Elvis Costello on His Career and Advice to Young Musicians

New England Conservatory, Boston, MA, October 25, 2013

On a Friday afternoon, Elvis Costello spoke to an appreciative audience in Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory. That morning, he had worked in the classroom with songwriting students. He was introduced by Hankus Netsky, chair of the Contemporary Improvisation department, and Tony Woodcock, president of the Conservatory. Both speakers lauded Costello’s outstanding abilities and body of work, borrowing some phrases from his lyrics, such as “his aim is true” and “excellence will happen.” To cap the introduction, they awarded Costello an honorary Doctor of Music degree. Costello appeared delighted at receiving the honor, and he kept around his neck the peach-colored ceremonial hood, slightly skewed to resemble a kerchief against his denim jacket and brimmed hat.

The talk was in interview format, Costello sitting between Netsky and Boston Globe media critic Sarah Rodman, who delivered most of the questions. After some chat about the coincidence of Rodman’s and Costello’s birthday (he quipped that he knew astrology was bunk when he found his birthday shared by luminaries such as Sean Connery and Leonard Bernstein), she asked him to speak about his father, whom he has often cited as an important influence on his career. In an earnest tone, Costello recounted the musical history of his English family, starting with his father’s father, an Irishman who in World War I started a career as a band player. Costello’s father Ross McManus started as a jazz-band trumpeter and vocalist. He met his wife Lilian in the late 1940s at the record shop where she worked, searching out the American modern-jazz recordings that were scarce in England at the time. Costello’s father worked with the established Joe Loss Orchestra, and at Loss’s suggestion he dropped trumpet to became a successful vocalist in the 1950s. Their son Declan McManus, born in London in 1954, grew up listening to his father’s practicing and his parents’ records of popular vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, jazz artists including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and classical and folk music. In the 1960s, his father struck off on a solo career as a singer of contemporary pop and rock songs as well as jazz standards, performing in northern England while his he lived with his mother in her home city, Liverpool.

Costello asserted that it was natural that his musical parents did not direct him toward musical study, which he pursued on his own. As a teenager, he sang and played guitar in small folk and rock bands. After finishing secondary school in 1972, he moved back to London to pursue a career as singer and song writer, using the name Elvis Costello. He stressed that while he had been inspired and fascinated by his father’s career as a band singer and solo performer, he had also been exposed to its challenges and had no illusions about the musician’s life. Costello was not surprised or overwhelmed by the conditions of his first few years, in which he worked at non-musical jobs, performed at small venues with a variety of bands, and had his demo tapes ignored by record companies.

The reset of the questions centered on selected songs, with a minute or so of the song played for the audience. Rodman first asked for Costello’s thoughts on “Watching the Detectives” from his first album My Aim is True of 1977. “I wrote that in my bedroom,” he reminisced. He had just gotten a new Telecaster guitar, which was a challenge to play. He had recorded a few singles and had recorded the album shortly before with musicians assembled from a San Francisco band, with whom he’d had some trouble communicating his ideas. He wanted to re-record it with musicians to whom he could “delegate” each musical role. He described “auditioning” a number of players for each “chair” (he laughingly pointed out how using terms like “chair” showed he really belonged at a conservatory). He was delighted with the resulting band, named the Attractions, which was an integral part of his act for many years. He hired seasoned players for the bass and drums chairs, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas. For the piano chair, he hired the young student Steve Nason, who adopted the stage name Costello suggested, Steve Nieve (pronounced “naive”). Costello effused about Nieve’s technical and creative skills and ability to make the keyboard part sound like Bernard Herrmann (film score composer). At the time, Costello couldn’t read music notation, and he said there was no need for scores, as rock requires only “hand signals and threats.” He also praised the well-known bassist Nick Lowe, who played on My Aim is True and continued to collaborate with Costello occasionally over the years.

Rodman asked Costello to talk about “Accidents Will Happen” recorded at Hollywood High School in 1978, later on the 1979 album Armed Forces. He laughingly recalled being disappointed that the teenage audience didn’t scream more in a “proper Monkees style.” Costello remarked on the prominent baroque-influenced piano part, saying he hadn’t appreciated it enough at the time. He again praised Steve’s Nieve’s abilities and mentioned that Nieve had just brought out an album of duets with a number of renowned artists.

Considering “Alison,” from My Aim is True, Rodman observed that a number of acquaintances had used it as wedding music, and she wondered whether Costello found that ironic for a song about betrayal and loss in love. Costello agreed wryly, “It does seem an odd choice.” He brought up that he was influenced by pop/R&B singer Smokey Robinson and that he stole a lick from the song “Ghetto Child.” Revisiting his reaction to the musicians on that album, he said that among those still living, John McFee impressed him. He recalled that “Alison” was originally released as a single that “bombed” in the U.K. and the U.S., but when Linda Ronstadt recorded the song, she had a hit. He admitted that while his first reaction to Ronstadt’s cover was not positive, he grew to appreciate it for its own merits and to realize that he’d joined a sort of club of artists who “create repertory” for other performers.

“What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?” from Armed Forces, was written by his “good friend” Nick Lowe, who also produced the album. He found it interesting that Lowe had conceived the song as light-hearted satire, but by the time Costello recorded it, the song’s message seemed true enough to require a sincere delivery. Costello joked that he wanted to sound like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, but that would have required adding “a sax and a key change.”

Alison Kraus was the singer on “Scarlet Tide,” which Costello said he wrote for her performance for the 2003 movie Cold Mountain, set during the American Civil War. He gleefully exclaimed, “It’s like 800 hymns!” He explained that because he was brought up Catholic, he hadn’t been exposed much to hymns and therefore found them an interesting new musical source.

“God Give Me Strength” brought an appreciative reaction from Rodman and the audience. The lush but cool orchestration in 3/4 time that undergirds Costello’s impassioned singing indicates his co-writer, Burt Bacharach. Costello said that the 1996 song was his first collaboration with Bacharach. Costello said that in 1960s England, Bacharach’s songs “dominated” the pop music heard, and he had grown up admiring them. He first met Bacharach while he was recording his own song “Satellite,” which he said borrowed some Bacharach compositional devices such as suspensions. Bacharach himself happened to be in the next studio and, at Costello’s request, generously offered some helpful suggestions. Costello was delighted with the opportunity to work with Bacharach on their 1998 album Painted from Memory, even though much of their collaboration had to be handled by fax. Costello stressed his ongoing relationship with Bacharach, including an upcoming Broadway musical based on the songs of Painted from Memory.

Hearing the 1989 song “Veronica,” Costello deadpanned that the sound reminded him of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Co-written with Paul McCartney, “Veronica” was released as a single soon before appearing on Costello’s 1989 album Spike. As a Beatles fan since childhood and a fellow Liverpudlian for part of his life, Costello said he felt somewhat awed when he started working with McCartney but was soon put at ease. Costello praised the album’s producer George Martin, who was already established in British popular music when he produced the Beatles albums Revolver and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He liked Martin’s personal involvement in creating the recorded music, bringing in sounds from his past, from the 1920s to the present. Without saying that he was directly influenced by the Beatles, Costello said that he noticed some characteristics shared by singers from Liverpool, such as a nasal singing style.

A string quartet opened the song “Jacksons, Monk and Rowe” from the 1993 album The Juliet Letters, a collaboration between Costello and the Brodsky Quartet. Costello had long enjoyed attending concerts by the quartet, and when he met them he found that, in turn, they had been enjoying his performances. They decided to share the creation of lyrics and some music for the songs, fashioned on imaginary letters sent to the Juliet character of Shakespeare’s play. The selection played was written by the quartet’s violist Michael Thomas (not Pete Thomas, Costello cautioned). He stressed that songwriters should listen to all the music they can, and he recalled that while he was starting out in 1970s London, he went to every concert he could attend, in many genres including rock, jazz, and classical, such as the Brodsky quartet. He also remembered with satisfaction that at the time of The Juliet Letters, he had learned to read music fairly recently, and yet he wrote out all the scores himself, not knowing the composition process well enough to hire a copyist. Costello contended that he was fortunate to be involved in the unique project at that time, when it was much easier to find financial support for such an undertaking than it is now.

Diana Krall was the singer and pianist on the slow and pensive “Abandoned Masquerade,” from her album “The Girl in the Other Room,” released in 2004, the year after she and Costello were married. He said, “She didn’t write often,” but with his encouragement she wrote this song to express her feelings about the death of her mother. Costello left no doubt of his devotion to his wife.

The last song discussed was “Stick Out Your Tongue” from Costello’s latest album (September 2013) Wise Up Ghost, on which his band is the Roots, the long-standing alternative rap group led by drummer ?uestlove. Costello met the Roots and discussed working together, while he was an occasional guest on the Jimmy Fallon TV show, for which the Roots were the regular band. In writing the songs for the album, he took old songs he had recorded with The Attractions, and “collaged them into new narratives.” As an example, he pointed out that in composing “Tripwire” he took a four-chord progression from his earlier song “Satellite.” He defended his “collage” approach as a serious artistic technique of developing a new work by creating a true synthesis.

At that point, Hankus Netsky read a small selection of the 100+ questions submitted by audience members. One asked what an aspiring songwriter could do to write good song lyrics. Costello advised starting by developing a “vocabulary” to describe, for example, a person the writer knows well, by associating increasingly specific and vivid words and phrases. Another was “How did you pick ‘Elvis’?” Costello replied with exasperation that he was having a Chinese meal and opened a fortune cookie, which said “Elvis.” Another question inquired about his interest in movie acting, to which he jovially responded that he’d been lucky to find parts playing “man with glasses.” When asked whether there were any young artists he admired, he replied “Yes. All of them.”

The final question sought his advice to young people trying to “make it” in the current musical world. He advised them to decide which is their primary motivation ̶ to make music or to be famous. Despite his own eventual success, he dismissed the idea of a musical career as a route to fame and fortune. If making music is your motivation, he directed, be ready to “stick with it” through a lot of disappointments. He said flatly that he would not be able to achieve the success he has if he were starting out today, because the conditions are tougher now. Recounting the history of sound recording from wax cylinders through compact discs, today, he contended, the mp3 file is thwarting the aspirations of musicians who want to create a physical object a listener can love, as a reader loves a book. Constrained by time, Costello wrapped up his intense discussion and warmly accepted the audience’s ovation.

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Virginia A. Schaefer