Elvis Costello: The main attraction

By Russell Baillie

Elvis is back in the building, at last. He talks to Russell Baillie.

Elvis Costello. Photo / Supplied
Elvis Costello. Photo / Supplied

Elvis Costello laughs down the line from New York when he's reminded that for him, playing in New Zealand can sometimes be an adventure.

The last time the celebrated veteran English singer-songwriter was here was in 1999 for the ill-fated Sweetwaters show. He effectively acted as whistleblower to the festival's financial debacle, but still took the stage.

Then he was meant to come in Easter 2011 to the planned initial GrassRoots Festival alongside other international acts. But the promoters of the outdoor show pulled the plug, citing low ticket sales after the Christchurch earthquake.

And this time he and his band the Imposters - two-thirds of his original backers the Attractions - were meant to headline one of the A Day on the Green shows at Villa Maria Estate on Saturday. But possibly wary of the risks involved in booking Costello outdoors here, promoters shifted the show to Civic.

"I am hoping no one ends up under house arrest. If we just get through the show without that it would be great," he chuckles.

Despite the move indoors, Costello won't be bringing the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" format he's been touring to much acclaim for much of 2012 in the United States and Europe.

Those shows involved a giant spinning wheel featuring the names of songs from Costello's two dozen-plus albums dating back to punk-era 1977 debut My Aim is True. They would be spun by audience members to select the next track to be played.

It certainly meant that no two shows were ever the same and it gave things a Vaudeville edge, says Costello. And it meant that he and the band - longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve, original Attractions drummer Pete Thomas and American bassist Davey Faragher - now have some 150 well-drilled tracks in their repertoire.

"I really honestly think that although we are not bringing the wheel there you will see the benefit of it in the way we have approached it. I feel it has done us good for the Imposters as an outfit because we really haven't played as much over the previous couple of years ... we had only gone on tour when were obliged to play 55 minutes in front of the Police which mostly involved people in the audience working out who we were."

"Although Steve and I have a long history, we still try to play [the oldest songs] like we just made them up. We try to keep that way of thinking in the shows where we don't use any devices ... though we might bring a few.

"We might saw a few ladies in half."

Apart from a 2012 live album distilling the spinning wheel shows Costello hasn't released a new album since 2010's National Ransom.

That's after he almost delivered an album a year for most of the preceding decade, whether it was solo sets, albums with the Imposters or side projects with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, Swedish opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter or his ballet score Il Sogno.

It seems the live band work is what the 58-year-old Costello is happier doing these days.

"It's been a hundred times more successful than the last record I made," he says of the wheel shows, "which tells you a lot about whether I should be on the stage or in the studio. The thing is, the songs from the last group of recordings I made stop the show any time we've played them. I have no doubts about the quality of the material. I have no qualms about putting them into the show. But it doesn't necessarily mean I have to make more records to have to do that, Maybe the best place for the songs is actually on stage. Just play."

And Costello has found something else about performing some of his old material - that the stuff which commented on its era, whether it was the Falkland Wars-set Shipbuilding (a co-write with Clive Langer originally recorded by Robert Wyatt) or the anti-Margaret Thatcher ode Tramp the Dirt Down still resonate.

"If there's any sense to singing songs that were written a good while ago it is to find out why they matter to you now and also why they've lasted with the audience.

"In England, with Tramp the Dirt Down and Shipbuilding there was a remarkable very emotional reaction. It was humbling to hear that these songs had mattered to people ... there is some truth in these songs that people still want to hear."

"Not every song you write can have a life like that. But to have one or two like that is ... well, if you told me that was going to happen when I started out, I would have been happy with that."

But Costello has had quite a career. One that has veered into media with his musical talkshow Spectacle - "People tell me constantly I wish there were more and I say 'I think we were incredibly lucky. You do 20 at that standard and maybe shows 21 through 40 wouldn't have been as satisfying. We might not have been as lucky with the guests that we got'." - and as a contributor to Vanity Fair.

He's also had an autobiography he's been working on for years and sounds in no hurry to finish. His live work and family commitments - he has young twin sons with wife, jazz star Diana Krall, who is frequently away on tour too - means that, no, everyday he can't write the book.

"It's not a formal biography ... and if people are buying it to find the secret identity of someone in a song of mine they will probably be disappointed."

"For someone whose cultural significance is negligible and who has sold a handful of records through the years, there's already an amazing amount of words wasted analysing every little detail and that is true of everybody now. So why would you argue with that account? I am just not in the business of arguing with my own past or refighting battles with record companies or old girlfriends or ex-band members. I don't care about any of that.

"I feel that the only thing that would be of lasting value would be the account of things that nobody else knows. I am not really interested in a round of applause or a lap of honour for what I have done because I don't really think it matters that much."

Who: Elvis Costello and the Imposters
Where: Civic (formerly A Day on the Green at Villa Maria Estate)
When: Saturday, January 19

- TimeOut

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