Costello and Toussaint, 'A River in Reverse' What began as Elvis Costello's tribute to Allen Toussaint's music became a dedication to the rebuilding and return of New Orleans. The two musicians talk about their new album A River in Reverse.
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Costello and Toussaint, 'A River in Reverse'

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Costello and Toussaint, 'A River in Reverse'

Costello and Toussaint, 'A River in Reverse'

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Over a career that has spanned three decades now, British rocker Elvis Costello has established something of a specialty in collaborations. He's worked with the likes of Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. His new project is a bi-product of a hurricane.

(Soundbite of song "Sharpest Thorn")

MR. ELVIS COSTELLO: (Singing) (Unintelligible). The sharpest thorn defending the rose. Hard as a pistol, keen as a blade. The sharpest thorn upon parade.

CONAN: At a series of Katrina relief concerts, Costello reintroduced himself to New Orleans R&B icon Allen Toussaint. Over time, what began as a tribute became a collaboration. And they dedicated their new CD called The River in Reverse to the reconstruction and reestablishment of New Orleans.

If you have questions for Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint about their new project, our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. The email address is

Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint are in the middle of a nationwide tour. They join us now from the studios of NPR West in Culver City. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. COSTELLO: Good to be here.

Mr. ALLEN TOUSSAINT (Singer): Pleasure.

CONAN: And let me begin with you, Elvis Costello. I know it's been over 20 years since you two worked together on an album. How's the reunion going?

Mr. COSTELLO: Wonderful. I mean it's a wonderful experience, obviously, to take the music that we recorded and songs of Allen's, some of which were written over 30 years ago, and see exactly how they strike people as living in the moment that we're all passing through right now.

And the wonderful things that Allen has added to the show, that is a number of arrangements of songs of mine - some of them well-known, some of them deep in my catalog - and they completely have a new coat of paint now. And together, with songs of Allen's that we didn't record for The River in Reverse.

So it's a rich show and we have a wonderful ensemble. My group, The Imposters, Allen's horn section, The Crescent City Horns, and Anthony Brown on guitar. And, obviously best of all, Allen at the piano.

CONAN: Hmm. Allen, as he mentioned, a lot of songs from your archives, did you pick them, or did you and Elvis pick them together or did he pick them?

Mr. TOUSSAINT: Elvis picked them all. And many, many more, yes.

CONAN: And what did you think of his choices?

Mr. TOUSSAINT: I thought they were extraordinary. For one thing, I just thought it was amazing how much of my material Elvis was aware of, so much more than we could ever record. Some things I had forgotten about.

CONAN: You'd forgotten about them?

Mr. TOUSSAINT: Oh, yes.

CONAN: Let's hear one of the tunes from the CD. This is a song of Allen Toussaint's called Who's Going to Help a Brother.

We'll have it in just a moment.

(Soundbite of song "Who's Going to Help a Brother")

Mr. TOUSSAINT: (Singing) We may seem happy, like everything's alright. From the outside looking in, everything's uptight. But deep down inside, we're covering up the pain. It's an old thing, it's a soul thing, but it's a real thing. Pray tell, what's going to happen to brother. Who's going to help a brother?

CONAN: Allen Toussaint, is that one of those tunes you'd forgotten? It sure sounds relevant after...

CONAN: Allen Toussaint, is that one of those tunes you had forgotten? It sure sounds relevant after Katrina.

Mr. TOUSSAINT: Well, I must say it had been sleeping for quite a while. And Elvis woke it up graciously, I must say.

CONAN: Do you still have that 45, Elvis?

Mr. COSTELLO: Yes. Well, I have the album, Yes We Can, that Lee Dorsey - Allen produced on Lee Dorsey, which is a record, I think, that opened the door for a lot of people to hear Allen's songs as they might be interpreted from people from other worlds of rock and roll.

But, you know, that you just caught a little snatch of that song. The song goes on to conclude what happened to the Liberty Bell. I heard so much about, did it really ding dong? It must have dinged wrong. It didn't ding long.

And we were obviously here in place during the conversation that preceded this one onto the air about personal liberties and the compromises that they're being put under by a climate of fear and because of the complex situation that we live in.

Allen can say a thing like that with such lightness and wit and with a great rhythm. And it makes people like laugh at the humor of it, but also there's a serious implication. And because we're different people, come from different experiences of music and life, we probably complement one another in the different way we express ourselves in relation to passing events.

CONAN: You guys recorded, or at least remixed, part of this album in New Orleans.

Mr. COSTELLO: No, we recorded - in fact, that tract you just played was recorded in New Orleans, yes. It obviously wasn't possible to plan all of the recording of the record for New Orleans because at the time that we began working together, as you said at the top of this segment, we got together during the benefit shows.

And the idea of making this record developed in a very short period of time, in seven days, in fact. And then we went into a process of writing songs together to add to the songs from Allen's catalog.

And by the time we were ready to go into the studio we had to plan it for, to begin in Hollywood because New Orleans was still under martial law and closed to visitors.

But as we, you know, as we made our final preparations, it did become - we did become aware of the fact that Party(ph) Street Studios had reopened. There was one hotel that was accepting reservations from visitors to the city.

And so it was just natural that we would want to complete the work there and cut some tracks and do some of the other essential work of the recording in New Orleans.

CONAN: Allen Toussaint, it must have been very strange for you to go back to New Orleans under those circumstances.

Mr. TOUSSAINT: It was very - it was wonderful to go back under those circumstances. I had been back several times going in to look at my, the damage at my own personal place as well as other places in the city because I care about the entire area.

So I had been back and forth. But to be going back in to do what we were going to do, letters(ph) from the heart, to make music, it was a spiritual and a joyful experience. And all the musicians were fired up.

CONAN: Fired up.

Mr. TOUSSAINT: Oh, yes.

CONAN: At the same time, you go out of the studio and, as I understand it, it's near the Ninth Ward so obviously not a situation where places were undamaged.

Mr. TOUSSAINT: Oh, right. There's still - even now, there's many pretty much dead neighborhoods that haven't been touched because of such a huge process, huge situation that took place. And the process is very slow.

Yes, getting out of the studio and riding around we were able to see it and people who had never visited before were able to see how much destruction took place. And it was alarming to everyone.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. By the way, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, email Alex is calling from Chico, California.

ALEX (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

ALEX: Elvis Costello, I'm a huge fan. I've been since the ‘80s as a teenager. My question is - and I'll take it off the air, what was your shift from being solo artist to doing partnerships with other musicians?

Mr. COSTELLO? Well, it isn't a conscious shift. Opportunities have come my way. And I think it's easy to lose sight of the fact that everything you do, unless you are literally going to pick up one instrument and play as a solo artist, everything is a collaboration.

My work at the very beginning of my career with The Attractions was a collaboration with three other musicians. The fact that my name went first because I was standing up at the front of the stage singing all the songs, I suppose makes people think that it's kind of about, you know, that person, that everything I've ever done has been a collaboration. And as you move on, opportunities come your way to work with people who you admire and they take you into new worlds and music, giving you experiences which have the benefit of renewing you in two ways. One is it opens a new world of music to you, and the other is when you return to, say, hitting the electric guitar and yelling, which is the way I describe certain things that I do, it seems brand new again, whereas if I'd done it consistently for 30 years, I might have run out of the permutations by now.

CONAN: Let me ask you a question about collaboration. And one of them, for you, Elvis Costello, what is it like to go into the studio to sing the songs of a wonderful, great singer who's standing there at the piano?

Mr. COSTELLO: Well, I mean, Allen's very generous in every respect. And his attitude throughout this whole experience, both personally and in relation to the personal losses and the damage to the city has been such a lesson to all of us that have work together.

I really was taken more with that than anything else just in terms - we had discussed the songs. We had found out what keys to do them in. It felt as if they felt right. As Allen told you, I did make the selections from his catalog because I felt there were songs that were in there that were under-appreciated.

And I didn't feel that I wanted to re-record songs which were very well known, like Working in a Coal Mine or Southern Nights, because we wouldn't really be able to easily get out of the shadow of those indelible versions by Lee Dorsey or whoever you've heard them by. Whereas other songs, even if the same artist recorded them, you had a little bit more chance to be the first person to introduce those songs to some of the audience.

So I didn't feel intimidated because Allen's attitude was wholly supporting. And we almost had to kind of trick Allen in the kindest way into getting on the mic as a vocalist because I personally love his singing. But he was reluctant to take the mic.

But as you here in Brother, it's a beautiful voice and it has its own authority as the author of these songs. And there's also a very important component part in a lot of the compositions of call and response. And that was something I always puzzled about as a fan growing up in England, hearing the Lee Dorsey records and other records that Allen produced: who was this other voice?

And it turns out, of course, it was Allen's.

CONAN: Allen all along.

Mr. COSTELLO: And his, his background parts that he sings with the bass player of the Imposters, David Faragher, in this recording are integral in essential parts of the arrangements.

CONAN: We're talking with Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint about their new project, which is a CD which they've just released. They're touring with it. It's called, well, it's called The River in Reverse.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Allen, I wanted to ask you a question about collaboration. One of the things you brought to this project was the Crescent City Horns. And we know that the way you're accustomed to using them in your own music, that bouncy rhythm on Who's Gonna Help a Brother, I think we remember from Yes, We Can and songs like that.

How did you work them out in inserting them into Elvis' tunes?

Mr. TOUSSAINT: Well, we were making honest music from our hearts. And that's the way it just - it comes out that way. There wasn't any special preparation that I had to make. When I hear what I think should go here, it comes out like that.

And what these particular guys who we have, the Crescent City, it's the genuine name. They understand this music very well. So it's all very authentic. There was nothing, no other notions I had to take on to do this music.

CONAN: Let's hear a collaboration that emerged from this project. It's called Ascension Day. And we'll have that up just in a minute.

(Soundbite of song “Ascension Day”)

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) Not a soul stirring, not a bird was stirring, at least not within my hearing, I was five minutes past caring, standing in the road just staring. Thought I heard somebody pleading, thought I heard someone apologize (unintelligible) those who left seem to be wearing disguises.

CONAN: And Elvis Costello, that particular tune had an unusual genesis. Tell us about it, if you would.

Mr. COSTELLO: That was the beginning of our collaboration as writers. I mean, as those people that know this music well, will recognize that as Allen's minor key transcription of the famous Professor Longhair composition, Tipitina, which is normally heard as an up-tempo, a song of great exuberance.

And when I heard the lamenting nature of Allen's rendition of it in the minor key, a lot of pictures were created in my head. And also some images, the opening image of that, of that lyric came from a friend of mine describing his first return to his home town to New Orleans by the absence of birds and the desolation of it.

And then the song proceeds on to offer a more hopeful conclusion, the idea that, you know, there will be an ascension, not the feast of the ascension in the religious sense, but something more.

And this is really one of the strengths of working with somebody as open as Allen, in that we have access to the depth of the tradition of this music. And okay, there's a presumption that you can add something of value to that tradition as an outsider.

But in contrast to this piece, if I may mention one other song that we play in the concert tour, I gave Allen a list of nine songs that I thought he might consider to write arrangements for from my catalog to complement The River in Reverse songs.

And they were very wide-ranging from well known to not so well known, and a ballad such as one from King of America, Poison Rose, would lend itself beautifully to his kind of horn voicings.

Now, the harshest of these tunes, musically speaking and lyrically, was a song from our last record, The Delivery Man, called Bedlam, which is a retelling of the nativity story in the reality of a modern refugee situation. It's a very unusual song lyrically.

I mean, you imagine the three wise men arriving, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and Rumsfeld, or something like that, you know? It's a - it is a harsh song already lyrically. And it has a lot of images, jumbled images from contemporary news reports.

Allen's horn arrangement for this particular song, which I hope people get a chance to hear in concert, was so startling to me that he was open to responding to everything in the music, whatever, wherever it came from.

So it stretches the framework of our collaboration, even beyond that which we were able to achieve over the writing of our new record album and recording these great songs from Allen's catalog.

CONAN: And that is one from the concert, not from the CD.

Mr. COSTELLO: Not from the CD, but I mean, that's what I - pardon me for, you know, it sounds boastful, but it's the joy that I have in doing this, is that even beyond making this record, bringing the songs to life, of course, they change shape and you find new ways to interpret even brand newly recorded songs.

But Allen's imagination as an arranger has just been so evident in everything that he's given to the Imposters and the Crescent City Horns play it with such ferocity. It's a beautiful thing.

CONAN: The CD is called The River in Reverse. Where does your tour take you next?

Mr. COSTELLO: To the Oakland Paramount tomorrow night.

CONAN: Have a great show.

Mr. COSTELLO: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate your time today. Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, who joined us at NPR's bureau in California, NPR West, in Culver City, California. The new project is called The River in Reverse.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

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