A Song and a Chat With Elvis Costello

By Seth Colter Walls
In his more than 30-year career, Elvis Costello has partnered up with everyone from Johnny Cash to Paul McCartney and the Charles Mingus Big Band. His latest, country-inflected CD, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, features a duet with Emmylou Harris and a tune co-written with country legend Loretta Lynn. Costello recently dropped by the NEWSWEEK offices to play a bluesy acoustic version of one of the new songs, "Sulfur to Sugarcane," and sat down to talk about the record, digital music and the most influential musician alive. Excerpts:

Walls: Do you keep track of the albums you've recorded by genre? That is to say, Almost Blue was your first country record, King of America the second and so on?
Well, the first one began as an altered blues album. The reason it was called Almost Blue was a play on the idea of it almost being blues. The original conception before it went to Nashville [for recording] was that they were all blues or R&B songs, like "Cry Cry Cry." Obviously, as we got there, the songs that actually came to life in the studio tended to be these more romantic, fractured ballads. I don't really think of [my albums] in a genre sense. I was aware we made it in Nashville, and it wasn't my songs.

Has working in other forms—big band, jazz, chamber music, for example—affected your voice in Americana settings?
Sure, it's informed some of the songs, or at least the scope of the compositions. It certainly affected the songs on Brutal Youth. Discovering the freedom of structure [in working with] a string quartet, without a hard, fast backbeat, allowed me to open up. Since then I've had a lot more sense of what I could do.

It's common for people who value the old-school country catalog to worry about the music being in crisis, given the contemporary gloss of crossover acts. Do you think country is in crisis?
If you look to the mainstream, main-street version of it, then yes. But if you look to where the best stuff is being done, it's different. When I was writing "I Felt the Chill" with Loretta Lynn, she had to redo a vocal for some radio show. There had been a technical fault, and she had to punch in a vocal, so she just sang the whole song again—just an extraordinary vocal. You see that and you say, "Well, the music's safe in her hands."

Just as long as it's she who gets canonized, not the mainstream artists.
The Country Music Hall of Fame is the most improved institution in terms of telling the stories in a fair-handed way and being more inclusive than when I first went there, [when] it seemed to be a fairly narrow thing. Now, of course, they do have the contemporary people represented, because the fans of those people want to see Billy Ray Cyrus's sneakers or something. [Laughs.] But they do have Gram Parsons's jacket, and [displays about] people once seen as beyond the pale. More importantly, they're doing a retrospective of Kitty Wells, and some others.

In terms of your own story, what do you feel you're best-known for?
I'm more often asked, or someone passes comment to me, about the Black and White night, with Roy Orbison, in which I just play rhythm guitar. More people ask me about that or mention that they saw it last week than anything I've ever done in my life. Which gives some indication about a show made 20 years ago, how powerful it was. One, that it was Roy and those great songs, and two, that it was done very elegantly and differently than the much crasser kind of gala show, the likes of which we see all the time. It gives you heart to do things with quality. And I pursued, best I can, to get the record I just made to look as beautiful as possible. Tony Millionaire has delivered this very beautiful and intriguing illustration. You know, the hand and hand-ink thing has a refinement you can't get with a computer. It's got the touch of a masterful artist.

You also take a dim view of digital music. With your last record, Momofuku, you tried to release it just on vinyl, right?
Yeah, I wanted it to only be vinyl. Actually, I think we're moving towards a vinyl and digital reality with no CD in the middle. We're probably two records away from that.

That's an acceptable compromise, as far as you're concerned?
If the digital music is delivered in sufficient resolution, yeah. If you don't, it's just the same kind of thievery that has gone on for years, from both sides: charging too much for [albums] and paying the artists too little. The same is going on with the digital realm. You've got two types of piracy. The literal piracy that everybody bangs on about, and the massive profiteering of the legitimate download sites who don't pay proper royalties, who release half albums and don't annotate them properly. They don't offer the purchaser either artwork of coherence or, more importantly, music of sonic coherence. They're offering it in such a heavily compressed rendition that you might as well be listening to it on a detuned radio in the other room. So congratulations, Mr. Jobs: It's a genius move on your part to make the iPod.

It seems that your last few records have been focused stylistic exercises, more so than the grab-bag of influences on, say, Mighty Like a Rose or When I Was Cruel.
Well, they're not genre exercises. With North, it was a relatively coherent suite with that sound intended. I wasn't making my crooner record. There were some very crass assumptions raised about that particular record. I'm not saying you would. But with Mighty Like a Rose, I remember I was in Cologne, and some journalist accused me of wanting to destroy pop music like Wagner destroyed opera. [Laughs.] There was nothing particular considered about this new album, it was just a response to circumstances.

So it's all happenstance, how a record gets put together?
Everything is happenstance.

That seems strange, since you have a reputation for being somewhat exacting about style.
I think it's because most people are so lazy [when they talk about records]. Everyone goes on about people being geniuses and stuff. Then you compare them to real geniuses, and they're not.

So you're not a genius?
No. There are no geniuses in popular music, are there?

Sure, I think so.
Maybe Stevie Wonder.

How about your old songwriting partner Paul McCartney?
Yeah, possibly. And Burt Bacharach.

Did you hear McCartney's latest record, Electric Arguments, billed under the Fireman name?
Yes, I heard it. I liked it. I think I like him when he's very free or very formal. And the other Fireman records had less structure. It's as if somebody were a fabulous draftsman but took up finger-painting. You should have the complete freedom to do that no matter where you are in your career. The freedom and sense of play was central to the best music he created with the Beatles. And the great records people really cherish … like, McCartney, he's just fooling around. But because of his gifts, the fooling around coheres into this great structure. These people—whether it be country music or what was called soul music—this music is so consequential not just in American history but in the world. Think of Stevie Wonder. My wife, recently … they gave Stevie the Gershwin music prize, and she sang at the White House. I really hoped—and I still think it would be a great idea, but it's not for me to tell the president what to do—there should be a poet laureate for America, but for music.

And Stevie should be the first?
He's the most influential musician alive. Every bad singer on American Idol tries to sound like him, and fails miserably. That would be, to my mind, really a beautiful gesture. Not that we're going to have him compose an anthem on the occasion of the balancing of the budget, or anything like that. It would be an inspiring thing for him to be the musical laureate of America. Because he is anyway.