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The Spontaneous Genius of Elvis Costello

Releasing his 31st studio album, Elvis Costello speaks to Rolling Stone about how a spontaneous approach has resulted in one of his finest records to date.

There is a strong chance that when a young Elvis Costello first entered London’s Pathway Studios with Nick Lowe to lay down what would become his acclaimed debut, My Aim Is True, the artist in question had no idea what his future held. 43 years later, it’s this lack of clarity that helped to inform the sessions which resulted in his 31st album, Hey Clockface.

It was in the early stages of 2020, before a pandemic shut down the world, that the groundwork was laid for the record. Having laid down a trio of solo tracks at Helsinki’s Suomenlinnan Studio, Costello found himself heading to Paris for a weekend session at Les Studios Saint Germain.

Unsure of what would emerge from this time in the studio, a burst of creativity results in nine more songs. Backed by longtime collaborator Steve Nieve, Mickaél Gasche, Pierre-François ‘Titi’ Dufour, Ajuq, and Renaud-Gabriel Pion, the musicians – dubbed “Le Quintette Saint Germain” – began to craft what would soon become Hey Clockface,

With a desire for the music to be “vivid”, little was spoken within these sessions, with the musicians responding to the air of creativity that was present within the studio. The result is an album that is unlike anything ever created by Costello in the past. It shifts between almost menacing spoken-word passages, to Chuck Berry-inspired lyricism, boisterous, jazzy recordings, and tracks which feel as though Costello has been waiting his whole life to create them.

To celebrate the release of the new album, Elvis Costello spoke to Rolling Stone from Vancouver to discuss how a spontaneous approach to recording has resulted in one of his finest records to date.

I think we should probably kick things off with the standard question lately; how have you been dealing with everything going on this year?

Well, you know, I think I’ve been really – to be very honest – I’ve been very fortunate. I mean, given that I was in Europe, I recorded the songs in Helsinki and the songs in New York and Paris. I suppose immediately before my last tour, which was in England. And you know, three dates from the end of the tour it became obvious that we’re asking something unreasonable of the audience.

The government just wouldn’t make a decision about shutting theatres and I began to see, you know, we had sold out shows and we were seeing rows empty. People were, my friends were ringing me and said, “I know I’m supposed to be coming to the show tonight, but I just don’t feel safe.” And I started to think that I was being irresponsible in asking my band and my crew, and the audience to come.

So you know, we cut the tour short, we cancelled some recording dates that we had booked for London and I went home to Canada. I had to quarantine like everybody did when you travel and I was back with my family and from there, that’s where I’ve stayed. In a cabin, you know on Vancouver Island for the spring and most of the summer. That said, once I was there with my family I felt very fortunate that I wasn’t in a big city.

I was worried about my friends, I worry about my mother in England. She’s somebody in her ’90s, she’s among those people most vulnerable. But the people who take care of her are doing a wonderful job. She lives at home with people coming into help. I tried to then put my mind on the music and try to make use of all this luxurious time. Not just to be with my wife and my children, but also to check in with my friends and then start working with what I could do to… while I waited to see what happened.

It’s obviously been much more prolonged than anybody could dream back then. But as I say, I didn’t waste any of the time. I did a lot of writing and then I started to look at the music and I realised that I liked what we had recorded. I hadn’t examined it that much because I’d been playing shows and I was looking for this way to join it all together when my friend Michael Leonhart wrote to me and said he had a piece of music he wanted me to contribute to. He sent it to me and that became “Radio is Everything”. And I said, he said I have another piece and he sent it to me and that became “Newspaper Pane”.

I said to him, “You know what? I know we were making these for your record, but can we put them on both records and release them twice? Because you know, your audience is different to my audience. You’re a jazz musician.” Maybe different people will hear these songs if we put them out on two different waves and that’s not something people do very often. But these seemed to complete the puzzle, you know. These make the join between the stuff I’d done in Helsinki and the stuff I’d done in Paris. To my ear they did anyway. I was then able to sequence the record. Sebastian Krys our producer mixed the record and you know, there you are, there it is and that’s what you’re hearing.

You’d said how everything for this new album when you entered the studio in Helsinki, but was the intention there actually to record a full album, or did you just plan to make a few songs?

Well I mean when you start, you don’t know what it’s going to sound like, particularly when you sort of don’t take any musicians with you. You’re going to a place where you’re hardly known, because nobody’s got any idea of what you’ve come to do. I’ve never been in that studio before, I’d never met the engineer. You know, I walked down the main street in Helsinki and got onto this little ferry boat, went out to this island where the studio was located and I immediately loved it.

It was a very crisp winter day, it wasn’t like covered in snow like it was the last time I was there in the winter. I had a lung full of this wonderful air. Went inside the studio, found just the thing. It wasn’t neither fancy, nor was it… it worked. Everything worked, but it wasn’t like a fancy studio that you’d be afraid of. And I felt yeah, I can play around in here. And I don’t play the drums, so I had sung the drum part that I wanted and the engineer said, “Well, let’s put that down as the foundation.” That became part of the record.

And then I just said, “Well, I’m going to make everything in the room be part of the drums.” The guitars, the organ, the piano. Everything was going to be serving the rhythm. So you’re making a kind of rock and roll, but it’s not by the playbook. It’s not like the way you normally check off: “Oh you’ve got the bass, you’ve got the drums.” So it just jolts you out of that predictable way to play and knew the kind of mood of the songs.

When you’re recording all of the parts yourself, obviously to do three complete pieces in three days is quite fast. You could spend a week doing one of those songs, but I work quickly and Eetü [Seppälä] the Engineer worked extremely fast. The two engineers, they were really great and I came away from there feeling, “Well, that’s one story. Now what’s going to happen in Paris?”

And I flew to Paris the next day. And it sounds so crazy, it sounds like a jet set life doesn’t it? “And then I flew to Paris”, you know? Because we can’t even imagine going to the corner for a paper now. I say it such a cavalier way, because it seemed very easy to do that then. And it was Steve Nieve’s [pianist] birthday and we had a party at his apartment and all his friends from Paris were there, and we were all singing “La Marseillaise” because he’d just got his French passport. And you know, all things you can’t imagine doing now you know: having your arm around people, singing in their faces and eating cake.

Then we went to the studio the next day and started recording. And we were in this beautiful old studio in Saint Germain and there were, two of the musicians I’d met before. And the other two I’d never met and Steve had never met them either. So you know, it could have been a complete disaster if we had picked the wrong personalities. But everybody seemed to understand what I was trying to do. Steve had written out the chord chart. But we hadn’t written any orchestration.

I wanted to hear what they played just when we started to sing the song. And everything they played is what I wanted to hear and they listened to what I was doing, I listened to what they were doing and next thing we knew we’d recorded nine songs in two days. But in that way of playing you know, like a jazz record is where you’re just performing, you do a couple of performances and everybody just plays and you just hope that nobody plays, splits a note when you’ve got a great take. 

Obviously that’s also a testament to the talent of the musicians you’re working with, but is this more spontaneous approach something you find more enjoyable than others?

Well I’ve done [records] every way. I mean, when I first went to the studio I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t have… I mean in some ways, when I turned up in Helsinki, it was exactly like when I first made a record. I didn’t have a band, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how a studio worked so I went in and you know, I was playing with very good musicians on my record who were older than me and more experienced.

And they could understand my ideas and they seemed to like the songs. They understand what you could do at the studio, and then of course we formed The Attractions and then that became a band that was playing every day on the road, so we learnt how to play together. And then we went into the studio and made another record where we knew what we could do. But we didn’t really use the studio to do very much. We just sort of played and you took a picture of that.

So sometimes it’s good to go back to the, not to try and repeat the past, but go back to the simplicity of not really knowing how to do it and discovering it again. Because obviously some other records are much more elaborate. You know, a record like Imperial Bedroom or a record like Spike is a much more intricate recording process.

So was Look Now, the last record we made. It was very determinedly arranged in advance. I treated it like they treated records in the 1960s, made in Los Angeles, where the rhythm section was made down and the orchestration was put in place and I knew exactly where everybody was going to sing, I knew which instruments were going to be played, I knew where the horns were coming in, I knew where the strings [went]. I’d written everything. And then I sang the song; I had to perform to that whole picture. It was all happening in the moment that we were playing it, so it’s a different energy. I won’t say one is better than the other – both records are good, but they are different. And I like it that way, I like it that they’re different because I don’t want them to be the same. 

Going off the idea off of the idea of things being different, what struck me is the fact that there is no particular style that permeates throughout the album. There’s a boisterous sound on “No Flag” which leads into a more tender style of “They’re Not Laughing At Me Now”. Knowing things were more spontaneous explains that a lot, but it also lends itself to comments you made about things wanted to be more “vivid” this time around.

I’m not saying more vivid than the last record, but I was aware of the fact that I knew what I had in “No Flag” which was something like… You know, that’s a song about the day you get up where you can’t believe in anything. Now obviously, you know from hearing the sound of my voice, it’s not the way I feel every day of my life but it’s the way I feel some days. And right now we probably feel like that a bit more often than we’d like. There’s nothing to believe in, there’s no flag we should salute. You know, there’s no God, there’s no future, there’s no hope. Pick any one of those. So that’s a song for that day and that’s what that sounds like.

And “We Are All Cowards Now” is the song for when you’re sort of going, “We are cowards if can’t love one another and it’s much easier to hate than love.” So that’s cowardice. That’s what I call cowardice. So that’s what that songs about, in a simple phrase. Then we take a song like “I Do”, which is a love song but it’s a love song like contemplating eternity together. So it’s a right at the edge of life. Now that’s a quiet song and intimate in its dynamic. But you can’t sing that song in a half-hearted way.

So that’s what I mean by vivid. Just because it’s slow tempo, it has to be intense you know, it has to be delivered with commitment. And the musicians play, the minute they come in with that horn line at the top, that’s the only piece of music that I have that everybody write down so they play what I heard in my head. That was the melody at the top, that led into my voice and we just try to keep that mood you know, like through the record.

And in a different sort of way “Hey Clockface” is sort of a simple idea. Everybody has experienced it when the one you love is approaching, time moves too slowly. When it’s time to come to leave, time is too fast. It’s the sort of idea that you know, songs from the past, so I use music, a style of music from the past that’s more carefree and I’m happy to say that those guys knew how to play that in a sense of just discovering it. Not like it was a history lesson – they played it like we were making that kind of music up for the first time. And the Fats Waller song [“How Can You Face Me?”, quoted at the end of “Hey Clockface”] sort of fits with that, because that’s got that same kind of humour.

So we had those things, you know, we had those little moments of exuberance and then concentrate on a song like “The Last Confession Of Vivian Whip” that Steve Nieve and Muriel Teodori wrote the music, and I wrote the short story that complimented that you know. I try to make each one as strong as it could be no matter whether it was a fast tempo or a slow tempo or something with next to no melody and a lot of rhythm or something with a lot of melody and no movement. 

Well the end results speak for itself, and it’s quite an intense album overall, even in the quiet moments. It might just be my own thoughts, but I’ve never quite felt your music has been tied to a specific sound per se. People obviously try and label you with a genre, but everything your work has always seemed quite free-flowing. Is this an enjoyable sense of freedom to have?

There’s two things going on, one is the first thing is you do is you have the benefit of surprise, and it’s also a long time ago so people can be sentimental about it. And because I wrote those songs, I am aware of them. I mean, I think it’s something you should be proud of if somebody wants to hear a song that you wrote a long time ago, but you can understand the desire on the part of somebody who wants to make new songs to not be solely defined by that first thing you said or sang.

So you know, you want to keep in proportion and not be too self-satisfied by the fact that people like those old songs. I can understand why that defines you because I mean, for some people I’m the same. I haven’t been as curious about the other music they’ve made, beyond the records that I really love. [Then] there’s other people who I have to hear everything they play. That’s the way I feel about them, I want to hear the latest thing they do every time. But that’s not everybody is it? So you know, I can really understand it.

But the last thing you want to feel is if you’re somehow forbidden to do something different. And I mean, I just can’t accept that. It of course can be unpopular and it has been at different times, different things where I’ve moved away from one sort of form of music to another. But I’ve always wanted to do it because I want to learn something and have that experience, and that doesn’t seem dishonest. And if it did, like I have never made a record going, “How do I look making this record?” I’m just making that record and that’s what I’m doing.

If you don’t want to come with me, there’s lots of other music to listen to. Maybe you’ll like the next one. You know, if you don’t like this one maybe you’ll like the next one. Maybe you liked the one before and you don’t like this one. But that isn’t going to stop me doing it because you’ve got to do the thing that you have a feeling for otherwise you’re making a formula, not a song. You’re trying to make a product, not something you feel anything about. That just doesn’t interest me. 

I’m not expecting any round of applause for having that opinion, that’s the way it’s been. And you also have to think that sometimes when you have made records and had a career for a while, the thing you have to remember is that not everybody has been following it all along, just because they’re younger. I mean, I spoke to somebody today that didn’t hear any of my records until I’d made sort of eight or nine records or something. It was the first one that spoke to them, because, just because of the age they were.

So the beginning of a story might be a record that other people could say, “Oh, that’s not his best record. You haven’t heard this one.” Of course I didn’t, I wasn’t born or I was at junior school, you know what I mean? I feel that way about some music. It took me a long while to discover some, the value of certain things. When I was a really little kid my folks had like all these bebop records because my dad played trumpet. And when they would play them when I was a little kid, I didn’t understand what was going on in those records.

And then when I got older I couldn’t get enough of those records, and then that led to something else. And that’s been the great thing about it, all the music’s just led your way, and you gather little bits of skills in other areas. I learned how to orchestrate and things like that, that I didn’t know how to do first of all because I wanted to be able to communicate that way. This record, that didn’t really need those talents, if that’s the right word for it. Those abilities. I just had to tell people this is the mood, this is the tempo, let’s play and we just did it, yeah.

From more of a lyrical point of view, you mentioned how you were writing the short story behind “The Last Confession Of Vivian Whip”, so was the approach to the majority of the lyrics kept quite spontaneous as well?

Some of them were. Like “[The] Whirlwind” and “Byline”, they have been written for a little while, not very long. But “The Last Confession Of Vivian Whip” was really, I received the music as I landed in London before I proceeded on to Helsinki to begin the recording. And Steve and Muriel sent me this tune and I had some sketched idea for the story of Vivian Whip and then the music really kind of made it. That’s the framework, that’s how much space I have to tell the story in – I’ve got to choose the words now.

The opposite thing sort of happened with the “Radio Is Everything” because the music that Michael Leonhart sent me wasn’t structured, like first chorus, middle eight. It was continuous, it was like a piece of music that was proceeding on and the, things were entering and things would pick up a little bit. And I started to listen to the music over and over, and the recording was fairly developed when he sent it to me. And I had opened my notebook and I was looking at these versus that I hadn’t begun editing the way I normally do, and I would normally take the lines and make them regular lengths so that I could set them to music.

And I just started reading them as I was playing the music and recorded it. And it, and the music just told me where to start and stop. And I wasn’t singing, I was just saying them. And in a way I would have ended up losing some of my favourite images in the song because they would have been the victim of trying to turn it into a conventional song.

So it was an unconventional song. Unconventional in two ways. One, the length of the lines were all irregular. And I was responding to the music, but I wasn’t pitching my voice. I was just reciting, which I’d never done before other than on “Revolution #49”, which was done pretty much the same way. That was a spontaneous improvisation upon the opening motif that I gave to the trumpet player, who was playing the serpent which is a medieval instrument that looks like a snake. That’s the first thing you hear on the record and I was sort of guiding the performance and I was sort of – for want of a better word – conducting. I was sort of going make it more intense. I wasn’t saying that, I was waving my arms around like an idiot and I looked down at my notebook at this verse that I had and something made me say it. And I didn’t say it in a dramatic way, I just said it very, very deadpan because the music made me feel that way.

And so those two pieces were sort of improvised composition and I reacted to the music and I had words that I’d written and I recognised the connection between the words and the music and the way it was being performed, in the case of “Revolution #49”. And I’ve never done that before, that’s something entirely new.

It might sound like a magic trick but it was, you know, that’s what I felt and when I played it back I went, “Well, is it an instrumental or should I keep that talking in there? And I like the sentiment it ends on. I like the fact that it says love is the only thing we can save you know, it’s the one thing we can save. I like that idea, so let’s open the record like that.” I’d said to Sebastian, This song either opens or closes the record.” He said it opens the record. I said, “kay, if you think so.” Now I can’t hear it any other way, but I have to give him the credit for saying, “Start there and then give everything else that you’ve got. Don’t lead up to it.” And I’m glad that we did it that way.

It’s such a striking way of starting the record as well. That song, along with “Radio Is Everything” feel like they’re two of the most powerful songs on the record.

What you’re really saying is just stop that singing, because that’s getting in the way. I know. “Just talk from now on,” no, I know. [Laughs] No, I mean it’s something new, so if I’d done it all the time then it would be commonplace. But because I’ve never done it before, it had a feeling of something very new and novel, to me as it was happening. And something where you almost are, “Don’t look at me while I’m doing this because it’s something so unusual.” I’m very used to singing, I’m not used to reciting like that. And then it felt, when I came back the contrast and “Newspaper Pane”, the second piece I did with Michael is somewhere between. Like, more like “Hetty O’Hara ‘Confidential'”. Not quite singing but not quite talking either. Sort of pitch talking, or yelling. [Laughs].

But there’s a lot of music in rock ‘n’ roll that’s like that. Chuck Berry was like that, you know. “On the night he came home from the debutante ball, passed out drunk on the bathroom floor”. It’s the same rhythm as Chuck Berry songs, exactly the same rhythmic delivery. So I mean, it’s not the Chuck Berry music but it’s that kind of machine gun kind of lyric. And that’s something I’ve gone to a few times over the years and that one felt quite different by the time it was done. 

As I said before, these results speak for themselves in how this method of approaching the sessions worked for you, so would this be an approach you’d aim to revisit in the future? Or would it be more of a case of trying to recapture the magic a second time?

Well I did do one other piece which was the B- side of the record. It would have been, in an ideal world it would have been a vinyl single of “We Are All Cowards Now”. I recorded a piece called “Phonographic Memory”, which is available now but it’s not on this album. It’s a piece on it’s own, which I recorded here, which is acoustic guitar with a rustication over the top of it. [It] is a very strange story about a presidential inauguration some time in the future, after a civil war, in which the internet has been switched off and all the books have been burnt or locked in a university. And they can’t find anybody sufficiently dignified to give the inauguration speech, so they send an engineer into the national archive to chop up words from soundtracks and spoken word pieces by Orson Wells because he sounds serious. When he’s speaking his voice sounded very like, “Pay attention”.

So somebody writes the speech, but they can’t find anybody dignified enough to say it. So they cut together individual words and this sort of mechanical assembly of words gives the speech, announcing the inauguration of a new president. Who is a young woman who sings this song, called President Swift. So I’ll leave it to you to decide who that is. But a fanciful idea, you can imagine the times we’re living in. It sort of came to me in a moment and I thought I should write it down. That was enjoyable to do you know, because that one is sort of the a shaggy dog story. 

Well had you explained that idea to me five years ago, I likely would have though it was crazy. Now, it feels that it could well be a vision of the future.

Well, yeah and I mean bear in mind that I’ve been working on this musical for five years, which should have been opening next month and will probably open next year at this time, the way things are looking. You continue to work on it, we can do all the preparations, we can work with the choreographers and on their plans for designers and everything. Costume designers and we can work on the score and we can work on the script. But we you know, that has 20 songs in it and that’s based on the Budd Schulberg story “A Face in The Crowd”.

Now I’ve been performing those songs in concert for a number of years now and people seemed to really respond to them. I didn’t tell anybody I was recording but I know some people thought that I was going to record those songs next. But because the show has been delayed, I may well record my versions of them some day. But not right now because the show hasn’t been heard. I want them to be heard in the context of a rip. And I’ve carried on working through this year, I carried on after we finished this album. I just continued working.

And so we have some records that we’ve been preparing for release next year already, because we have to think of how we’re going to maintain a sign of life. You can’t just give in to these circumstances, you’ve got to just keep moving forward. I mean, what’s the point otherwise? Otherwise you’re going to feel eventually like it’s going to grind you down. It takes a while to go out there and everybody feel comfortable coming to the theatre again. I mean, some shows… have they had any shows at all in Australia?

Not really, they’ve started doing some socially-distanced events but some of those have been cancelled because of virus flare-ups. 

had these ones you know, where people go into drive-in’s and instead of applause they would flash their headlights and things like that. They sound a bit bizarre you know, I don’t know whether I would love that. And then Steve Nieve played a film festival a couple of weeks ago where he played a tribute to Ennio Morricone, it was an improvised piano piece. I think they had people every couple of seats. So it was weird, it was like playing to a very poorly sold house, but that was how many they let in. So those things would feel weird from the stage and they’d probably feel weird from the seats as well, wouldn’t they? It’s not like what you’re used to.

If music keeps arriving, particularly if it arrives unexpectedly, then you hear about it and you discover it and that’s great. And that’s one of the good things about streaming – other people have their doubts about it. Is it’s kind of like radio with all the unpleasant talking taken out. You know, it’s something you could turn on anytime and discover something. I also really love physical records still, but when I say records I mean vinyl records. And those, strangely enough have, as you probably know, have had a revival.

You know, and re-releasing six album set based on Armed Forces which [will be] the last word on [that] record, I think that not everybody will want that but somebody will want it and within it are these live records, the original record really well mastered and the comic books that are fully of my original hand written notebooks. So anybody that wants to know about how that record happened. It even has a record made in Australia in it. It has the Riot at The Regent. It has a souvenir of that infamous concert, so yeah. So you know, something fun for all the family as they say. 

Well, despite all the dark days there is still some light in the form of music coming from yourself.

Who knows whether anybody is buying records right now, but they’re there if you need them. The way I see it is sort of like a public service to keep making music. You’ve got to just be in contact, we’ve got to show a sign of life you know. 

Well, thank you for your time, and again, congratulations on the new record.

Pleasure to talk to you, stay well, and I hope that… It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been [to Australia] now and we had all these plans but they’ve all been delayed. So heaven knows when it will be, but we’ll surely try and get back down there. It’d be great if we could.

“Stay well and throw your television out the window,” is my best advice for everybody. Don’t look at the TV, that won’t help any.

Elvis Costello’s Hey Clockface is officially out now.