Indoor Fireworks

In ABBA's old studio, Elvis Costello and Anne Sofie von Otter reinterpret pop music history

His compulsion to branch out, to make music that excites him, if not others, has led him through television soundtrack work (1991's G.B.H. and 1995's Jake's Progress, both with Richard Harvey), chamber-pop excursions (1993's The Juliet Letters), cocktail-lounge toss-offs (his pairing with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, 1995's Deep Dead Blue) and finally his partnership with Burt Bacharach, 1998's Painted From Memory. He's also written songs for German seductress Ute Lemper (some of which appeared on 2000's Punishing Kiss) and performed with everyone from The Fairfield Four to Dan Hicks. All told, Costello has been involved in more team-ups than any Marvel or DC Comics character.

"Of course, I'd seen his name for a long time, for many years before that," von Otter says, on the phone from London. "And his face was familiar to me. I didn't have any of his recordings, however." It didn't occur to von Otter at the time that, eventually, one of his recordings would also be one of her recordings. But someone was smart enough to see that Costello and von Otter would be good together.

"Somebody immediately cracked, 'Oh, you two should work together,'" von Otter recalls. "But it wasn't immediately a recording, this recording. That wasn't the first idea. I think the first thing we ever did, we got together for a concert in Stockholm, where I sang some classic repertoire, and he did some of his, and then we did some things together."

Elvis Costello and Anne Sofie von Otter laugh at Costello's latest hat during a break from the recording of For the Stars.
Mats Backer/DG
Elvis Costello and Anne Sofie von Otter laugh at Costello's latest hat during a break from the recording of For the Stars.

Costello adds, "It wasn't the sort of thing that you would put on a record"--though bootleggers would beg to differ--"but it was a lot of fun, you know, just finding repertoire that we could share on a gala bill in Stockholm."

The duo's initial collaboration led to Three Distracted Women, a set of songs Costello wrote for von Otter and the Brodsky Quartet--who he had earlier worked with on The Juliet Letters--to perform onstage. Still, a proper collaboration, one that would combine the pair's particular talents (her voice; his skill as a songwriter and arranger, as well as his Name That Tune knowledge of pop music history) wasn't yet on the table. They were still getting to know each other, what they liked, what they did best, what worked, what didn't. Costello didn't expect the songs he wrote for Three Distracted Women to be recorded.

"I mean, they could be recorded, but they weren't the sort of songs that would have fitted in to this record," he says. "They were more the sort of things that were designed to be performed onstage. But, of course, it did give me an opportunity to go to the rehearsals and actually work on some music with Anne Sofie and the Quartet, who I knew really well."

The dialogue von Otter and Costello began during those rehearsals eventually led to For the Stars (due in stores April 10 on Deutsche Grammophon, a subsidiary of Universal Music--and aren't they all?), as the two would trade letters with tapes attached, tapes of songs that he/she liked, songs that might fit her voice, sounds that might fit the record. More than 100 songs were considered while von Otter and Costello corresponded, and it was years before they even thought of entering a studio to make the album.

Some songs were agreed upon quickly: the two Wilson songs, "You Still Believe in Me" and "Don't Talk (Put Your Hand on My Shoulder)," for instance. Others, such as Waits' "Broken Bicycles"--paired together on the album, thanks to Costello's unique arrangement, with McCartney's "Junk"--and "Take It With Me," took more convincing. ("Any song that Tom Waits sings is difficult for me to imagine that I could ever sing," von Otter admits.) While Costello and von Otter were in the same book from the beginning, it took a long time before they found the same page. When they finally ended up in a studio--Atlantis Grammofon in Stockholm, where ABBA's early records were recorded--it only took 12 days.

"It was very, very good that it did take a long time, because that way, we could find things that we both liked, and that seemed to work," von Otter says. "He knew right from the start what he wanted: He thought that it would suit me and my voice to sing the sort of melancholy, sad love songs. That's what he thought. I had no idea. I thought, 'Oh no, that sounds just like the stuff I normally do.' I wanted to try being a bit more crazy and shouting a bit and stuff. I realized, after a while, that it wouldn't work very easily if I tried to sing like a pop star, a pop singer, because my voice just won't do it. It's better if I take my voice to songs that my voice can more easily adjust to. So there we were. We were back at Square One, which was the sad love song." She laughs. "But I like them, it's fine. I think they're very, very beautiful, the ones that we chose in the end. So I was happy."

Everything else aside, von Otter's happiness is probably more important since--though Costello's name is above the title--For the Stars is more or less her album. Costello appears on eight of the disc's 18 tracks and only sings on six of those. True, he's there even when he's not, but For the Stars only works if you believe in von Otter's voice as much as Costello does. And if you open your mind and ears, listen to the album without letting it be tainted by the futile hopes that Costello will plug in and lead the band through a remember-when version of "Radio, Radio" or "I Hope You're Happy Now," it works. Von Otter's voice, when given the right song--say, ABBA's "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room"--is as beautiful, as stirring, as radiant as advertised.

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