Pic by Lens O'Toole
The best origin stories feature the possibility of death, maybe a splash of violence, and a moment of inspiration that changes everything. Oh yes, and cake.
So here is the true story of a new album which in many ways could only have happened right now, made by a man who calls himself “the Billie Eilish of 1979” (more on that later), though he celebrated his 66th birthday this year holed up in a corner of the world where “we’ve got a woodland trail where we could keep ourselves from literally feeling cabin fever” and upstairs/downstairs recording.
In those wild, crazy, carefree days of early 2020, before the plague shut down the world, before his impending album was even an idea, Elvis Costello was on tour in the UK and eyeing off a few days free of commitments.
So naturally he spent it by the seaside in Blackpool.
Actually, in a move which would surprise no one who has noted that since 1977 the man has released 30 studio albums – with bands, orchestras, jazz groups, classical quartets, as a duo, and solo – produced a score or more of other people’s albums, been involved in countless collaborations, written a whole album over one weekend for a pop singer he had never actually met (Wendy James of the shortlived Transvision Vamp) and pumped out more than 60 singles, he set off for studios in Hensinki, and then Paris, with a batch of new songs, and a plan to go without a plan.
“It seems wildly ambitious to say that you took a detour from a tour in England to go to Helsinki for the day: it’s not something we can really imagine right now,” Costello chuckles today from the “cabin” on Vancouver Island where he’s spent the past six months with pianist/vocalist wife, Diana Krall, and their twin teenage sons.
“But at the time it seemed logical. I wanted to go somewhere where I had no history at all. I found the studio, it looked like a place I could have fun, and the people they were very welcoming.”
The studio was a short ferry ride from the centre of Helsinki, “so you got a bracing lung-full of air every morning”, and he was working alone with an engineer for eight hours each day, coming back to his hotel at night with at least one song pretty much complete, albeit rawer than he’d done in some time.
“I don’t play drums so I just went in and said ‘the beat goes like this’ and I played the engineer a little sort of memo on my phone with the beat, and he said why don’t we just use that?,” Costello says. “We put it up to the speakers and weirdly enough it sounded really great, then we added the other sounds and as you can probably hear, the approach of even the tuned instruments is to play the accents that would otherwise be other parts of the drum kit.”
He adds, with an audible smirk, “I didn’t have to suddenly learn to be John Bonham or anything.”
Two days/three songs later, he arrived in Paris knowing only that some musicians had been lined up to record with him – and neither he nor they had any intention of doing anything as conventional as preparing charts or even suggestions for what to play on yet another bag of completely new songs.
“When I got to Paris, it was actually [long-time collaborator/keyboard king] Steve Nieve’s birthday and also the celebration of the delivery of his French passport. You have to picture I was crammed into his apartment in Paris with 25, 30 people all linking arms and singing Le Marseilles in his honour, like a scene out of Casablanca,” says Costello. “I mean, people eating birthday cake off each other’s plates - all things that just a couple of days later would be insanity, suicidal.”
Having survived the party sans-covid, and still sans long time regular band, The Imposters, the next morning work began with Costello offering the ensemble of drums, clarinet, piano, trumpet and cello only the chord changes and a melody. Their job? Respond to it. Immediately. After all, there were only three days lined up.
The high-risk endeavour didn’t just hold together, it thrilled him - “Everything they did on instinct was exactly what I wanted to hear.” And when a few months later two songs he had just co-written over the internet with American jazz trumpeter Michael Leonhart (and recorded in yet another city, New York, while Costello was in Canada doing the vocals), somehow bridged the tones and themes of the Helsinki and Paris recordings, Costello unexpectedly had himself a new album, Hey Clockface.
“I had these recordings that I'd done in Europe and I was writing at the same time. I had contrasting elements of what became this record and I wasn’t sure that I had the piece that joined them together when my friend Michael Leonhart wrote to me from New York, where he was still working, and he sent me these two pieces of music that he wanted me to complete,” says Costello.
“And they became that missing piece. They had something about them, they had some rhythm and atmosphere to them that one end joined to the Helsinki music and the other joined to [the recordings made in] Paris.”
Good fortune? As he admits himself, “I didn’t really have any plan; I was just making music”. Where that music was made was secondary; where it ended up wasn’t even a consideration.
“We had time held in London and we had more time held in Los Angeles, which presumably would have taken by the Imposters. Now, the puzzle I would have ended up with might have been quite confusing, I have to say now, with the benefit of hindsight,” Costello says. “But they weren’t even the same songs as I was recording in Helsinki, in Paris.”
So yes, it worked, but how could he have been so blasé about planning?
Blame it on Paris, where Costello had previously stepped in for adventurous, avant garde-associated guitarist Marc Ribot on some shows with Nieve, and featured as a vocalist, opposite Sting, in Welcome To The Voice, a ground-shifting, partially improvised French/English opera written by Nieve and his librettist wife, Muriel Teodori.
That was an experience partly memorable because “I got to beat Sting up every night,” Costello says. But perhaps more usefully, “I had got the idea that there were people in France who perhaps don’t ask for your passport when you move from one kind of music to another”.
And that was heaven for an ever-restless composer who picked up his second Grammy Award this year, for his 2019 album with The Imposters, Look Now, a companion piece to his first Grammy, shared with Burt Bacharach for their anything-but-improvised, classic pop-structured, Painted From Memory.
(He was first nominated in 1979, for best new artist – the award won by Billie Eilish this year – but along with The Cars, Chris Rea and Toto, lost out to A Taste Of Honey, who you might remember for the positively Dylanesque Boogie Oogie Oogie.)
Now, the Grammy is great and all, but admit it, we all want to know a bit more about this laying of fists on Sting.
“I played the chief of police in the story and he played a steelworker who was in love with an opera singer – the kind of thing they were trying to stamp out,” explains Costello. “It was a very unusual experience, not least of all because I had to dress up in this extraordinary costume and sing a very, very difficult piece of music. And then beat Sting up.”
Unlike Sting’s former Police bandmate, drummer Stewart Copeland, who regularly brawled with his lead singer, this was all approved. Artistic even.
“He did encourage me: ‘it’s got to be a bit rougher than that’,” says Costello, who then waits a beat before adding drily. “He was method acting.”
Tomorrow: in part two of this interview, Elvis Costello talks about how the disparate elements of his new album finally coalesced and how to remember Sydney’s “riot at the Regent” from the safety of our homes.
Hey Clockface is out now.
A version of this story was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald