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Don’t ‘Look Now,’ But Elvis Costello is Back and Feeling Fine, Thanks (Q&A)
“We never once thought about what audience we were making this for,” Sebastian Krys, the co-producer of Elvis Costello’s new album, Look Now, told me as we lingered in the aftermath of a listening event held by Concord Records at the fabled Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village. “We just wanted to make the best album we could make — with real scope to it — in the hopes that it would find an audience, and maybe even inspire younger musicians who might stumble on it via some playlist one day down the road.”
While Krys’ statement speaks volumes about the state of the record business in 2018, he didn’t say it with any sense of resignation or defeat. In fact, his pride in what he and Costello have achieved together with Look Now is palpable, and quite rightly so.
Look Now is an old-school, big-budget album, recorded at some of the best recording studios in the world (Electric Lady, EastWest, United Recording, etc.), and sounds it. It veers from intimate, aching ballad, to the acerbic rockers that Costello made his name with, albeit through the lens of a 60-something.
For his part, Elvis Costello is also brimming with pride, as he holds forth — here for Rock Cellar Magazine — reflecting on the evolution of Look Now (which you can purchase right now at this link) and how it’s an album that he and his Imposters could only have made in this moment.
Rock Cellar: What can you say about the scale and scope to Look Now, and how it harkens back to Imperial Bedroom, while remaining firmly set in 2018?
Elvis Costello: Imperial Bedroom was one of the records that was in our minds. Last year, the Imposters and I decided to take another look at the songs from Imperial Bedroom, live, because we never had the patience to play half of those songs properly. There were half a dozen songs on the record that The Attractions could turn into something wild. There were a few that we neither had the time nor the voices, frankly, to render.
I had gone crazy with all those vocal arrangements. But now I’ve got Davey Faragher in my band, who’s not only a great bass player, but he’s the perfect singer for these songs.
Rock Cellar: Look Now is very much an arranged album, but at the same time, it’s still an Imposters record.
Elvis Costello: I wanted to make both those things. All the songs were written on the piano, including the three that were written by other pianists than me, which is a relief, really, for anybody that’s heard me play the piano, I’m sure. Obviously, two of the songs were written — the music was written exclusively by Burt Bacharach.
On “Don’t Look Now” and “Photographs Can Lie,” I think you’ll probably recognize Burt’s touch. I couldn’t have imagined a scenario in which former members of The Attractions, let alone members of The Imposters, could join together in quite this way and take their cues from him. In fact, I’d never really imagined a situation in which we’d be back in the studio. But we’ve worked secretly, writing for the last ten or twelve years, for different occasions. Songs that people would maybe record, or for some stage work that never came to fruition. And the songs were just laying there, kind of like screaming at me, “You’d better record me.”
And I went to Burt about two years ago, because I’d started to think that maybe swearing off recording was a bad idea. And I asked him, did he think that maybe we could bring these songs out into the light.
But I think we needed the company of these other songs I’d written, and I needed the energy of The Imposters to set off these songs. I wrote “Stripping Paper” alone, and I think the best compliment I’ve ever been paid about a song, I have to say, is not from a critic, but from Burt Bacharach. Because I sent him the composition, maybe for him to make some changes, and he refused to add anything to it. He’s very straight in his way of thinking, and if he had wanted to, or felt the song needed more, he would’ve certainly told me, because he has before.
He won’t let me get away with anything.
Rock Cellar: Many of the songs have a thread, like “Stripping Paper” and “He’s Given Me Things,” from the voice of another person.
Elvis Costello: In having made the decision to record again, I involved my band. One of the reasons for doing it was because I wanted a record of The Imposters. Literally, a record of them, as they are now, with the accumulation between three of us of nearly forty years of work together, about how we feel and what we know about music, and what we know about our feelings about songs. I sent each of them a tape with about 35 songs that I’d accumulated over the past 25 years, many of which were written in the last nine months to a year, and some of which written immediately before we recorded. And it was surprising to me that the drummer, Peter Thomas, who in the past was normally asking me, “When do I get to hit things hard?” was the one who particularly focused in on “Stripping Paper.”
The imagery in “Stripping Paper” is about a woman who discovers her husband is being unfaithful. And in a moment of distraction, she begins to peel the wallpaper from the wall, and beneath one splendid layer of wall-covering finds another less splendid, and another behind that, which was on the wall when she and her husband decorated the room themselves during a long-ago erotic afternoon. And the piece of paper also has the pencil mark of when they’d measured their daughter’s height as she grew. It sounds like a sentimental conceit when I say it, but when you place it in music, and you have it played like this by the Imposters, and the string quartet to answer the vocal phrases, a wind quartet of bass clarinet, French horn, alto saxophone, and alto flute, because all of those instruments have a round edge to their sound, predominantly, and they sound like breathing, like you were in the room…
These are things we wouldn’t have had the patience for when we were younger. And now I’m glad to say we do. It’s not that we’re making better records. It’s just that they’re different records. Because we don’t want to make the same record again. We could do that anytime.
But what’s the point of it? You’ve already heard that one. It has to be a different record.
Rock Cellar: So what is “Under Lime,” anyway?
Elvis Costello: “Under Lime,” well, you know, they throw lime on graves. “Under Lime,” the opening song, is a long, narrative song — which is unusual, to open a record in that way. This record does mark eight years, I think, since I made a record under my own banner. So I wanted to sort of make the thread through this period of time, to have this song called “Jimmy Standing in the Rain” — that’s on National Ransom — and it was about a musical singer who was trying to sell cowboy songs to the English, which I can testify is a difficult task.
And I left him abandoned on a railway station, possibly alcoholic, definitely has the symptoms of TB, finding comfort in the arms of a woman who calls out another man’s name in a moment of passion. Like the typical feel-good hit of the summer. And I started to think, what would happen if this legend were just enough to get him onto a television show in the fifties, where they’d blindfold upscale guests, where a celebrity would be brought out, and they’d have to guess their identity?
So the idea was that Jimmy is now a barely-remembered name in show business, and he’s brought onto this TV show at Lime Grove, at the BBC, which is where a lot of the live television was made in the 1950s. And he’s about to be ritually humiliated, which is a major component of live entertainment in England. So the song picks up the story with him being placed in the charge of a young woman, a production assistant, who’s told, “Whatever you do, don’t tell him your name, and whatever you think, don’t let him drink.” Because this is going to end in tears. And so they go into the dressing room and then he starts to question her about her boyfriend. And about her family tree. And basically, he’s set this snare before, so the song is a scene that is all too familiar. It wasn’t invented yesterday. And that was the song, I thought, that was maybe the opening of this record.
Elvis Costello: I don’t like the idea of selling the record again, you know, three months later, with three or four extra tracks on it, because they’re usually not that good. And the deluxe edition, if you want to buy it, there are four more songs, and I think they’re all really good. There’s a ballad that Steve and I did, that we added a little decoration to. There’s a song which I wrote for Johnny Hallyday. Unfortunately he didn’t get to record it, but he was thinking about it in his last months. It’s very touching, and the song is written in English and French. Which is super surprising, because I don’t speak French.
Rock Cellar: The album sounds amazing. Talk about recording at Electric Lady and EastWest and United Recorders and Capitol, some really legendary studios.
Elvis Costello: Yeah. At Capitol, which deserves its reputation. Well, it helps if you know where you’re putting the microphone, but it really does give you something vivid to start with. These studios are well-maintained, and they have the thing that makes going into the studio worthwhile. Because people make good records in their bedroom with their laptop. You can do all sorts of things. I made a lot of good records with a cassettes and 4-tracks. Whatever you use, it’s whatever gets it done.
The main difference now, I think, is we prepared our minds very well, so that when the red light went on and we played, it was more like a live record, even though we were adding things piece-by-piece, because all of the work was put in during the rehearsal time, away from the studio time. So when the red light came on, we just had to play it. And it felt free. And I think you hear that.
The last song, “He’s Given Me Things,” Steve Nieve arranged that song just by playing it. We had a rhythm track, which was very even and hypnotic, and he just played this thing on the piano, and that was the whole of it. And I had all these string parts written, and by some miracle they fitted together perfectly. He had no idea what I’d written. I didn’t tell him about all of it, I just told him what we couldn’t have. And with Steve, anyone can tell you that he’ll give you variations on anything for forever and a day. And it’s hard to say to Steve, “Don’t play there. Just leave that gap. Because what you have played is so memorable and takes the ear. And something else is going to carry us into the chorus.”
I mean, this is the technical stuff, but we may not have had the patience in the past, or we may have just recorded everything, and then you would have had to decode it.
Rock Cellar: Talk about one of the highlights of Look Now, “Suspect My Tears.”
Elvis Costello: Well, it’s about two people who both fake their emotions. It’s about two hypocrites, really. I wrote it as the first song — I thought about making a record of this at the time — an uptown pop record. I just mean in the sense that it has a funky rhythm section, but there’s space for voices and vibraphone and strings. This was the first song I wrote after Painted from Memory came out. I think I wrote it in 1999, so it has some of the things I’d learnt from Burt, but it’s not his work, it’s mine. And it never was a song that would have fitted.
“Burnt Sugar” was written with Carole King in 1996. And I know it sounds crazy to say, but there has never been a record that it would fit on. We had to wait for the moment, and this was the moment.
Rock Cellar:Do you ever wonder what your angry young self would make of an album like Look Now?
Elvis Costello: No. Seriously. I don’t ever think like that. I would hope that you would gather some things as you go along. If the 24-year-old me sort of sneered at this, well, that would be just what you’d have expected of him anyway, wouldn’t it? It wouldn’t be a big surprise. You know, when I was on this label Stiff Records, we did a live record, and do you know what the two songs that we cut were?
“Miracle Man,” which was on My Aim is True, played by The Attractions, and “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” which was a Bacharach and David song. All I’ve got now is the keys to the cupboard. And I’ve had them before. This is just the first time I’ve made a record with this kind of scope. Imperial Bedroom was a record I mentioned only because that was the first time The Attractions and myself had the money to spend a little time finding our way to the songs in the studio.
But I didn’t write any of the songs in the studio. I’ve never done that. That’s just not my style. Other people make great records like that, but I’m not one of them. And then obviously, when I was with Warner Brothers, they gave me a lot of money to make records, which I took gratefully, to have a big adventure.
If I were to record those songs again today, I’d probably do them differently. In terms of looking at yourself, and how you would judge yourself — which way are you looking, backwards or forwards? Why look back and go, “I wish I had had a different thing there,” “I wish I had that guitar,” “That would have made that song better”? I don’t.
Rock Cellar: While it’s obvious Look Now is made up of his “lessons learned,” there’s a lot of Imperial Bedroom and Spike and Mighty Like a Rose it, too. Did you reference them at all?
Elvis Costello: I sound like me. There’s only subtle variations that you’re going to get. The sound of my voice in certain keys, I’m willfully — in fact, I don’t think I’m trying nearly as hard to bend my voice out of shape, where I was constantly trying to get away from myself.
Rock Cellar: What about in the arrangements and scope of the production?
Elvis Costello: Well, I don’t know. I’m not consciously trying to mimic another record we made. The difference is not all solutions are found within the four-piece band. There probably will be, on occasion, when we play these songs in concert. We probably won’t take all of these instruments. But why have one version? The other night I was at the BBC, where they used to record Pop Goes the Beatles and shows like that, and where Bing Crosby gave his last ever broadcast. The studio is tiny. They’re about to knock it down, in fact. And I went to do an evening where I talked about songwriting and sang a few songs. And we played “Unwanted Number” and “Under Lime,” just with piano. And, of course, they were very different songs. That’s something that Steve and I have done over the years, playing together as a duo, and that’ll probably be something that we touch again.
(Regarding the cancellation of tour dates over health issues earlier in 2018) How are you feeling?
Elvis Costello: I’m feeling just great. Thank you. We’d played Dorchester — we played a week of shows in between the sessions in Los Angeles, and the four days of sessions in New York — and I was hiding in the dressing room in Dorchester, writing the string parts out, because I’d left some of them till the last minute, till I’d heard what Steve played, so I could make sure that he didn’t play in the holes that I was going fill. So I was finishing them off and I got a call, 10 o’clock in the morning on a Monday, saying “you’ve got to have an operation.”
Sharpens your wits up a little bit, I have to say. We came in here, we went in parts just while we were all sitting. And the next day we came in, we had a beautiful string section of nine players. They really played beautifully. Then we went back to Vancouver, and I knew this little event was coming up. So it didn’t influence anything about the contents of the record. I knew it was coming, but I was extremely fortunate. I had it detected. I was told I had to have it removed. It’s just something that happens.
I would’ve not said anything about it, because I didn’t want to worry my family or my friends that I don’t speak to every day. It kind of sharpened me a little bit, because you don’t know the future. But then I had it taken care of, and thought I was all back, in terms of my strength — because the operation does knock you out a little bit — and I just miscalculated. I was in the middle of a tour in Europe and I realized that I couldn’t do my best. Once I let the rest of the dates go, I had to offer a coherent explanation, rather than just be thought of as being flaky.
Unfortunately, some of the reports were twisted a little bit to make it sound like it was a much more serious situation. It was really just a question of missed timing in the recovery. So thank you for asking.
But I feel great.
January 14, 2022