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'There's a fear that if you play new songs people will look for the exit or the bar'

Published 14/05/2016

Timeless troubadour: Elvis Costello
Timeless troubadour: Elvis Costello
Timeless troubadour: Elvis Costello
Timeless troubadour: Elvis Costello

Six decades in, his shows are still a sell-out success and Elvis Costello says even now they feel like a 'playground'. Ahead of his Belfast gig, he tells Andy Welch why not forcing new material does the trick every time.

It's been "an absolute age" since Elvis Costello played at the London Palladium. "I don't keep track of these things really," the London-born singer-songwriter adds. "I suppose the last time I was there was when I was in showbiz college, and Brucie and I were presenting Beat The Clock."

He is, of course, joking, and showing his age (Bruce Forsyth presented a game segment called Beat The Clock on Sunday Night At The London Palladium back in the late Fifties and early-Sixties, in case the reference was lost on you).

By the time this interview's published, Costello - who is 61 - will have started his stint at the world-famous venue. When we meet, however, he wonders whether they've got some "ghastly" performance on before his one-man show (of sorts), Detour, kicks off.

That wasn't the case though - it was Bryan Ferry.

"Oh well, I take it all back," Costello says when he discovers this. "I'll certainly be lowering the tone after Bryan, Lord Ferry of Tyne and Wear."

The "of sorts" in his one-man show is on account of the fact Costello's joined at various points by guests, whether on the giant TV screen behind him, or in person. To say any more would be to ruin some of the surprises in store, but it's safe to say Megan and Rebecca Lovell of US roots and country band Larkin Poe make an appearance.

"It's really great to have their support," he says. "It's great to sing three-part harmonies with them and have their musical backing. It comes as a jolt to the audience. The other great thing about Rebecca and Megan is they're completely unsentimental about my repertoire, because of their youth.

"They have no hankering to hear Oliver's Army, because it was in the charts 35 years ago, or any of those old songs. They like things because they think they're good and they make some left field suggestions because of that. As a result, we've got a really decent repertoire to play with."

The rest of the evening is taken up by Costello introducing the songs and telling stories linking the whole show together.

"It's anecdotal, it's not 'An Evening With' or anything like that, but there are some slides," he says. "It's not rambling, but it doesn't take a direct route, either."

He says no one coming to the show to hear his greatest hits - and there are many: Alison, Watching The Detectives, I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea, Pump It Up, Every Day I Write The Book and the aforementioned Oliver's Army among his biggest - is going to leave disappointed. The key is not so much the well-known songs he's playing, but how he gets there.

"I don't feel I have to play those old songs, because I've been indulging myself with a load of obscurities," he says. "And I might find that people don't want to hear those hits anyway, they might surprise me.

"The main thing is that the shows come alive, which is something I always try to achieve. The show is essentially a big playground for me to play around in.

Detour is now on its fifth lap, having been hugely successful in the US. It follows on from Costello's wildly successful Spectacular Spinning Songbook show, which toured the world several times, and was a hit in the US, Australia and Japan, as well as selling out five nights at London's Royal Albert Hall. It arrives at Belfast's SSE Arena in July.

"I have a framework that allows me to do new things, brand new songs or 40-year-old music.

"If I went out without the framework, just to play, I think it would be harder to justify," he muses of his tour success. There have been a couple of new songs performed on Detour, belonging to a yet-to-be announced theatre show.

He says it's not the done thing to premiere a song from a musical before opening night, but his co-conspirators, as he calls them, told them that he should.

"The reaction was astonishing," he says. "That was in the States. If there's a stony silence on these new shows, we'll just say it's a cultural divide, but you have no real way of knowing how something is going to be received beforehand.

"It's good to play them, even if it's just to get a sense of how they're going to go down in the future. But there is that fear that if you play new songs, everyone is going to be looking for the exit sign or the bar, so you don't want to create that effect."

Costello says he keeps finding new things in his songs to revisit, or issues to tackle from a different angle. There are also things that seem to always remain current (perhaps the marker of classic songs, or a brilliant songwriter?)

Shipbuilding, he says, is one that never seems to date. Originally written during the Falklands War, it examined the horrible irony of the conflict bringing prosperity back to an area that had declined due to the erosion of its main industry - building warships. At the same time, the workers in the yards were sending off their sons to potentially die in the ships they were making.

It's a hugely powerful song, and it's main sentiment - essentially asking what price we have to pay for prosperity - is as relevant now, in the wake of Tata Steel's closure, as it was it when it was written.

"When I sing that song, it feels like it's still happening, the dilemmas confronting the person in the song are still there," says Costello. "It stops it all feeling like you're reading old newspapers."

As for new material, he's not sure when that might arrive. His last release was Wise Up Ghost, his 2013 collaboration with hip-hop eclectics The Roots, while his most recent solo album was 2010's National Ransom.

"The Roots record came out of coincidence and friendship and no one saw it coming; exactly the way these records should happen. That was an outward-looking record, not in the slightest about ways of the heart.

"New music is not something I can plan for, but I wouldn't count anything out," Costello adds.

"Isn't that better, though - to catch yourself singing, rather than worrying about what you're going to sing?"

Elvis Costello plays the SSE Arena in Belfast on Tuesday, July 19 (

Belfast Telegraph

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