Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Elvis Costello: Write about the global political upheaval? The simple truth is I wouldn't want to waste my breath

 

Elvis Costello doesn't have a relationship with nostalgia. The rock 'n' roll star - who turns 64 this year - has now been performing for more than four decades and boasts an impressive back catalogue that he regularly explores in live performance.

But just because he still sings those tracks, it doesn't give him any sentimental affection for the past. Or so he argues down the phone from New York.

"I'm aware of other people's nostalgia about particular songs but that doesn't influence the way I perform even those same songs," he continues, adamantly. "If I performed a song my view would be different to theirs, that's okay isn't it?"

Providing examples, he references last year's anniversary tour of his 1982, Imperial Bedroom, in which he opted to mix up the order and change the arrangement.

"People are inclined to make a big deal about decades aren't they?" he says with a sigh.

"We haven't so much. Last year we made a gag, on the 35th year since we released Imperial Bedroom. It was a satirical spin to it because obviously if we'd been doing it in a very straight-faced way we would have done it on an a decade anniversary and we didn't."

There's a similar response to a question about his 40-year career. "I guess it is if you tell me it is. I don't count things like that," he says.

"I'm not saying I'm not playing the songs from the past, we do play them. The puzzle of all of this, the puzzle of time is for it to be something which propels you forwards rather than something that holds you back."

Born Declan Patrick MacManus in Paddington, London on August 25 1954, he became Elvis Costello in 1977 - the same year the slightly more famed Elvis died. As a teenager he moved to Liverpool with his mother before returning to the capital a few years later where he eventually exploded into the scene as a brash singer-songwriter.

His last solo album came in 2010 and he considered writing a new one a "fool's errand" before deciding he wanted to see what a record would sound like from Elvis Costello and The Imposters in 2018.

"I wanted a picture of this group, and songs that I came up with, once you've got a simple idea like that it's not hard to do."

As someone whose early music targeted British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, Margaret Thatcher and the Army's role in Northern Ireland, it may be that Costello was inspired to write a new album by the global political upheaval of the last two years.

Not so, he says.

"The truth of it is I wouldn't want to waste my breath," he says at an agonising pace, to hit the point home. "It's satirist sort of territory where we are right now.

"What would be the song we could sing about that really? It's so transparent, there's no poetry in it. And the whole process is mediocrity... why would I want to be that close to mediocrity? There are other songs to sing which are about the way people are which outlast the immediacies of that nature, that's what I want to do."

An example of the legacy of such a story, he says, is A Face In The Crowd, a planned stage musical based on Budd Schulberg's story originally published as Your Arkansas Traveler and adapted into the 1957 film A Face In The Crowd, written by Schulberg, directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Andy Griffith.

The tale follows an a American singer, Larry 'Lonesome' Rhodes, who rises through local radio to become a national television celebrity thanks to his wise-cracking salesman-like aura. Eventually, however, he becomes more of a megalomaniac and tries not just to influence government policy but dictate it.

Costello has already written 18 tracks for the musical, on which work had begun the spring before Donald Trump declared his candidacy. Ever since, he says, people have mentioned it as some sort of parallel.

"The truth of it is that Schulberg was an extremely smart writer about human nature," he says. "If he were to be alive today he would probably include social media along with television and radio in this story - the ability to shape opinion but similarly create monsters."

Referring back to his apprehension of protest songs, Costello agrees they may lend power to people but says movements such as Time's Up require vigilance and continued effort to really leave their mark. "It's not assuming once you've got your badge on that it's taken care of because it's not. It's vigilance, it's always the way.

"The cynical forces that arrange against vested interest will wait out the gesture of a march or a slogan - when that becomes old news, cynicism can outlast it," he adds.

"A song won't fix that unfortunately. You can sing it and feel good about yourself but you have to do it every day."

Costello remains a busy man. He has 11-year-old twin sons, Dexter and Frank, with third wife Diana Krall who he married at the home of Elton John in 2003.

Would he ever follow in Sir Elton's footsteps who recently announced his retirement from touring to spend more time with his own children?

"I reconsidered my priorities about 10 years ago when I stopped neurotically looking for the next record contract to follow the last one," he says.

"I knew I had to devote so much time to the road work because I could see the way the business was going.

"Beyond the new album there's A Face In The Crowd, after I finish in the studio I go back into workshop on that.

"None of that sounds like anybody that's looking to put their feet up."

Elvis Costello And The Imposters tour the UK and Ireland in June and July, including dates in Nottingham, Dublin, Cardiff and Manchester

Lyrics of Oliver's Army about the Troubles

Costello's song Oliver's Army - which appeared on the album Armed Forces - was his most successful single in the UK, spending three weeks at number 2.

And in the sleeve notes to a 2002 reissue of that album the singer-songwriter admitted that the song's lyrics allude to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

He said: "I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons. They were no longer just on the evening news.

"These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world. The song was based on the premise 'they always get a working class boy to do the killing'.

"I don't know who said that; maybe it was me, but it seems to be true nonetheless. I pretty much had the song sketched out on the plane back to London."

The lyrics include a reference to the "murder mile", which was widely assumed to be a reference to the Antrim Road area of north Belfast:

'There was a checkpoint Charlie

He didn't crack a smile

But it's no laughing party

When you've been on the murder mile'

As well as the Troubles the song alludes to several other "trouble spots" around the world including South Africa, Palestine and Cyprus.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph