Elvis Costello
Photo by Mark Seliger

Elvis Costello: “I didn’t have some big blueprint”

Short Profile

Name: Declan Patrick MacManus
DOB: 25 August 1954
Place of birth: Paddington, London, United Kingdom
Occupation: Musician

Elvis Costello and The Imposters' new album A Boy Named If is out now via EMI Records and Capitol Records.

Mr. Costello, what is the force that drives your songwriting?

I never think of that ever! I never think of like, “Why am I doing this?” I'm just doing it. That's what I do. I write and I try to respond to the impulse to write and try to make some coherence of that. I simply like to think about what the implication of events are, and if possible, if they give me a reason to write or sing, then that is great.

So where do your songs come from?

I think sometimes songs just develop out of a little imagining! You have to follow and find the logic, and then find the musical carriage for it. Sometimes the imaginative aspects of songwriting just accumulate in a coherent way, or you recognize little patterns or threads in the themes… For example with the song “Mr, Crescent” from my new album The Boy Named If, it’s about a man looking back on his sins. I don't know where this idea came from! Really, honestly, I don’t. But there's lots of very romantic images in that song, even though it's about a person who's not really admirable. In the end, the tune is a quite beautiful performance by the band and everybody just playing very simply. I didn't have some big blueprint for all of these songs written down where it must start here and end here.

“These songs are really not about death. It’s very sad to say goodbye… I wouldn’t sentimentalize that in a song.”

And what about influence from your own life? You endured a cancer scare in 2018 — I can imagine that was a powerful motivation for your art.

Not be too melodramatic — but strictly factually, I didn't have a brush with death. Sadly, many of my friends, too many of them, have died of cancer for me to even count myself among that number. I was very fortunate to have something detected which surgery could solve. I never was ill; I made a miscalculation about my own energies. I'm rather inclined to think I am invulnerable, and I went back on the stage far too soon, before I was fully rested. And that's the only reason anybody knows about that incident. It's very tempting romantically to think that songs are influenced by this event… And I've had reason to ponder the passing of very good friends both in this last emergency and before that. My mother also died recently, which was very painful because I wasn't able to be with her due to the pandemic.

It’s never easy to lose a loved one.

She was 93, and you can’t really count it as a surprise that eventually her incredible will to fight everything off could not last forever, you have to accept it. Because it’s not forever, for anybody, you know? But I haven't written any songs about that. These songs are really not about that, these songs are really not about death. It's very sad to say goodbye… I wouldn't sentimentalize that in a song. If there's something to be said, it might be years from now.

Sometimes you need a bit of distance in order to express these things in the way you feel is right.

I often don't write about things until many years after they occur! I've written about feelings I’ve had about things that happened in my own life with a degree of distance, and I think it becomes less self-pitying when you write a bit more clearly, with a bit of a distance. You make them perhaps a little more open to everybody's understanding. Your own experiences are very peculiar sometimes. And if you start writing songs in real time, they can be burdened by obscure detail. Several of the records that I'm most proud of are written as almost real time accounts, but even then there's some sort of editorial, creative omission. You change the emphasis of the story slightly to suit your feelings. It’s not a real life account, but there's little bits of experience in it, that's how songwriting works.

You’ve been writing songs and playing music professionally since the 1970s. Do you still love it just as much these days as you always have?

The simple answer to your question is: I am fortunate to do the job I do because it allows me to play! And when I don't remember to do it, when I start to intellectualize it or become fearful, that's when it stops being fun. There's many, many beautiful guitar players, I'm not one of them. I know that. With singers as well; I'm not a beautiful singer, but I can sing from the heart. My voice changes with time and experience, for better and for worse.

“I have people that I’ve played with a very long time. We are connected by our common understanding of what we’re doing… And most of all, there’s a friendship between us.”

And do you hope to continue doing this job as long as possible?

Well, I'm 67. And so inevitably there is less road up ahead than there is behind. My father was playing until the eighties! I don't know that it was always as rewarding as he might've dreamed once… But he was an entertainer rather than an artistic musician, so sometimes it would be frustrating.

Is it making music ever frustrating for you?

Sometimes I felt that I am confined by the success of particular songs. Or sometimes I haven't been able to carry the audience into the things that I wanted, that I felt more strongly about, that were more recent. I know on any night, my band is as good as anybody. They've always been that way. We have access to a kind of energetic attack that a lot of other people don't know about. It's hard to get that sometimes on a record, and have it be coherent and serve something. Sometimes it just sounds like noise or bluster! So you have find the circumstances, you have to make the frame where all of it registers and reads.

And what would you say is the key to reaching that point?

You just have to use what you have, and have great cohorts. I have people that I've played with a very long time. We are connected by our common understanding of what we’re doing, all the experiences we've had over the years… And most of all, there's a friendship between us which allows us to do it without having to explain everything with a huge long manifesto. It has a lot to do with the trust I’m able to place in them to do our work.