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Podcast #87: Elvis Costello on the Internet, Records, and Imitation

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Elvis Costello's voice is unmistakably his own, and for nearly four decades his music has earned him fans around the world. The singer-songwriter is also now the author of a memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. This week for the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present Elvis Costello discussing the long memory of the internet, influential records, and imitation.

Paul Holdengräber and Elvis Costello
Paul Holdengräber and Elvis Costello


Costello's father Ross MacManus was a jazz trumpeter, and Costello received an early musical education as he sang along with the records his father gave him:

"I sang along with the records after he gave them to me. I didn’t realize there was anything to being able to sing both parts, but I learned how to do that and in those days I could sing as high as Paul McCartney because I was only eleven. I couldn’t do it after my voice broke. But I learned, I suppose I learned harmony, I didn’t know I was doing that, and I could sing the saxophone solos from all the records. And so on and so forth. I was an only child, so I was just alone with my thoughts and my misery."

This practice of imitation carried into Costello's songwriting. He continues to view his work as evocative of his musical influences:

"The classical composers wrote variations, jazz musicians do improvisations. We just straight-out steal, we’re not dressing it up. I had started out—I had always imitated the things I love when I was learning to play the guitar, I was about fourteen or something, thirteen or fourteen when I really picked up the guitar. Within mastering a few chords I started to write my own songs, and they were all imitations. Everything I wrote up until, right up until last week really, was an imitation of something. No, in your mind, it might come out as sounding like your voice, but I could tell you the singers that I was dreaming of when I wrote various songs, and you would in some cases say, 'Oh, yeah, I can sort of get that,' because it’s an approximation of their style. Others wouldn’t sound like them at all, but by pondering their style and the things that I loved about them, something else would tumble out, and that’s true. And it began, bear in mind it began with this identity thing. I learned to speak up for myself around the time I was given this secret identity of 'put on these glasses because heaven knows you’re never going to make it in the Robert Plant stakes. We’re going to change your name.'"

In response to a question about how some early comments about revenge and guilt have continued to dog him, Costello discussed how the internet preserves mistakes:

"The account of your life now, now we have the cumulative accounts because there’s no cat litter trays anymore to put your newspapers in or wrap your fish and chips in, they’re preserved on the Internet forever, so there’s an accumulating picture of somebody so if you say something stupid it’ll haunt you forever. If you say something wise it’ll get buried by the stupid things you said. If you say something loving, or if you get sharp just one moment and shoot from the hip and of course we live in a world that the minute anything appears anywhere now you have to have an opinion about it, and it’s like you haven’t got your trousers on if you don’t have an opinion."

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Your excellent podcasts

Dear NYPL, I've just finished listening to Paul Holdengräber's interview with the eloquent Elvis Costello, and wanted to write you a speedy note to thank you for your podcasts. Mr. Holdengräber is a superb host and provocateur, and it's given me great pleasure to listen to him with Costello, with Adam Phillips, and with others. It seems to me that this service, gift, project of the podcast is a great one; a contribution to the idea of being civilised. Looking forward to going further into this archive, Thank you again. Roger

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