Elvis Costello: "We still work with our hands and we still work with our wits"

Elvis Costello is playing in Glasgow next week

Pictures: PA
Elvis Costello is playing in Glasgow next week Pictures: PA

The troubadour reflects on family, his latest album and his collaborations with Burt Bacharach as he rehearses for his upcoming UK tour.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Elvis Costello has never rested on his past glories. The London-born singer-songwriter's career has been marked by his desire to keep pushing on.

This makes it all the more interesting that he is now choosing to look back - with a Spanish language remake of 1978's This Year's Model, a reissue of 1979's Armed Forces and a new album, called The Boy Named If, that mines his formative years in Twickenham and then Birkenhead for stories.

Speaking from New York City where he is in the midst of rehearsals for his upcoming tour, the 67-year-old, born Declan MacManus, explains that this jolt of reflection was unplanned.

"It comes out of you," he says. "The album was a series of stories or snapshots or whatever you want to call them - times in life and the different confusions and discoveries, and the shame and the misery.

"Whatever it is, they came to me all at once. I didn't really sit down with a big template with a big C on it to say concept record. I never think like that. You just write some songs and then you go, 'Oh well, I guess my mind was circling around all these things and that's the topic'."

It's just after 8am where Costello is and his voice is a little hoarse. An early riser, he's been awake since before 6am, ahead of a day of band practice.

Costello enjoyed a productive lockdown with his wife, Canadian musician Diana Krall, and their teenage twin boys in Vancouver. He released two albums - the first was Hey Clockface, which was full of big rock songs and razor-sharp wit - and completed other much-anticipated projects (more on that later).

Costello was playing in the UK in March 2020 when, in his words, "things started to unravel".

"I recognised that the situation was a little bit volatile and people were starting to stay away - they were not completely sure what was happening," he recalls "So I called it. I said, I don't think it's a fair thing for my crew, for the band and particularly for the audience to offer them the opportunity to come to a crowded, heated place if you don't know what this is all about."

When it became apparent live performance was not coming back any time soon, Costello found other ways to work.

"I'm fortunate in that sense," he says. "Some people have a job where they have to get on a method of transport to be with people and go somewhere to make sure they keep the lights on. I would say that I was extremely fortunate to have that purpose in life, that I do something that I can work on in isolation, and I've found a way to do it over distance."

With a gruff laugh, he adds: "I put some records out which hopefully cheered somebody up."

Costello is not one to demand sympathy but the pandemic took its toll. He lost his friend, music producer Hal Willner, to complications brought on by the virus and had to attend his mother Lillian's funeral virtually due to travel restrictions.

"My mother, she had come through a long life with a lot of determination to be involved as much as she could be," he offers. "I have the joy of knowing that she was at our last concert in Liverpool and had a wonderful time. If you can stay in the game until you're 93, you are doing pretty good."

Now his most pressing concern is his imminent return to the UK in June. In tow will be his band of the last 20 years, The Imposters - Steve Nieve on keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums and Davey Faragher on bass. Respected guitarist Charlie Sexton, a regular in Bob Dylan's backing band, is also joining them for the run of dates.

"One of the possible rhythm sections of a rock and roll band is the connection between the singer and the drummer," he divulges when asked how the new songs will fare live. "Usually the rhythm section is the bass and drums. But it frees the other members of the band to play differently if the words are driving through the centre, which they are on a lot of these songs.

"That's the sort of thing that Pete Thomas and I have worked towards. We just did it naturally from the start. So whenever I go to that kind of approach there is an understanding, we don't have to say anything. It doesn't require us to explain it. And that's also good, not too much theorising, just play and feel it and it's there."

One of the many projects Costello completed during lockdown was a collection of songs marking his 30-year collaboration with legendary American composer Burt Bacharach, the man behind hits by Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield, Sir Tom Jones and The Carpenters. Last summer they were in Capitol studios with a 30-piece orchestra recording two more songs for the album. Now they are just waiting to finalise the packaging.

"For all of the achievements of his catalogue, he is curious about the next song," says Costello of his friend and collaborator. "He doesn't have an arrogance about, 'Well, I know how it goes because I wrote Walk On By or I wrote Alfie'.

"Even the fact that in 1995, I think it was, when we were first asked to write together, that he was open to writing music together, which is something you've never done. So right there our collaboration is different to every other collaboration he had ever been in.

"And although obviously there are songs where he had the sole responsibility for the music, there are others that were written in musical dialogue. And that's better than going to college. All these things that you assume you understand from listening to the songs from the outside become a different calculation when you're within the song and you're trying to resolve a phrase."

All this looking back has encouraged Costello to reflect on his own reasons for going into music. Indeed, the MacManus family fell into music by chance.

Costello's great-grandfather was killed in an accident on the dockside in Birkenhead and his great-grandmother died shortly after. Their children were shipped off to an orphanage in Southall where all learned to play musical instruments.

Costello's grandfather made his way playing jazz on luxury trans-Atlantic cruise ships until the 1930s and his father, Ross, was a jazz trumpeter and vocalist.

To Costello, this linage is important. "Working son so often follows working father into the same field - and that is the case," he reflects.

"But if John MacManus - that's my great-grandfather - had not fallen into a hole on the float docks in Birkenhead and a ton of coal fallen on top of his head, I might be up there swinging a mallet, digging a ditch.

"The important thing is we still work with our hands and we still work with our wits."

The Boy Named If is out now and Elvis Costello is playing at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on June 7th.