Pic by Lens O'Toole
It’s been a year of feast or famine for Elvis Costello – personally, professionally, musically.
Early this year he had a new Grammy under his arm (for last year’s album, Look Now), sold out shows behind and ahead of him, and some songs in his back pocket which he was itching to try out during some lay days on the tour’s UK leg – firstly in Helsinki and a couple of days later in Paris.
As he explained yesterday, in part one of this interview he put down three songs solo in Helsinki – rough and roughly electronic in the way of the bare, nakedly protest songs he released in the 1980s as The Imposter – and another half dozen in Paris, where arrangements were improvised on the spot by an ensemble more resembling a small jazz group than either of his long-term bands, the Attractions or the Imposters.
Then he began to twig that things weren’t exactly right.
“I started seeing the holes appear in apparently sold-out crowds so I knew [something was up]. There are reasons why people don’t make it to a show, but when you’re starting to have people call you who were supposed to be coming, saying ‘I don’t know about this’, you might want to reconsider,” Costello says now. “Next thing you know I’m back in Canada.”
It was almost as sudden as that. While married to a Canadian – singer/pianist/songwriter Diana Krall, with whom he has twin 13-year-old boys – London-born, Liverpool-raised Costello, is not a Canadian citizen and faced the very real prospect of being kept from his family as borders shut.
Since racing back in time, he has been holed up in “a little cabin on Vancouver Island”, on the west coast of Canada. Which isn’t the worst place in the world to hunker down. And if the year’s shows disappeared into the ether, there were compensations.
“You can imagine, you’re fairly secure from things. You’ve got to go out now and then for supplies but we’ve got a woodland trail where we could keep ourselves from literally feeling cabin fever, and you’re hearing from friends in cities and it’s pretty grim,” he says, revealing that they’d lost several friends in New York, one of the early Covid-19 hotspots.
“Once the immediate shock of those events passed, I realised that we also not only had time together, Diana and I - normally we’ be on a tour bus going to Hot Springs Arkansas or somewhere, on a summer tour - but my lads were doing school over the Internet and we were together.”
It wasn’t all home schooling though. The perpetually active writer and composer – who has also been writing songs with Rodney Crowell and appearing in fundraising and attention-raising spots for Britain’s NHS from his Canadian eyrie - had those Helsinki and Paris recordings looking for a permanent home, though little about them suggested they were destined to be used together.
It was then his friend, jazz trumpeter Michael Leonhart, sent him some music from lockdown in New York looking for help finishing them, “and they became that missing piece” to make sense of it all. Part of that solution was the music was not standard in structure or sound, playing into the adventurous approach to what has become the new album, Hey Clockface.
“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,” says Costello of the songs written with Leonhart, including Radio Is Everything, one of two spoken rather than sung vocals on the album. “When I had time to think about how to sequence them, I had the benefit of Michael’s contribution [and] these two songs were so unusual because there wasn’t a core structure in any way in the music, and that freed me to look at some verses I had written where it wasn’t very clear verse/chorus structure and I left a lot of the thoughts trailing, and I thought there really is no reason why I can’t respond to this music.”
Costello’s approach to the first piece of Leonhart music was to effectively “spontaneously compose” into a tape recorder, and when he took yet another route to the second piece, Leonhart wrote a horn arrangement based around that melody and lyric “and then it became a dialogue across thousands of miles”.
“I’d had the benefit of being right up close with people - now something we might have a little nostalgia for: being with other humans - and I didn’t feel inhibited in any way about working at a distance either,” Costello says.
In fact, two albums were being made at a distance in this Vancouver Island cabin, with Krall finishing her recent album. She was upstairs in their music room with its studio-level speakers, going back and forth with an engineer in Los Angeles, while he was downstairs doing the same.
“It was like duelling records,” Costello recalls.
“We talk to each other about what we’re doing; it’s not like ‘we have to play my record louder’, ‘no my record louder’,” he says jovially. “She was doing that in the small hours and I’m up at dawn sometimes working – we seem to be creatively tuned at different times. Which is just as well or it might be ‘I’ll fight you for the piano’, and I can’t arm wrestle her: those piano players have a grip of iron.”
If it sounds like it was actually fun, turns out it was.
“I wouldn’t trade it. I could have been on tour bus this summer, one of us would have had our lads with us for some of the summer touring, but this year we were home and all this writing and thinking and loving all happened.”
He adds that “I have to say we, of course, are very, very fortunate to stay out of harm’s way and have this work to do”. But there’s no need to apologise. And if he were to, he could always say he’s making up for his good fortune with a gift (or is it a temptation too far?) for fans not sated by the substantial number of his repackaged/remastered/reissued albums.
As well as this new record “chucked into the stream with the other fish”, Costello has begun a massive reissue program which in its first iteration this week sees a six-disc box set based around his 1979 album, Armed Forces.
The box will have a strong visual element, commemorating the work of the designer/artist Barney Bubbles who contributed to Costello’s album covers and sleeves from Armed Forces to 1982’s Imperial Bedroom, and mockups by an artist who specialises in romance novels and comics. There are also “custom notebooks” with new liner notes and handwritten lyrics, singles in their original sleeves, and a vast trove of live concerts, including the now infamous 1978 show at Sydney’s Regent Theatre.
“The Riot At The Regent, it’s called. It’s a glimpse of the band almost going into orbit and then burning out,” Costello laughs. “But there’s some good playing on those records and with the album we went back to the tapes and got it to sound like it did originally, and we had a lot of fun with the presentation of it. I opened it and thought, this is what we intended to do: a little bit of panache that went away in the CD era.”
“It’s something you would give for a gift; it’s obviously not an impulse purchase for anybody,” he says. “But it’s the last word on that particular set.”
Sadly or not, I point out to him that for some people, including someone not a million miles from this very conversation, it certainly would be, if not an impulse buy, then certainly an immediate purchase.
“You might,” he says tolerantly at the commitment/madness of the hardcore fans. “But I’m not deluding myself. You’ll be the first kid on your block with it, but not everybody else will want it.”
He hasn’t seen my block.
Tomorrow: in part three of this interview, Elvis Costello on the cyclical nature of politics vs the arts, and how music might still matter. “All the things you say we need an accounting now about, justice about this and change there, we needed it last year as well. We needed it 10 years ago, we needed at 40 years ago, we needed at 60 years ago.”
A version of this story is published in Rhythms magazine.