The master songwriter on his back catalog and why he’s a ‘freak of nature’
In 1977, you said that your primary motivations were “revenge and guilt.” Does that still hold true?
Yeah, I had drunk about half a bottle of Pernod when I said that. I thought it sounded good and so did the journalist, and then I have people quoting it back to me as if it was a page from the catechism. It’s just some moment of bravado. It sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? But think it through for a minute and it doesn’t make sense. But awfully picturesque.
How did you learn to move past that press persona?
Making 30 or more albums. Each one is different in personality. Those records sometimes require you to unpack that mythmaking aspect of those first few records, because if you listen to the individual songs on those first albums, you’ll find much more nuance to what’s being said about anything. And to some degree, if you’re stuck with my face and my voice, things sound more aggressive because I’m a freak of nature. I have a gap in my teeth. Everything explodes out of my mouth as either a threat or a snarl [ laughs].
You’ve said that your new album, The Boy Named If, deals with the process of maturing from childhood to adulthood. What got you thinking along those lines?
Not being able to travel and knowing when I might be back onstage gave me time to think. I looked at a group of songs that I had begun, and they were . . . I hate to use the word “philosophical,” but they did have a look at life at different times: in your childhood, as you leave the innocence of childhood, and the confusion of young adulthood, and then looking back at things with a different perspective later.
What do you think caused those themes to surface in your writing?
I do have boys that will be 15 next week, and an elder son who’s in his forties, so I have the perspective on some of these transitions. And I lost my father 10 years ago; I lost my mother early last year. Those things will tend to make you think about yourself as a child because now you’re promoted by that event in some way.
What still attracts you to writing rock music?
I don’t like much rock music. I like rock & roll. I think if you lose the roll part, a lot of the fun goes out of it. And when people ask me, “What’s your favorite record?” I usually don’t name any electric-guitar records made in the last 30 years because the beat is so square. I like things that float a bit or swing a bit, whether it’s rock & roll or actual jazz that swings, or even the way Hank Williams records lope.
Last year, you released Spanish Model, which featured Spanish-speaking singers covering your album This Year’s Model. Did that give you a new perspective on those songs?
I was sort of shocked to find several of these songs had much better tunes when sung by somebody with an evidently more beautiful voice than I have. “Hand in Hand” quite surprised me. That’s quite a pretty tune. It literally never occurred to me, because it was “don’t ask me to apologize” — all attitude. And then [on Spanish Model] I heard that I’d actually set it to quite a tender tune, much more so
than I sang it.
Speaking of attitude, in 1977, you were famously banned from SNL after suddenly switching to “Radio, Radio” in the middle of your slot. How do you look back on that
Before anybody noticed that we’d even done it, we were back in England, recording the rest of This Year’s Model. We’d forgotten about America temporarily, because we had to be on Top of the Pops in England. We never thought about NBC again. . . . It’s clear we weren’t going to have a career in television; they told us that. And guess what? I never wanted one really.
Costello’s new album, ‘The Boy Named If,’ is out Jan. 14.