song ahead of Calgary show
When Elvis Costello talks, you listen.
A lot. And attentively.
Not surprisingly, the 62-year-old U.K. artist born Declan Patrick MacManus is a remarkably engaging and entertaining man to listen to, holding court on this particular phone call with a generosity and candour that’s as casual as it is informative.
Calgary fans of the pop rock legend will have an opportunity to witness that for themselves, when Costello returns to town for a Dec. 10 Jubilee Auditorium show in support of the Owen Hart Foundation.
While the concert comes during a period of seeming artistic pause — the last studio album released under his own name was 2010’s National Ransom — it’s actually been a fairly busy time for the musician, who recently released his memoir Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink and he’s mounted several different tours, including one this fall that featured the complete performance of Imperial Bedroom, the 1982 classic recorded with band the Attractions.
I spoke, and listened attentively to, Costello prior to his Jubilee show.Q: What can people in Calgary expect from the show?
A: We’re going to bring the Detour show, which has played in different forms now for the last couple of years. It’s sort of a show I developed little by little, really out of a solo performance and I added elements to it. It ran alongside the completion of my book, so the storytelling element that’s in that book had a parallel development in my show. I was looking for a way to give visual cues to songs. I don’t want to give away every surprise but the set is dominated by a large television set … It’s like a large piece of furniture that sits behind me. You know, when you play a solo performance, I never worry about the fact that the show is going to be too meek and mild. (Laughs) I can kick up quite a fuss on my own and I have lots of different ways to approach it.
But what I found as I went on was is if I use the width of the stage to play in different positions and play in different ways in those positions then the show would be a lot richer. And wind that together with a narrative element that’s in some of the songs, and even in some of my introductions, it became a show not scripted but something that could be different every night and a place where I could play my best known songs in a way that was surprising to me — not because I was turning them on their head necessarily but because they weren’t in a predictable ritual. And more often than not I found that less well-known songs could often shine in a show like this, whereas when you’re up there with the big intimidating rock band and that distance that that creates sometimes, you know it can either be really exciting or it can actually push the audience further away.
Anyway, you’ll see what it is when I get there … A version of the show came to Canada to play (Toronto’s) Massey Hall but it wasn’t in this complete form with the visual elements, it was when I was just going towards the themes of the show in song. So really this is the first time that the show has been seen, as we say now, north of this border.Q: With this tour, with touring Imperial Bedroom recently, with the book, are you in a pretty comfortable place? Are you in a place where you’re comfortable looking back at your career and your legacy?
A: I think when you actually are at the show it may look that way from the outside … (but) I called the show Detour, I didn’t call it Rearview Mirror. It’s about the songs being alive in the moment. One of the things when you first write a song is you haven’t got any of the arrangement, but it’s sketched out and it’s vivid to you. And that’s what drives you on to go and want to arrange it with a band or — I say arrange, that’s actually too grand a word … But there is something to going to the bones of the thing and see what happens when you try to animate it in different ways. It’s a bit of Dr. Frankenstein moment with songs, they can get up and start walking around tearing up the village if you’re not careful. (Laughs)
I think with regard to Imperial Bedroom, I mean, jazz musicians have access to songs, people like my wife (Canadian Diana Krall), play songs that were written 50 or 60 years ago, but there’s nothing nostalgic about the way she approaches the song. She might refer to things she learned in her apprenticeship as a musician … or refer to people that she’s loved but she’s doing it in the moment. And in the same way I came to terms with the fact that a lot of the music on Imperial Bedroom had never really been played the way it was written. At the time that that record was released, me and my band were about different things. And now the three of us that were part of making that record have all of the accumulation of what we’ve learned from playing music for 40 years and were able to listen to the songs for what they actually are instead of trying to hammer them literally like you would a piece of metal work into a different shape, actually play them for the values in the songs. That takes a little bit of restraint so the power of the song is actually revealed …
A lot of rock ’n’ roll music is about attitude and sometimes it’s great to beat the song up and almost brutalize it because in a live performance it becomes more, I don’t know what word to use. People would use the word “visceral,” but it almost sounds a little bit like “gristle” to me, it sounds a little bit unpleasant. But you know it is something that changes shape in the moment. That said, these songs, and a lot of songs that I have in my catalogue, whether I play them with the band or in the context of Detour, really require you to respect the composition a bit more if you’re going to get anything out of them. I’ve been guilty in the past of trying to force them to be more, bigger or more amplified in every sense of the word than perhaps some of them wanted to be. And it was really a shock to me what happened when we trusted the music I’d written originally and then had the fun of doing it in the moment …
But really the two tours, I had literally two days between finishing the last full run of Detour in North America and beginning Imperial Bedroom. To me it was all part of a big story of music; I didn’t see them as conflict or that different …
So it’s far from a backward looking thing to answer your question in a very roundabout way. (Laughs) It’s a very much in the immediate moment thing, it’s just taking advantage of everything I have at my disposal.Q: It’s been some time since you’ve released something new. Can we expect to hear some new songs as part of Detour and when can we expect to hear a new Elvis Costello record?
A: Well I don’t currently have a record contract. That doesn’t mean that one couldn’t be found, I just didn’t want one for a number of years. As you know, since the last album that solely credited to me came out, which was six years ago, I’ve been part of two very interesting records that were really not like anything I’ve ever made before. One was the collaboration with the Roots (2013’s Wise Up Ghost), where we went to a very different approach to production, a different approach to rhythm and I was more the lyricist initially, although I had a lot to do obviously with the shaping of the melodies that are there … And then, of course, (in 2014) I was part of the New Basement Tapes, Lost on the River collective, setting these apparently lost Dylan lyrics (to music). I mean what a great thing to get to do, you know? We recorded 42 pieces of music in something like 12 days or something, it was a ridiculous work rate.
So I haven’t been focused on that. I have been creating. The thing I’ve done instead of selfishly recording more songs just because I can is to create these three stage shows in succession, the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, Detour and the Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers as a framework to play those old and new songs, both well-known and less well-known songs, and put them all in the most favourable light if I could. So, when I come to Calgary I would imagine I will find a way to play you a couple of songs from a musical (A Face In the Crowd) that I’m working on with Sarah Ruhl, which is I would say at the mid point of development towards of an actual run …
A few of them I’ve previewed them in the Detour concerts and even in the Imperial Bedroom shows, we played full band arrangements of a few of them and people’s reactions have been pretty remarkable, I have to say. I don’t want to jinx it by telling you that and then maybe they don’t go over so well in Calgary, but there you go. That’s what it is. They will be among the songs that could be in the show. I try to sort of put them in the company of the songs that people know well. It’s been my experience that when people hear something they know well it opens them up to hearing something they haven’t heard before. If you play 15 songs back to back that nobody has ever heard before, understandably people can get a bit perplexed.(Note: This interview was edited for space and clarity.)
Elvis Costello performs Dec. 10 at the Jubilee Auditorium in support of the Owen Hart Foundation. For tickets go to ticketmaster.ca.