Elvis Costello On Demystifying The Guitar And Taking His Music To Latin America

Elvis Costello’s motiviations, in this moment, appear to be punctuated by a want to bring more people into the circus tent that is music. These are, of course, commercial endeavors, but there’s a purity to them that feels like a friend sitting in a corner sharing secrets about the sometimes vexing but always tantalizing guitar or sliding a box of records over to you with a promise of something cool and unique.

Working with Audible with their Words + Music series, Costello has just launched How To Play The Guitar And Y, an instructional that’s a bit deconstructed, providing a more mellow and meditative experience. Costello, a master storyteller, romanticizes the instrument and the craft of learning it here, giving people a bit more meat than they’d get with a black and white technical manual.

In addition to that release comes Spanish Model, a reimagining of 1978’s This Year’s Model, but powered by a mix of the original’s music from Costello and The Attractions and a roster of Spanish language stars who put their own spin on the words, freshening a classic and giving Costello’s music an entirely new audience.

Uproxx had a chance to speak with the iconic rocker about these projects and their DNA, that effort to bring people into the tent, growing up with a sonic mixing bowl of inspirations, and whether he’s choosing to make songs of lament or songs that kick out of the box that COVID times have put us in. Here’s the result.

I am a 20-years-in terrible guitar player. I’ve never bothered to learn the technical way, I’ve tried with apps and stuff and it just never fits.

I’m 50 years into playing and you can still walk up to the guitar and point at the neck, and go, “what note is that?” And I go, “I have no idea.” And I’m not [just] saying that. That is not false modesty. I’ve deliberately kept some parts of it mysterious. And I think it’s important to keep the inner idiot alive when it comes to playing rock and roll, certainly.

What made you go down this road (an audio, non-standard demystification of the guitar) with this project?

So you probably get the idea if you’ve listened to this piece, that this is really about taking away your fear of failing… as much as I can from example. It’s not supposed to be a hard and fast foolproof instructional. It’s, as I say, a work of comedic philosophy because it’s about the state of mind. But there’s got to be something I can let people in on. Not a secret trick that’s going to make them successful, and then people love them and throw money or their underwear at them, but [something that] takes away some of that trepidation, which as you say, you can play for a long time and not feel like you’re getting anywhere, well, a lot of that is where the starting place comes.

Some people are quite happy with the three chords they can pull out at a party. Some people’s three-chord trick becomes a curiosity in which they learn every chord and they learn music more formally. I did that. I think I was in my forties before I learned how to write music down. I had written hundreds of songs, but they weren’t songs that required the writing of music. Then I started to want to do some music that did require musical coding, so to speak, which is no different than computer coding when you think about it, it’s just a mathematical diagram for ideas. But all the time, I’ve still, as I said, kept alive that idea of just playing it.

With the electric guitar, that can be very much an expression of anger, and when you play the guitar quietly, it can be your deepest sorrow or your biggest praise that you want to give, or the most heartfelt expression of love. You can do that with three chords, as well as you can with 25, if you’ve got the right song. That’s why I chose the Hank Williams song. That is such a beautiful song, but it’s only three chords. When you hear it from the outside of the music, you probably imagine anything that’s lasted that long and has mattered that much to people must be more complicated. And then actually when you get into it, it isn’t. Not technically, it’s not more, it’s where it’s phrased, and the trust that your fingers will follow you, particularly if you’re not playing in a key that’s mechanically intimidating like C, which leaves you with this great puzzle.

You mention Hank Williams and George Jones comes up in the piece. I’m fascinated by the influence of country music, specifically, that era, on UK-raised artists. When did US country music really start to influence you?

I think somebody that grew up… I’m the perfect age to be a Beatles fan. Okay. So I was eight years old when “Love Me Do” came out. I was 16 when “Let It Be” came out. So the whole of my childhood into my teenage years was the Beatles were the group. Fairly early on, they did this song and it’s like a jokey… “Act Naturally,” and Ringo’s singing it. It’s sung with a sense of humor. And I heard Jim Reeves’ [version], and that was very sentimental. Then I heard Johnny Cash and now that was something else. But I didn’t even really think that was country music as much as like some kind of rock and roll.

And then I have to say like a lot of people in my generation, The Byrds playing country music sort of made it… [I] sort of went, hold on a second. Now they’re doing a song that I’ve heard that was written by the guy that sang “Private Number,” William Bell. Now what’s going on here, now that music just jumped out of the box that I thought it was in, and it’s walked over to this other box and jumped in there. And then I heard The Flying Burrito Brothers do “Do Right Woman.” And I go, hold on a second, now I’ve got the Aretha Franklin version of that. And that’s the thing when you shouldn’t have these signposts for the names of types of music be a barrier or a stop sign, because then you go well, oh, wait a minute, both those songs are great. They are different, but one’s got a pedal steel guitar, the other’s got an organ. But is one less felt than the other? No, not really. Aretha’s obviously technically a much better singer than Graham Parsons, but they both move me. That’s all that matters. Isn’t it? That’s how it got in.

Of course, then I understood after a while, where a lot of those cues came from. They came from George Jones, they came from Merle Haggard. And they’re more complex writers like Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote a lot of the songs for the Everly’s, and wrote those songs that Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons did: “Love Hurts” and “Sleepless Nights.” And then you discover, oh, Willie Nelson… Willie Nelson wrote that song “Funny How Time Slips Away,” which I knew as a Georgie Fame song.

So I heard it as an R&B song, first. He was covering an R&B cover of that song, not a country song. So the names for all this music all got very mixed up in England. We heard a lot of songs twice and three times over. So my familiarity with, say, the songs of Burt Bacharach were both from Dionne Warwick and people from the local music scene who were covering those songs because they were hits on the American charts. My own father was singing on the radio dance band. And I was hearing him practice songs, which I then heard sung by my favorite group. You understand, it’s confusing when you have that kind of upbringing.

What do you listen to now? Do you retreat more to things that are familiar? Are you still looking voraciously to find new influences?

Well, recently, of course, I’ve been listening to a lot of singers from Latin America because I’ve been working on Spanish Model for a couple of years. And I knew some of the artists before, and some of them were friends, and I’d worked together with Marisol and I knew Fito Páez. When I went to Argentina, he welcomed us there. But Sebastian Krys and I have worked together on a lot of different records. Some of them are available already. Some of them are still to come. And he’s also done work on things like the Armed Forces box set, where he makes four albums worth of live material to complete the reissue. So we’ve had a way of looking at different music. And one of those projects was Spanish Model, which is using the original backing tracks [from This Year’s Model] with brand new vocals by Latin artists.

This wasn’t something planned in a marketing room. This was something where I actually dreamt it up and waited for him [Sebastian] to tell me that it was crazy. And he said, “yes, it’s crazy, and that’s all the more reason why we should do it.” And we’ve worked together on finding a combination of young, successful, unknown, rising stars… people who have very artistic profiles. Some of them are very pop and would really surprise and even horrify people, even Latin audiences, that they would even be singing my song. You have to understand that I’m completely unknown in most of the countries in Latin America. So if somebody like Sebastian Yatra, who’s a big current Colombian pop star, sings one of my songs, I’m a songwriter who Yatra is singing, I’m not a famous recording artist in my own right.

So all of these different stories… the reversal of the perspective of the songs by having a young woman sing a song in her twenties that I wrote when I was in my twenties, this is all the reason why we’re doing it. That required me to become acquainted with these singers and to hear the sense of possibility in their voices. I wanted their voices to be right ones, and then asked them if they felt they could sing music that in many cases was very outside of their common experience. It wasn’t even the kind of music they sang often, and they did a great job. So that was a big lot of listening, to listen to that.

Is there a want to continue to do things like this where you work through your back catalog and work with other younger, up-and-coming artists to put a new spin on these things?

Would I do this again? Oh, I don’t know. It hadn’t occurred to me. People that want to be sarcastic about it will say, oh, what’s coming next? A Serbo-Croat version of King Of America? I don’t know. If somebody wanted to take it on and they thought there was something to be had from it, maybe, but I don’t know. This was different because Sebastian was born in Argentina and raised in Miami, which is the perfect example of a city… it’s got a huge Latin culture and you’ve got the states in America, you know the ones on the border, like Texas and California, that are as Spanish speaking as they are English speaking in some parts. That’s all represented in this record. It’s not like a political statement in any sense, it just acknowledges the reality that it’s a shared culture.

Sebastian’s worked with so many Latin artists, both northern and southern hemisphere. He was uniquely placed to suggest to me people who would really sing this well. So it wasn’t just an exercise in getting the most successful singer of that demographic to use that word and hope that they could relate to this, that we could have a conversation about what was in the songs and what we wanted that song to be in this version. Would that work in another language? I don’t know.

But we did, of course, release a French EP off the back of Hey Clockface because Steve Nieve, my cohort of 43 years, lives in France, he carries a French passport. I knew that Iggy Pop could sing in French. So I thought let’s have Iggy sing the translation. Steve then and his partner Muriel Teodori got Isabelle Adjani, who was somebody I would’ve dreamed of working with… [and she] recited one of the pieces from that Hey Clockface record. I just wanted something to offer to the French audience that was in their own language, on an EP. I have no idea whether the Spanish language record will open a door for us in Latin America where I’m currently not really very well known. It doesn’t really matter. They might just like that one song, sung by Raquel Sofia or by Jesse & Joy or any of the other artists on the record.

How has the COVID era influenced your songwriting?

It didn’t really influence the songwriting so much as the attitude to recording, because I had begun Hey Clockface in Helsinki just before the last tour I was able to do in 2020. I went to Helsinki, recorded three songs, went to Paris, recorded nine songs. That wasn’t quite the record I had in mind. So I came back and completed it with two more pieces, which were recorded from remote occasions. So once we had crossed that barrier off, which is purely a state of mind, because, as you know, many records are recorded instrument by instrument. I’ve made records both ways, live in the studio, instrument by instrument, both have their virtues, both have their pitfalls. But largely when you know you can’t get together, the only thing really holding you back is the feeling that you are somehow confined by the general malaise to your spirit, of being separated from those you respond to normally — producers, other musicians, your family. You’re far away from your friends and your family, you’re concerned for their well-being, particularly their mental, emotional health. And you try not to dwell on all of the implications of every piece of misinformation that might come through your window.

You’ve got two choices then: you can make music sort of, to some degree, embracing that sense of isolation and make songs of lament. Or you can say, well, what circumstances have put us in this box? Let’s kick our way out of here. I’ll let you guess which one of those I chose.

‘How To Play The Guitar And Y’ is available to download on Audible and ‘Spanish Model’ is also available now