Elvis Costello has been a clown, a crooner, a punk, a poet, a smartass and a sentimentalist. For the last 30 years, his records have been defined by an insistent restlessness. Though his early works — the must-own My Aim is True and This Year's Model — are fitful and brash, he gradually began exploring all corners of the musical spectrum including R&B (Get Happy) and orchestra (My Flame Burns Blue). His latest, Secret, Profane and Sugar Cane, continues his abiding fascination with American country music, boasting stripped-back acoustic instrumentation and lyrics about romance and murder.
eMusic's J. Edward Keyes met Costello at a hotel bar in New York City to play him a few songs and to hear his reactions.
Yeah, I know this song. I went through this process of discovering country music really through the same introduction a lot of people had in England, which was that hip American bands that I followed like the Byrds — who I followed through a lot of transitions: they started out as a vocal group, then became a kind of American answer to the Beatles, really, and then in about 1968 they put out Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which was a revelation. Most of the records I'd heard growing up that were country records were either sentimental ballads or novelty songs. We didn't really get the great songs as they came out. And so Sweetheart of the Rodeo put a lot of things in context, especially once I started following Gram Parsons 'solo records and his records with the Flying Burrito Brothers. The unifying theme to all of these records was the Louvin Brothers. When Parsons covered both Louvin Brothers and Everly Brothers songs, it became clear to me that the thing I'd always loved about the Beatles — the vocal harmonies —l was actually based on the Everly Brothers.
Once I started down the track that was begun with that introduction, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also did a great service with Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which introduced to people who listened to rock & roll records the elder voices of bluegrass and traditional country music.
Somewhere along the way I heard Loretta Lynn. What struck me about Loretta Lynn was that she — and I know this might sound really strange — she sounded like an R&B singer in some ways. She has that catch in her voice. When I heard her do "He's Got You," I heard it like an Otis Redding record or a James Carr song. It's that vanishing point where these musics connect.
The Carters. It's indelible. What could you say about the Carter Family? There's something absolutely remarkable about just the story of the Carter Family. Just the beauty and the poignancy of the story, the fracture in their lives, the extraordinary gift really that they gave to everybody in codifying a repertoire that already existed. It's more than just collecting — Lomax collected — but I don't think he did anything as poetic as the Carters. It's with us right now — people are still playing these songs, still learning from them, still trying to get to that level of clarity. And the tales, of course, existed in Irish and Scottish tradition, and they continue to be a source of mystery and invention. There's a lot of things that are very profound about the physical beauty of these songs, and the almost chance element that recordings from this period of time even exist.
I've known two generations of the Carter Family. June Carter I met in the early '80s. I stood on stage of the Albert Hall with her — me and Nick Lowe joined her, I don't know how in the hell we got up there — and they were doing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and she said to me, "You take the next verse!" And I said, "I can't!" And she said, "Why not?" And I said, "Because you sung 'em all." And she said, "make one up!" So I did. And I wish, to this day, I could remember what that verse was. But if a member of the Carter family tells you to make up a verse of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," you just say, "How long would you like it to be?"
You perform two songs that you wrote for Johnny Cash on the new record. How did you come to write those songs for him?
In the late '70s, Nick Lowe married June's daughter Carlene — so he actually married into the Carter-Cash family. When we went to Nashville to record Almost Blue, John and June were kind enough to invite us to their house at the end of the recording to celebrate. It was an extraordinary, intimidating experience. I never have forgotten the generosity. And then Johnny picked up a song I did on King of America called "The Big Lie," and recorded a version of that. I got word a little later that he was looking for song and I sent him, "Hidden Shame" which was a story-song about a man who had a huge rap sheet of petty crimes that had kept him in jail for most of his life. But he'd never really done anything grievous. After 30 years in and out of jail he basically confessed to murdering his friend as a child. Something about this man who had lived a life of petty crime carrying around this burden of guilt just said to me, "John would be the person to sing this." And it's taken me until this time to get out of the shadow of his recording of it.
This is a different recording than the one I've heard.
You do a version of this song on the record. How did you discover Bing Crosby? Because I feel like there's a prevailing perception that his music is just schmaltz.
It's an odd thing, but I understand that entirely. The first record I ever remarked upon as a child was Frank Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin." For years I would watch High Society and you'd see Bing clearly as the older man in that team and I'd say, "Oh, Frank's so hip, look how cool he is, look at the way he wears that hat." And a curious thing happened about 15 years ago — I watched High Society again and I realized that it was Bing who was the hipper guy. Crosby sings Sinatra right off the screen. So when you see it that way, and you start to read more about Bing Crosby, the image of this golf playing, schmaltzy sentimentalist is quite wrong. He did invest a lot of time in that, and historically he was the leading movie actor of his day for a number of years — ahead of, like, Humphrey Bogart. If you read his life story, you find out lots of really incredible things. He was really a wild fellow in his younger days for the polite image he had in later life. As an artist, he was one of the first people who addressed the microphone as a way of being heard. He was literally one of the first singers to be on radio and one of the first people to consider a style that was uniquely about addressing the microphone as opposed to addressing an audience that might be at the back of a theater.
I recently did this television show for Sundance, Spectacle, where I talk to James Taylor — James has got that incredible, easy-going way about him. It's not that they're like Crosby, but they wouldn't be singing like that if he hadn't existed. I was just at the Beale Street Music Festival. James was closing the festival. It had been pouring rain for two days. He's got a field full of people covered in mud. And I was like, "How is he going to reach out to these people?" And you know what? He didn't do anything. He just stood there and sang. And it was enough. And that's a talent that not a lot of people have.
We have an album on eMusic of Bing Crosby doing a bunch of '60s covers, like "Hey Jude."
You want to see something really uncomfortable? Go to YouTube and look up "Bing Crosby," "The Supremes" and "Jose Feliciano."
Who is this?
This is a band from San Francisco called Girls.
I thought this was Jarvis Cocker at first! The changes are kind of arcane, aren't they? It's got that minor in there so that it sounds like 50s music. That's a change Orbison used a lot, but you don't hear it very much anymore. Jarvis used it in "Common People," too. The clave… When it first started, I thought, "Oh this is something like Phil Spector," but it doesn't ever open up the way his songs do. I like the sound of this, it's intriguing. Also the proportions of songs are really interesting. At the first moment, you went, "Oh, it's a record from the 60s, it could be a Doc Pomus recording." But then when the vocalist didn't come in, I knew it was a modern recording, because in the '60s they would have come in after 4 bars — 8 bars at the most. That's good, though, because it doesn't do what you expect. I liked it.
For point of reference, the song is about 8 minutes long.
Does it go somewhere else?
It sort of steadily builds.
Ah, like Spiritualized? That was my other guess. Or… what's that other group with the guy with the beard and the blood? The Flaming Lips.
It's exciting for me to hear new bands — you can hear a young band and think, "That's really strange, the harmonies they're using there are like the harmonies from a George Harrison record. Why would they like that? They're 18!" But they've heard it because it's all part of the mix of things. But, as with the Girls song, it starts out where you might expect but then goes somewhere completely different because they're listening to a much broader range of music because it's available to them.
I was talking to a friend of mine about how, when I was in high school, you'd go through a Led Zeppelin phase and it would last two years, because that's how long it would take you to buy all the records. Now you can go through a Led Zeppelin phase in about 15 minutes.
I never listened to Led Zeppelin. I literally have never listened to Led Zeppelin. I was standing next to Steve Earle watching Robert Plant and Allison Krauss perform, and the audience started going berserk when they did this one song. So I said to Earle, "What's this song?" And he turned to me laughing and said, "You're being funny, right?" And I said, "No, I'm not, I don't know what this song is." And he said, "Uh, it's called 'Black Dog.'"