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Hong Kong gigs

Ahead of Macau debut, Elvis Costello looks back on growing up very publicly

With his Detour event, the 62-year-old singer-songwriter will reflect in words and music on a distinguished career – and how his older songs still have the capacity to surprise him

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2016, 1:58pm

Elvis Costello has been taking a few days’ break with his family in Vancouver when we speak over the phone and although we’re here to talk about his life and times, it isn’t long before the entertainer’s inquisitive mind takes over.

Set to play Macau for the first time on September 9, the acclaimed English singer-songwriter wants to know what to expect from a city he has heard much about but never visited.

“It’s one of those places that has such a romantic ring to it, in a lot of old stories, with all its history,” he says. “So I’ll be hoping to learn more about that and be surprised – obviously not always in a good way – about the changes that have being taking place.”

It’s never a good idea to play phonecall psychoanalysis, but this short exchange gave us an insight into how the 62-year-old’s mind has been working over the past few years, if not his lifetime. At least, it presents a way to frame our narrative.

Costello is bringing his solo tour to our doorstep and it’s named “Detour” for good reason. The experience, as it has toured the world, has given Costello a chance to cast his mind back over a 40-odd year musical – and personal – journey.

Similar, no doubt, to the personal reflection that he went through in putting his life down in print, with the publishing last year of Costello’s memoir/autobiography Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. The process of history and of change and of journeys taken can be found in its pages, and at times these will be explored on stage at the Macau Cultural Centre.

“That’s the whole beauty of this show,” says Costello. “It’s called ‘Detour’ because it takes that unusual route. The response has been very positive and we’ve had some really incredible nights. I think I have found a way, a route, through all the songs that allows me to be surprised by the older songs.

“By virtue of that I think I offer the audience a better rendition in many cases than if I were to be simply listing my best-known songs. You need to find the heart and soul of the songs even though they maybe have existed for a long time.”

After the critically acclaimed albums My Aim is True and This Year’s Model, Costello broke through with the single Oliver’s Army in 1979, when the world was a different place – and he was a different man. He says the relationship he has with the old tunes is in constant evolution.

“Obviously a song that was written in the heat of the moment, you’re sometimes revisiting with a bit of humour or distance,” says Costello. “It’s amazing how a song can surprise you. You think you know all about it, and then it will become vivid to you in the light of a performance and that’s what you’re looking for – that surprise.”

Much has been made since Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink hit the shelves about Costello’s candid approach to some of the darker moments in his life, the admittedly few controversies that sometimes shadowed his emergence as performer, first fronting The Attractions in punk’s dying days, and beyond through excursions into jazz and opera scores as his career progressed.

Book review: Elvis Costello turns his plentiful talents to autobiography

“The early days probably were more of a blur because I was new to the experience,” he says. “But if you read about what I do remember about those early experiences, not all of them are remembered fondly. But I think it would be wrong to assume that I don’t value having made those records when I did, and value going through the experiences I did.”

Costello tackles his controversies head on, offering regret about the infamous night on the tiles in Ohio when he was accused of using racial slurs when referring to Ray Charles and James Brown, for example, framing it in terms of a young man out of his league and off his head. But the experience of pouring his heart out on the page was not as fraught as might be imagined.

“I really enjoyed it,” he says, of the writing process. “It took me a while to decide what kind of book I was intending to write. I could have written many different types of book. But once I had settled on the form, then it became a matter of how to lay it out grammatically. I think I succeeded in the end.

“Maybe some people would like things in a chronological order, in the way in which they occurred, but that’s not the way you reflect upon them later.”

Born into a family immersed in music – father Ross MacManus was a big band singer – Costello believes the opportunity to tell his story came about at “just the right time”.

“I didn’t really just want to write about me,” he says. “I wanted in some ways to explain why I see music the way I do, which is a little bit different to some of my contemporaries, and even some of my close friends. I’ve witnessed music through the eyes of a child, with both parents making a living from music allowing that to be the case.”

Costello shares his Vancouver hideaway with his wife of 13 years, fellow musician and songwriter Diana Krall, and their nine-year-old twin boys, Frank and Dexter. Given his at times tempestuous relationship with the press over the years, he casts a wary eye over the rise of social media and the pitfalls for entertainers who do a great deal of their growing up in public

“There were certain indiscretions and things in my time that obviously would have been a very different matter had there been social media around,” he says. “Obviously the boys will have to learn the responsibilities and the pitfalls, and they have to learn not to pay too much attention to things that are ubiquitous. Ubiquitous doesn’t necessarily mean valuable. That’s something that I hope they come to understand.”

As his solo tour continues across the globe, Costello says the focus is on doing what he has learned he does best.

“I just try to write what I feel, and I try to remember what I may have already said that makes me feel better about whatever moment we might be in,” says Costello. “It’s not my job to try to explain things. It’s my job to get up there and sing about things that matter to me and hope that strikes a chord with the audience.”

Elvis Costello, Sept 9, 8pm, Grand Auditorium, Macau Cultural Centre, Avenida Xian Xing Hai, Macau, HK$380, HK$580, macauticket.com

To get warmed up for the gig, sit back and enjoy these Elvis Costello classics.

Watching the Detectives (1977)

The first hit and full of the killer lyrics that have since become the Costello trademark.

Alison (1977)

A sweet and sorrowful paean to lost hope, more than anything. The singer says it was inspired by a girl he saw working at a checkout.

Oliver’s Army (1979)

In his own words: “The song was based on the premise ‘they always get a working class boy to do the killing’.”

Shipbuilding (1983)

Costello provided the lyrics to Clive Langer’s music and it’s a masterpiece reflecting on the contradictions of war.

She (1999)

For a man who loves a good reinterpretation, this Charles Aznavour cover comes pitch perfect for his soul style.