The musically much-travelled Elvis Costello speaks to Jon Perks about how variety remains the spice of life.
In both life and music, it’s harder than ever to try and pigeonhole Elvis Costello.
Singer, songwriter, producer, husband, father, TV presenter; new wave, rock and roll, country, jazz, classical – all these tags apply.
But then why try to label the 54-year-old while he is still delighting audiences with concerts that one week will be with his backing band The Imposters, the next accompanied by only former Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve, the next joined by the London Symphony Orchestra.
This month he heads out for a seven date tour of the UK with The Brodsky Quartet, with whom Elvis has collaborated on several previous occasions, most famously on the 1993 album The Juliet Letters.
A word of warning, however; don’t expect these concerts simply to be a rendition of those pieces, or simply a case of Costello’s greatest hits with a string quartet accompaniment.
Costello promises 10 new arrangements, including covers, reinterpretations from his own back catalogue and some brand new material:
“I said I didn’t really want to do this again if we were just going to revisit what we’d done before,” says Elvis.
“I didn’t want to base it solely on that – although some people I’m sure would like to hear those songs.
“It’s very interesting to hand a song that you know and you’ve sung many times and have [viola player] Paul [Cassidy] do something with it, it might be really surprising; he did a beautiful arrangement for Scarlet Tide that I wrote with T Bone Burnett, it made me sing it a different way because what I was presented with was totally different.
“I wouldn’t sing it if I felt I was doing it in an automatic way, but even better if something shifts you from that security of what you know,” he adds.
“If it just moves you a little bit off that and makes you really think about it and feel it as you go into it, I find that’s often the best way to get some great new renditions.”
He adds: “We have an arrangement of Accidents Will Happen, so we’re going right back to the very beginning of my career to brand new songs, I think it’s a good mix – and it’s not like we’ve left The Juliet Letters behind completely.”
From his new wave roots with The Attractions through to playing and collaborating with the likes of Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, the LSO and his wife Diana Krall, Costello has constantly changed tack and flitted from one genre to another, but insists his day job is still the same as it’s always been:
“I work with a rock ‘n’ roll band much more than anything else; I think it just draws people’s attention when you do something different, people make comments on it. I played two months last year with The Imposters, a bit more in fact, and only did two concerts with orchestra.
“The variety certainly stops it from getting dull, you know,” he smiles. “As long as I remember to screw the right head on at the beginning of the day I’m fine...
For Costello it’s variety, quantity and quality, with a new album The Secret, The Profane and Sugar Cane due out later this year, autumn gigs with The Imposters, a date with Al Green in Memphis following the April UK concerts – and toddler twins Dexter and Frank to keep an eye on.
“I’ve my feet up right now!” he laughs. “Well, I’ve got twin boys who are two years and three months, so I don’t get that much chance to.
“I look at the year ahead and all the shows I’ve got and that’s fine by me – that’s the job I do, it’s much more playing concerts.
“The record making has taken a different place, these days the whole process is a very different matter than it was when I started out, when it was like everything was timed around your record,” he adds.
“Even writing songs is slightly different; sometimes you write a song and put it to one side until you’ve got exactly the right place to do it, and other times you want to get them out right away, it depends on what they are.
“I try not to think or even talk too much about ‘the industry’ cos I’m not in it,” says Elvis.
“I was playing music before I ever had a record contract and I guess I’ll be doing so after I do as well.
“Right now I’m still making records, I’m glad to do them, I really enjoy making records, but I’m not deluded that any one release is somehow going to transform my life; what it does is it allows people to buy a copy of the songs that they might hear me play in concert.
“I try to make the records as good as I can. This new record has got some great playing on it and when I perform them in concert they’ll take on another life.
“The good thing about playing with different line-ups and collaborators is sometimes the song will actually be performed by two or three of those line-ups and each time you take it on it’s going to be a slightly different song and it presents a different challenge and something slightly different to the audience so it never becomes predictable like pat.
“I prefer that, rather than this very comfortable thing of a signature sound, I figure that there’s enough that’s distinctive about the way I sing and more importantly the way I write that I can stand to change the way I perform the songs, it stops it from becoming something mundane.”
With Costello, it seems, there’s little chance of that ever happening.
* Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet play the Birmingham Symphony Hall on April 24 – visit www.thsh.co.uk for details.