ASCAP FOUNDERS AWARD
Elvis Costello’s Astonishing Career
By Erik Philbrook
When Elvis Costello crashed the scene in 1977 with his first album, My Aim is True, he came on like a brash and brainy new-wave punk: knock-kneed, bespectacled, skinny ties and all. Some fans rallied around his angry young man persona and savored the gall the musician had in naming himself after the king of rock and roll. True music fans, however, rallied around his songwriting and appreciated the breadth of his formidable talent, from the tender soul of "Alison" to the reggae-infused "Watching the Detectives" to the brawny R&B attack of "Less Than Zero." Backed by an ace band of musicians, the Attractions, Costello began to create some of the most energetic, adventurous and ultimately enduring rock music of the era. On albums such as This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy and Trust, the supreme musicianship of the band was matched by Costello’s masterful command of words and melody, and the obvious glee he had in pushing pop music’s envelope.
At the dawn of the 80’s Costello was a restlesss creative spirit and, having made his mark on 70’s rock, was ready to explore other musical avenues: His 1981 album, Almost Blue, reflected his love for classic country music and also featured jazz legend Chet Baker performing on the title track; 1982’s Imperial Bedroom was lush and layered pop; 1986’s King of America was stripped-down acoustic country-folk. While Costello’s sound began to change with regularity, his writing became sharper than ever. It was no surprise to his fans, then, when he began collaborating with one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century, Paul McCartney. The fruits of their efforts appeared on Spike, perhaps the most musically diverse collection of songs Costello had recorded up to that point and an album that also yielded Costello’s biggest American hit, "Veronica."
In the 90’s Costello continued to defy categorization, following his muse into even more unlikely and interesting places. While continuing to record and perfom with the Attractions, he also dove into the classical music world and wrote a song cycle with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters. As both a singer and songwriter, his collaborations flourished with such diverse artists as Johnny Cash, The Chieftains, Tony Bennett, Bill Frisell, Roy Nathanson and the Jazz Passengers, Ruben Blades, Ute Lemper, Aimee Mann, the Fairfield Four, the Charles Mingus Big Band and many others. Then, as the decade came to an end, he collaborated with the legendary Burt Bacharach on an orchestral pop tour de force, Painted from Memory, which earned Costello a Grammy Award for "I Still Have That Other Girl."
Recent collaborations have found Costello working with mezzo-soprano star Annie Sofie von Otter and soul great Solomon Burke. In 2001, Costello was also named Artist in Residence at UCLA and performed a concert there with the Charles Mingus Orchestra, featuring lyrics Costello had written for Mingus compositions as well as orchestrated versions of classic Costello songs. Then, just as people were getting accustomed to Costello’s stylistic changes and versatility, he released When I Was Cruel (2002). Propulsive and vitriolic with deep grooves and dark moods, the album was a return of sorts to Costello’s rock and roll roots -- just in time for Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year.
While Costello will continue to play dates this year with his rock band, the Imposters, he has already finished writing and recording a new album of atypical love songs and piano ballads. His ballet score based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written for the Italian dance company Aterballetto and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, will be released. Also, in an ongoing collaboration with Bill Frisell, they will present a concert called "A Century of Song," in which they will perform one song from every decade of the 20th Century.
While many stand in awe of Costello’s accomplishments and not just the quantity but the quality of his work, his modus operandi remains simple: "I’m a musician, therefore I go to work," he says. "I play what I want when I want, and I hope people will be interested in what I’m doing." Today, that attitude has earned Elvis Costello not only a worldwide audience, but an audience made up of many different worlds. Fans of pop, rock, jazz, R&B, country and classical music have all found common ground in this uncommonly gifted artist.*
You are being presented with ASCAP’s Founders Award and, as you know, the founders of ASCAP and its early members were some of the greatest names in music - Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins. These are artists that you obviously admire. At what point in your musical development did you really start to appreciate their craft beyond their obvious surface appeal?
To be honest, and I'm not saying this to be cute, but this is the truth. My mother tells me that one of the first words that I uttered as a child was "skin" in reference to "I've Got You Under My Skin." And I used to request it before I could form proper sentences. So I suppose that's a pretty young appreciation of Cole Porter.
I grew up in a musical household, but I didn’t have a formal musical education. So I wasn't subjected to music the way that a lot of people are subjected to it and are given a fright of it. I had a generous, open-minded musical education and the availability of a broad-range of music in my parents' house and through my own curiosity.
When did you first start playing a musical instrument?
I didn't pick up an instrument until I was in my teens, so I had plenty of time to absorb a lot of stuff. Among those things were the writers that pre-dated the pop music that I actually grew up into, in other words the music of the 1960’s. So I know an uncommon amount of songs that pre-date the original blueprint for rock and roll that my early music makes reference to. The 60’s music was what I grew up around and so that's my reference point as a player, but as a listener and as an appreciator of music, I've gone back into the history of music many different times and in many different ways, right back into very early music and the stuff written before we had any concept of popular music. I know a lot of songs that you would call standards. I can't play them all by ear, but I can sing them all and I know the words of many of them. I’ve just absorbed them from years and years of listening just like anybody would. But because I am a musician, they’ve obviously had an influence on me.
Occasionally I'll write in forms that approach that style, although I won't necessarily adhere to all of the shape and rules, or otherwise it sounds like a pastiche. You still want to make it your own, but you can learn from those masters. Just as you can from a Howlin' Wolf record or a Lennon/McCartney song, or something more contemporary. You've got to keep your ear open to new sounds as well.
What benchmarks do you use to determine when you've written a good song or when a song is finished for you?
It isn't like a ruler (laughs) that you have to take out and measure and go "Does it go the full nine yards?" It doesn't work like that. I think you just know instinctively when a song is complete and whether you've reached your objective. Sometimes you finish a song and you take a step back and see that there’s no way to make it better. That's as good as you're gonna get out of a musical idea. Sometimes I’ll realize it wasn't as strong an idea as I first thought.
When you're inspired, of course, the ideas flow through very quickly. I must say that the songs that I’m recording at the moment came through me very quickly and a lot of them were written very rapidly, so they have a common harmonic language. And they’ve been very good to me. I heard everything in them all at once. I heard what was possible in them emotionally, where the lyric should fall. I also heard all of the orchestral dimensions of them and where it was possible to color them. I heard them complete in my head as I was writing them. It's very, very exciting when songs arrive to you with such a complete, vivid picture in your mind. It doesn't always happen; sometimes you write a song and the ways to express it, the ways to accompany it are various. You might go down several different dead ends until you arrive at the definitive way to convey the song in performance.
You are considered an artist's artist in that some of your biggest fans are other songwriters and musicians, and you've collaborated with some of the greats. In some way do these other artists now become your audience when you write? For example, when you were writing a song for When I Was Cruel, was there a voice in your head saying "I bet Burt Bacharach is going to appreciate this."
(Laughs) Well, I bet Burt Bacharach would probably find that thought horrifying. I learned a tremendous amount from working with him and also from working with Paul McCartney. They are the two main collaborators of my career in that I’ve produced the most material from a standing start with each of them. That’s a very high standard and I obviously learned a lot from them. But I would say that I don't really regard those people as my audience. I'm not writing for them. I write for myself. The idea of self-indulgence in art is completely obscure to me. You should only please yourself. Nothing else matters. Because people are trusting you to have your own idea and if you're patronizing the audience, talking down to them, trying to guess what they would like to hear, then you should be writing advertising jingles. It has nothing to do with creative songwriting. You have listen to your own voice and not give a damn about anyone else. If you make mistakes or if you paint yourself into a corner or try something and discover that you’re not as smart as you think you are, then that's a different thing. You have to be prepared to fail. Everybody's written bad songs, not bad songs but songs that don't succeed in their objective.
And you can't listen to the record companies. They're in a different business than what I'm in. Because I'm not in a business. I'm blessed with the fact that I'm a vocational musician who has been able to indulge in the idea of pursuing things from an artistic point of view and make my livelihood at it.
You are a unique artist in that your music has gone in so many different directions. How has this affected your relationship with your longtime fans?
I'm aware of the fact that with every change I both lose and gain people from a potential audience, and this is why I am reviled in some areas of the record industry for not adhering to brand identity. I am the person they fear most (laughs). In some respects I’m the person that proves that not listening to A&R advice is actually a lifetime of adventure. Listening to that nonsense that you must protect your identity and all of that timidness is the absolute antithesis of rock and roll.
To my mind, when I made King of America in the 80’s and it was all acoustic, that was more of a punk rock gesture at the time than to be screaming and shouting. So was The Juliet Letters. So was Painted from Memory. Because, relative to what people expect of me, I'm much happier to do the thing that confounds expectations, and make people aware of my curiosity in music and invite them into the world that I'm trying to create. I'm not doing this stuff to show off my versatility; I just love lots of different forms in which music can be expressed and I actually don't care about critical opinion or record company opinion. I care about reaching a number of people, and while I'm aware that some people will walk away aghast at the sound of The Juliet Letters record or Painted from Memory or even this record I'm working on now, there are many other people who will relax into it, or who will dive into it like the deep pool that music is, and they'll say "Oh, yes, that other stuff, I've heard him do that before, so now this is more curious to me."
For me, it all works out in the end. I have a free-floating group of listeners who I greatly appreciate that go with me through a lot of these changes. Some find the next change or emphasis not to their liking and they may drift away. Then something else I do regains their attention. I have to go with what's true to me, and I think the smart people appreciate and respect that I'm doing it for sincere reasons and that I'm not being perverse.
Those people who are superficial about me and only say "Oh, it's that angry guy in the glasses," I don't care about what they think. They never understood me from day one. They never understood the tenderness of a song like "Alison." They only heard the superficiality. A lot of the ideas of what it is I do are written by overgrown boys who live alone and don't know many women. I mean to say that they have no experience of life. They're like Comic Book Guy in "The Simpsons." That's who writes those sort of reviews of my records. And I know that's true.
I do know some things. I have lived a little bit of a broader experience, so while I don't want to be highhanded about it, I can't obviously limit myself to this very narrow definition of what's hip and what isn't hip. Because I know what's hip. What's hip is what's hip to you in the moment, you know? And if that's the gentlest or the loudest sound, that's what's hip to you, and that's what you need. There's a time in life for Hoagy Carmichael. There's a time in life for Claude Debussy. There's a time in life for Jerry Lee Lewis. There's a time in life for Destiny's Child. All of these things have their moment.*
The ASCAP Founders Award to Elvis Costello
Unique creative spirit...
whose music defies boundaries and will enrich generations to come.