Five years after joining with hip-hop collective The Roots for his last release, the 2013 left-field delight Wise Up Ghost, Elvis Costello reteamed with go-to band The Imposters for Look Now, out Oct. 12. But then a new label deal for the LP fell through (he won’t say with whom; he released it on Concord), and a cancer scare forced him to cancel six tour dates in July while he recovered. “I went back on the road a bit too early -- I didn’t leave enough time to get my energy back,” he says.
Look Now, however, hardly lacks in vitality. With his deft pen providing sharp studies of romance and murky motives, the album sees Costello tapping top-shelf studios such as L.A.'s EastWest and NYC's Electric Lady for this collection of lush, sophisticated pop. If all of this seems like Burt Bacharach or Carole King territory, you're on the right track – both of the 20th century songwriting giants have co-writes on the LP.
Costello, 64, is now in remission, and he’s bursting with wit and energy when he sits down at Manhattan's Redbury Hotel (in a pinstripe suit, no less) to discuss the album, his health, misgivings about calling Donald Trump a clown and the “sewage companies” behind record labels.
Your cancer surgery was successful, but you’ve said the story surrounding your health got out of your control.
The English tabloids chose to make it sound as if I was in some sort of mortal struggle. It was my choice to initially be private about this, because I didn’t want to have to worry my 91-year-old mother or my 11-year-old twin boys. It has taken until I just [recently] visited England to get it straight. This, thankfully, was a relatively joyful thing to be able to say: “I’m fine.” And all of the people writing to me that have never met me [is] fantastic. I couldn’t be happier to know that people care.
The first deal you had for this album fell apart right before you were about to start recording. What happened?
People at the company level were completely committed to the record, but I think the people above [them made] a different calculation. They answer to people who have train services and own sewage companies -- they’re in the commodities business; they could care less about what’s on the records. I’m not saying this in a self-pitying way, because, heaven knows, I have young musician friends with loads of talent, but there just isn’t the mechanism to support them.
The first song on Look Now, "Under Lime," features the same character we met in "Jimmie Standing In the Rain" from 2010's National Ransom. Did you decide you wanted to return to that character, or did you start writing the song and realize, "Oh this could be a sort of sequel" after the fact?
I had the idea of writing two or more sequels of particular character songs, and then as it turned out, quite a lot of the songs that we ended up considering for this record were written from other people's points of view. I thought the preface to the record might be this little shabby tale because [in the other songs] on this record, the people are a lot more resilient and admirable. The woman in "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter," which I wrote with Carole King [in the late '90s], she's trying to believe in something. It's an account of how she's juggling everything -- the judgment of her neighbors, her ex-husband, her kids, and she's trying to find a way in life where she might trust in somebody again and fall in love.
A lot of the songs seem to be about everyday tragedies.
They're not unprecedented. I didn't want them to be. I just wanted them to ring true. [The song] "Stripping Paper" is an unusual way to tell the story of the dissolution of a marriage. This woman distractedly pulls the wallpaper from the walls and sees her life through the memory of having drawn a line on the wall where their daughter was measured, and maybe even earlier than that, having an erotic memory of her and her husband when they were happier. It's something you don't have to actually experience to have some feeling for it, and that's all I wanted. I wanted the songs to have a feeling, a tenderness and expressiveness, and I couldn't ask for more from the band and really all the players that play on this.
On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, you advised during your New York show, “If you’re going to vote for a fucking orange clown, you could pick Ronald McDonald.”
It was an easy gag. It wasn’t the most profound joke I’ve ever made.
Meanwhile, album track “I Let the Sun Go Down” is a sympathetic look at a British citizen crying over the death of the empire.
I’m sympathetic to people I don’t agree with, because I try to understand why they feel so passionately. I don’t salute. I don’t have to, and I won’t. The point of the song is that I respect somebody that will -- but don’t tell other people who have a justifiable reason for not doing it that they don’t have a right.
You’re so prolific and have so many one-off songs. Looking through your discography, I had forgotten about the absolute gem you did, “Long Journey Home (Anthem),” with the Chieftains' Paddy Moloney for a 1998 miniseries about the Irish in America.
That’s a beautiful piece. I’m very proud of that piece. It's kind of like, as it were, the Irish in America's anthem. We did it one time at Carnegie Hall on St. Patrick’s Day with a big choir. It was really stirring. But that’s also a true song, you know? The melody is really a beautiful, ancient melody that Paddy adapted. [Quoting the lyric] "But as you ascend the ladder, look out below where you tread" is the immigrant experience generation to generation. Unfortunately, historically, you learn that people that came into the country very much in search of a new way of living, and a way of surviving in the case of the Irish, then became the people who stood upon the hands of the next one up the ladder. Or, the people who were already there. It’s part of human nature, part of history. There’s benevolent people in every culture, and there are villains in every culture. It’s not as simplistic as that. But it was a true song.
Over the course of his 40-year career, Costello has collaborated with countless legends. Here, he reflects on everyone from The Roots to Sir Paul McCartney.
"When I was living in Dublin [in the '90s] she came over and we wrote it in one afternoon," Costello recalls of "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter," which finally sees the light on Look Now. "I couldn't believe that so much time had gone by. Once we recorded it, I sent it to her -- thankfully, she liked it. Of course I'm very glad that we passed the test with Carole."
Costello and Bacharach, who won a Grammy for their 1998 collaboration Painted From Memory, worked together on three songs on Look Now. “He doesn’t need to collaborate on music,” says Costello. “It speaks of his generosity and curiosity to see what happens.”
Costello says that working with Questlove as a co-producer on Wise Up Ghost was not unlike the process of making Look Now. “Strange enough, there’s a more common approach to the recording process for these two records than the music would suggest.”
After contributing four co-writes to McCartney's 1989 LP Flowers In the Dirt, Costello says it was "thrilling" to see their unreleased material on that album's 2017 re-release. "A lot of the best work we did was in those demos. That box [set] included bits of a notebook and a letter I had written to him -- I couldn't believe the things that he had retained from that time because he moves at a lick. He doesn’t hang around, he’s on to the next thing."
"I played the ukulele on [2012's Glad Rag Doll] and edited some lyrics for her on [2004's] The Girl In the Other Room, but our collaboration is in life and our family," Costello says, being sure to add, "She has a beautiful record out [Love Is Here to Stay] with Tony Bennett right now."
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, Costello and his backing band joined the R&B icon for 2006's The River In Reverse. "He had not a hint of self-pity about losing his house and his studio. He just got to work. One of the best things we've ever done as a band was to go to New Orleans with him and finish that record."