Having wrapped his 13-episode chat and sing show Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, Elvis Costello is enjoying some well-earned time off at his Canadian home. Occasionally a dog barks, or one of Costello’s twin sons with his wife, the Canadian jazz chanteuse Diana Krall, tests the power of his two-year-old lungs. Nervous about having interrupted his family sabbatical, I’m instead rewarded with — and awed by — a relaxed, contemplative Costello who is genuinely happy to discuss the joys and occasional pains of creating the one-of-kind Spectacle, coming to your TV beginning Dec. 3.
There are legions of music fans who’ve prayed for a chance to sit down with you and your friends and talk music — who actually decided to bring such a thing to television?
Elvis Costello: I think that the idea had been suggested a number of times, but it was the team put together by Elton John and David Furnish — they are the executive producers. [They] put together a team and got into discussions with Sundance Channel, CTV in Canada and Channel 4 in the UK. The fact that it’s been in people’s minds for a few years moved it on. And I can’t imagine that names of the people involved were a disadvantage exactly in getting people’s attention — more in the executive producer realm, I mean, more so that my involvement.
And then it’s a question of doing a couple of shows and seeing what happens. We had been given a fair degree of freedom — and I had some definite ideas about what the program shouldn’t be as much as what it could be. We haven’t been rigid about the way the presentation flows in relation to the personality to the guest. I think that’s important.
Most chat shows, they’re a very different animal. They’re shot on a to-tape window of maybe an hour and ten minutes for a 52—minute program, and there’s a lot of structure that stays constant night to night. There’s the introduction, there’s the monologue, there are certain running gags and then there are these conversations that are inevitably pretty light-hearted. And there’s a musical number to end. That’s the format that’s served the talk program for a very long time — in America at least.
This isn’t a chat program as such, and it’s not just a music performance program, and it’s not a concert program with just an interview interlude. It’s actually a conversation with the artist. So we do have to structure it.
I usually begin with a number by the guest — so you immediately hear a new version of a song that you might know by the person who’s that week’s guest, then some kind of introduction which is sometimes musically accompanied, and then the conversation begins. We have had taped for up to three hours in order to really give the artist the opportunity to play or to sing or to talk about the things that they’re interested in. It isn’t always about the “from the day they were born to the present day” sort of chronological telling of their career. It can jump around.
And it’s sometimes the better for that because you stumble into new insights into their work or they remember things about their career or about their love of other people’s music. Quite often it’s the love of other people’s music about which they are most expansive.
And then of course we make a nightmare job for the editor [laughs].
Do you take part in that nightmare, or are you content to leave it to the editors?
I get sent the rough cut and I make notes. There’s a group of us that work closely together.
I write the show, as well, so [it’s] the same way that we have a script meeting. I probably overwrite on every occasion because it’s important to have more than you need. And we sometimes get together and maybe combine two lines of inquiry into one question or find a new way to phrase something that’s going to move along a little bit faster. Some of the factual detail needs to be read from teleprompter.
These are things that I’ve had to learn how to do. I’m sure you’ll be able to recognize the first episodes that we taped because those are the ones I am left ruined, you know? You get a little better at it as you move along.
But I think people would be surprised if I came up and was a highly polished television presenter, as if I’d been reading the weather since I was in my twenties. I’m used to being on the stage, I’m used to being in front of people, but it’s different than imparting big chunks of factual information off a prompter.
So I try to do it the best I can, and I don’t think anybody is going to be terribly shocked by it having a different sound to the people you regularly usually see on television. I think it would be unsettling if I were slick at it, you know?
This seems to be a show for genuine music lovers, not just, say, iTunes or Blender junkies. Did you have a particular audience in mind when you set out to make the show?
Anybody who wants to give it a go — I don’t visualize one particular age group.
You have to flip a coin as to whether the most interesting program is somebody who has a 40-year career, and has clear sight of it, and doesn’t mind revisiting some elements of it … and doesn’t feel like they’re being dragged back to the very beginnings and are not being appreciated in the present moment.
Somebody like Smokey Robinson who was very generous — and Herbie Hancock, incredibly generous — in telling probably tales they had told a number of times, but telling them with a freshness.
And then if somebody happened to turn it on that didn’t know about them, they would hear Herbie Hancock talking about getting a call from Miles Davis and being a really young man and the band that he was in — the Miles band that he was in — were all very young. And the thing that really came over with him telling the story instead of reading it in a book is that he could still really communicate how exciting it was for him. Even though he had quite a number of achievements behind him at that point, to get that call. Because Miles was such a consequential figure in the world of music, in the world of jazz, that there was just a straightforward, youthful enthusiasm to him at that point. He could still convey exactly what that was like.
Smokey Robinson talked about being at the Apollo — where we taped most of the shows — and being seventeen and in the group he was in before he was even in The Miracles. And they were about to be thrown off the bill because they had arrived from Detroit with just chord changes and no big band arrangements. In those days, the shows were like revues with a big band backing everybody, and they turned up without arrangements and the manager of the show was furious with them. And he describes how Ray Charles walked over at that moment and saved them by dictating the arrangements for them.
Well this is extraordinary, because I’ve never read this anywhere.
But then you start thinking — and it wasn’t until after the show was over and I was talking about it with friends that somebody said to me, “If you think about it and that hadn’t have happened, if he hadn’t been saved that night, maybe his career would’ve gone a different way. Maybe we wouldn’t have heard from him again.” You don’t know! It’s so random at those early stages of a career.
So I would think that even if a young person tuned in and heard that story, they wouldn’t be thinking, “Oh that’s some old guy I can’t relate to.” Because they were relating the first steps — these first movements into a very consequential career.
And as much as the sort of like “grand old man looking back with a great sense of entitlement,” at the same time I think it’s really wonderful that we got the chance to have Rufus Wainwright on the show, and Jenny Lewis and Jakob Dylan, and She & Him — these are just a few of the many great young artists that I would hope that if the program did return, I would hope that we would try to keep the variety in the booking to try to reflect different styles of music. Because you often find on the experience of the musician of the artist, it narrows the distance between those worlds when you actually get into talking about what you do and what you love.
Did you take a different approach to the younger artists than you do to, say, Smokey Robinson or Lou Reed?
I think that obviously that people who are closer to the beginning of their career than some of the artists are inevitably going to be less comfortable looking backwards because they still feel like the work is very much in flow.
It’s harder really for the younger artists like Jenny. Perhaps Jakob is a very good example of someone who’s just coming into a second period of his career where he’s playing solo now and therefore he was able to compare that to the experience with the Wallflowers. And he did that very well, I thought. Obviously songs are all written on one instrument initially, so in actuality he had been writing the same way his whole career. But people knew the Wallflowers initially and now they’re hearing him as a solo artist.
So every show turned up something new for me — I wound up learning quite a bit.
You have known a number of your guests for quite some time. Are the questions you ask them still things you personally want to know … or things you think the audience might want to know? A little of both?
They’re just genuinely my own curiosity, mostly.
To some degree, I had to acknowledge that people would think it odd if I didn’t touch on some key points. And then, because I am used to being asked questions myself and know my own level of comfort and discomfort with certain types of inquiry, I would take a guess at how people would respond. And sometimes they would give you something really wonderful — something that was far more than you were expecting.
I mean, Elton came along for the very first taping and it was a great help to me because obviously I was very inexperienced at all the technical aspects. We did pre—agree, not what we would say, but that the line of inquiry really wouldn’t be about his career in terms of landmarks of his career. We wouldn’t talk about individual albums or hits he had and all the things that people are focused on so much.
He wanted to talk about specific artists who had influenced at key points, particularly at the beginning of his career. And it gave us an opportunity to celebrate some other songwriters who were not really that well known to people. For him to talk about them and even go to the piano and show something of their style and how it actually influenced a specific particular song of his was a generous act.
When I was talking with James Taylor, first of all I would ask him about the period of time when people were hanging on every word of the early songs. People were focused on the relationships between various songwriters of that time. And I said to him that it was kind of a poetic version of celebrity culture now, where the magazines all obsess every issue about this person or that person.
In those days, it was done in a slightly more graceful way. Because the songwriters were speaking of their own life. And I guess maybe songs were written about another contemporary artist and their relationship with them — but there’d be a way to ask that question without it being uncomfortable for him because it’s years later and you don’t want to be raking over old stories.
Do you think music journalism has gone off-point — focusing on the celebrity of the artist more so than the music?
Fame has become the obsession, and sometimes the level of cynicism in music media is so great, because there has been a lot of contrivance. And, therefore, they’re more inclined to focus on what is in a trend and what is out of a trend and what appears to be a trick and how something fits into a big puzzle.
I know that’s the case in my own career, because journalists generally approach every record as a piece of some puzzle that I have that I won’t tell anybody about [laughs]. And it isn’t really the case at all. It’s just the next thing I am doing. And if it’s contrasting to the work I did before, it’s because that’s what I’m interested in at the moment and I’m trying to convey that interest.
You can have whatever opinion you like about whether I am as capable in one form or another — but that’s why I am trying to do it. To try to get something from that form that is satisfying to me, and offer it to the audience: “This is the next group of songs. This what I wrote.”
And I think perhaps a lot more artists than are imagined are working that way. They’re just following their instincts. They’re writing not necessarily personally in that they’re writing their diary, but they’re writing from a personal point of view that’s their outlook on music and words. When you ask them what those words are and what they mean, it invites them to be obscure — and that’s not a healthy thing. It invites them to be all about the presentation and not about the actual content.
I’m not saying the music lacks content — I just don’t think people ask about it. So I would feel strange if I didn’t go about asking when I was given the opportunity to do so.
I could really care less about which records have sold more than others. Some of the greatest records haven’t sold, and some of the best music is made in the margins and down in a dusty corner somewhere and you have to go looking for it. Maybe it’s better for you to have to seek it out, you know?
So does the show help bring any of that sort of music into the spotlight?
It’s hard to convince television companies to feature a relatively unknown artist — but when you have a really well known artist like Elton John talking about a sadly forgotten songwriter like David Ackles, then you combine the two things in a good way.
Sort of like, people will watch Elton talking David Ackles, but nobody ever saw David Ackles on television. One time he was on television. He made four albums and there’s one television clip of him.
It was wonderful for me, being one of those people that admired him, that we got to talk about him on a program that will be nationally broadcast. Internationally broadcast. And we performed one of his numbers to close the show. We didn’t close the show with one of Elton’s numbers or one of my numbers — we closed the show with a songwriter that made his record in 1974.
That felt like the right thing to do because it’s someone we both love and admire. We have plenty of opportunities to play our own songs on other shows. This show is about being able to celebrate things that aren’t always in the light. Not to be willfully obscure — there are plenty of well-known tunes played on the show.
I mean James Taylor performed “Fire And Rain” on the show, but we talked about how the context of that song had been changed by him specifically performing it at the Concert for New York City after 9/11 — and how it had a different meaning for people than he had obviously intended when he wrote it. Well, that’s another product of a long career. It couldn’t have happened to someone who has one new song.
How did you go about assembling your guest list?
I made up a list of people I would like to approach and we did pretty well in getting many of those people.
There other people that we hoped to get — we just weren’t fortunate enough for their availability to fall on the days we were taping. We had some very nice responses from people who said they would really love to do it — and would love to do it in the future if there are any more shows. And, of course, some of those people were people you would really love to have on a show like this.
Also, we made the decision to have a location, as opposed to a traveling production which could visit the people where they are, and that lessens your ability to get the all of the people that you could imagine.
If you could travel to London or to Los Angeles or Nashville, it would be different. But then the show would look different, because it would have to be very mobile and it couldn’t look like Spectacle looks.
Actually, we made one shift — we moved from NBC [studio] HH where we shot the first four shows to the Apollo, and though those first four shows were really good, they were the ones where I was learning everything. I felt that once we got to the Apollo, where I was in an environment that I really know — I understand theaters better than television studios — I personally felt more confident. And the Apollo just has such a great feel about it.
But that’s not to say that HH doesn’t have some history as well — including my own. Because that’s where I thought I was never going to be on TV again — because that’s where I changed the number live on television on Saturday Night Live in ’77. So that was comical for me to be doing my own television show in the same facility. I wasn’t doing it for NBC, but I was doing it in the same building, on the same stage.
And, you know, those four shows included conversations with Elton, President Clinton, Tony Bennett, and Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel. So they weren’t exactly trial runs. They were full on, headfirst, feet-first kind of moments.
But in terms of the relationship to the audience and the atmosphere I have no doubt that the Apollo improved things.
And the shows that we did with multiple artists like Jenny and Jakob and Matt and Zooey, and then the final one we taped — not the very final one — but the one in the last two days with what we called a guitar pool, where it was much more short hand anecdotes between songs as opposed to interviews, with John Mellencamp, Rosanne Cash, myself, Kris Kristofferson and Norah Jones. Those were shows that I think needed to be done in a theater.
The Apollo really did add such great atmosphere to your set and to the show overall …
I love the whole building. And I think some of Smokey Robinson’s reminiscences would have been different in a different location. One of the most interesting stories he told related to his experiences in the stage shows at the Apollo prior to his success at Motown.
So many of the backing musicians are legends as well.
A lot of it was my own band, The Imposters. Steve Nieve lives in Paris, so it was very difficult flying him in. He only appeared on one show — but it was, very crucially, the Lou Reed show.
The rhythm section — Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher — played on a number of the shows. They played behind Elton and they played with me and James Burton who played guitar for Elvis Presley.
We tried to find a musical way to introduce President Clinton and, you know, obviously, unlike all the other artists, he’s not a songwriter. He has played music, but he doesn’t play now. But his interest in music was the main thrust of the conversation, it wasn’t about politics — we just touched on politics and how music entered the political life. So we opened the show — hoping he would find this funny — with an Elvis Presley song. Because everybody knows that was his secret service nickname.
So we opened the show with all the great songs of Arkansas, and then playing “Mystery Train.” That was great, because I’ve worked with James Burton before; he’s played on records of mine.
Alan Touissant sat in with the band when we played with Elton, and Elton loved that because he greatly admires Alan.
The President Clinton show ended with Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden, because President Clinton loves jazz, and we wanted to have something contemplative to end the show. They played a new composition called “Is This America?” which is a post-Katrina benefit meditation.
So it was the possibility of the music being more light-hearted or being more thoughtful.
We put together a different band for the Lou Reed show and, obviously, a different band again for the Smokey Robinson show. It was the same rhythm section, but we brought in Anthony “A.B.” Brown up from New Orleans to play rhythm guitar in the bands because I was just going to be singing in that lineup. Steve’s even in that show — it was two shows that he appeared on.
And of course the Imposters appeared in their entirety on the show with The Police — we actually played together — which was another way of making that performance unique. You know, rather than just having The Police play as a trio, when everybody knew they were going to disband the day after the taping. We actually played as a septet.
They all talked individually. Andy and I performed a Charles Mingus song together. Sting and I played a segment of a John Dowland composition and then we talked about songwriting and he played a little bit of “Roxanne” on the guitar.
But at the end, we played an arrangement of “Watching the Detectives” on into “Walking On The Moon” that we had worked up. Because we were on the road with those guys, we had the opportunity to rehearse it. So that was something unique to the show — you can only hear that performance on the show this one time only. And it really is one time only because those guys are disbanded now.
So that was a one-time only septet. And then we did “Sunshine of Your Love,” which was quite fun to play, because I never play that kind of music. We tried to find something that was just bizarre enough to go out on.
When they have the multiple artists — the one with Mellencamp and Rosanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson and Nora, that one was called the Guitar Pool Show for production purposes. And the one you came to we called the Showbiz Kids Show. Everybody on the bill pretty much was some kind of showbiz kid — including myself. That was sort of the running theme, because there is a perspective that it gives you, growing up with some relationship to the performing arts. Hence we opened with the Steely Dan song (“Show Biz Kids”).
I do have to admit, though I’m an enormous fan of everyone on that show, I still couldn’t take my eyes off Pete and Tennessee Thomas drumming together.
It was terrific to play with Pete and Tennessee! We had only recorded earlier this year for the first time together. And obviously, I’ve seen her learn the drums and have her group and it all lies ahead of her, really.
The thing is, when people jam on songs, they usually just pick the blues or something — but those musicians are not the generation to do that. Jakob, particularly — we talked about that because of who his dad is. Everybody thinks that his background in music is his father influencing his music, but what he listened to growing up — as he will say — was English rock and roll. The Clash and even our records. And I really love Joe Strummer and the Clash records.
People are a little too respectful now because Joe passed — no one sings the songs anymore and that’s a shame because the songs are too good not to be heard anymore. Of course the songs can be heard on record — but the songs also really benefit from being performed.
There are a number of really unusual combinations. In the Renee Fleming episode, she also talked about her interest Appalachian music. And Rufus Wainwright was a guest on that show — we taped two shows on the same evening — but then Rufus sang a song in French. Talked about writing his opera in French. And Renee could talk about languages and her experience performing at the Met. And she ended up talking about folk and then we ended up doing “In The Pines,” the Appalachian song and my song that I wrote with T Bone Burnett “The Scarlet Tide” with Rufus and Renee and myself and Kate McGarrigle, Rufus’ mother, all singing playing together. I mean, I never imagined when we came up with this show that we’d end up with such combinations. But it’s one of the opportunities of doing a show like this.
We’ll see how people like it. It’s really easy to get overexcited about it in the moment.
So even you get star-struck?!
When I’m up there singing “You Really Got A Hold On Me” with Smokey Robinson, it’s really pretty head spinning. Or singing “Edith And The Kingpin” — which is a Joni Mitchell song — with Herbie Hancock. I looked up in the middle of the solo and went, “That’s Herbie Hancock!” When you think of everything he’s written, and that he played with Miles, I’m thinking, “What on Earth am I doing up here?” You can’t help but be a bit overwhelmed.
The point is that nobody came along with a defensive or evasive attitude. They all seemed to appreciate that we were trying to make the best of the opportunity. Some people that are more used to a faster pace of television might be a bit shocked at the length at which people are allowed to speak on this, but I think it’s been well edited. It’s beautifully shot. The sound is as good as you can get for television.
We’ll just have to see if people like and take it from there.
How did sir Elton happen to score the interview with your lovely bride?
Well it would have been really absurd for me to try to interview Diana; I would have known the answers to many of the questions, and it would have just ended up looking too cute.
I sang my song “Almost Blue” at the top of the show because Diana recorded it — for people that know that. And we closed with “Making Whoopee,” which was just a bit of fun.
But I thought Elton did a great job. Because one of the things that I’m aware of is that there was a period of time where I was only known for doing pictures and records, and I didn’t really do interviews. At some point you do enough work where it sort of behooves you to place the new work into a context or people get confused as to what your intentions are.
With Diana, I think the power of the visual images is sometimes distorting. That people have no idea about the person. She takes a good picture — very glamorous image. And people’s thinking about that goes all to the picture, and they make certain assumptions about her based on that that image. They have no idea about her. They have no idea that she has a sense of humor. Or that she can be quite thoughtful. Those images are so confidant looking that they have no idea of the thought that goes into what she does.
Interpretive artists sometimes don’t get credit for being artists at all, because so much value is placed on the writing of songs. Even when the songs aren’t very good, people give a lot of credit to the writing of songs.
To be a real interpretive artist in the manner that was the norm in the era of Sinatra and Nat Cole and Bing Crosby and the people that she loves, it’s a misunderstood art form today. Because people just talk about you doing a “cover” … you know, as if it’s a lesser type of performance than if you had written the song.
Try singing one of those songs and getting out of it what she can, and then you’ll find how difficult it is.
Really good interpretive artists are really doing something with other people’s music just as classical musicians are. There are any renditions of classical repertoire but the ones that we really cherish are the ones where the spirit of the performer is in balance and in complement to the intentions of the composer. And it’s really the same with the interpretive singer. Although it’s a very different kind of music.
And Elton, being a pianist, is better placed to appreciate some of the technical aspects of what she is doing at the piano. And Elton knows a lot about the history of the music — more than you would imagine. So I think it also revealed his interest in music.
And Diana had a killer band — she had a killer rhythm section. And Elton encouraged her to play instrumentally, which she doesn’t really do onstage very often. To play the Oscar Peterson piece “Night Train” — that was my favorite moment in the whole show. Just to play with that kind of looseness was in the spirit that we’ve intended with the show.
They also had such a remarkable repartee. One of my favorite parts of that taping was when Sir Elton asked her about what sorts of songs are sung to your boys, and she mused that she didn’t think it would be appropriate for them to be heading off to preschool singing show tunes. Elton happily exclaimed, “Unless you want them to turn out like me!” without missing a beat. There was such camaraderie there.
They do know each other well.
I actually met Elton through Diana — I didn’t know him before, strangely enough. You’d think we had [met], being in the business and coming out of England. But our paths had only crossed maybe once before I met Diana, and he has been a very good friend to us.
I was a little stretched from having done the Show Biz Kids show the night before. We were singing a lot of rock and roll and that was early in the day to be singing. And he really does understand her approach to music really quite well — and just the aspects of her personality that are not apparent to everyone.
I think that particular interview will do a lot to have people understand her as a person. I think sometimes you miss the feeling in music if you don’t understand the artist as a person.
If somebody writes song it’s very apparent because it’s their very words that you’re hearing them sing so you assume there’s some truth in what they’re saying. But when you sing through other people’s lyrics and your personality is filtered through that, it’s easy to make some wrong assumptions, you know?
I’m thinking of when she told Sir Elton, “I’m an interpreter of story,” and then began to sing “But Not for Me,” taking it from an up-tempo finger-snapper to a contemplative, rain-on-the-windowpane heartbreaker…?
I think if you compare to that performance to a later interpretation to “A Case of You,” then you see that she was really being self-deprecating in saying that she’s not a songwriter. Because what it is is that she’s not one that feels driven to write all the time.
She’s really quite capable of composing. The quality of the songs on “The Girl In The Other Room” — although I had something to do with the editorial work on the lyrics — the music is nearly all her.
It’s just that she doesn’t feel that she needs to be competitive as a songwriter and express herself solely through writing original songs.
At the one time in her life that she felt unable, as she explained, to really be truthful in singing these upbeat songs, when she had gone through the loss of her mum, she did find a composer’s voice. And very convincingly — songs I think she’ll be very proud of having written even thought right now they have no place in her repertoire.
I don’t think they’re songs that really need to be revisited. They exist on record. They existed in concert at the time. She’s at a different place in her life, now. She’s doing other things.
And just to be able to say that out loud on a show like this, I think, is a healthy thing.