Indoor Fireworks

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

Elvis Costello knows what critics and fans will call For the Stars, the album he recorded with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter: a collection of covers of songs written by Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits, ABBA, Ron Sexsmith and, yes, Elvis Costello. He doesn't particularly mind that these new renditions will be classified as cover versions, has no problem absolving people who allude to For the Stars in that manner. He understands.

That doesn't mean he agrees. He insists For the Stars is something more than that. And he's right.

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.

"Particular fans of individual songs on this record, like the Brian Wilson songs or the Tom Waits songs, would obviously have an opinion about whether or not they feel this version is of a value beyond the original version," Costello says, on the phone from his home in Liverpool. "But I think that's maybe to miss the point of why a song should be sung at all. In the early days of popular music, and certainly in the earliest sheet music charts, the fame of the song rested on how many times it was recorded and how many different interpretations it had. Nowadays, we tend to kind of put a lot of stock in this idea that the one definitive version of a song is the only one you should consider.

"I sort of feel that people can be excused for referring to this album as having cover versions, because that's the way we speak about doing songs again," he continues. "But I think when you actually hear them, certainly we've looked into the songs in a different way. There's not too many of them that owe a lot to the original renditions. They are really celebrations of what good compositions they are, particularly the Brian Wilson songs. They're just so beautifully written. It's worth considering that a lot of people in the world--as great as Pet Sounds is--they have never heard it and will never hear it, because it just doesn't speak to them."

As Costello rightly points out, von Otter's voice does speak to some of those people. Many more than you might imagine, in fact. Celebrated in classical music circles and virtually unknown outside of them, von Otter has thrilled audiences at New York's Metropolitan Opera, La Scala Milan, the Deutsche Opera Berlin and almost every other respected opera house for almost two decades. The title of the new album is quite literal: Von Otter is a star in her own right, with her own successful yet markedly different recording career.

Put it this way: While you may not recognize Anne Sofie von Otter's name, there are probably just as many fans of music--all music, not just rock and roll--that don't know or care who Elvis Costello is. And until a few years ago, you might've counted von Otter among that number. She was and is a classically trained vocalist, studying at London's Guildhall School of Music. Hers is a world full of attractions like Mendelssohn and Mozart and Verdi, not attractions named Pete and Bruce Thomas or Steve Nieve.

Those worlds began to collide more than a decade ago at a 1989 performance of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust that featured von Otter, one which Costello attended with his wife, Cait O'Riordan, the first of their many visits to see and hear von Otter. Costello still is, first and foremost, a fan of von Otter, including her 1996 album Wings in the Night on the list of his 500 favorite albums he contributed to Vanity Fair in the magazine's November 2000 issue. (OK, 500 albums is, well, a lot, but Costello didn't even believe one of his own albums was good enough for inclusion. So there.) For years, however, Costello was content to remain in the audience with O'Riordan, his appreciation for von Otter's voice kept mostly to himself.

He couldn't keep it to himself forever. Costello and von Otter's collaboration began, as some relationships do, with an anonymous bouquet of flowers. And then another one. And then another. Before long, von Otter's curiosity got the better of her, and she instructed her manager to locate the person sending flowers to her dressing room, her secret admirer. And when the man behind the gifts finally made his way to her, it was a familiar name and face: Elvis Costello.

Von Otter didn't know much more about him other than that. She didn't know that, in Costello, she'd found the perfect person to guide her from classical to popular music and back again. A music student, just like she was, except that he was self-educated.

Although he began his career as an unlikely punk, for the past decade Costello has dabbled in more genres than most record stores. And as he gets older, Costello becomes more like the men he grew up with: Frank Sinatra (his records, anyway) and Ross McManus, his musician father, who introduced him to classical music, as well as his own particular style of crooning, honed while fronting traveling big bands. He's become a skilled interpreter, with a gentle ease at turning other people's songs into his own. As For the Stars proves, he's also become quite the bandleader, conducting--"And when I say conducting, I was waving my arms around, hoping that they did something," he says, laughing--an ensemble that includes longtime henchman, keyboard player Nieve, as well as Sweden's Fleshquartet and, on two songs, ABBA's Benny Andersson.

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."

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.

"'Like An Angel Passing Through My Room,' is very, very beautiful," von Otter says. "And that's almost a little bit like a classical song, somehow, in the way it's been written and built up. That's a favorite of mine."

For his part, Costello believes von Otter's contribution to the disc goes beyond what she did when she was in the vocal booth. Even going so far as to give her unofficial songwriting credits for most of the songs he wrote for the album.

"Certainly 'Shamed Into Love,' 'I Want to Vanish' and 'This House is Empty Now,' although they all have my name on them in different parts of the writing, they were all Anne Sofie's idea to record those," Costello says. "She had picked those and a number of the other songs. And obviously, she introduced me to the Fleshquartet, who are a Swedish group and are very important to the record. So there's quite a lot of music coming from her background, you know, from her part of the world. And we recorded the record in Sweden. So in the end, rather than it being something that I presented her with completely formed, it was a proper collaboration. Not in writing this time, but in choices: choices of instrumentation, choices of venue, choices of musical background. She's really been instrumental in four songs coming into existence. You know, they wouldn't have been written without this record."

But Costello is quick to point out that For the Stars is more than an excuse to get von Otter in front of more people, to get these songs near more ears. It's an album, a good one, one he was proud to make. Simple as that.

"It's great if you can do that, as a side effect," he says. "The main concern was really to choose material that would most suit Anne Sofie, and that she would enjoy doing, and she'd feel she'd done something that was fresh for her, you know, that was a world away from the other music that she sings, but very enjoyable nevertheless. I think that we tended to try and avoid songs that were really worn out. Even when we chose a Paul McCartney song or a Lennon and McCartney song, 'For No One' is somewhat less well-known than, say, 'Yesterday.' It's relative, you know? Most of the songs on the record, we didn't deliberately choose them to be obscure, but there didn't seem a whole lot of point in doing a song that was so familiar and has been done a thousand times. It's really a struggle for people to hear it fresh. They can't help but say, 'Well, it's good...but it's not as good as when Ella Fitzgerald sang it.'"

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