From the very moment he emerged in 1977, Elvis Costello has been an immovable force within the alternative music scene, and one who refuses to slow down with age. Over 30 studio albums on from his debut effort, Costello is still firing on all cylinders, and last year he shared the ambitious new record Hey Clockface.
Evolution has been at the heart of everything Costello created throughout his career, and he’s a different artist from the rowdy troublemaker that emerged over 40 years ago. However, one thing that hasn’t changed over that time is his obsession with music. That has remained the most significant constant in his life — apart from his trademark spectacles, of course.
Costello stayed true to his rock ‘n’ roll credentials when everyone thought it was dead during punk’s dominance, but this lone wolf didn’t need to fit into one confined scene to flourish. For the best part of two decades, Costello was supported by his backing band, The Attractions, and together they put out ten albums between 1978 and 1996.
Throughout this time at the forefront of rock music, Costello has been flexing different parts of his musical muscles, skills which ranged from dabbles into new-wave, all the way through to Americana. He’s absorbed influences from across the musical spectrum in his career, allowing them to bleed into his work seamlessly.
This feature takes a look at the singer’s that Costello has openly discussed his admiration for, and it’s an esteemed collection full of extraordinary talents.
Elvis Costello’s favourite singers:
Joni Mitchell is an artist that features on every list of this kind worth its salt, and it should arrive as no surprise that her music has played a pivotal role throughout Costello’s life. In 2007, he featured on A Tribute to Joni Mitchell and delivered a beautiful homage to the singer-songwriter with his take on ‘Edith and the Kingpin’.
“My father gave me my first Joni Mitchell record, and I followed everything she did after that,” Costello told Pitchfork. “Court and Spark is very different because it’s the first time she really gathered jazz musicians. And the songs and scenarios are very different to the travelling songs of Blue or the self-exile songs of For the Roses; Court and Spark is describing a much more sophisticated lifestyle.”
Costello then concluded by dotingly adding: “No one is remotely operating on her level.”
Iggy Pop is an artist that Elvis Costello has known on a personal level since his very first tour in America, and the two remained in close contact ever since. Last year, they even teamed up for a French-language version of Costello’s political anthem ‘No Flag’.
“I think something we learned from each other is fearlessness, particularly in recent times,” Costello told Iggy Pop in a webchat they held in 2020. “You can make records in France, where you’re singing in French, or the record you made with Josh Homme [2016’s Post Pop Depression].”
Adding: “I saw you one night on the BBC when you were playing with those guys, and you closed the show with ‘Lust for Life’. You ran past the cameras and into the audience. I was like, This is so full of joy, and it’s also the kind of music that the authorities usually say, ‘Let’s ban this immediately because it’s going to cause some trouble.’ It’s still right there if you want it. I think that’s rock and roll.”
Elvis Costello was fortunate enough to share the stage with Lou Reed on more than one occasion, and his admiration for the late Velvet Underground singer knows no bounds.
“Lou had looked into the dark side so much as a participant, and on this album he was more like a commentator. It’s a terrific-sounding record, pretty ferocious,” he told Pitchfork about Reed’s album New York.
“When Lou died [in 2013], I was in Palo Alto at Neil and Pegi Young’s Bridge School Benefit, and Jim James put together an on-the-spot tribute to Lou, which we all contributed to,” he added. “It was people of every generation, just because the music meant so much to everybody. We have to lose some people sooner than we wish.”
Elvis Costello and PJ Harvey are close friends and, over the years, he has name-checked her 4 Track Demos as one of the most pivotal records in his life. While he may not be a fan of how the album Rid Of Me turned out because of its production, Costello has often triumphed Harvey’s raw talent.
“I remember seeing PJ on The Tonight Show,” he told Pitchfork. “She stood there with just a guitar and did ‘Rid of Me.’ It was like seeing Howlin’ Wolf on Shindig! So great. And then I got the record [Rid of Me], and it was nowhere near as good, but it didn’t matter. For me, the record sounds like shit. That guy [Steve Albini] doesn’t know anything about production.”
The musical world was devastated following John Prine’s tragic death due to coronavirus last year. Still, few were grieving more than Elvis Costello, who owes a lot to the late legendary songwriter.
“I wanted to be John when I was 20,” Costello told Pitchfork. “I tried to write like him, I couldn’t. I don’t like people as much as he does. It’s amazing how, even years after writing something like ‘Hello in There’, he never sang it like it was anything other than deeply felt. He could have easily allowed the song to perform itself, but he never did. And I just was glad I got to spend that day with him on the [Spectacle] stage.”
Following Prine’s death, Costello wrote on social media: “These were songs that no one else was writing, filled with details that only Prine’s eye or ear caught; the arcane radio, the damaged and the destitute,” he said, adding: “The songs were filled with what sounded like sound advice from a friend in a crowded bar, or a voice in the margins, but never one that was self-pitying or self-regarding.”
Fats Waller was one of the biggest names of the era. Although he passed away in 1943, his influence can still be felt today. Waller’s innovative stride style proved monumental in crafting the jazz piano movement, and Costello is one of many artists who hold him in the highest regard.
Costello intersects Waller’s track ‘How Cany You Face Me’ into his song ‘Hey Clockface’ and, in reflection, spoke about his love of the jazz extraordinaire during an interview with The Quietus. “That said, this tune sees the writers in perfect accord,” he noted. “I love it so much that I had the trumpet player, Mickael Gaschë, quote the theme for the opening refrain of the title track of my new album, ‘Hey Clockface’, while I sang a few lines of ‘How Can You Face Me?’ to bring the performance to a close.”
Bob Dylan has influenced every facet of Costello’s career, whether this is on a subconscious or conscious level. They performed together at London’s Brixton Academy in 1995, and the respect is reciprocal.
It’s Dylan’s longevity that Costello finds the most inspiring, and the way that the singer has gradually changed over the years is something that Costello has attempted to emulate within his own career. “This idea has been sold to us, usually by people with no talent, that music must be about eternal youth,” he told Pitchfork.
“In the popular music legend, somehow, you become feeble over 30. People that say Bob Dylan can’t sing anymore have literally no idea what singing is. By the way, when did he ever sound like Marvin Gaye? He always sounded like Bob Dylan. Lots of different Bob Dylans.”
Nick Cave is an artist that didn’t immediately click with Costello, but Push The Sky Away changed everything. From there, he grew to understand the Australian in a different light and, since that moment, he’s become an aficionado of the Bad Seeds frontman.
“I didn’t pay a lot of attention to his music,” he revealed to Pitchfork. “It seemed a little overwrought for me. And then something about this record just fucking knocked me out. The way the mood developed, Warren Ellis’ playing on it, the way the songs sped up and slowed down. It just moved me. It’s all the same component parts, but it seems like he got closer to some real revelation.
“When I listen back to Push the Sky Away, I hear that they’re interacting as a band and listening to each other. It made me appreciate it. I went back and listened to all of his records.”