Elvis Costello (67) is a misfit. A provocateur. A man behind thick glasses who has always seemed out of date with time and where he lived.
He wore a suit, shiny shoes, a short-sighted student look and drank tea in interviews, when in the late 70s it was the disheveled and combative personality of punk that dominated. In the United States he was banned from the program Saturday Night Live when in a kamikaze bravery he decided to touch Radio radio, a song that criticized the excessive commercialization of the media, and years later in an incident in a bar he said that Ray Charles was an “ignorant blind man” when he was questioned that a British man made black music, an embarrassment that he has regretted his entire career. In 1993 he released an album only with a string quartet (The Juliet Letters) just when popular music was engulfed in noise, guitars, electronic layers, and vocal tricks.
“When someone asks me ‘what kind of singer are you?’ I always say, ‘well, I’m a rock and roll singer who can sing ballads.’ And I challenge you to find something in my catalog that really sounds like rock music as it is understood ”, proposes the Englishman, in an interview via Zoom with Worship, where precisely he returns to show his taste for what is dislocating and is out of calculation.
At the beginning of the dialogue, he proudly exhibits on the screen the collection of CDs that appears behind him and is happy when he sees that the person interviewing him also has a cabinet crammed with compact discs, perhaps the most dying format of the moment, suffocated between the empire of the streaming and the rebirth of vinyl and cassette. “Wow, a collection of CDs, how good,” he congratulates.
Within the same conversation, Costello talks about another project that has the heartbeat of the unexpected. Although Latin America is a region where his work has never enjoyed popularity, the singer-songwriter has just released Spanish model, album where various figures of Spanish-speaking music revive the 13 songs from his second album and the first one he did with the group The Attractions, the classic This year’s model 1978. The surgical exercise is also unique: the versions keep the same original musical tracks and only the voices change, with lyrics in Spanish adapted to the new times.
In the guest list, Juanes, Luis Fonsi, Jorge Drexler, Draco Rosa and Fito Páez appear alongside younger names such as Sebastián Yatra, Morat and Jesse & Joy, as well as two Chileans: Camila Gallardo doing The girl today (This year’s girl) and Francisca Valenzuela reinterpreting Hand in hand with the singer of Mexican origin Luis Humberto Navejas. Costello knew practically none of them except Fonsi, whom he had once heard sing Slowly thanks to one of her 14-year-old twin sons. So he decided to embark on a blind journey.
-How did an idea like this come about?
I would like to say that it was kind of dreamlike, like a dream. But we were asked a while ago to remix one of the songs from This year’s model for a television series, The Deuce, adding an English voice of a young woman singing along with my voice. It was Natalie Bergman, a great artist, she has a beautiful album called Mercy, you should check it out. And well, it was amazing when we realized how only the melodies on that album sounded without the vocals. They sounded fresh and energetic, and the idea was born to give them this new life, with another attitude and with other voices.
And why in Spanish and how was the process of choosing the singers?
Well, my producer is Sebastián Krys, he is from Argentina, and he really liked the idea. And he had my full confidence to be able to pick people who were willing to take this on, so that he wasn’t just calling the record companies saying, “Can you hire 12 Latino superstars to do something great?”
I mean, that was never the focus. We never look at the record sales of these artists before asking them. I loved that some of them were people with very important careers and that others were totally new artists. Several are people who have their own history and have already gone on a journey where they can appreciate the way I feel doing this. It is not so difficult for them to understand that sometimes you want to do different things. There were also some other people that we reached out to who weren’t able to do so in the period of time. “
Krys, one of those responsible for all this, more of a protagonist than a supporting actor, producer of Ricky Martin, Shakira and Marc Anthony among many other stars in the region, is also present at Zoom and explains that the biggest challenge was the adaptation of the letters. For example in The girl today, the theme that Gallardo interprets: if the version of the 70s tells the story of a man in love with a woman he knows only by her image and that he sees in a magazine, in the rereading of Spanish model The Chilean woman acquires the image of an empowered figure that stands out not only for a photo, but also for her character and her principles.
“We worked with some lyricists, but in some cases it was the artists themselves who adapted the lyrics. They took them and put their thoughts there. The idea was not to be so rigid with the original. If we translated This year’s girl What This year’s girl, it is not something that sounds good in Spanish. Today’s girl sounds much better ”, contrasts Krys.
Costello adds: “Finding the perfect tone for the voices to match the songs was another challenge. With Cami we lowered a whole tone. That’s one of the perks of being in the modern age – these recordings were made in the analog age and they have a lot of warmth and power, but today we were able to manipulate them to change the tonality. So that Cami’s voice sounded very good and with the tone that she wanted. It sounds perfect. Hand in hand (with Francisca Valenzuela) I also think that now it sounds much more tender compared to the cynical tone of the original. But I think that the artists who come from Chile have contributed to this project two very different but very important changes of perspective for the key songs on the album ”.
The Briton turns a moment in reverse to limit that the development of Spanish model –Intuitive, spontaneous, without strict mandates- precisely reminded him of his method of working with The Attractions in the This year’s model original.
“That record was recorded over a four-day period in early November 1977. And then two more sessions, in January 1978. There wasn’t time for many sessions, we had to follow our instinctual approach. The song Pump it up I wrote it the penultimate night of the tour we were on, I played it at the last show of the tour and we recorded it four days later. It was all spontaneous, I have never been a composer who writes things in advance. It’s good that the first idea is the one that remains on a record ”.
Of course, the singer was sure of something well in advance: it had to be a pop album that sounded vital and energetic. “I say this at the risk of offending people: I am not a huge fan of the orthodox approach to rock music. I make the distinction with rock and roll. Rock music is very square and unsexy, unlike what I prefer to listen to. Of course all words have changed their meaning and association. For example, if I say that I like country music, people often say: what? Because most of the country music that exists today, with few and noble exceptions, is unbearable. “
“But I can point you to things that have the deepest soul feeling you’ll find on the biggest R&B records. When it comes to R&B, that means something different than what it means to me. R&B for me is Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and a lot of things that we used to call soul music. Now we use different labels to try to describe and lead people to certain music. “
“But I have nothing against anyone. When we did This year’s model we were trying to make a record that would be played on the BBC, which is not a rock and roll station, but a pop music station. We might sound different and exciting, but we wouldn’t sound so awful that it never sounds on a pop station. We weren’t trying to compete with The Cockney Rejects or 999 or those very artificial sounding punk bands. We were in the ranks with ABBA, Bee Gees and Fleetwood Mac. They were who we saw as our competitors. “
-Did you feel part of any of the groups of artists that appeared in the 70s in England, be it punk or new wave?
Not really. I always felt that we were just doing what we were doing. I loved The Clash, but he was the only one in our band who liked it. A lot of punks looked down on us because we were doing pop music. We weren’t raw enough for them. But I think they were aware of the fact that we could play much better than they could.
“There really wasn’t any other band from 1978 that could play anywhere near as well as The Attractions did. After The Police appeared, they could contribute much more. Of course, they were much more conceited, Sting was much more handsome, and he was a pop star-looking guy. Then it became a different thing because Andy Summers could play and Sting could play. Stewart Copeland wasn’t so sure, but he could play in his own world. They made a noise that people loved, but I didn’t feel part of either. I had other favorites. My favorites had more to do with heart and energy. My favorite by far from that time was Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), it was my favorite voice. She was the best singer of all of us. And I wanted not only to be like me: I wanted to be her. You know, I wanted to sound like that. Obviously I couldn’t. But I never felt that we were all together in a gang as it is written in history.
-In fact, in your book Unfaithful music and invisible ink he is very critical of the English scene, saying that there was never camaraderie between the musicians.
That was the truth. He was openly aggressive in most cases. It was just a kind of youth rivalry, because there was a small amount of space for a small scene in a small country. And when we got to America, we realized that it was going to take a lot for people to listen to us if they could hear the Eagles every twenty-five seconds on the radio, or any of those bands that I can’t even remember everyone’s names right now. I could tell you the names of most of the Top 40 groups in America when I first got there, but now I couldn’t sing a single of those songs to you.
When Elvis Costello subscribes to a parallel with the past, he knows that there is only one aspect where, at least until a year ago, the comparison is not possible: the Covid erased the concerts from the map during 2020 and a good part of what goes on in 2021. ” In March of last year I was on tour in England and I realized that, although the shows were sold out, people preferred not to attend. It seemed pretty obvious to me, although it didn’t seem so obvious to the government. I decided on my own to protect the public and cancel the rest of the tour, “he says.
The confinement was lived in Canada, culminating a record –Hey Clockface, released in October 2020- and finalizing Spanish model. The job that, perhaps, could bring him to Chile after two canceled attempts, in 2005 and 2011.
-Would you like to sing this album with the participating artists?
Of course, if people leave us, if circumstances permit. We have tried going to Latin American countries before and unfortunately it has never worked. And we had it all planned once and it fell apart. Right now it is very difficult to play, due to the current circumstances. Hopefully it won’t be forever. I have never been to Santiago. Look: I have been in Punta Arenas, but not in Santiago. On vacation, about fifteen years ago.
-And he likes me?
Oh, are you kidding? Of course! It’s lovely.
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Elvis Costello: “Rock is very square and not very sexy music”