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Baker's Dozen

Pump 'Em Up! Elvis Costello's Favourite Music
Paul Stokes , October 21st, 2020 08:11

Elvis Costello tells Paul Stokes about his lockdown life and new album Hey Clockface as he guides us through Baker's Dozen tales including being taken under the sinful wing of Iggy Pop and the time he nearly joined Blur. Costello portrait by Ray Di Pietro

Lockdown could have been very different and very lonely for Elvis Costello. A resident of Vancouver, Canada, the singer-songwriter was thousands of miles away on a tour of his native UK at the moment things started to close across the globe. "I was looking at the deteriorating situation, and asking 'how long can we stay in the game here?' I don't have any legal status in Canada – I live in here in Vancouver where my boys go to school – I had to keep my eye on the borders which were starting to close," he recalls of the predicament facing him in mid March. Not that it inspired total panic, and Costello even managed to play a show in his childhood heartlands at London's Eventim Apollo (still "Hammersmith Apollo" to him) as lockdown hung in the balance. "I was waiting for word from above, divine intervention, a letter from Boris Johnson, a glimmer of common sense, anything!" he says. "In the end I remember standing in the wings at Hammersmith after the main set and saying, 'Ok guys, let's play ['Mighty Like A Rose' track] 'Hurry Down Doomsdays The Bugs Are Taking Over'. At least let's have some humour at this moment!' So we went out and played that and closed the show."

Eventually, postponing his final few dates, the singer-songwriter dodged the bugs and doomsday, making it back to Canada to spend most of his corona enforced isolation in an idyllic cabin on Vancouver Island with his family… and his audio files. Having completed two, week-long recording sessions just before hitting the road for the tour, the enforced break allowed him to make sense of the results.

The first, taking place in Helsinki, was an entirely solo set up which resulted in a collection of beat-flecked, punkish tracks. His second week in a studio swung the other way, as he was joined in Paris by a group of virtuoso musicians assembled by long term keyboard player, The Attractions' (now The Imposters) Steve Nieve. The jazz-leaning group improvised their way through a series of newly written songs, adding a dixie swing to Costello's smouldering emotions.

So far, so apart, in fact the man born Declan McManus initially thought of digitally drip-feeding the tracks out individually, before lockdown actually did him a favour. Asked to provide words and sing remotely over music recorded in New York by jazz trumpeter and composer Michael Leonhart, Costello felt the new material bridged his two previous sessions, helping him to assemble the disparate yet curiously coherent new album Hey Clockface with co-producer Sebastian Krys. "Although there were really radical contrasts between the approach musically and the mood of something like'No Flag' and 'I Do (Zula's Song)', there was a way to make work to our advantage," he suggests. "I have to give Sebastian credit because he wasn't involved in the physical recording but mixed it afterwards. He heard all the music as we put it down and did the final mix."

That the new record mixes tracks interwoven with clarinet solos, and sonic blasts from Costello's fuzzed-up guitars, might surprise some, but the Baker's Dozen he has selected for The Quietus neatly demonstrates the breadth of musical machinations that go on behind his horn-rimmed glasses.  In November 2000 Costello recommended 500 albums for Vanity Fair ("When in doubt, play track four – it is usually the one you want," he suggested for navigating the recommendations), yet such is his hunger for music only Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Damon Albarn and Iggy Pop are represented amongst that list and his 2020 selections – the latter is the only artist with record that actually doubles up!

Despite this Costello's 13 picks still include from tunes that adorned his childhood, a recent online discovery and the latest, just released album by his wife, the jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall. - though isn't the only member of his household to inspire his Baker's Dozen selections. Costello explains that his teenage son rekindled his interest in Gorillaz after he got into the band independently via an interest in remixing and animation. After almost joining Blur for the night (see the entry) – and surely overdue his own invite as a Gorillaz guest – Elvis explains that it was thanks to his offspring and Albarn that he got to enjoy a moment of true music fandom, something you suspect from his passionate conversation is still a prime motivation by his heroic consumption of music. "I couldn't believe my eyes, but I was walking through the lobby of this hotel and there was Bobby Womack sitting in a chair," recalls Costello of the time when both artists played Glastonbury 2013 – Womack performing the Bravest Man In The Universe album which spun out of his work with Gorillaz. "I was there with both my boys, introduced them to Bobby and he was great and really kind to them. I was so thrilled, I was a real fan meeting someone I loved. Just as I was walking away he called me back just said, 'Let's do something before it's over' and quoting his own song, I said 'Bobby, it's never over!' It was so great just to speak to him. Just the greatest!"

Having escaped a solitary lockdown to make a varied and passionate record like Hey Clockface – let alone the scope of this Baker's Dozen – you suspect for Elvis the love affair with music is never going to be over.

Hey Clockface is released on 30th October, to begin reading Elvis Costello's selections please click the image below