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Costello Still Finds Wonder in Songwriting

July 29, 2009 at 6:45 PM EST
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with musician Elvis Costello about how his approach to recording albums has evolved over three decades.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a restless rock-and-roller. Jeffrey Brown has our profile of musician Elvis Costello.

JEFFREY BROWN: Young, brash, sporting tight pants and big glasses, Elvis Costello emerged in the late ’70s as a leading voice of new wave rock and roll. Born Declan MacManus, Costello came from his mother’s family and Elvis came from you-know-who, the young man from Liverpool turned out a series of hit albums and songs.

But soon enough, fans learned that Costello had wide-ranging tastes in music and that he didn’t like being confined by labels, which he’s continued to defy for more than 30 years.

ELVIS COSTELLO, musician: The sign posts are a matter of convenience so that we don’t stumble into the wrong — through the wrong door, but I grew up in a house full of music. And my parents were both involved in music. And it made it seem natural to me to listen to all of the music that was available. And my experience of playing has led to a lot of collaborations, but all music’s collaborative.

JEFFREY BROWN: Costello’s collaborations have been unusually varied and covered many genres. Among them, he’s played and recorded with New Orleans great Allen Toussaint, with the Brodsky String Quartet, and perhaps most famously a Grammy-winning album with pop composer and pianist Burt Bacharach. In 1997, they performed on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

Costello talked with us at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia, at the beginning of his latest tour. He said his musical restlessness was there early on.

ELVIS COSTELLO: I sensed about four records in that I could sense the hardening of a style into a sound that was like a signature.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you didn’t want that?

ELVIS COSTELLO: No. I mean, it just seemed like the music was playing us rather than the other way around. And, you know, since then, and you let go of some certainties commercially and there’s been years of a drift from it.

I mean, the record I just have out now, the record company is rightfully very pleased with the response initially, and they’re saying, “Oh, it’s your biggest record since 1980.” And I’m going, “Yes, well, think about the records that that leaves out in between,” you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: The new recording, titled “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane,” looks to American country and bluegrass for inspiration. The project is the third time Costello’s teamed up with producer T-Bone Burnett. Loretta Lynn co-wrote one of the songs, and some of Nashville’s top musicians perform.

Did it take you a while to get to be — to have that self-confidence to go out and say, “Hey, I can do this, I can do that, I can go out and perform a different style, anything I want”?

ELVIS COSTELLO: I think at first I was quite — it appeared aggressive, but actually it was probably a lack of complete confidence or just wanting not to waste my time answering a lot of predictable questions, rather just simply do what I was doing.

And the opportunities have come to me to work in a lot of different ways, some of them way beyond my imagining when I started, and every experience has been something that I am glad I took up.

Nothing’s been a waste of my time. I don’t expect everybody in my original audience or in any audience to follow every single thing that I’m interested in. But there’s an audience for whatever you can engage in, because lots of people in the world are curious.

Learning from other musicians

JEFFREY BROWN: Costello's own curiosity recently led him to an entirely new type of collaboration, host of his own TV show, called "Spectacle," on the Sundance Channel, where he interviewed other leading musicians about the art of songwriting.

Each show featured performances -- here, Costello played with the band the Police -- and discussion of process, influences and interpretation, as here with Smokey Robinson.

ELVIS COSTELLO: And what age did you start trying to be a lyricist? And who were the people that made you want to do that?

SMOKEY ROBINSON, musician: I grew up in a home where there was always music.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you learn something from talking to these people about what makes a great song?

ELVIS COSTELLO: I don't think the lessons are as easily learnt or the secrets are that easily given up. I think you have to live with songs a long time. I know how songs are made. I mean, I've written 400 of them, so, you know, I don't know how to write a Smokey Robinson song.

I can try and imitate him if I sit down at the piano, but I'll never succeed. But you might write an interesting song on the way to trying to write like Smokey Robinson or Burt Bacharach or anybody you choose or -- and I'm always looking for the next songwriter down the road, that a young person's going to surprise you and knock you out with something that you've not heard before.

JEFFREY BROWN: You've learned the process. Have you learned how to write a great song or what makes a great song?

ELVIS COSTELLO: Well, I don't know. What is a great song? I mean, is it a great song when it sells a lot of copies, when everybody in the world sings it, or when it matters an awful lot to one or two people?

I mean, of course it's satisfying when you have a successful song and a song that's maybe picked up and sung by a number of other people. I've had those kind of successes.

But if a song is successful to me emotionally, then that's a different kind of -- you know, I felt like I -- without being self-satisfied, I'm satisfied that I did my job to realize the song the way I imagined it.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 54, Elvis Costello has a number of new projects in the works, including an idea for an opera based on the life of Hans Christian Andersen. In the meantime, he's doing what he loves best: performing his music.

ELVIS COSTELLO: I believe that you've got to take the music out to play it and let people hear it, because there's always somebody in town who wants to hear you. They'll say, "Oh, there's no market for you there," but you go there.

And there's a bunch of artists that have done that down the years, you know? And that theory of keeping going and playing and enjoying playing, if you don't, you know -- the playing has the word "play" in it, the stuff that we abandon after childhood. Well, I haven't.

JEFFREY BROWN: This summer, Elvis Costello is taking that playfulness and his latest musical incarnation on the road.

GWEN IFILL: You can hear Jeff's entire conversation with Elvis Costello on our online "Art Beat" at newshour.pbs.org.