Being able to revisit pieces from his unfinished opera about the life of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen was a welcome "surprise" for Elvis Costello on his new album, "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane."
The set, due out June 2 on Hear Music and produced by T-Bone Burnett, includes four songs from "The Secret Songs," a commission by the Royal Danish Opera. They weren't initially planned to be part of "Secret...," but fortuitous circumstances allowed Costello, Burnett and the all-star group of players they'd assembled, and dubbed the Sugarcanes, to take them on.
"I started out with songs I felt we could achieve very easily," Costello said during a conference call with reporters to promote his appearance at this year's Bonnaroo Music and Art Festival. "The vividness of those recordings suprised me, and emboldened by them getting into the can pretty quickly...I was able to try these other songs that were a little more intricate. And the ease with which these musicians expressed them allowed me to really sing them and really tell the stories."
Costello told Billboard.com that "Secret..." came about because "I had the idea to work with my friend T-Bone Burnett (who also produced 1986's 'King of America' and 1989's 'Spike') and to make an acoustic record." The two recorded it during a three-day session in Nashville with Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Mike Compton on mandolin, Jeff Taylor on accordion and Dennis Crouch on double bass. "We sat around in a semicircle where we could see each other very readily," Costello recalled. "I was able to direct things and people took the initiative...and they played just beautifully. The playing of the musicians was so responsive it just flowed.
"It's mainly, I guess you would say, bluegrass instrumentation, but they're playing my songs. They're not playing traditional bluegrass songs, and they don't sound like bluegrass songs. They're ballad form. Some of them are ragtime...It's always good to try and find new ways to play songs and to find new sounds to express songs you've already written."
Besides material from "The Secret Songs" the album includes a pair of tunes Costello wrote for Johnny Cash and three co-writes -- two with Burnett, including "The Crooked Line," which features harmony by Emmylou Harris, and one ("I Felt the Chill") with Loretta Lynn.
Costello will perform solo on June 13 at Bonnaroo but has shows with the Sugarcanes slated for either side of the festival. He plays in North America in June and August, with a pair of concerts in Japan in early August.