In Conversation: Elvis Costello

Talking lockdown, his thirst for creativity, and navigating loss...

It took a global pandemic for Elvis Costello to realise that his next step had to be one he took alone. Mid-way through yet another lung-bursting international tour with The Imposters he started to read news reports about a virus, one that threatened to turn the world upside down. With venues shuttering and countries locking down, he was forced to head home, back to his family, his instruments, and his ideas.  

“We're out on the road,” he recalls, ”and then things start to fall apart… and you can see it happening in front of you. And then suddenly, I'm told that if I don't go back to Canada, I might get trapped in another country… away from my family. Everybody had the same sort of alarm – nobody knew – the government wouldn’t make a decision. We didn't know how serious the situation was and then you get home, you adjust to being in the house with everybody 24 hours a day and start to wonder when you're going to go back to work…”

“One minute we’re on stage at the Hammersmith Apollo,” he laughs, “next thing I’m on a Vancouver island and I’m looking at bald eagles in the trees. It such an unusual transition!”

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Yet Elvis Costello has a habit of surviving these leaps of faith. From dissolving the Attractions through to his genre-leaping bursts of creativity the English songwriter is nothing if not unpredictable. Take new record ‘The Boy Named If’ – in an era of lockdown introversion he’s gone the other way, tapping into his love for primal rock ‘n’ roll, stripped back Beat music, and gone for the jugular. Poppy, peppy, and incredibly direct, it’s a bolt of much-needed energy.

“I knew it wasn’t lockdown music,” he smiles. “I don’t actually, really need to hear any songs about isolation that aren’t ‘Isolation’ by John Lennon. I just don’t want to hear that song; I know we’re isolated, I know it’s sad, if you particularly feel you need to express it then obviously you do you, but that’s not for me. I actually want the music to chase away the shadows not invite them in.”

Working feverishly from home, Elvis Costello was able to lay down all manner of ideas. In a way, the time was refreshing – no distractions, plenty of family time, he was able to re-ground himself after a lengthy spell on the road. “I think all my records are focussed,” he notes, “but just in different ways.”  

“I wanted to make some rock’n’roll records this time, but I didn't want to go down any road I’ve been down before. And the best way to do that is to not have anybody else in the studio with you. So that's what I set out to do last year. Focus.”

If anything, his process sounds fun – playful, even. If the weather was nice he’d sit outside, getting out of his family’s way and soaking up rays in the process. “Sometimes I’m literally out in the garden, because when you’re home you can’t just take over the house recording,” he jokes. “It’s not (The Band’s) ‘Music From Big Pink’.”

‘The Boy Named If’ certainly crackles with a virile vivacity, yet it’s also able to subvert and reinterpret those much-loved – if well-worn – tropes. “You don't just have to be singing: ‘she was just 17, you know what I mean.’ We do know what you mean, as somebody once put it. You could be singing about anything and sometimes you are. I've used those particular tools and rhythms, those Beat group kind of rhythms on a number of occasions. Each occasion has a different story, it's not the same…”

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A conscious desire to avoid repeating himself is a hallmark of Elvis Costello’s career. From new wave to vintage jazz via Stax soul, country and more, he’s zig-zagged in as many different directions as he can muster. “I'm glad I did every single thing I've done because I didn't go to college, I learned as I went,” he says. “I left school when I was 17, I don't have any formal education in music at all.”  

“I'm really not nostalgic,” adds the songwriter. “I don't want to go back, I have no interest in going back or repeating. But you're stuck with this – the face, the voice, the certain kind of disposition for harmony – so you can develop it. And when you think of it, if you haven't learned or gathered some other experiences, and even some other skills, after doing something for 45 years, there's something really wrong.”

Lyrically, ‘The Boy Named If’ plays on this theme of lessons-learned. Take the introspection of ‘What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?’ or the rugged ‘Farewell, OK’; ‘Mistook Me For A Friend’ is laden in vitriol, while ‘The Man You Love To Hate’ has a carnival appeal.

“It's not a Jethro Tull record, you know?” Elvis jests. “It's not a prog rock concept album. But there are themes and there's different times in life, and characters that represent these different transitions from childhood to somebody even older than me. I know that's hard to imagine, but there are some people older than me! And I just wanted to write about that.”

Reflective in a very direct sense, ‘The Boy Named If’ shares a little of the energy that drove Elvis Costello’s memoir – both revealing and playfully imaginative in equal measure. “I honestly think that I wrote a 600 page book, which was a fantasy about my father and my grandfather. It didn't function at all as a chronological memoir. That's why I didn’t put an index in. It drove some literal-minded Wikipedia-readers absolutely crazy!”

“It was supposed to only go where imagination went, and some of it was wishful imagination. I spent very few hours with my father in total, as my parents separated when I was quite young,” he says. “I realise now that he was actually dying when I wrote the book. So I kind of wrote the book to keep him alive in a way.”

Loss has permeated Elvis Costello’s recent weeks and months. In a simple note on his website last year, the songwriter reported the loss of “my dear mam, Lillian MacManus”.

A formative figure in his life, they remained close until the end. “I was just in her apartment last week,” he says, “going through all the papers and all of that stuff; you have the deciding of the things and disposing of things that can help other people, as she would have done. That's melancholy, but it's not completely unprecedented if somebody's 93. You have to deal with it, though.”

He adds: “I'm not writing songs about mortality, but I'm writing songs about life and I'm trying to write them and perform them with a sense of life.”

Rejecting maudlin mundanity in favour of visceral life, Elvis Costello could be set to help fans emerge from a period of trauma and loss, grappling with new possibilities and a thirst for abandon.

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'The Boy Named If' is out now.

Catch Elvis Costello at the following shows:

5 Brighton Dome
7 Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
8 Newcastle O2 City Hall
10 Liverpool Philharmonic
11 Manchester Opera House
13 Birmingham Symphony Hall
14 Leicester De Montfort Hall
16 Oxford New Theatre
17 Bath The Forum
19 Portsmouth Guildhall
20 Swansea Arena
22 Ipswich Regent Theatre
23 London Eventim Apollo

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