This year's model
To his fans, following Elvis Costello's musical journey over the past 35 years has always been something of a mystery tour. From the kooky, bespectacled, new-wave pioneer who sang Oliver's Army, through classical musings with the Brodsky Quartet to duets with Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney and Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, the only certainty with Costello is that the next destination will be a surprise. Costello is an enigma, he admits, even to himself.
'If I had remained constricted by just a few changes and the same rhythms all the time I might not have been able to keep myself or the audience interested,' says the 56-year-old songwriter and musician, who makes his Hong Kong public debut in March as part of the Arts Festival. 'If you try to appeal to everybody in the world then you would go about music in a very different way. I'm just trying to make music that makes sense to me and I trust other people will be interested.'
Costello oozes self-assurance. Far from a braggart, he seems content to plot his own course and hope others want to come along for the ride. That determination has paid dividends many times over. Often referred to as a 'musician's musician' (he baulks at the term), his accolades include a Grammy, two Ivor Novellos, an Edison, a Bafta and an Oscar nomination. Rolling Stone placed him 80th on its list of the 100 greatest artists of all time and The New Yorker recently devoted its cover story to the London-born star, a piece of hagiography that he puts down as boring analysis.
'I don't really put so much store in accolades or words attached to your name so much as the personal reactions of people I can vouch for, or people I encounter by chance who come up and say something about how it meant a lot to them,' Costello says by phone from New York. Nor does it bother him that for all the acclaim, he has rarely achieved chart success. While many still recall him for a string of late-70s hits with the Attractions, such as Alison and Chelsea, when he introduced an aesthetic poignancy to the post-punk era, Costello is at pains to point out it is largely a myth.
'It's an illusion to say I had any hit records early on,' he says. 'I had a number of hit singles in England. I didn't have any in America until a minor hit in the mid-80s and a top-20 in the late 80s with one single. The albums that are known now have made their sales over 30 years.'
He counters head-on the idea that his later projects were more niche, saying that statistically his songs have sold the same according to the scale of the market. His foray into strings with the Brodsky Quartet wasn't very popular at the time, Costello acknowledges, but he adds there are now five separate recordings of those songs.
'You can never really tell where something will end up and you can't even control it. Songs of mine have turned up in films and that changes people's awareness of songs,' he says. 'I think it's more that a lot was said about the early records. It makes them appear that they were much more successful and important than they actually were. People write big theories about how important punk rock was, but if you look at the numbers of those records, they were massively outsold by dance records at the time. Big hits in 1977 were not by the Sex Pistols. The difference is that Sex Pistols records were bought by journalists who wrote a lot about them.'
Music is in his blood. Born Declan Patrick MacManus, he was the son of a bandleader and jazz musician, with whom he made his first musical recording for an advertisement. Having grown up with his mother near Liverpool in northwest England, he saw the rise of the Beatles. He began to play guitar when he was 13, making a living at the age of 22, changing his stage name to Elvis Costello at the suggestion of his manager. He's been described as a musical 'encyclopedia' and Costello's peripatetic mind has taken him across many musical boundaries, from punk to jazz, reggae and pop, revelling in collaborations with some of the finest songwriters in the world. 'It's just me following my curiosity about various musical forms,' he says. 'I don't really see a distinction between musical styles as being that important. I accept the musical names we use to describe things but I just know when I feel something and it works for me to tell a story, whether it's rock'n'roll or rhythm 'n' blues, or whether it's a collaboration with classical or jazz musicians, they're still my songs.'
He says he never imagined when he started out that he would end up writing songs with Paul McCartney or Burt Bacharach. 'But I can't say I place those as higher in importance than other people I've worked with, including members of my band. Everything you do in music is collaboration. Even if you're calling the shots and it's your initial idea, your songs and the stories you're trying to tell, you're bringing it to life with the help of other people and some of them are less well known. Some of the most exciting stuff has been with artists who aren't terribly well known.'
In the cynical, results-oriented music business, Costello may be considered fortunate to have been able to run his own race. 'I can't say every change I've ever made has been completely understood by the people in the record companies, but there's been a degree of trust that something is going to come of it.
'Nobody's stopped me from making them,' he says. 'If you look at it in a cynical way you might say I have squandered some people's money following my own train of thought about music and they've just had to go along with it. The other way of looking at it is there are all sorts of new people coming into the picture all the time.'
Nor does he worry about losing fans. In fact, he credits taking risks and venturing into new genres as one reason for the longevity of his career. 'A lot of people say they're being controlled by executives from their record companies but there is often an unwillingness on their part to take the risk of losing an audience. I don't feel that way because I believe there will be somebody who wants to listen to it if you put your heart and soul into it.
'Some people will be impatient with you when you change your style but you have to remember there are other people whose first interest in you comes from that change that you make.'
Costello cites an anecdote (perhaps apocryphal) about a music executive who went into the studio to tell an artist he was being let go because his last album didn't sell well. 'Well, that's your responsibility,' the artist replied. Says Costello: 'That is true. They are the business and we are the music. But if you make the music with too many references, you're going to make formulaic music which tries to second guess what people want. That isn't what I do.'
The audience at his Hong Kong debut - his only previous appearance in Hong Kong was a private event more than a decade ago - will be privy to a set likely to traverse his entire career. Solo shows give Costello a freedom and spontaneity he relishes.
'They tend to have the widest range of music. I've found I can play songs from 30 years ago much as they were written. Most of them were written with an acoustic guitar initially even though they were played with electric instruments. I can also plug in an electric guitar and that can be pretty startling in a solo performance. And I can present modern songs, which are a little less known, with a clarity that perhaps allows them to be absorbed in one hearing. In some cases I have played unrecorded songs,' he says.
'It makes for the repertoire to be unique and I rarely play the same show twice. If I think of a song I want to perform I can do it on the spur of the moment. I don't have to worry about anyone else remembering anything.'
Although writing songs has been his living since he quit a series of dull office jobs at the age of 22, Costello says he may not go on forever. 'Because I've made a lot of records, people imagine I write constantly. I don't,' he says. 'There are lots of times I'm not writing, have no inclination to do so nor any concern if I ever write again. That's how I feel right now. I've just issued a lot of music in a short period of time. I've no idea if I'll ever release another record. I have to wait until the moment arrives. If I worry about it, it will never happen.'
With more than 30 albums to his name, he's among the most prolific of modern songwriters. 'As for records, I think I've made enough of them now.'
Elvis Costello, March 5, 8pm, Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, HK$125-HK$340 (students), HK$250-HK$800 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2824 2430