The other Elvis

VICKI ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 14/03/2014
Elvis Costello
POET WITH PUNK HEART: Elvis Costello

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Elvis Costello is a poet with a punk heart. In three minute songs he can tell you a novel's worth of story.

Whether he's offering social commentary, an insight into heartbreak or a biting narrative reflecting everyday life, the depth and breadth of his music over more than three decades is pure genius.

Costello, 60, has toured New Zealand a dozen times since the late 1970's but it's the infamous Sweetwaters anniversary show in 1999 which many remember. He dedicated The Beatles' You Never Give Me Your Money to festival organiser Daniel Keighley as a pointed statement about not being paid.

An upcoming performance at the inaugural Queenstown Blues and Roots Festival next month will be Costello's first visit to the South Island.

"It's more of an adventure," Costello says on the phone from New York. "I haven't been down that far before so it's great."

I'm curious as to whether Costello will indulge in a bungy jump.

"No. . . I probably won't do that," he says in measured tones. It's the exact reply you'd expect.

His recent run of shows with The Roots are something of a rarity and in September he will be playing at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"Those are even rarer occasions you know. But you'd be a fool if you didn't take part in those opportunities, these unusual things."

The man who penned the infamous line about Margaret Thatcher - "I will stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down" - is pleased with a performance with The Imposters earlier this week.

They played rearranged songs from his latest collaboration with hip-hop and neo-soul collective The Roots, Wise Up Ghost, which itself was formed around previous Costello works such as Pills & Soap and The National Ransom, amongst others.

"They are new pieces of music based on older material but the relevance is still there.

"With The Imposters we have our own records as well as the collaborations, but we have the arrangements that were recorded by The Attractions. We have Pete [Thomas] and Steve [Nieve] who played in that band, we've got the accumulation of all of those songs."

It's about making the songs exist in the moment.

Our bespectacled hero has become known for his eclectic collaborations with the likes of Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney but says it was never something he deliberately set out to do.

"Once you make the connection it seems each one has been their own story. I don't go looking for them as such, they just happen."

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And when he sings Every Day I Write The Book it's true - a memoir is on its way.

His remix of the lost Johnny Cash song She Used To Love Me A Lot was released yesterday.

"It is a very different interpretation of John's performance in which we dispensed with pretty much all of the accompaniments. It happened because I had a connection to the music and the good fortune to know John. Sometimes these things happen and it seems like a big contrast. Like me and Bacharah, that's not something that people can imagine ahead of time but once they've heard the album they can imagine it."

Now fans are going to imagine it a lot more as Costello is writing two musicals with Bacharach.

"We've written something like 20 songs already."

Whether performing with The Imposters as part of the Spinning Songbook shows or solo, he is eager to make it a fun experience for himself and audiences. For Costello touring is more of an imperative than recording.

"We ended up with something like 150 songs in our hands we could play at will. I toured in November on a solo tour and I played about 10 shows and I played 200 different songs.

"It's been a recognition at this stage that I don't want to stand on an anthill and look backwards, I want to be in the moment with all this stuff at our disposal. That has made the shows much more alive both for us and the audience."

Born Declan MacManus he had his first professional recording session at 17, as a backing singer alongside his father on a TV commercial for lemonade.

"At the time it seemed silly but now I think of it fondly because it was with my dad. He did a lot of that kind of work."

He was 9 when music first ignited something inside him.

Elvis Presley imitators are everywhere but there are few willing to attempt to imitate Elvis Costello, who took his stage name from both Presley and his father's stage name.

While struggling to get his demo tapes heard, he worked at a number of office jobs, including as a data entry clerk at Elizabeth Arden, the "vanity factory" found in the lyrics of I'm Not Angry.

"I never imagined I could make a living at it, I wasn't really sure about that until I was 22. I made a lot of demo tapes when I was 18 and they didn't get me anywhere so I assumed I either wasn't good enough or what I was doing was such a right angle to what everyone else was doing that I just didn't fit.

"I was confident about what I did, I stuck at it and the unusual nature of it was recognised by the first label that signed me."

Married to Diana Krall, the pair have twin eight-year-old sons, and juggle parenting around each other's demanding international tour schedules.

"Performing and touring is our job and our lads are understanding about us having to go away. We try to make sure one of us is with the boys while the other is on tour. The good side of it is the adventure you bring back home and you can't really get any further away than Queenstown."

THE DETAILS:

Elvis Costello and The Imposters headline the inaugural Queenstown Blues and Roots Festival at the Queenstown Events Centre on April 26. Also on the bill: The Doobie Brothers, Fly My Pretties, The Black Seeds, King Leo and all-girl group The Johnnys. Tickets $119 to VIP packages starting at $250 from queenstownbluesrootsfestival.co.nz and Ticketek.co.nz

Elvis Costello and the Imposters also play at The Civic, Auckland, on April 27. Tickets from ticketmaster.co.nz, 0800-111-999.

- The Press

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