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Punch the ‘Clockface’: Elvis Costello On Making Albums In a Streaming World

Billboard logo Billboard 2020-09-18 Robert Levine

Elvis Costello has always worked in a variety of genres, and he chooses his collaborators accordingly — in the last decade alone, he has teamed with T Bone Burnett, The Roots and Carole King.

This February, after recording three songs by himself in Helsinki, he immediately traveled to Paris to record a dozen more with a small ensemble of musicians who “came recommended as people who liked adventure,” says Costello, 66. The result is Hey Clockface, out Oct. 30 on Concord, with songs that alternate between withering and whimsical. “It’s much closer to the approach of a jazz ensemble,” says Costello, “playing like that without scoring every note.”

Hey Clockface also explores a comforting past (the title track sounds like something out of the American Songbook) and the disturbing present. On “Hetty O’Hara Confidential,” Costello – who sang about the creepiness of mass media on songs like “Radio Radio” and “Watching the Detectives” – now turns on new media.

In the song, he tells the story of a vindictive gossip columnist undone by a mistake and a world in which everyone has the power she did. “It’s one of the great dangers of the speed of communication,” says Costello, “being faster than the ability to reason.”

It’s one of the many things currently occupying Costello’s mind; before his upcoming album is even out, he’s already preparing to reissue some of his previous albums with bonus material. Here, he discusses how Hey Clockface came together, what more fans can expect and the importance of ownership.

How much arranging did you do for the Hey Clockface sessions?

With the exception of the introduction of “I Do,” [the musicians] played everything spontaneously. They had the basic changes in front of them, and they had the demos, so they knew how I would sing them, but when I was singing live, they played what they felt was right, and I couldn’t have written anything better. Some of the songs were done on the first take and everything was done in about four takes.

The album has a wide range of moods: “We’re All Cowards Now” sounds angry, and very timely, while “Hey Clockface” is a bit more upbeat. 

“We’re All Cowards Now” is a bit like “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” 40 years later. It’s about how we’re all cowards in the face of the rage and lack of reason that seem to be in the very air. “Hey Clockface” is me shouting at the clock, because it’s weighing on us all; when you’re with the one you love, time seems to speed up. It’s not a big philosophical treatise, but I know that music pretty well – my dad came out of the big bands – and once in a while I write songs that reference those songs.

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You tend to think in terms of albums, but most listeners no longer do. Has that forced you to change your approach to recording? 

Streaming hasn’t changed the way I write songs, but there’s a sequence of songs that I have carefully assembled — and I have to accept that no one will ever hear it like that, unless they’re of a certain generation. The worst thing that you could do if you intend to stay in this world would be to be King Canute and stand at the edge of the water going, ‘Go back tide!’ If people happen upon one of my songs in a playlist, so much the better; they’re not going to stream my songs in numbers that are going to make me Beyoncé, but I’m happy they’ll hear it. And the revival in vinyl isn’t just a fashionable fetish, it’s an acknowledgement that certain types of records from the past ought to be cherished in that form, to be held in your hand. You can have both simultaneously.


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You own a lot of your master recordings. How important is that to you?

I own all of my albums except the ones made for Warner [from 1989 to 1996]. The ones I’ve recorded for Universal [starting in the late ‘90s] will revert to me and I own the ones before Blood and Chocolate, as well as my publishing. The kind of music I make doesn’t sell a lot of copies, and I’m not fantastically wealthy, partly because I’ve always invested what I have made into making more music or into fantastic follies like the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” [the 1986 and 2011 tours on which Costello decided which songs to play by spinning a giant wheel onstage]. But I like the danger and the uncertainty. And the idea that there’s an audience for music I made a long time ago as well as music I’m making now is a wonderful thing.

At the same time, my catalog has been in some disarray for a number of years.

Are you planning to address that? 

Recently I went to a meeting at a record company for the first time since the ’90s [at Universal, which last year renewed its global license deal for most of Costello’s recordings]. We began with the idea that if we were going to do another edition [of reissues], we couldn’t simply issue the records again. And I realized that, who better than the person who wrote the songs to tell you what else is there – things that I never released, live recordings. Let’s face it: This is now 40 years [after Costello’s early albums]. I can’t imagine there being another edition of releases after this one. And the first will be a six-record set based on “Armed Forces.”

Armed Forces is full of references to fascism, often as a metaphor, so it resonates with what’s happening now in an uncomfortable way.

There are all those sayings about history repeating itself. It’s not something you can plan for. That said, I think Armed Forces holds up pretty well. And the package includes three live recordings ranging from the summer of ‘78 to the summer of ‘79, so it traces the development of the Attractions as a live act, from a club combo to a successful pop group – it’s quite interesting to hear. I had expert help in photographing my handwritten notebooks. So you’re getting something.

Are you going to do that with all of your albums?

If we can. Right now, it’s in everybody’s interest to let me do it the way I’m seeing it.

I can’t be certain when I’ll set foot on the stage again; or, frankly, whether the audience that largely comes to see me — who are inevitably more of my generation — will ever want to come to a theater again. So in the interim, I want to take the music I recorded some time ago and present it in a way that’s as exciting as it was when we first released it.

We’ve done a new version of one of the albums from my catalog, and that’s going to come out next April. And we’re making a compilation based on [Costello’s 1998 album with Burt Bacharach] Painted from Memory, in the hope that we’ll complete the picture with some other songs we’ve written that people still haven’t heard.

Armed Forces is a great album, but you’ve talked about how that wasn’t a happy time in your life. Was it difficult to look back?

There’s a difference between the person who made the record and the person who was on the road – constantly from the summer of 1977 to the summer of 1979, while making two albums during that time. The disarray of my life has been written about. So look at what the songs are saying, not the words that came out of my mouth on one night.

I assume you’re talking about the infamous incident in 1979, in a hotel bar in Columbus, Ohio, where you got into a drunken argument with members of Stephen Stills’ band and made racist comments about Ray Charles and James Brown. You’ve said that those comments don’t reflect your real feelings. 

I was trying to make a joke, which in my youthful arrogance horribly backfired. And it’s been in my biography in the most humiliating way. It’s a source of great pain that we’re even speaking about it. But I say that with no self-pity. And I’m not having it that that’s who I am. I love every note of music played by the people that I said those terrible things about.

So I don’t want to focus Armed Forces on a sense of personal tragedy. It’s a familiar and not very noble story, but inside of all that, we were still making songs that I value and obviously some people still hold in some kind of regard.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 19, 2020, issue of Billboard.

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