Musical chameleon seeking new paths

Our phone conversation was interrupted abruptly by his child’s bawling. After uttering: «The little devil’s got his father’s voice,» the long-serving songwriter Elvis Costello had to end our session. Even so, the 53-year-old British act did talk plenty during a half-hour interview from Vancouver, where he has been based in recent months. Costello will be in Athens for a July 10 performance at the Herod Atticus Theater with the esteemed New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint, as part of this season’s Athens Festival. The musical pair were brought together by the Hurricane Katrina tragedy in New Orleans. They wrote «The River In Reverse,» an album prompted by catastrophe, but which sounds like a celebration. You’ll be visiting Athens with a repertoire that emerged from emotionally charged conditions. When was the last time you visited New Orleans? Have conditions improved for the locals? It was last summer on a tour with Allen, which ended with a big show at the New Orleans French Quarter. Many parts of the city have yet to recover, and many others are in a better state. Unfortunately, the information we have is not encouraging, even though the people of New Orleans are actually very optimistic. It’s difficult to understand if you don’t live there. No matter how informed you are through the press and news bulletins, or even things you see yourself – if you happen to be there – you cannot totally understand the city’s complications. You merely have part of the truth. Do you think the city will ever be what it was prior to the hurricane? No, New Orleans will never be the same again. The people – the place’s soul – however, will never lose their positive outlook on life. I’ve learnt this mainly from my collaboration with Allen. Just imagine, he saw his house and beloved city destroyed, and, even so, has carried on with strength. It’s wonderful to work with him. It fills me with inspiration. Apart from human loss and material damage, we read in the press that New Orleans’s musical heritage was also dealt a great blow. It’s true that a lot of musicians have left New Orleans, temporarily or permanently, because their houses were destroyed. Also, a lot of artists lost their precious archives. One of those is Allen Toussaint. But the music of New Orleans is not endangered, because even those who left are carrying it with them. In recent years you’ve tried everything, not only pop, but opera and symphonic works as well. How does all this combine? It’s very simple. All the forms of music you mentioned reached me at specific moments in my life, when I was highly curious. Exploring a musical style or form of art does not necessarily mean that you’re an expert in all, but simply open. People usually don’t understand that. Are you referring to those that have criticized you for being too multifaceted? Yes, even though I no longer care as much about what they say about me. I’m not trying to compete against Beethoven, but am simply having a go at different things. People take everything too seriously. They believe it’s an extremely serious thing to compose an opera. I’m interested in the humanitarian aspect within music. I love to play with just one guitar, a rock-and-roll band, a symphonic orchestra, or a quartet – all for the same reason. Because people lie in the midst of all this… When you’re working on something new, don’t you wonder if it’s going to find a considerable number of recipients? I’m not a hypocrite. I’m happy when I get commercial success, but there are records of mine that I adore, despite the fact that they didn’t do too well. I’m usually surprised by the hits I have, because when I sit down to write, the only thing I think about is how it’s going to turn out to be a good song. I’m not concerned about exposure or sales. The record company is there for that. I’m a musician – always have been. Even if I never made a record, I’d always write songs and present them to an audience – no matter what this was. Have you ever felt regret for any of your projects? No. Not even one song. But I have felt regret for the way I’ve arranged and presented some of them. But rather than worry, I rework them. I’ve presented older songs in new ways at many shows. Since you mentioned your past, a lot of your fans believe that your early records were your strongest. Yes, because most of them were young when these records were being released. And the memory of youth smoothens things out, it makes everything seem nicer. Most of us have the tendency to say, «It was better back then» when referring to our youth. Moreover, those records are more direct and straight, musically… People who loved my early albums may think that I’m producing nonsense these days. But I’m not a nostalgist, so there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m not renouncing my older songs, but I don’t want to be defined by them alone. Are you preparing something new? Something that may surprise your fans once more? I’m working on many things, but I’m mostly absorbed by a collaboration with the choreographer Twyla Tharp for a Miami City Ballet production. I’ve got lots of things on my mind, but not a new record. I’ve put out a lot of them. I’m now looking for other ways to present my work. Did Diana Krall [Costello’s wife, the well-known jazz singer] tell you about her show last summer at the Herod Atticus? It’s the same venue where you’ll be performing. She told me that it’s an amazing ancient theater and perhaps the most beautiful venue she’s ever performed at. I felt excited when I realized I’d be playing there. You see, I have a weakness for old places. Has your wife influenced you musically? The first album I did right after we met was «North,» a quiet project without electric guitars and drums. I sang calmly. Some people said «another Costello’s singing here.» Many liked it, others didn’t. But it was a totally honest record that represented exactly how I was during that period – or the change Diana brought to my life. So it’s not a matter of whether she influenced me musically, but she did calm me down and sweeten me. Our musical tastes are generally similar. I also grew up with jazz, as my father was a jazz musician, and my favorite artist is Bing Crosby, as is also the case for Diana. Has your life changed greatly now that you’ve become a father? I’ve experienced the feeling of fatherhood before, even though my first son is a grownup. It’s different with the twins now. They’ve brought so much joy to our lives. I feel like the luckiest person on Earth. I just want them to be healthy and happy and to be able to spend as much time as possible with them. I’m already beginning to think that I won’t be able to see them when I’m on tour. They’ll be with their mother for her tour. These children are going to grow up differently, they’ll often be changing environment. This is the first time Diana and I have taken such an extended break. We’ve been in Vancouver for quite a few months now enjoying contact with the kids. Unfortunately, it won’t always be like this. Costello on Toussaint «I’ve known Allen since the early 80s,» said Elvis Costello. «We first collaborated for the ‘Spike’ album in 1989. Before Hurricane Katrina struck in New Orleans, we ran into each other there after both of us were invited to play a festival. Of course, I didn’t imagine that by the end of that year we’d be writing and performing together, and returning to a different New Orleans.» Besides Toussaint, Costello will also be joined by his backing band, the Imposters, as well as the Crescent City Horns, a brass band that will perform Costello songs as arranged by Toussaint. Costello, too, will present his versions of songs by the American pianist.