Elvis Costello In Conversation With Odile W. Husband Episode Two

OWH: How much of Walter Mitty is there in the man singing “All These Strangers”? EC: He is as much “Billy Liar” as “Walter Mitty” but I take your point. He has a vivid imagination and a score to settle. OWH: In another way, “All These Strangers”, feels like a 40s film, perhaps with Peter Lorre, although the character in it seems to know that the past is not his friend. This is a song in which sinister goings-on are married to very gentle music. EC: He is a man who has been left by his lover for a more dangerous man and so, to compete with his rival, imagines himself the worst he can be, a gunrunner, a dissolute painter, a brigand after dark. Even in his wildest imaginings, he ends up in a defeated army, sitting in a locomotive yard without any boots. As to the music, this was the very last piece recorded in Nashville. The band had barely finished writing out their numbers charts when we hit “Record”. In truth, I finished harmonizing the final refrains, while the players were already at their music stands. This is the kind of high wire act that doesn’t always come off but on this occasion, everyone was simply listening to a story and responding. It is one of my favourite ensemble performances on the record. OWH: What is the role of a producer at a time like that? EC: T Bone’s work was already done in the setting up the circumstances and the surroundings that were so conducive to trust. He doesn’t veneer the songs, as some producers do. On the other hand, his attention to detail and that of Mike Piersante during the mixing means that all of this is far more than chance. T Bone and his team are now creating sound pictures of great nuance and resonance. You can hear that across all the records he is producing, regardless of the qualities the artists bring into the room. We have both had to forget things about the recording process that are of no value. OWH: The records you’ve made with T Bone seem to have the largest casts of players. EC: But they are the right players for the right songs. From “King Of America” onwards, T Bone has helped me understand that you could call, say, James Burton or Jim Keltner, Earl Palmer or Ray Brown for your session. You could cast the ensemble as demanded by the song. These had once seemed like unattainable names on record jackets to me. I found that you just had to have the songs and the circumstances. Sessions like the one for “Poisoned Rose” are irreplaceable experiences. Needless to say, having predominantly worked with just one band up until “King Of America”, it was hard for the Attractions to accept. It made for an unhealthily competitive and ultimately self-defeating atmosphere on their contributing sessions but everyone lived to fight another day. When I wrote “Stations Of The Cross”, I knew that I needed to call Steve Nieve for this record. Listen to the way he leads into the second chorus. It couldn’t be anyone else. I’ve spent about half my lifetime with Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas as my friends and bandmates, so you can imagine what it means to make “National Ransom” and hear them in the company of more recent cohorts like Dennis Crouch, Stuart Duncan and Jerry Douglas. OWH: When did you first meet Jerry Douglas? EC: I think I first met Jerry when he was recording with T Bone, Billy Swan, Jerry Scheff, Byron Berline and David Hildalgo for his Dot album, “T Bone Burnett”. Even though I had admired his playing, Jerry and I didn’t have the opportunity to work together until 2007. Merlefest assembled a band around me for my appearance that year that included, Jerry, Jim Lauderdale, Sam Bush and Larry Campbell. So these alliances didn’t exactly all appear overnight. OWH: The sleeve notes for “National Ransom” refer to “Visiting Dignitaries”. What is the significance of that list? EC: You never know who you’re going to meet in T Bone’s company. I mean, he once introduced me to Jerry Lee Lewis but we’d need a couple of martinis to tell that story properly. One day while we were working on “Spike”, T Bone appeared in the doorway to the studio lounge with Willie Dixon. They were getting ready to make the album, “Hidden Charms”. A couple of days later, he walked in with Kris Kristofferson. OWH: Didn’t you end up writing a song with him? EC: That was some time later. 20 years later, in fact. In the last couple of years Kris, Rosanne Cash and I have written a couple songs together. We actually plan an album together but we are making slow progress because we live so far from each other. You can’t get the pigeons, you know. OWH: So it’s a “supergroup”? EC: Yes, it’s either “KCC” or “CCK”. I prefer the latter OWH: Did T Bone produce any such surprises during these sessions? EC: Well, I don’t think it’s a conscious part of his production method but I looked up during one take and realized that the figure twirling in the producer’s chair wasn’t T Bone. He isn’t the twirling kind. It was Cowboy Jack Clement. He originally designed the Sound Emporium studio, so I think he just wanted to know we were putting his handiwork to good use. OWH: What song were you recording? EC: “Jimmie Standing In The Rain”. Seeing the Cowboy put me on my toes and that turned out to be the take we used. It was Take One. He even offered to fetch his ukulele and overdub it. A similar thing happened a couple of night’s later after Donnie Fritts came down to visit T Bone, one afternoon. Donnie had thanked me for some words I’d written about his song, “Breakfast In Bed” on a “Dusty In Memphis” reissue and then we started talking about an album called “Country Soul”, on which both he and Dan Penn had appeared. I told him that I had never met Dan, despite having admired him for years. He said, “I can fix that” and a couple of hours later he returned with Dan, right in the middle of another take. OWH: And what song were you recording that time? EC: I was doing the guitar and vocal recording of “A Slow Drag With Josephine” to which we later added the Sugarcanes’ parts. I think Dan’s appearance definitely brought me good luck with that song, so I wanted to acknowledge the visit. It meant an awful lot to me that he took the time to come down to the studio. OWH: So, T Bone has an open-door policy. EC: No, you have to have written a couple of million sellers. I don’t want to give the impression that we are just sitting around carousing when we should have been working. We were moving fast; recording in one room and overdubbing in another, while editing or balancing the track we had just cut. But it’s instructive to spend a few minutes listening with curious, interested friends. It stops it from feeling like you are in a submarine. OWH: The record is very detailed for such a brief recording time EC: We’ve just dispensed with the distractions that used to make these processes more tortuous and the players know what they want to do. OWH: There is also a dedication to Hank Cochran, who died a short time ago. EC: I have to thank Jim Lauderdale for that introduction. The Sugarcanes and I were in Nashville and on the afternoon before our show at the Ryman in 2009, Jim called my hotel room and told me to get over to BMI headquarters, as a gathering of friends were planning a surprise party for Hank Cochran. You have to understand that his tune, “He’s Got You” was one of the first two songs I cut when the Attractions and I went to Nashville for a trial session with Billy Sherrill, prior to making “Almost Blue” in 1981. Anyway, I got to the party just ahead of Hank and found myself standing in the welcoming committee with songwriters like Bobby Bare, Jim Lauderdale, Cowboy Jack Clement and Merle Haggard. I had to pinch myself for a moment. Merle even played a few of Hank’s songs after the speeches. Now that was an afternoon to remember. When I was introduced to Hank, he said, “Thank you for recording my song”. I was stunned that he even knew that I’d cut one of his tunes, as it hadn’t exactly achieved wide circulation but it’s a song I perform to this day. OWH: So, was it Jim who invited him to the studio? EC: No, a documentary was being made about Hank and his songs and we were filmed in conversation. Hank was in very poor health by then but this had done nothing at all to dim his wit or memory for the experiences of his life and work. He told some great stories and I was asked to sing a little of one of his songs and naturally chose, “He’s Got You”. That’s pretty daunting to do with the writer sitting right there and you’re taking liberties with his harmonies and flipping the lyric from the female to male perspective but I think he got a kick out of it. It was good to be able to thank Hank personally for writing soulful songs like, “Make The World Go Away”. They will live forever. OWH: Can you explain why you have been attracted to Southern music from New Orleans to Nashville? EC: I don’t actually think good music comes out of a geography book even though it’s hard to imagine there being any jazz and rock and roll without New Orleans or rock and roll and rhythm and blues without Memphis and so on. In fact, Tennessee has a lot to do with it whatever stripe you like running through your music, whether you are talking about Bristol or whatever has made it alive, in and out of Nashville. In the end, it’s about feeling something as a human being. Maps don’t matter. Peter Green could play and sing startling, chilling blues and he was born in Bethnal Green. Then again, Dan Penn wrote a song on two of my favourite albums, that were recorded miles apart, in different worlds; “The Gilded Palace of Sin” by The Flying Burrito Brothers and “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You” by Aretha Franklin. The funny thing is that it’s the same song, “Do Right Woman”. OWH: The guitar on “Bullets for the Newborn King” and “A Slow Drag With Josephine is a little surprising. Have the little hands of concrete softened? EC: Yielded, perhaps. The acoustic guitar I am using for several of the songs on this record is a 1937 Gibson L-OO. It fits in the crook of your arm, under the fingers and around the voice better than many larger, fancier instruments. It has its very own confidential voice. I’ve always fingerpicked songs for my own amusement. When I was a teenager I admired, the Welsh master, John James and all the people who recorded for Transatlantic Records and tried to understand these printed transcriptions of Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt songs but I never became that adept. Part of the problem is that I have a loud voice but my physical strength does not extend to my fingernails, so I play with the pads of my fingers and that sometimes sounds muted. Several songs on this record were sufficiently intimate that I did not need to batter the guitar into submission as in the past. OWH: That song, “Bullets For The New-Born King”, has a very elusive narrative, mentioning a “double agent girl” and a “fallen priest”. Have you been re-reading Graham Greene? EC: No, but I used to share a dry cleaners with his brother, Sir Hugh Carlton Green. I will say that I had in mind a political assassination, after which those who have committed the act realize the terrible mistake that they have made, that they have actually extinguished hope. That is the “New-Born” part of the story. I think there was a time when it seemed almost inevitable that certain public figures would die. It seemed to happen, almost predictably, in regions where vested interest overpowers any sense of justice. Perhaps that time will come again. I hope not. OWH: You have added locations and dates as a postscript to the lyrics of these songs. How important are these? EC: Well, they are mostly playful. It is unimportant that listeners imagine the songs in the same time and place as I do. OWH: Having said that, “One Bell Ringing” is located in “The London Underground” on “22nd July 2005”. That would seem to be a specific reference to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, would it not? EC: What happened to that man were a tragedy and a disgrace. It would be a huge presumption on the part of any songwriter to try to rationally explain those events. The song simply tries to summons up an atmosphere of dread in which a terrible misjudgment might occur. There are beautiful, soothing images right alongside those of a fate that might befall any innocent man or woman: torture; hearing your own voice deny your very name and finally, lamentation. OWH: In your concert introductions you’ve related “One Bell Ringing” to your earlier song “Bedlam”. In what way are they connected? EC: “Bedlam” expresses the common bewilderment and helplessness of a refugee, a combat soldier, someone who has had a laurel of false heroism thrust upon their head and, now in this song, here’s an innocent man who cannot understand why he is mistaken for a threat. There simply isn’t some convenient moral on which to conclude. All mere songs can do is offer these received images in juxtaposition and you can make use of this arrangement of words and music as you wish. I don’t have any snappy slogans or violent solutions to propose but I think we all have a lot of questions. OWH: So, have you given up singing, “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love And Understanding”? EC: On the contrary, that song becomes more complex and more poignant, the further we get from the ideal. Heaven preserve us from all these blasphemers who think they know what God is thinking. OWH: Let’s get back to the music. The strings and horns on some of the songs are full of wonderful detail. There's cornet on Jimmie and a wild bit of bass clarinet that is by turns subtle, vivid and even provocative. Were those parts written or improvised? EC: The string octet, bass clarinet and horns quartet on “You Hung The Moon” and the horn section on “Church Underground” are written parts. I wrote the string arrangement and bass clarinet lines for “You Hung The Moon”, while Darrell Leonard wrote and lead the horn quartet that answers the strings at the end of chorus. It was to sound no bigger than an ensemble that could fit into a small radio theatre or hotel ballroom. Darrell Leonard did improvise the trumpet interjections on “Jimmie Standing In The Rain”. Jimmie Rodgers had a pretty great trumpet player on his records and the imitation Jimmie didn’t do too badly either. Darrell also wrote the horn parts for “Church Underground”, while I wrote the bass trumpet and alto flute lines that harmonize with the voice in the refrain of “One Bell Ringing”. When these parts were in place, I asked Tom Peterson to improvise some responses to the vocal lines on the bass clarinet during the second verse of “One Bell Ringing”. They turn from seductive to horrifying in two lines. Tom played exactly as I imagined it to be but could have never written down. OWH: “One Bell Ringing” has the sort of novelistic description that we always associate with Joni Mitchell. You’ve talked about her influence on your lyric writing, but in this case the arrangement also echoes Joni around the time of “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns” or “Hejira”. Homage? Coincidence? Rip-off? EC: Well, I can think of one person who may think it is the latter. For all my admiration for her work, I can honestly say that Joni Mitchell has never been a direct influence on my lyric writing. What I think is true is to say is that the subject matter and the unflinching eye for detail of her work admitted and permitted many more possibilities for anyone who writing songs after her most highly regarded work, whether they know or accept this to be the case. Musically, I can imagine the echo you hear comes from the fact that my guitar is in an unusual open tuning, offering very specific voicings – something found throughout Joni’s writing – and even the way in which the bass trumpet and alto flute are harmonizing with the voice, may recall her use of reeds in arrangements but this was entirely unconscious. OWH: On your earlier albums there was the danger of your persona overpowering the music. It made you easy to caricature, in the way that, say, John Wayne, is always recognizable no matter what role he is playing. But more recently it feels like you are approaching some of your work like a character actor. Is there a greater freedom in telling someone else's story other than your own? EC: Well, I would always rather have been a Walter Brennan, William Bendix or Barry Fitzgerald than John Wayne. I have written songs in the voices of imagined characters for many years. Some are more overt than others. Some songs read as “personal” are entirely or partly works of fiction. There was a time when the reduction of those early songs to a few ticks and gestures seemed confining but I haven’t felt that way for over twenty-five years. That’s longer than most careers. When you are singing of the most singular experiences of a fictional character, you are almost certainly displacing or relocating events and emotions from your own life. It is a less selfish act. OWH: In fact several of the new songs seem quite cinematic. Who would star in or direct the film version of “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” or “Church Underground”? EC: That’s an interesting proposition and one that tempts vanity. But if “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” were a motion picture, you’d need someone with a great talent for disguise and mimicry. So, I’d say Alec Guinness directed by Carol Reed with Gloria Graham in the role of “Josephine”. “Church Underground” is easier. Ideally, that would be Gene Tierney directed by Ida Lupino. Odile W. Husband (neé O’Súlleabháin) is the popular music correspondent of “The Inquisitor” - an independent catholic journal on all matters cultural, satirical and spiritual. Coming Soon: Part Three of “Elvis Costello in conversation with Odile W. Husband” in which they share “Five Small Words” on Leon Russell, Hoagy Carmichael, Tony Millionaire, Harry Lauder and solve the mystery of the “Radio Hat”