Costello back on stage after cancer diagnosis
Three months after his cancer diagnosis, musician is returning to action
Elvis lives! “I’m doing great,” says Elvis Costello, ruddy-cheeked and bristling with energy, “and actually I always was.” In July this year, after cancelling his European tour only a few shows in, the 64-yearold singer-songwriter announced that he’d had surgery to remove “a small but very aggressive cancerous malignancy” only six weeks earlier. “I wasn’t singing well,” says Costello now. “So I thought I’d better actually take my doctor’s advice and get some rest.”
No sooner was the statement released than things began to spiral out of control. “It was being reported like I was at death’s door,” he says, with more than a hint of anger about the way the story was sensationalized by the press. “All this ‘battling cancer’ nonsense is really disrespectful. I’ve got friends who are fighting a real battle, and to bracket myself with them would be melodramatic.”
Costello was in the Electric Lady studio in New York with his band The Imposters (drummer Pete Thomas, keyboard player Steve Nieve and bassist Davey Faragher) when he received the call from his doctor. “Of course, news like that makes you take a deep breath,” he says. “You are venturing into the unknown. But I was too busy to really think about it. I sang every note of the new record after I got the diagnosis.”
Recorded in just four weeks and due for release Oct. 12, that album ranks among Costello’s finest work. His 31st LP, coming eight years after he announced there would be no more, Look Now features 12 original, lyrically dazzling songs with glorious melodies and inventive arrangements.
More than half the songs on Look Now are sung from a female perspective. “I thought of it like folk music, where people sing across gender all the time and nothing is signified by it except the predicament of the character.” The unifying theme might be sexual power imbalance, whether considering the plight of a wife in a declining marriage (Stripping Paper), a daughter reflecting on her father’s infidelities (Photographs Can Lie) or a model rejecting unwanted advances (Don’t Look Now).
It could almost be an album inspired by the #MeToo movement, except it is not always obvious in Costello’s narratives exactly who has the upper hand. “Some of these songs were written 25 years ago, which goes to show it’s a problem that’s always been there,” he says. “The apparent power imbalance of man and woman hasn’t been invented by putting a label on it.”
While he is not unsympathetic to #MeToo, he admits he’s “never been a great representative of banners. I understand why people have them, I’m not critical of it, but it’s just not the way I work.”
Emotional and sexual politics have been at the core of Costello’s music from his very first album, My Aim Is True, in 1977, a punk classic packed with such poisonously bitter anti-love songs as Alison, I’m Not Angry and No Dancing.
In 2015, he published a 670-page autobiography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink — “the tome” as he jokingly calls it. The saga of how Declan MacManus, son of big band singer Ross MacManus, rose to fame as Elvis Costello, it is fuelled by guilt, shame and self-reproach, picking over his father’s unfaithfulness and his own two failed marriages. Since 2003, he has been married to Canadian jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, and they have twin boys, Dexter and Frank, now 12 years old.
Costello speaks about Krall with glowing affection, praising her musical abilities and emotional intelligence (“she can find things within songs that probably the composer didn’t even know were there”). They live in Vancouver and both work from home, a place Krall once described to me as having “a piano in every corner of the room. Duelling pianos! Elvis will be working on something in one corner, and I’ll be working on something in another.”
Costello, ever the contrarian, doesn’t entirely endorse this picture of domestic harmony. “I am not much of a piano player,” he says. “I am super loud, because I don’t have any nuance, and I’ll be hammering out the same key changes over and over, making all sorts of funny sounds. It must be maddening.”
In the years since his last album, 2010’s National Ransom — which he described at the time as “the end of the line” — Costello has made a collaborative album with hip-hop band the Roots (Wise Up Ghost, 2013), contributed to a project of discarded Bob Dylan lyrics (Lost on the River, 2014) and continued to tour relentlessly “to create shows for the repertoire to exist.” But he reveals that he has also written two musicals that never reached the stage, while a third is being workshopped right now. Based on Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, it’s the story of an unscrupulous, venal, smalltown radio jock who becomes an influential figure in American politics. “You can see how it might have some contemporary relevance,” Costello notes.
It sounds as though he’s come a very long way from his punk rock beginnings, I suggest. “Thank God!” says Costello. “You know I never liked rock. I hate to say this, but to me rock is a big square thing that fills stadiums with a really square beat and it has never interested me.
“Still to this day I have never heard lots of classic rock records. I’ve never heard Pink Floyd and never heard Led Zeppelin. People keep saying rock is dead. Well, let’s f-----g hope so.”
Rock is dead, but Elvis lives. It’s good to have him back.
Vancouver-based musician Elvis Costello is performing again and releasing a new album, titled Look Now, after taking a bit of a rest to recover from cancer surgery.