Interviews

Elvis Costello is a more perceptive, skilled and thoughtful writer than ever

The Boy Named If is full of bright, driving melodies, heavy emotions and insightful lyrics that depict the steady decline into what is essentially being a proper grown-up.

Once again, Elvis Costello and The Imposters are back with an impeccable album that takes you on an intricate journey through every stage of life with every up and down portrayed through whirling musicianship.

Elvis’ perceptive lyrics allows the listener to hear snapshots through boyhood until the moment that you’re told to stop acting like a child which, as Elvis put it, “can be any time in the next fifty years”.

ELVIS: Chloe, how are you?

HAPPY: I’m good thanks, Elvis, how are you?

ELVIS: I’m doing good, I’m doing good. Here in New York City, where are you?

HAPPY: I’m in Sydney!

ELVIS: Sydney, lovely, it’s been a bit of a while since I’ve been there.

HAPPY: Yeah how long?

ELVIS: Oh, you know when I say four years it’s probably six.

HAPPY: Oh yeah, the last two don’t count.

ELVIS: Yeah the last two don’t count, thank you.

HAPPY: Alright, let’s chat about your new album A Boy Named If. It’s fantastic, and so much fun!

ELVIS: Oh thank you.

HAPPY: No, thank you! I’ve always found that your lyrics are incredible, you’re a great storyteller. I loved the whole theme of the album. You referred to the actual boy named if, with the extended album title The Boy Named If (And Other Children’s Stories). I would imagine that you’re writing for your fans but is there any part of you that feels as if you’re writing for your younger self?

ELVIS:  Ah, I don’t think I’m addressing myself really. I’m writing for any listener of any age. I don’t really see why it has… I don’t really think you have to… Not everybody will have a vivid thought that even lines up with this who happens to be my age or older than me. Perhaps the last ten years of my life, you now reaching the age that I am, it’s not a tremendously big surprise that I’ve seen the passing of both my father and my mother. So I’m the senior member of the family and maybe that makes you look at the whole story because you know? My mother only passed almost exactly a year ago, it’ll be a year next week. 

So that was the moment and obviously, it makes you think. But that happened after I had written this record. I think sometimes your mind goes to certain themes before events come to a conclusion that gives them a sort of an end.

I was writing the book that I wrote, which was something of a romantic fantasy about my grandfather, father and myself being travelling musicians. I was writing that during the period of my father’s deterioration and eventual passing. I mean he passed before I actually finished the book so I remember thinking that I didn’t even want to let go of the book because while he was alive in the book, he was somehow alive in my life.

It’s no doubt that as you get older, you obviously have more to measure yourself against. I also think that as you get better, as I hope you can, or at least more facilities to write, you’re not always as selfish to impose on people an exact recitation of your life. 

I made a sort of decision at a certain age, I can’t remember what it was, that I would not necessarily provoke disastrous love affairs just so I could write songs about them. I had to admit that I had done that and it was a little bit of using yourself as a kind of chemistry set of emotional turmoil and involving, mores, more self-indulgence, more drinking and all of that. So, although those things didn’t all stop at the same time, I think I became more capable of imagining myself in other people’s lives.

I could start to try and imagine, try to use what I had gathered as skills, to try and be more empathetic and less selfish not just simply writing what just happened to me. You know, I’m not that fascinating. Other people make mistakes and make a fool of themselves or are a fool in love, that doesn’t mean you’re never writing another love song but, the possibilities of them become much greater when you’re just not reporting what just happened to you.

And I did write another record that was just a literal representation of a transition in my life that took place about 17 years ago. People were deeply shocked by how plain-spoken it was and didn’t like it. A lot of people didn’t like it because it wasn’t tricky and ironic and all these things that I had become supposedly known for. The couple of times that I spoke directly to people, they kind of stepped back, not cause the songs were bad, but because they don’t like truth. I’m that guy that’s got the smart-arse line you know but that’s not really me, that’s them, that’s what they’re hearing. You know I have no control about the way people listen to my songs, I have to write what I honestly think is the right story.

HAPPY: Yeah of course.

ELVIS: The first record that I made with Sebastian Krys as my co-producer, and we have worked on what I think is 9 record albums worth of material over the last 4 years, including him mixing the live recording of the riot we had the first time we played in Sydney, you know the little 10 inch record that came in the Armed Forces box set that we put out in 2020. The whole of almost all of the first record that we did together, Look Now, was me trying to imagine the woman’s perspective in a series of scenarios. Almost every song of Look Now is written from a woman’s point of view. Like folk music songs often change gender without any self-consciousness so I decided to try and do that to see whether I could.

Some of the songs I had already written, but certainly the two songs I wrote with Burt Bacharach on that record, Don’t Look Now and Photographs Can Lie were definitely written from the perspective of a young woman who discovers her father has been unfaithful to her mother and the song Don’t Look Now was written from the point of view of a life model who is looking into the eyes of the painter who’s painter her and saying, ‘Is he looking at me as a woman or as an object?’ 

Now that’s a presumptuous thing maybe for a man to try and write but that’s what I tried to do and I didn’t do it in some… to try and be clever, I did it because I wanted to know what that feels like. To impose myself into that experience except in words. Crime writers kill people all the time but they never go to jail.

HAPPY: *laugh* Of course.

ELVIS: So you’ve got to think about why you’re writing. The point of doing that, Look Now record in that way was that for all the differences, the evident differences between us across gender, across time, across race, across language… The humanity between us is the linking thing and all those other definitions are something else that makes us who and what we are but there’s one thing in which we’re all the same. We’re breathing in and out and thoughts are coming in and those other things that give us the colour and the fascination for whoever it is that loves us or whoever it is that doesn’t love us, that’s also stuff you have to negotiate and that’s also stuff that songs need to be sung about.

HAPPY: Oh my god of course.

ELVIS: Otherwise there’d be no protest songs, there’d be no laments, there’d be no songs of joy. There would only be one song, everything would be one take. You know?

HAPPY: Yeap.

ELVIS: So, this record I started, all the songs came very quickly n the summer of 2020. We have finished the record Hey Clockface, recorded in Helsinki and Paris in those care-free days when one could just jump on a plane and say, ‘I’m gonna go to Helsinki’. And I finished it over an electronic wire to my friend in New York. Sebastian was finishing mixing Spanish Model which is a remix of This Year’s Model our second record with an entirely Spanish language cast, many of the songs on that record were sung by young women who were the same age I was when I wrote those songs, 23. 23 or 33. Some of the men, who were more close to my generation, in fact, nobody exactly my generation, all younger. And I hate them for it.

HAPPY: *Laughing*

ELVIS: But it was wonderful because I don’t speak Spanish, Sebastian would have to tell me, ‘This is a really faithful transposition into this other language’ and then you would have somebody with a very melodious voice, singing a song that I had sung with tremendous attitude or ‘tude’ as the Americans would say.

HAPPY: *More laughing*

ELVIS: I didn’t even know some of these songs had tunes. I said, ‘Did I write that melody? It’s actually quite good!’ And the melodiousness and the sweetness of the voices of course that then became a sort of contrast with the lyrics being quite edgy you know? 

I picked up the guitar in the summer of 2020 and I sort of said one thing to myself I said, ‘Okay, major key, tempo.’ And as I started to think about these little scenes, leaving childhood into adulthood into a slightly more cynical disillusioned middle age into older age looking back at a scandalous past. These are all versions of the boy named If.

 

The boy named If is literally an imaginary friend. That charming alibi that children make for breaking things. ‘It wasn’t me, it was,’ pardon me for saying this, ‘red-haired Jonny over there, my imaginary pal…’ You know? If you’re still saying that at 27, ‘Oh I had to stay out all night dear because my other side made me do it.’ Not so endearing I think.

HAPPY: Uhuh!

ELVIS: I tried to catch some of the confusion and thrill I remember of being say, in New York for the first time and it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and everybody’s in love with the wrong person and you don’t know whether people are your friends or they’re just patronising you. 

You probably have been in some sort of scene like that where you know people are being patently insincere.

HAPPY: *Laughs* Of course.

ELVIS: That’s what I wrote Mistook Me For A Friend about. There’s a thrilling, a very sexy kind of feeling where you sort of didn’t know and you wake up and go ‘Where am I?’ You know?

I thought I’ve gotta catch the thrill of that in the music. And the band I suppose we all know, if other people have walked the straight and narrow path, they’ve probably watched me do something different. So we know how to represent that in music. We know how to get outside of ourselves. And I frankly think that not looking at each other while we were playing had some sort of liberation.

HAPPY: Oh I can imagine.

 

ELVIS: Maybe not having to look at our own ugly anxious faces all the time while we were playing..

HAPPY: *Laughs*

ELVIS: We were all in our separate space, Pete in his basement with his rehearsal kit, which is the same kit he played on our first records. And he sounds at home on that drum kit, he sounds himself, it’s his voice. Just as my guitar.

Davey who’s been our bass player in The Imposters for 20 years and still has to put up with people saying he’s a replacement for some other guy. It’s kind of a drag cause he’s a totally different musician with totally different talents and he’s a terrific singer.

And of course, finally, Steve Nieve who, the youngest member of the band, 18 when he joined The Attractions, so still a mere child of 62 and, you could always count on him to surprise. But because he was the last of us to contribute, he played in different spaces on this record and you hear him really clearly and then he might not be in the next section of the song.

So I do think the curious way in which I was literally on the back porch, singing in the garden, God knows what the neighbours thought, yelling all these songs. 

Or in a cupboard under the stairs, wherever I could shelter when the weather got bad and Sebastian, our producer, in his studio, pulling all this into one picture for you, you know?

Three weeks I think we recorded it in, you know not very much time.

HAPPY: Wow.

ELVIS: It just came to life. And because the words were pulled out of me quickly, by the rhythm of the guitar, I sort of feel as if that’s why they sort of hung together. Cause they were keeping company with similar themes.

I didn’t set out to write a linked record or anything. It sounds horribly like a concept album.

HAPPY: *Big laughter*

ELVIS: I also think ‘concept record’ is a funny description of a record, of course, it’s a concept. There are ideas in it. Why is it a concept record?

HAPPY: *Still laughing* Yeah.

ELVIS: It’s like when people keep saying ‘genre’ in reviews. Genre? Why don’t you just say style? Why do you have to use that French word? It doesn’t make you sound clever, it makes you sound pompous. 

HAPPY: *Trying to stop laughing* Yeah I agree. Look, whether it was intentional or not I think you have done a wonderful job of telling an overarching story that eases from these lighter feelings into something that is so much heavier. It’s almost creepy at moments but it’s still so much fun!

ELVIS: Definitely. The Difference is a very disturbing story. I don’t know whether you know it but it’s one of three songs that I wrote, inspired by Pavel Pavlovsky’s film Cold War, I don’t know whether you know that film. It’s a Polish film. I wrote to him, I found the film very moving and his producer Tanya Seghatchian, who is also the producer of Jane Campion’s new film, she got in touch with me and, I had mentioned something about the music in Pavel’s film and we were introduced and the three of us had a conversation about a possible adaptation of his film to the stage. And perhaps I would write some music for it so, as a sort of example, not so much to begin a score that’d not been asked for, I wrote two songs which were the first and last scene of his film, in song form.

HAPPY: That’s very cool.

ELVIS: And they were on Hey Clockface. The first one, Revolution #49 was a recitation over a very unusual, semi-improvised instrumental and the second was a ballad called I Do (Zula’s Song), it’s the name of the lead character of the story. And then I find myself writing a third song, called The Difference which quotes one of the lines in his script. Namely, as the lead characters of that movie are kind of becoming entwined in their affair, one is a music teacher and the other is a student. He asks her, she is known to have some sort of mysterious history, ‘Is it true that you killed your father?’ and she says, ‘No he lived but he mistook me for his spouse so I used a knife to show him the difference.’

She doesn’t say whether she actually stabbed him or just threatened him. And I thought, well this could be transposed into a seduction between two people approximately the same age. What would it be like if a boy who thinks he’s more experienced is trying to seduce a young woman, only to discover that she knows much more about this scenario than he thinks? Because she has that experience of somebody actually menacing her. Because that sadly, is what some people have to live with, some secret of a traumatic experience some time in their life, which affects the way they are in every exchange. 

Even if it was sincere, you know, it wasn’t in any way, it was a completely legitimate attraction on the part of that boy, he might make assumptions and there might be something that somebody has hidden. And that sort of hidden wound isn’t sung about very much in songs. Unless it’s from the perspective of somebody speaking of their own traumatic experience. 

I haven’t heard of too many people trying to stand up outside that and say, ‘That’s very dramatic but who is leading who’s hand?’

HAPPY: Yeah well it’s dangerous!

ELVIS: Yeah which is what The Death of Magic Thinking is about. A relatively innocent flirtation between two teenagers in which the girl is the more experienced. And the boy has no idea what this gesture that he’s invited to make really means. Except that it gives him vertigo. Cause he suspects it’s wrong you know?

So I took a series few pictures in just a few lines of an innocent desire to travel, which I had as a child before I developed a fear of flying. I used to live in the flight path for Heathrow and hear the planes go up ahead and I was half scared by the sound of them coming in because it sounded like they were about to land on my head but I half-imagined that I would one day go to the airport and go anywhere in the world. Which, at that age, that’s like saying, ‘I’m going to be an astronaut’ you know?

HAPPY: Yeah.

ELVIS: And then as you get older you realise your head is being filled up with things for which you can find no logical use like algebra. And it crowds outlaw of that imaginative stuff that you candy when you’re a child, like stand on your head or draw fantastic inventions. Mainly cause you’re consumed with a bunch of desires you don’t properly understand. That may not be your experience.

HAPPY: No I get it, of course.

ELVIS: I think that both men and women they experience it on a different timetable but they certainly experience it. And how you get through that, and how much it wounds you or how much it frees you,  leaves what kind of confident or mistaken decisions you might make you know as a young adult.

I was trying to think of some things about love and desire really, both things, about true love and just raw desire that hadn’t been quite expressed exactly the same way as they had been before.

HAPPY: You did a great job.

ELVIS: There’s a song This Pain In My Heart, you know This Pain In My Heart? It’s just Magnificent Hurt but there’s a whole bunch of other stuff going on in Magnificent Hurt which is more descriptive of what that is and why that is.

ELVIS: I love both songs, they’re fantastic. Unfortunately, we have to wrap up, I would love to talk to you for a lot longer but…

ELVIS: Oh well any time, I’m sure there will be other occasions and maybe, we’ll even get back to Sydney. I mean that would be lovely, it’s been way too long. It seems very far away. I have good friends there, lesser than I once had but it sounds wonderful to get back. There is this big queue of shows waiting to take place.

HAPPY: Absolutely.

 

The Boy Named If is available on all streaming services now.

Interviewed by Chloe Maddren.

Photos supplied.