Elvis Costello Gets A Little Bluegrass For the past three decades, English singer-songwriter Elvis Costello has been traveling the world, performing music of every kind. Here, he sits down to discuss the sound and themes of his latest album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
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Elvis Costello Gets A Little Bluegrass

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Elvis Costello Gets A Little Bluegrass

Elvis Costello Gets A Little Bluegrass

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(Soundbite of music)


Mr. Costello?

Mr. ELVIS COSTELLO (Singer): Yeah.

SIMON: I've been enjoying your performance.

Mr. COSTELLO: Thank you. (Unintelligible) scatting I'm doing back here.

SIMON: Yeah. Scott Simon. Nice to meet you.

Mr. COSTELLO: Nice to meet you. I whistle too, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, it's good…

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) When the moon of the day meets a night. Anyway, let's go.

SIMON: Okay. Well, we're listening to Elvis Costello. And you know, over three decades he's been all over the map. And by that I mean he's not only performed all over the world, but he plays music of every kind, from pop to rock, new wave to country, opera, to jazz. For his latest release, he headed to Nashville and got a little bluegrass.

(Soundbite of song, "Secret, Profane and Sugarcane")

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) It's not your fault, so good as sugarcane, everywhere I travel, pretty girls call my name.

SIMON: His new CD is called "Secret, Profane and Sugarcane." Elvis Costello joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. COSTELLO: Thank you. It's good to be here.

SIMON: What attracted you to bluegrass?

Mr. COSTELLO: Well, I don't really hear this is a bluegrass record. I think if people expect to hear those kind of tunes, they might be a little surprised by the contents of this record. The instrumentalists that accompany me on the record undoubtedly have played that music. And the sounds, the instrumental colors, are quite commonly found in bluegrass.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COSTELLO: These are all my songs or songs I've co-written with the exception of one.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. COSTELLO: And I just found they were - there was a very good environment for the kind of narrative song that I had in my bag when I got together with my friend T. Bone Burnett with the idea of making this record.

SIMON: Now, what I read is that the two of you went into a studio in Nashville with these fabulous session musicians and just took a whole stack of songs?

Mr. COSTELLO: Yeah. I had talked to him about the idea of doing an acoustic-guitar record at least, I knew that much. And then as we discussed some of the material, he suggested some names, (unintelligible) Jerry Douglas(ph), and the others. And we were set up in a semi-circle, so we could see each other, you know, we were all in plain sight.

There was no hiding away in little booths, which means you can't make any mistakes. We started out with a couple of songs that might have belonged a little bit in the traditional country music style. One of which I work I wrote with Loretta Lynn.

SIMON: Let me get you to talk about that one, if we could.

Mr. COSTELLO: Yeah, Well, it's called "I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came." And I got the invitation from John Carter Cash to come, who's producing some recordings of Loretta's, to come down and try and write some songs with them. And I found myself in a writing cabin that used to belong to his father…

SIMON: Oh, my.

Mr. COSTELLO: …Johnny Cash. I had visited that cabin with John 30 years ago, when I was in Nashville to record a record called "Almost Blue," which was actually an album of other people's songs that I cut back then. So I found myself here 30 years on sitting with this legendary figure, who I really love and admire, Loretta Lynn. And she's throwing out ideas, titles of songs. We might've written more songs if we've not been laughing so much of the afternoon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COSTELLO: She was a riot to work with and we wrote this ballad line by line together.

(Soundbite of song, "I Felt The Chill Before The Winter Came")

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) I felt the chill before the winter came, (unintelligible) and then accepted the shame, I will (unintelligible) at the end of this sad refrain.

It's a classic (unintelligible) song but of course it's got our own spin on the familiar tale of feeling that foreboding about your ability to betray as you are betrayed.

SIMON: I want to ask about some songs that's on the CD…


SIMON: …that you wrote for Johnny Cash before he died. Two of them are on the CD.

Mr. COSTELLO: First of all, I wrote "Hidden Shame," which Johnny recorded in I think in the late '80s, early 90s. He did a tremendous version of it. I left the song alone for a long time.

(Soundbite of song, "Hidden Shame")

Mr. JOHNNY CASH (Singer): (Singing) Did you really think I was a bad man? You always said that that should be my middle name, but you don't know the half of it, you don't know how that name fits, you don't know my hidden shame.

Mr. COSTELLO: It was based on a newspaper article that I read about a recidivist petty criminal, who obviously his crimes accumulated to a long term sentence. And it was during one of these incarcerations that he confessed to the much more grievous crime of having killed his childhood friend. The song in turn inspired a group of songs of my own called "The Delivery Man." So I thought it was about time that I made my own rendition of the song. And this was just he occasion to do it with this line-up.

(Soundbite of song, "Hidden Shame")

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) You don't know my hidden shame, hidden shame, shame, shame that I can't get free from the blame and the torture and the misery, must it be my secret for eternity? Do you know my hidden shame, you really don't know me.

The other song was called "Complicated Shadows." Again, it was written with Johnny in mind. I did send it to him towards the end of his life. He didn't pick it up. Again, I left it alone because I could always imagine him doing it, it was almost like I could hear it in my head so vividly. I made one recording of the song, which turned it into a kind of rock and roll song. I never was completely satisfied with it. And given this opportunity and this instrumentation, I felt like the matters of the text needed to be held a little closer to the chest than the rock and roll version did. So here it is. It's in the company of these other songs now.

(Soundbite of song, "Complicated Shadows")

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) You don't have to take it from me, but I know of what I speak, you think you're like iron and steel, but iron and steel will bend and break, in those complicated Shadow.

SIMON: We asked some of our listeners and followers to suggest some questions. Can I pass a few along?

Mr. COSTELLO: I'd be fascinated.

SIMON: First, Allison Cutler(ph) in Iowa asks, Am I the Allison he sings about?.

Mr. COSTELLO: I highly doubt it, unless you've relocated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COSTELLO: Well, she'll be crushed, but - Karen Richardson(ph) asks what is the secret to longevity in a business that seems wedded to one hit overnight wonders?

Mr. COSTELLO: I have no clue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: She meant that as a compliment to you.

Mr. COSTELLO: And I take it as a compliment. But I really don't know. I never had any ambition other than just to be some kind of songwriter. I think I knew that I was a writer from quite young. And I - then I developed the idea that it might be related to music when I was a teenager. And I've gathered more technical skill and ability not on any instrument, none of which I can play worth a damn, but I can hear things to a relative degree of complexity and I don't need that talent all the time. Sometimes I'm better served by keeping the music very simple.

In this record the music is harmonically quite simple. But there are several songs on this record which develop harmonically in unexpected ways and the fact that I know how to do that means that I have choices.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) I'm walking, I'm pacing, my heart is racing, I swear that clock is running slow, it only speeds up for a moment or so, each time it's time for me to go.

(Speaking) I never said that was an objective, that I had to, you know, invade Russia by next week or something like that. That's not a healthy way to carry on in music, and when I'm asked for advice by people whose children are considering music as a career, I say, well, make sure it's actually music that they're pursuing and not fame, because fame on its own end is liable to be disappointing but music is very rarely disappointing.

(Soundbite of song, "You're My All Time Doll")

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) You're my all time doll, you're my all time doll.

SIMON: Do you recognize the differences in genres of music that the rest of the world recognizes?

Mr. COSTELLO: I do recognize them and I think as a convenience, you know, you don't want to accidentally stumble into a death metal concert when you are intending to hear a string quartet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COSTELLO: You know, I think to, it's keeping them as a convenience and to guide us to greater appreciation rather than seeing it as a borderline. I think there's a lot to be learned from listening and just not making preconceived ideas about where people come from and why they sound like they do.

SIMON: I have to ask you to follow up on something you said. I hope you don't mind.


SIMON: Because I'm going to be quoting it to people, and honestly I suspect our listeners will too - when you say fame may disappoint but music rarely does.

Mr. COSTELLO: I'm talking about as you pursue it in the sense it becomes something that you're involved with emotionally, and the best moments in my life other than between two people who love one another or the love between one generation and another, of a family, involved listening to music or being affected by music.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) (Unintelligible) wonderful moment, something happened to my heart…

(Speaking) A lot of the songs on this record seemed to end up like a moral conflict or moral dilemma. It just was the way in which the story of the record kind of developed as we recorded because it has to have a conclusion. At the very end of the record I found a way to resolve the program with two songs about constancy and fidelity, which is not a topic for which I'm famous.

(Singing) (unintelligible) till you're in my arms again…

SIMON: Elvis Costello, his latest album, "Secret, Profane and Sugarcane." You can hear more Elvis Costello songs on our Web site, nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) …I will never change partners again…

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon.

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