"The Future Lies Ahead"
Elvis Costello has just released his 33rd studio album… and it might be his last. Feeling that the era of the album was ending, the rock veteran says he threw everything he had into National Ransom, a double-LP, single CD as wildly varied and absolutely intriguing as Costello’s career. With T-Bone Burnett at the helm, Costello recorded both with country music virtuosos as well as his rock band, the Imposters. The sessions also returned the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to Nashville, the same place he and the Attractions made Almost Blue, nearly 30 years ago. Costello recently took time out of his schedule to chat with Gibson.com about the first time he came to Nashville, his approach to live performances and why he may never make another album.
First, I want to congratulate you for the Grammy nomination for “Kiss Like Your Kiss.”
Somebody sent me a message about that and I said, “What nomination, I’m not even eligible.” [Laughs] So it was kind of a surprise, but I’m very pleased for Lucinda [Williams]. I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs she’s ever written and I just try to stay out of her way. They wanted us both to sing it. Truthfully, it sounds way better on her new record when she sings it alone. No, I’m not being falsely modest. It genuinely does sound better as a solo. But it’s a great song and I’m glad she got acknowledged.
Growing up in England, what was your mental picture of Nashville?
Um, well I don’t know that I had one. I knew that it wasn’t exclusively country music. I did know that because I knew that Dylan had recorded Blonde on Blonde there. I won’t say growing up, but as a young musician, I really loved Charlie Rich. I knew Charlie Rich made records in Nashville and I didn’t really think they were country records even though Billy Sherrill produced a bunch of them, you know? They were kind of like sophisticated R&B records. I guess you’d call it that. Some of them were ballad records. Anyway… and Ray Price, what kind of singer is he? Started out certainly as a country singer, but, I mean, he’s such an elegant singer, there’s all kinds of music. I mean, you know, Hank Garland. Gary Burton, these jazz records. I think it’s just that it’s a rich musical town, that’s the truth. Over the years, there’s been different movements in country music that I’ve retrospectively become aware of. I have my favorites among the recording artists. I have to be honest, of the ones that record in Nashville, I don’t think of so many on the current country charts as being among my favorites, but that’s ever the way, you know? It’s not being made for me to listen to, it’s for somebody else.
When you first came to Nashville, did it meet your expectations?
It did in many ways. I don’t know if you know how it was I first came to Nashville.
No, I don’t.
Well, it was somewhat unusual in that I had released my first album and I think my second album was maybe just out and I was in Europe doing shows. We were probably only playing clubs at that point. And I got a call in Copenhagen to say that I’d been invited to play on a George Jones record, that they were going to cut my song, “Stranger in the House,” which had been an outtake from My Aim is True, my first album. We had left it off the album because, mainly it was a country song in style. And it was reasoned by my managers that it would probably confuse the hell out of the people who had the notion that we were something to do with this new sound that was coming out of London. And I didn’t really care one way or another. I had a ballad on there, “Allison,” so I figured that the record already had a ballad on it, there didn’t necessarily need to be more than one. Most of the songs on the record were up-tempo, mid-tempo, so that seemed to be the right thing, you know? You want to make a nice, clear– I had written all sorts of types of songs before I had started recording, and I had worked out that I probably needed to get my foot in the door with a clear statement of intent. And that was that first record.
So, somebody – well not somebody – an A&R man at Columbia in New York, sent it down to Billy Sherrill. And for whatever reason, they decided I should be included on this duets record. Which was a bold decision on Billy Sherrill’s part, given that I could have been, literally, a flavor of the month. They didn’t know, I could have been around for five minutes with one record out, maybe two records out, my reputation was just starting out. And the next thing I was in the company of Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and James Taylor and Dr. Hook and the Staple Singers – I mean, it’s an incredible lineup on that record. And I traveled to Nashville to record the vocal and George, for whatever reason, couldn’t make the session. So I ended up playing a guitar solo on the record at Billy Sherrill’s insistence, which was embarrassing for me because I really didn’t rate myself as a guitar player and I didn’t have my guitar with me. I literally got a guitar out of the box and played a solo and Billy Sherrill said he was going to wipe a Pete Drake steel solo to incorporate my– ’cause it was like a split chorus. I forget, I think there might be fiddle on the front of it and then my guitar-kind of thing. So my first appearance on a Nashville record was as a guitar player.
That’s pretty wild.
Very wild, for me. And I went away a little bit disappointed that I didn’t get to meet George and I didn’t think the record– they had cut the track already, so it was all people like “Pig” Robbins and Pete Drake playing on it. It was the A-team and we were in, like, the studio I had read about, B, Columbia B. It turned out then, of course, that it did take quite a while to finish the album. And a year later, I was called and I was back through town and I got to actually do the recording with George. So that was my introduction. It was slightly unusual, you might say, ’cause I suppose there are songwriters who wait their whole life hoping to get covered by George Jones, much less sing on the record with him. I can’t say that I did a sparkling job on the vocal, I did the best I could, you know? And he was great. Still is great.
Well that’s baptism by fire, certainly.
And then I got the idea that I should come back, a couple of years later. I had made five records in quick succession and what was in my heart were songs that were very straight ahead, lyrically. Those were the songs I was writing, and most of the songs I liked at that time happened to be country songs. I didn’t see myself so much as a country singer, but as a ballad singer at that moment, a blue ballad singer. I asked Billy Sherrill to produce the record and we came in ’81 and cut an album in about nine days. We cut about 30 tracks – everything from Stonewall Jackson songs to Johnny Cash songs and Gram Parsons tunes, who had been very instrumental in people like myself, who grew up in England, in appreciating the soulfulness of country music and not just the novelty records that we’d heard on the radio in the ’60s.
That record I did in Studio A at Columbia, because they were refitting B by then. So, really, we could have been anywhere in the world, but Billy was the producer. And I think he was a little bewildered why we wanted to cut all of these old songs, and I think he was also a bit horrified by these kind of pale and trembling young men who would come into the studio in the morning, having stayed up all night doing God knows what. But we certainly managed to cut a record. I didn’t cut it with Nashville musicians, I cut it with– the band was really a band at that point and I wasn’t ready to go and cut a record with anybody else. We brought John McFee from the west coast, who now plays with the Doobie Brothers and played on my first album, to play steel. So we didn’t even use a Nashville steel player. We did have Tommy Jackson, who played fiddle, and there were singers and strings that Billy added. It was sort of our version of country music.
But for you, was it important to make Almost Blue in Nashville, for the sake of the feel of the record?
I think going on location always puts you in the mind. I thought something good would come of it, and it certainly did. We had a big hit record with Jerry Chesnut’s “A Good Year for the Roses” in England, a big, big hit record. The year before we had put out our first album without any single success, Trust. And most people– it was one of the many times we had been written off. It was sort of like, “It’s all over for these guys now.” We had had a pretty unbroken run from late ’77 to early ’80. We’d had three years where everything we made had been in the Top 30 in England and a couple other records that had been near – the second and third singles had had a degree of success. We were pretty much in the pop world in that time.
Of course, we weren’t so well-known in America. We were just getting started. You know, it takes two or three records for people to even known your name in a country so vast. And we spent most of that time touring, probably more far-reaching than most of our contemporaries. We were harder working than most of them. We could play better and we could go further. And people played only on the coasts a lot of the time. They thought they had been to America; they’d only been to New York and Los Angeles. We’d been to Tulsa. We’d been to Biloxi. We went to wherever they would book us, you know? We went right through the middle. On my first tour in ’77, the first date was in San Francisco, the second was in Los Angeles and the third was in New Orleans. And then the second tour, we opened in Austin. We made a point of taking it on, trying to get into the different regions. That way, we saw something of the country that we had heard through music. Of course, it was all different that you had imagined. You couldn’t just look, you couldn’t find the music and I didn’t have any friends to show me where the music was happening. Nashville, perhaps, is a little easier. When we went there, I got to find the stores where you could get the great records and heard a little music. Most of the time, I was probably a little more interested in chasing chambermaids. [Laughs]
Since Almost Blue, you’ve recorded in Nashville a few more times. What brought you back for National Ransom?
I came about five years ago and did a little of the recording for The Delivery Man, which was mostly made in Oxford, Mississippi, to record my version of “The Scarlet Tide” with Emmylou Harris. And then she sang on a song called “Heart Shaped Bruise,” which is my salute to Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. I’ve sung a bunch of those songs with Emmylou in concert. Just recently, I did the Bridge School Benefit and we sang three of the Bryant songs, that were recorded originally by the Everlys. We did “Love Hurts,” “Sleepless Nights” and “Brand New Heartache,” because I had heard them interpreted by Gram and Emmylou, so I loved them twice over.
I came a couple of years ago with T-Bone. We hadn’t made a record together since ’89 with Spike. I had worked a little in the studio with Dennis Crouch and Stuart Duncan on a couple of things that we were doing. I had played at Merlefest with Jerry Douglas and Jim Lauderdale, Sam Bush, Byron House and Larry Campbell in a country lineup. So I kind of tried out the string band lineup in concert – as is often the case, some of the best ideas start out in performance. And then we came and I booked three days at the Sound Emporium with T-Bone and we made the Secret, Profane & Sugarcane album. That was a very deliberately austere record. It was a ballad record, there were a few up-tempo things, but it was mainly ballads, a lot of narrative songs.
But once I took the band out on the road, the following year when the record was issued, of course it turned into a rock and roll band very fast – and because we started adapting some of my older songs to the musical possibilities of that lineup. We had vocal harmonies to a degree that I’d never enjoyed. Davey Faragher in the Imposters sings harmonies, but the Attractions couldn’t sing at all. So, I’d never had vocal harmonies as a major component of my live performance. Obviously, the timbres of those instruments, having soloists like Stuart Duncan and Jerry Douglas and Jeff Taylor on the accordion, and the foundation laid down rhythmically by Dennis Couch and Mike Compton – in some ways the kick and snare of that lineup. And I didn’t miss drums, playing that repertoire with that lineup.
By the end of touring, in ’09, I had written five songs that were recorded in the sessions for National Ransom – two of them written with Jim Lauderdale, I had enjoyed singing with him and we’d come up with those in the last days of the tour. And I called T-Bone and said I’d like to go back in. Then I wrote a bunch more songs which really called for there to be electric guitars and drums and I wanted those people to be Marc Ribot and Steve Thomas and Steve Nieve and, in the end, electric bass called for Davey Faragher as well – so really all of the Imposters and the Sugarcanes were employed in different combinations. And that’s what you hear on the album. It’s not like one band versus the other band, it’s new ensembles, really. You’ve got the Vox Continental organ with the mandolin and the double bass.
As you listen to album, different instruments come together and you might think it’s going this way, but then it goes in a completely different direction.
Obviously, we live in an impatient world where everything is supposed to arrive in single, 99 cent-bite pieces, soundbite kind of thinking. I had seen the end in sight a couple of times. A couple of times I had thought it was the end of the road for recording albums. Not recording, obviously, because we can record willy-nilly. I think it’s certainly true that the album is almost at an end. I figured that was most likely to be the case as we see the end of retail where the thought of stumbling upon an album that’s unknown to you and finding a compendium like you would in a book store. “On this looks interesting,” read the dust jacket, read a few pages, and you’re intrigued enough to buy it – that just doesn’t happen now. I don’t think browsing online does the same thing, because it’s a short step to knowing of its existence to downloading a piece of it, thereby dismantling any structure that was intended. Recorded music will thrive forever more, so long as people have new ideas. But the album compendium is clearly something that’s in some degree has something to do with the medium that it’s riding on, and that medium is now obsolete. I mean, the CD’s been obsolete for… eight, nine years, maybe. There was too much invested in admitting it. And it was way too much swindling in admitting it was a substandard medium to begin with, to which they penalized the artists and willfully overcharged the customer, thereby alienating the customer in the long run.
I think everybody knows in their heart that vinyl is a more attractive entity. It not only sounds better, but you get the artwork, if the artwork is of any consequence, and it’s in a scale that you can read and with scope for the visual design. So, perhaps there will be a case for making collections on vinyl in the future, but I think we’re moving toward instant communication. Or no communication – that’s the other possibility. Come off the grid and just play live. Either way could work. For someone like me, it could definitely be the latter. So, I figured, while nobody was going to stop me, I’d make a double album and if this was going to be the sign-off for the recorded career as I’ve known it, I wouldn’t be doing it in any sort of melancholy or melodramatic way. I would make the record, it would come out, it would exist and then I’d move on to the next reality, which is what I’ve been doing all along anyway, which is playing. I can’t change it. Conforming to the structure of a CD-length thing, whatever that’s supposed to be, as opposed to a four-sided vinyl record, wouldn’t change the fortunes of the record business one way or another. I just put out the 16 songs that I liked the best. And, like you said, there’s a lot of different contrasts, because I would think it’s an affront to the audience to make a record on which all the songs sounded the same. I know and love lots of different moods of music and I have the players to play it. So it obviously is not everyone’s taste to go all these different ways, but if you take time to listen, this record flows very well.
Well, for anyone who is familiar with your work, this shouldn’t come as a great surprise. There’s no need for the “warning label” that was included as a joke on Almost Blue.
I do get a little exasperated sometimes at how much coverage is spent on the trying to fit this into the jigsaw… it’s not strictly speaking appreciation or, in the proper sense of the word, criticism, to simply list the genres that are identified. It doesn’t prove that you’re that observant to simply go, “that is a sort of rock and roll song and this is a sort of a ballad.” What kind of insight is that? That’s self-evident. You just need to put the record on to know that. What’s within the songs and what the songs are about hardly gets commented on with anybody’s music these days. Possibly it’s because people are making such instantaneous judgments and they couldn’t be bothered to think harder than that.
I’ve never made records in reference to the other records I’ve made, except that I’ve probably done that thing and it doesn’t interest me in the immediate future. Then I might return to a form again and try to do something different with it, say, the next time I get to do a rock and roll combo record. I like all of the records I’ve made in that form, but they’re all different. This Year’s Model doesn’t sound like Blood & Chocolate, Blood & Chocolate doesn’t sound like Brutal Youth, Brutal Youth doesn’t sound like Momofuku. They share some of the features of my writing and some of the players. But National Ransom wasn’t set up in competition with King of America than Secret, Profane & Sugarcane was. I don’t understand the impulse to want to put them in a hierarchy. I know that National Ransom is a better record that many others that I’ve made, or that you’ll hear today, but it’s a record that does invite listening, that’s for sure. I think there’s enough things that will hook you right away and that’ll get you involved in it, if you want to.
But, most importantly, it’s just an announcement of a repertoire. Otherwise, I’d be making that announcement from the stage. And that’s probably where I will be making it in the future. You know, “Here’s a new song. Would you like to hear it?” It may cut down the speed of which new material can be disseminated, because, obviously, people are less willing to listen to a lot of new material in a theater. They will listen to one or two songs that are new. So, I think we’ve got to see where the future lies with recorded music and how it’s compiled. I think it’ll be very interesting. I think there will be a case for instantaneous communication with the audience and the new media. But there could be a tendency for some people to go to a live performance, as the best place to drop these songs in. Because the minute they’re performed, they’ll be excerpted on whatever phone camera is running at that moment, so they’ll still exist…
They’ll be on YouTube by the end of the night.
Yeah, that’s all right, that’s all right, because I’m not getting paid anyway, so what difference does it make? It’ll just be an inferior version. It won’t be the one that I would have made. But, I’m not going to spend my own money making records. I don’t have any. So that was a period of time that we lived through. Here it is. It’s over now, and here are the new songs in performance. I could spend 10 years just playing songs that already exist. I could play shows for a year and never repeat myself, you know?
You mentioned that you’re usually only able to do one or two new songs in a show. Do you find that people get restless if you do more than that?
Actually, no it’s not the case, necessarily. I’m just saying that, if you advertise it up-front, people are going to want to know that they’re going to hear the hits. My experience of playing the songs of National Ransom in performance ahead of the release of the album was that every single concert that we played “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” or “Slow Drag with Josephine,” it stole the show. I mean, I played a two-hour show with the Dallas Symphony, two nights, actually, in the summer. And, as an encore, I came out and played “Josephine” on my own, without a microphone, and completely upstaged everything. Now, there’s a certain trick to doing something that’s very, very immediate like that. Singing directly to people has a certain showman aspect to it, but the song has to work, as well.
I opened a show recently with “Bullets for the New-Born King.” Now that’s not a typical opener, is it? It’s a ballad. And it really created a great mood, and, what it did, it created– people leaned forward in their chairs. And then, when we hit them with the first rhythmic number, it kind of upped the… So, I now have a group of songs which can change the architecture of the show quite a bit. I’ve found that over the last little while, taking a moment to play, whether it’s an acoustic guitar version of “Bedlam” or “Stations of the Cross” or “One Bell Ringing” – these songs can capture a moment. And that’s something you share with 1,500 or 2,000 or 3,000 people in a theater. That’s very different than shooting something out into the void of a recorded medium, never knowing for a moment how people are listening – whether they are listening with intent and concentration, or if they’re half-hearing it and saying, “Well, it hasn’t got much of a beat.” Well, that’s not what it’s about, you know? But if you’re in a room and you’re in control of the mood and people are with you and listening, that’s a very persuasive thing, that we’re all feeling something about what’s going on in that moment. This is what makes live performance… I don’t want to say superior, but richer and more nuanced than anything you’re capable of recording on a record.
It’s all about the moment, about what’s happening right now.
Well, that’s all recordings are. They’re that moment. That’s why we record the way we do, as performances, rather than these highly crafted records – some of which I’ve made and enjoyed making. But right now, I don’t hear recording that way. And, as the resources become less and less for recording, there can only ever be sketches in the future, until there’s a new paradigm. So, I think that’s why I wanted to take full advantage of the richness of the possibilities of National Ransom, because I literally don’t know when we’re going to do this again. Because, to gather those musicians together to make a recording that’s going to be issued on a disc is a very different thing than bringing those musicians together to go on stage and play. The one thing is a viable commercial equation and the other isn’t.