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CONFIDENT? MOI? ASKS ELVIS COSTELLO. OUI, TOI, SAYS WIND BACK WEDNESDAY



The delayed – first by Covid generally, then by Covid specifically – tour by Elvis Costello & The Imposters reaches us finally, with BluesFest and Sydney Opera House performances this weekend and one more show in Melbourne (though if you can get yourself to Japan he’s got four more shows there).

At the end of this story you’ll find links to an extensive two-part interview, conducted ahead of what was meant to be the tour two years ago, with the man whose passport says DP MacManus. There’s plenty there of course, with among other things, discussion of the album he’d just made, A Boy Named If.


But too much Costello is barely enough, obviously, so Wind Back Wednesday (Week) relocates us to another touring year, 2004, when two vastly different albums preceded Australian concerts. And sparked some thoughts barbed, some thoughts benevolent. You pick which ones are which.


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ELVIS COSTELLO IS in control.

 

Almost reclining in the chair with his legs splayed and one long shiny black shoe plonked on the table between us, he’s showing off incongruous but defiantly bright lime green socks.

 

The sun coming in the window opposite him bounces off the yellow plastic-look glasses he’s sporting, effectively blocking his eyes from scrutiny. I doubt he minds at all.

 

Combative as ever, his approach to interviews almost always begins with scepticism.

 

At some point he will remind you how some foolish writer somewhere (more often than not in the UK, where he has not lived for nearly two decades) – the type Costello claims not to care about but can’t help feeling every slight directed his way –  misunderstood his intentions or gratuitously insulted him.

 

That “insult” these days almost invariably relates to his musical eclecticism which has seen him work in rock, country, classical song cycle, film score, a collaboration with Burt Bacharach and an album of ballads inspired as much by 19th century German song as post-war songcraft.

 

Topping it so far there was this year the simultaneous release of two albums, The Delivery Man, ostensibly written for an R&B/country blues-style musical, and Il Sogno, his first full orchestral work, originally written for an Italian ballet company.

 


 It’s a career tally which can perplex as many as it excites, often leaving critics who are without appropriate reference points (after all, how many of us have both Schumann and The Band, Sammy Cahn and Boudleaux Bryant, Charles Mingus and Mary J Blige in our record collections?) floundering and angry.

 

And save for a few spikes of chart hits, it’s a career which has settled in the solid but not stellar sales level.

 

But for all that real and assumed tension, Elvis Costello is hardly having a bad time. Mid-year, around the time of his 50th birthday, that eclectic back catalogue was given an unprecedented three-night airing at New York’s Lincoln Centre with a Dutch art orchestra, the Brooklyn Philharmonic and his current “beat group”, the Imposters, providing the varied backing.

 

The performance of Il Sogno in New York was the first time Costello had heard his rewritten score played as one piece, a night he now describes as “a pretty magical place”.

 

Furthermore, those two albums he released last month have received good reviews in the main and of course eleven months ago he married (at Elton John’s country pad no less) Canadian pianist and singer Diana Krall with whom he now lives in New York.

   

Krall, his second wife, (he had a 17-year relationship with musician/songwriter Caitlin O’Riordan between his two marriages) and the inspiration for North, his 2003 album of falling out of and then falling into love again, is upstairs in their Sydney hotel room, after, a private corporate performance they had given at the Opera House the night before.

 

Consequently, even though he’s never been the type to let anyone see into his life, Costello isn’t trying to hide his happiness.

 

“I think it would be kind of churlish to put on a theatrical face rather than make people uncomfortable by being happy,” Costello says. “I can’t put on a theatrical face that contradicts my state of mind. I’ve never done that. I know what gets under my skin still. I know what inspires, provokes, whatever you want to call it, but you may be in a better position to deal with it if you’re at ease with yourself. I don’t know it’s a new feeling.

 


“People are sentimental about the image or the thing I represent, the woman hating angry dweeb that I seem to be some kind of founding father of, which I’ve always rejected. It’s uncomfortable for them to realise that I’m actually happy and what’s more can acknowledge my failings in reaching that. I didn’t get to it easily; I got to it extremely painfully. It’s just a little more truth that some people want to accept.”

 

And in this tumultuous and exhilarating time, which has involved not just the dissolution of one relationship and the beginning of another but a trans-Atlantic move, Costello has produced three albums of his own work, a collaborative effort on Krall’s most recent (and best) album as well as a commission to write an opera for the Copenhagen Opera House.

 

“The last couple of years have been very productive but I haven’t exactly struggled before that,” he says pointedly, not needing to mention more than 20 albums or projects since his debut in 1977. “I’ve always managed to make it work regardless. That’s not to say I’ve been in a state of permanent unhappiness for all the years before, that would be disrespectful to the past.

 

“You just reach a certain point where your life changes and it has changed profoundly for the better in the last two years and in that time I’ve somehow managed to realise, brought to realisation a couple of ongoing things.”

 

He has taken off a natty black felt hat with its shiny mauve band so the grey-tinged hair, fast receding past his high forehead, looks a little mussed. His voice still croaks, the legacy of a week’s cold and a long flight.

 

That may explain why, while the day outside is scorching 38 or 39 degrees, inside the hotel Costello is in a familiar black leather jacket over a loose shirt (he’s put back on some of the weight lost last year when he was looking at his thinnest for some two decades).

 

If nothing else, Costello, born Declan MacManus, the son of a trumpet player and singer, the grandson and father of a musician, still looks like a rock musician. Older and heavier, yes, but in his own way still a man for whom a guitar, volume and a rhythm section which makes you dance has not lost its sway.

 


 It’s this version of Costello, with the Imposters (two of his old band, the Attractions, and newish bassplayer Davey Farragher) we’ll see this month playing a set dominated by the rock end of the Costello catalogue, even if some of the shows will be in vineyards.

 

 “We’re assuming everybody’s going to be drunk,” smiles Costello, who won’t be contributing to the coffers of the vineyards having given up the drink some years back. “I’m hoping they’ve got plastic bottles.

 

“I’ve no idea [what to expect]. I played a winery in America and my experience is they were all drunk, not surprisingly. I’m not sure if that means the audience will be more or less sedate. They could be stunned by the heat and alcohol; they could be a bunch of raving lunatics. We’re ready for them any way they want to come at us.”

 

They may need to put up the chicken wire.

 

“That’s usually the kind of venue we like best,” he says with an evil grin. “I’m looking forward to a lot of shagging in the audience myself.”

 

Shagging of the audience or in the audience?

 

“No, only in the audience.”

 

As ever, Costello exudes confidence, and not just in his “power position” seating manner. Every one of his stylistic moves, even to the point of writing a full orchestral score by hand barely a decade after learning to read and write musical notation, has been done with little or no suggestion of doubt. Not for him any of the insecurities most artists confess to.

 

“I suppose the moment you’re having those, I don’t know if it’s a question of confidence or you’re working out where you can enter this world or what in that world of music is valid for you, you don’t do that bit in public,” he says briskly. “Why would you do that? That would be like having a workshop version of your career.

 

“Lack of confidence has no place on the band stand. It doesn’t mean you don’t have nerves or that you’re arrogant. Lack of confidence or being tentative is not going to make anything of value.”


 

READ MORE:


 

Elvis Costello & The Imposters, with Charlie Sexton, play:

Bluesfest, Byron Bay, March 28-29

Sydney Opera House, March 31-April 2

Palais Theatre, Melbourne, April 4

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