Elvis Costello In Conversation With Odile W. Husband

Episode One

OWH: A wolf, perhaps the one from the cover, appears in the opening song and the closing song of “National Ransom”. Is this the same wolf? Is he somehow the master of ceremonies? Are these two songs more linked than we might imagine?

EC: Well, the two songs are set in different times but “A Voice In The Dark” surely being sung in the wake of the same catastrophe that has been repeated in “National Ransom”.

Someone has run off with all the money; people are losing their homes; whole towns are being shuttered.

The wolf in “National Ransom” - and perhaps that one in the cover illustration - might have been a goat. A scapegoat.

We are always looking for someone to blame for our misfortunes and in this case we may have found the culprit.

Look at his mug shot. He’s carrying a big bag of burning money. You can probably imagine how useful burning money can be.

Then again, the wolf I have in mind is within us all. We are all complicit, if not accountable, desiring things that are beyond our means, handing power over us all to the wolves at the door.

OWH: So, what of the wolf in “A Voice In The Dark”?

EC: I think that wolf is a beast of a different stripe. He’s the one who exclaims with joy at the rarity of the blue moon. He’s also something of a red herring.

The “voice” of which speaking is the one that makes the emptiness of night more bearable. It can be the whisper of a lover or a song playing in the next room that entices us in.

OWH: Yet, this song closes the record.

EC: I suppose it might be an invitation to play the record again from the top.

OWH: That opening track is musically explosive. There are not a lot of people who would combine Mark Ribot and Jerry Douglas. Was it hard for them to find common ground?

EC: Not at all, I think they really sparked from playing together. I’ve been a great admirer of Moby Grape and they had three contrasting lead guitarists. Add Steve Nieve to this mix and you have three instrumental voices surrounding my own. This was always my intention for this song.

OWH: Jerry Douglas and Marc Ribot are heard throughout the record but not always as one might expect.

EC: I suppose that is true.

I first encountered Ribot playing at his most angular and extreme in the Lounge Lizards and later with Tom Waits but he is also a very lyrical player. Marc has a beautiful and elegant dialogue with Stuart Duncan on “Jimmie Standing In The Rain”

Jerry predominantly plays lap-steel rather than the dobro on this record but whatever instrument he is playing, he produces an incredible range of tones. He can break your heart in one moment and then tear your head off in the next song.

In fact, all of these guys, Stuart Duncan, Jeff Taylor and, of course, Steve Nieve could dazzle you all the time but the fact that they don’t feel the need is the measure of their musicianship.

OWH: What about the rhythm section?

EC: The whole ensemble is a rhythm section, especially when Mike Compton is driving along behind your right shoulder but listening to what Dennis Crouch is playing on this record is a lesson in itself, whether on his own in the stringband numbers with Pete Thomas in the drum booth.

OWH: Was this the first time that they had played together?

EC: Yes, Pete arrived just as we are getting ready to cut, “That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving” – a song that had previously been performed without drums – and I put him straight into the booth. Pete and Dennis hit right off.

OWH: So, after the release of “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane”, you took to the road with The Sugarcanes.

Does playing with a certain group of musicians make you say, “Ah! I can do something with THIS! Let me write some tunes to play to their strengths!”

EC: “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane was really a document of our first meeting. It might have been a ranging-finding shot.

All six members of The Sugarcanes did not even played in the same room, at the same time until the rehearsals for our first tour.

We soon found out what we could do in front of an audience and what we needed to do. So, by the time we left Dallas for Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa – the last date of our tour in the summer of ‘09 – we already had four new unrecorded songs in the show.

Jim Lauderdale and I wrote, “I Lost You” on the ride to Oklahoma and we debuted the song that night.

I called T Bone Burnett on my way out of town and told him we had to record again but between that conversation and arranging the sessions, I wrote a number of songs that called for different players to also be involved.

We began with the Sugarcanes, added drums, added guitar, added piano, took away the number we first thought of and before we knew where we were, we had “National Ransom”.

OWH: So, is this a Bluegrass record?

EC: Only in the way that Sly and The Family Stone are a Bluegrass band.

OWH: There's a lot of rain in this collection of songs. Is the storm brewing or abating?

EC: It rains a lot where I think.

As to whether the weather is approaching or departing, I’d have to say that depends on your disposition to melancholy or optimism. I find fine rain very invigorating. To lie in the dark with rain beating on the window is thrilling not threatening.

OWH: Certain details, including the spelling of the name, give clue to whose “counterfeited prairie lullabies” the protagonist of “Jimmie's Standing in the Rain”
might be singing. If Jimmie Rodger's had died of syphilis instead, what might have been the rhyme?

EC: As near and imperfect as one might get would be to remark that he was left with “no time to reminisce”, possibly while eating an orange.

“Jimmie” is an imaginary fellow traveling the Northern English music theatres in 1937. My grandfather played in the pit orchestra in some of those places.

OWH: So, what exactly is Jimmie’s “act”?

EC: The fellow I’m singing about is an Englishman who has borrowed his act and his songs from the more famous Mr. Rodgers, just as the fashion for cowboy singers is fading.

One of the curious aspects of early recording stars is that they inspired all kinds of cock-eyed imitators in places that they could never hope to visit and Jimmie Rodgers died before he could tour England.

This “Jimmie” finds solace in the embrace of a woman who can’t remember his name and oblivion in the bottle. But though his heart being bereft of hope and his pockets are empty, the absurdity of his situation suddenly occurs to him. He’s standing in the rain. At least he’s clean.


OWH: How important is a running order in a collection with no fixed narrative? Do people listen differently now in the age of shuffle?

EC: Yes, people do seem to listen differently.

I could ask that people incline their head to the left or stand on one leg, leaning against the fireplace with one arm up, suggesting they represent a tin can and the lid is being opened. But that’s a lot to ask in this world of infinite choice and endless boredom.

When there is no specific narrative, I supposed the listener is entitled to construct one of their own imagining, like inventing histories for people one encounters in the street; “that boy used to have a large collection of insects in amber, that man is living alone with a salamander and a small inheritance, that woman has carried murder in her heart for forty years” etc.

OWH: Be that as it may, the running order of this album is very unconventional – the most immediately accessible songs come pretty far in.

Did no one say, “Maybe “I Lost You” should come along early on” or “Let’s get ‘em in the tent with “The Spell That You Cast” before we hit them with the weighty stuff”?

EC: Nobody actually raised this objection but it seems to me that you have to keep the door to the theatre shut for a while for there to be any value in opening it again to the light and air.

OWH: Speaking of confined spaces, “Church Underground” seems to contain within it the sad tale of another female singer. But the story here appears to very different from that in “Stella Hurt” from the album, “Momofuku”.

What happens to the girl here after her song is over?

EC: I’d like to think that she went on to train thoroughbred horses after making a fortune on a betting syndicate until passing peacefully in her own bed at the great age.

This song is less about the final fate of this unnamed actress and singer and her fraught and dangerous journey than the unlikely location in which she recognizes the possibility of redemption.

Many of the best musical churches are to be found below street level but their rituals and blessings are sometimes hard to recognize.

OWH: There’s a fallen priest in “Bullets For The New-Born King” and, not to get liturgical on you but “The Stations Of The Cross” and “Church Underground” also suggest that the Jesuits were right when they used to say, “Give us a child until he is five and we will have him forever.” Is the Hound of Heaven on your trail?

EC: Let’s just say I’ve never really been able to get the smell of Frankincense out of my clothes.

However, “The Stations Of The Cross” does not refer to the procession at the Benediction that I was obliged to attend during Lent but just as there were spectators on that occasion, so we may sit at safe distance regarding every depravity from the blood sports of entertainment to the fickle sympathy of the news.

OWH: The news does seem pretty bad. A flood is a recurring image on this album and it appears in last verse this song.

EC: I think reading Tom Piazza’s “City Of Refuge” provoked some of those images. It a very fine and human book.

Steve Nieve’s piano and Stuart Duncan’s electric violin combine very beautifully on that song.

OWH: Despite the ominous tone of some of the songs there is also a lot of humor and wordplay in this record from “the lay of the land” to “the Hesitation....Waltz.”

Why is there so little playfulness in modern music?

EC: I have no idea about “modern music” - although I think people have wonderful clothes - but the second example you cite which only works because of the music.

OWH: Come on now, the density of the lyric writing and the strings of internal rhymes are very flashy – the veritable chainsaw running through the dictionary.

EC: Truthfully, I’m never conscious of constructing “internal rhymes” or such devices. I am a lyricist and storytelling songwriter, not a poet. I have my own sense of what works for me with the music and that’s a take it or leave it proposition. It is for others to labour and pour over the technical aspects. They do not concern me.

OWH: But you have been working on a book for some time. Surely when your editor hears a line like, “She woke up and called him “Charlie” by mistake and then in shame began to cry” he kicks the cat and says, “He’s putting what should be his book into his songs!”

EC: This will all be explained in my forthcoming pamphlet.

OWH: How important is it for the listener to know your state of mind or other salient details about your life to appreciate these songs?

EC: I would have thought the listener’s own state of mind is of primary importance before inviting any piece of music into their life. I think my state of mind is pretty clear.

OWH: Does Doc Watson know he is the centerpiece of one of these songs?

EC: Yes, he does. I told him about writing, “Dr. Watson, I Presume” when the Sugarcanes and I played at MerleFest, on May Day, this year.

However, the song is not a literal document of our first conversation in 2007, when I first played the event.

When I was first introduced to Doc, he took off into a testimonial or homily about his life and work, the things his father had taught him and lessons taken from scripture. He may tell a lot of people these things but they rolled around my head for good while.

OWH: So, when did you write the song?

EC: I didn’t immediately decide that any of this should appear in a song. Then one day the song arrived, all in one piece, in just a matter minutes.

Things that I had heard that day had become entangled with various old rhymes and notions; a dedication to the visible sign of invisible grace. At best, this is what we are striving for, accepting that we fail most of the time.

OWH: “Soon these secrets will be scattered”, suggests that we are seeing the passing of a generation of musicians who won’t be replaced. Do you feel an obligation to learn what you can from old styles – and old masters – while they are around?

EC: Well, that’s no way to speak about Vince Gill!

When he appears on the chorus of “Dr Watson, I Presume”, his voice seems ageless and timeless to me and the turns he can make inside a harmony line would confound a mere pup.

But to answer your question seriously, I think music often takes its most confident steps forward while leaning backwards. I can’t say that I’ve ever felt any obligation and whatever has been learned is only the product of love and appreciation.

You know, when the Coward Brothers were first “re-united” in 1984, Doc Watson’s rendition of “Tom Dooley” was part of our repertoire. That’s a short lifetime ago.

OWH: So, the song has nothing at all to do with Sherlock Holmes’ bluff and hearty companion.

EC: I knew that I should have left in that verse about Nigel Bruce.

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: Episode Two of “Elvis Costello in conversation with Odile W. Husband” in which they discuss, Gibson L-OO guitars, Walter Mitty, the postscript: “The London Underground – 22nd July 2005”, the Rev. Gary Davis, meeting Graham Greene’s brother, Joni Mitchell, “Peace, Love And Understanding”, William Bendix and Ida Lupino.