Interview for MOJO • Monday, August 1, 2011

It's Like All The World Is In His Voice

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Elvis Costello interviewed in MOJO

The Attractions played the last ever Wings show, at the Kampuchea benefit in 1979. I think that might have been the first time I met Paul. A couple of years later, I was making Imperial Bedroom at AIR [in London’s Oxford Street, while he was making Pipes Of Peace. [Beatle engineer] Geoff Emerick was working on both and flitting between the two studios. I saw Paul occasionally, as you do in those multiple studio things, enough to get over the fact that he was Paul from the Beatles. It was friendly. It was just a guy going to work, doing his job.

It was his manager of the time who suggested we write together. I took a train down to his studio near Rye and we just went to work. We brought bits and pieces of songs we had been working on that weren’t quite complete. He had one called Back On My Feet. That was pretty much written. I just sort of made a couple of suggestions, if that’s not too absurd an idea! Truthfully, Veronica [1989 single] was the same. It was pretty much written, but there were a couple of key things that he suggested that made it better.

The next time we got together, to write the songs that ended up on Flowers In The Dirt, we just started with a blank page. We worked for maybe two days across a table in an office above his studio, with a notebook and a couple of guitars. They had a 24-track studio downstairs, with [Elvis Presley bassist] Bill Black’s bass, an electric spinet, Fender Rhodes… all these fantastic instruments. It’s hard not to be thrilled to see Bill Black’s bass.

The last song we wrote was That Day Is Done. Again, I had a fair opening statement of it and had all these images. It was from a real thing. It was about my grandmother’s funeral. It was sort of serious. He said, “Yes that’s all good, all those images.” But quite often when you’re writing a song about something personal, what it means to you can sometimes get in the way of what it can possibly mean to somebody else. It needed a release. He said, “It needs something like this…” and he just sat down and played the chorus. It was sort of like a moment, like Let It Be, the creation of a semi-secular gospel song. It was quite shocking when he did that bit. Then you realise that’s what he does. Then he sung the hell out of it. That’s him, really.

I ended up doing That Day Is Done with the [venerable gospel vocal group] Fairfield Four. They could hear something in it. Because it had that great stirring chorus, they could get hold of that and kill it. It was thrilling to do it with them. And funnily enough, it was with Larry Knechtel on piano, who played on Bridge Over Troubled Water, another secular gospel song.

We wrote 12 songs in total, which is incredible to me. We wrote one called Tommy’s Coming Home Again, which is a good song, and So Like Candy is pretty good. And I love You Want Her Too – a dialogue song. He said, “You get all the snarky lines and I get all the nice lines!” I go back and play some them occasionally. And we got together not so long ago, in the last six, seven years and said, We should do something with these. We had half an idea to write a few more or tidy them up in some way. Both of us were working on other records, but somewhere there’s a piece of paper with it all written out, a plan. He wrote it out twice. He handed me a copy, put a copy in a book and put it back on a shelf, like a contract.

The real lost gem from that batch of songs – one of these days one of us should cut it – is The Lovers That Never Were. In its original condition, it’s like something Dusty Springfield or Jackie DeShannon would have recorded. Paul straightened it out in the studio [for 1993’s Off The Ground album] and wanted it to go a different way, but the demo is, I’d say, one of the great vocal performances of his solo career. He’s standing up playing a twelve-string guitar and, weirdly enough, I’m playing piano, just thinking, “Don’t fuck up! He’s really singing this!” He’s singing a ballad in the voice of I’m Down! He’s right over my shoulder singing all this wild, distorted stuff! I had never heard him do that before.

He did a vocal on another song that we wrote called Don’t Be Careless Love, which is the other end of his vocal dynamic range. Incredibly wired singing, half-falsetto. It’s extraordinary singing – one take. We’d sort of had a bit of a disagreement about the way another track should go and he said, “Let’s leave it for a minute and I’ll just do some singing.” He went in, put the headphones on and sang that. I was like, “Oh… I’ll just shut up about what I think the other song should be like.” I can’t compete with that.

He’s got a couple of voices. He’s got that killer Little Richard-influenced voice, and very few people can sing like that. Then that very plaintive ballad delivery like Yesterday or For No One. When you think about it, what other people sound like that? Gene Kelly sounds like that. So does Jimmie Rodgers, except for the twang. It’s like all the world is in his voice. When you get down to why people react to him, it’s that.

I think that most people would say that he wears his fame and people’s love for his music very well. It’s a level of fame that can’t be replicated in the internet age. Only Eric & Ernie and the astronauts have that kind of fame, with the whole country tuned in. But he’s very good at putting people at ease. When we played the White House [when McCartney received The Library Of Congress Gershwin Prize For Popular Song, June 2010], he sat through the dress rehearsal in the front row, all afternoon. It cut the nerves and intimidation by half. As we were queuing up in the Blue Room to meet the president, we were in a line and Herbie Hancock is in front of me and the Jonas Brothers are behind me with Jack White and Karen Elson. I will love Karen Elson always for saying what we were all thinking: [adopts Mancunian burr] “Hey Jack, isn’t this cool?!” We were all trying to be really matter-of-fact about it, but, yes, it was really fucking cool. We’re playing the fucking White House with Paul McCartney. You’re kidding me!

When you do things in other settings, people are always looking for the hubris in it. Like when he did the Oratorio, Standing Stone and the other [classical] pieces. The most recent, Ecce Cor Meum, I went to the premiere of. It has this beautiful soprano singing in the second movement, a melody that’s honestly right in the top ten of the melodies he’s ever written. You’d think that if you thought of a melody so beautiful, you’d think, “I’ll keep that for a song.” But there it is.

We sang together onstage at the Royal Academy [in 2008]. He was receiving a fellowship. It’s the only time I’ve performed for royalty, and I would have only done it for him. We did Mistress And Maid, then he did Yesterday, For No One and Penny Lane and Lady Madonna back-to-back. I was watching through the curtain at the back. It’s the audience’s relationship to the material that really strikes you as unique, and I especially saw that at the Concert For Linda. It was obviously a very difficult, emotional thing for him. He asked me if I would sing the harmony on All My Loving: “Do you know it?” I thought, “Do I know it? I’ve only been practising it in my head for the last 35 years!” It’s such a beautiful part. When we came to do it for the show and he sang ‘Close your eyes’, the audience went nuts. Scary nuts. How you cope with that, stay in control of your own songs in the live situation, like back in the day with people flat-out screaming, I can’t imagine.

I’m not going to tell any secrets here because Paul hasn’t spoken about it, but my wife [jazz chanteuse Diana Krall] is in the studio with him right now. He’s cutting some of those songs he must have grown up with. I know he’s making this record with Dave Grohl as well. There’s so much openness and joy about what he’s doing now. He’s been in fantastic form. Open, really happy, joyful. In his music, he sticks to the ‘love is the way’ philosophy – not in a stupid way – and there is such a lot of love in his music for things I value. But the assumption that he’s the lighter-hearted, less tortured kind of artist… I dispute that. There’s plenty of sadness in that music. There’s no shortage of emotion. On top of that, he’s very experimental and very open about that. When you look back at what he’s done, the big thing you realize is that he’s never been afraid.

Last updated on March 4, 2019


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