When Elvis Costello first shook up the scene in the late ’70s with his new wave swagger and his iconic, pigeon-toed punk stagger, few would have tagged him as a musical chameleon.
But the bespectacled English superstar (born Declan Patrick MacManus) whose debut album My Aim Is True gave us the classic hits Alison and Watching the Detectives would go on to dabble in just about every genre possible, including pop, country, soul, jazz, blues and classical — all of them sounding authentic and none lacking his songwriting genius.
Costello has collaborated with a long list of artists whose diversity matches their collective impact on the music industry: Burt Bacharach, Tony Bennett, Alison Krauss, Lucinda Williams, T-Bone Burnett, the Brodsky Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint, Kid Rock, the Beastie Boys, Bill Frisell and even Fall Out Boy and Green Day, to name just a few. But regardless of his musical partners, Costello has always featured a distinctive voice and style.
Now, at age 60 and happily married to Canadian jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall, Costello wraps up his long Detour Tour on Wednesday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, during which he performs solo, stripping down selections (some as well-known as Oliver’s Army, Accidents Will Happen and Pump It Up, and some not) from his unforgettable 40-year career, and telling the stories behind them.
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Costello talked to the Miami Herald about going solo, whether there’s a “true Elvis Costello sound,” and the effect Krall has had on his musical goals.
Q: What inspired you to do the Detour Tour?
A: I’ve been working with different ways of taking the songbook out there, and trying to come up with a different result every night. Honestly, when I had the [Return of the Spectacular] Spinning Songbook show with The Imposters, that left it really open to chance. This isn’t obviously as random as that, but it’s perhaps the opposite — it’s like making a plan for yourself, and then, as the name of the tour suggests, being prepared to break that plan, or depart from that plan. And that’s kind of why I do it.
Q: Is playing solo more freeing than performing with a band?
A: Well, both things are great. There’s a contrast only in the sense that you have all the pieces of the arrangement in place when you play with a band. With [performing solo], you go back to the way the song sounded when you wrote it — at least, that’s one of the possibilities. I mean, sometimes I’ll play a song quite differently from the way I wrote it — maybe it’ll become faster, maybe it’ll become slower. Sometimes I sit down, not because I’m tired, but because you play the guitar differently when you sit down. Sometimes I’ve taken fast songs, rock ’n’ roll songs, and just sat down and played them and looked at what the story in them was — I had a song called There’s a Story in Your Voice about that mesmerizing sound you hear in somebody’s voice when you desire them. And when you put a rock ’n’ roll beat behind it, it sounds wild, because that’s a thrill that you represent in the music. But when you take it down to just what the words are, there’s also a sad thing going on behind all of that, because sometimes that sound you’re responding to isn’t a true one. There’s a different story being told when you sing it quietly or when you sing it loud — it’s as simple as that. And if I can find that — and I wrote it — then hopefully, people sort of get a surprise. And it also means that you creep up on the songs that people most anticipate, the songs that people think, “Well, he’s definitely gonna sing that one.” I don’t feel like I’m singing them out of obligation — I feel like I’m singing them because I get to them honestly.
Q: What can people expect visually?
A: I’ve got the stage set up to tempt me down different paths — I’ve got a piano over there to the right, I’ve got a chair to the left, and I stand in the middle. There’s a couple other surprises that I don’t wanna give away until you get into the theater. But there’s an element of presentation, an element of stage-set to this. [But] it’s not water in the tap, that every time you turn it on, you want it to be the same. It’s the opposite of that.
Q: Do you go into each night without a set plan?
A: I write a set list before the show, but I’m still writing it up until a few minutes before I go on. It’s easier for my crew if I stick to it, but something will happen, and I’ll just suddenly feel I should go a different way. It’ll all just come through in the moment as to what’s the right thing to do. And of course, if I can remember it and if I can perform it, then being on my own allows me to turn corners a lot more readily than if I have to turn to the band and go, “Do you remember how that goes?” They’re really good at doing that, by the way, when I do play with The Imposters — I don’t know another group that would have as many songs in their head as they do. But obviously on my own, I have a lot more.
Q: Out of all the genres that you’ve tackled over your career, is there one true Elvis Costello sound?
A: They all are. See, I don’t think of it like that — I just think it’s some music that I’m playing, and I’m aware that the musicians that I might be working with might come from another tradition or discipline — classical musicians or bluegrass musicians. But I never really thought I was making a “classical” record: I was just making some sounds and using those instruments to the best of my ability, or I was working with a great acoustic band as opposed to an amplified band — and we were trying to find the thrill of the music with that. So I’ve been very fortunate to have all of those things happen, so I don’t really think of it as a matter of truth, just a matter of good fortune.
Q: Has your relationship with Diana influenced your goals as a musician at all?
A: I would say that being in life with Diana has influenced everything. But I don’t have any goals as a musician. I mean, I just want to spend more time with her — that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Of course, that’s not always possible — she’s in Paris right now, and I’m in New York, and it makes our life very thrilling, because we’re always rendezvousing, as they say in France. I kind of make better use of my time than I once did. When you’re starting out, you think everything is possible, and you want to do everything you can. And then you realize that some of the things you thought you wanted to do really weren’t worth your time, and I’m a little bit more jealous of my time now, as in wanting to have time with my family and with my sons and not be away all the time. I just play when I can organize it and the opportunity presents itself. We both work in that way. Of course, I think she’s the greatest, and I wouldn’t say that we influence each other at all. She doesn’t need any influencing — she knows her own mind and what she’s doing at any one time.
If you go
What: Elvis Costello — The Detour Tour.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Au-Rene Theater, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
Tickets: $49.50-$129.50; 954-462-0222 or www.browardcenter.org.