Gearing up for a show Tuesday night at City Winery in which he'll reinterpret the music of Elvis Costello solo on the piano, I spoke with longtime Attractions member and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Steve Nieve about the unique sound of his playing on the vox organ and what exactly it is that has allowed the music he's created with Elvis Costello to remain so relevant after nearly forty years...
"Stiff Records require keyboard player for rocking pop combo."
Those are the approximate words of the ad that Steve Nieve legendarily responded to in 1977 which led to his eventual hiring as a member of The Attractions, forging, in the process, a musical bond with songwriter Elvis Costello that would span the course of most of the next thirty-seven years, exploring a diverse range of musical sounds en route to a career that would ultimately land him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Collaborating with Costello as a member of backing bands The Attractions, as well as The Imposters, Nieve has also worked with the tunesmith on orchestral pieces, albums featuring both Allen Touissaint and Burt Bacharach and much more, lending a key, underrated sound to Costello's vaunted pop canon along the way.
Headed to town Tuesday night for a set that will see him reinterpret the familiar territory of his past work alongside Costello, Nieve, in his inimitable fashion, manages to forge ahead even while looking back on material that's nearly forty years old.
What follows is our conversation which examines the thought process behind his current tour and delves into the deep bond Nieve has forged working with Costello since 1977...
Q. This is a short run of dates that stops in only seven cities… Is there a reason for you that warrants Chicago being amongst them?
Steve Nieve: Well, it’s a town that I love and I’m very happy to do this short run.
It’s a project that was an idea of my partner Muriel Teodori. We’ve worked together on several projects which started with Welcome to the Voice. The last album that I made was called Together which was some songs that I composed to record as duets with various artists that I’ve encountered along my musical route. This new project is the idea to revisit music by an artist that I love just on the solo piano. Eventually, there will be several volumes of this piano music. I’d like to get to people like Brian Eno, Neil Young and David Bowie. And I thought the best place to start would be with Elvis Costello because I’ve been playing with him since I was a young lad and I know his music intimately.
Q. So on this tour, this is just you solo on the piano?
SN: No. When I worked on the album Together – the duet album – I came across a young artist called Tall Ulysse. He’s a young singer but he loves Elvis’s music. So I’ve invited him to join me toward the end of the set to interpret some of Elvis’s songs as the climax of the show.
[Fans] will hear the songs in a slightly different light. I think that just playing them on the piano reveals something about the music itself and the words that are inside those songs come into your head as you’re listening.
Q. In 2013, you kind of got out in front releasing your album Together and touring for that, but by and large the work you’re most well known for amongst casual fans is that in which you’re accompanying other artists. What’s it like for you being quite a bit more out front in the type of touring environment that this tour finds you in?
SN: Well, I think it’s one of the challenges of this project: it gives me the opportunity to tell a few personal stories - which I’m looking forward to doing actually. So the structure of the show will be mainly music but I will be telling a few personal anecdotes. And I think that’s a part of the show that I’m very much looking forward to.
Q. Especially when it comes to your work with Elvis Costello, I think one of the the most identifiable parts of your sound and your collaborations together – especially on the early hits - is that of your playing of the Vox organ. On this tour, will you be performing at all on that particular instrument?
SN: That is a subject that I will be mentioning in my short stories that I will be telling. But I’ve decided to keep to the piano on this tour. So it will be strictly piano: no electronic jiggery, pokery. That’s quite good because that brings some of the songs into a slightly different focus.
I’ve posted a few soundbytes onto my SoundCloud page. You can hear a few things on there. There’s several soundbytes and I think there’s two or three complete tracks on there of the solo piano versions.
Q. One of the elements of your work I’ve most enjoyed when watching you perform live is the fact that - and this is especially true of your work with Elvis Costello - is that kind of like Bob Dylan never sings a song the same way twice, you really seem to put your own unique spin on a given song through your playing no matter how many times a particular song is performed. Is that something that lends itself well to a tour like this where you’re kind of reinterpreting these songs that you worked on with Elvis… without Elvis?
SN: Yeah, I think so. Because for the most part, I’m not accompanying someone and I can sort of go where I want to go. Sometimes, I’ve found that I will follow the song as it’s “supposed” to go and other times it will just provide a sort of springboard for me and I will launch off into something that I didn’t expect. And I’ve tried to keep the spirit of the concert like that. So I don’t think I will vary the setlist once I’ve kind of “got it,” but I [also] don’t think [the show] will be the same every night.
Q. With the exception of only a short period of time, you’ve worked with Elvis on almost everything as a member of the Attractions, with the Imposters, on the Allen Touissaint album, the Burt Bacharach album, touring as a duo, etc. Can you describe the musical bond that's developed over all these years between the two of you?
SN: I think it’s been a wonderful musical adventure that I’ve been fortunate enough to accompany Elvis on through all of his sort of searchings and presentations and collaborations. Each one of them has given me great pleasure and delight and new information about music and stuff.
So it’s been great… and it still continues. Right at the moment we’re about to play two concerts at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. And, again, it’s songs that we know but they’re going to be different than they have been in the past.
Q. You guys have explored so many different sounds together – punk, pop, soul, orchestral etc. Is it important to your continued growth as an artist to continually try and explore new sounds and musical territory?
SN: I think so. I think, even within the bands that we find ourselves in, we’re always constantly looking at what we’re doing and finding ways to do it better. I don’t think we change things around just to change them but we’re also constantly discovering new music and hearing new things and it’s a constant… Music is a living thing, you know? It’s like that I think.
Q. Do you have a favorite moment working with Elvis, whether it be a moment onstage or something musically you’ve created together?
SN: Well, one of the moments that I really enjoyed was when we did Welcome to the Voice and we put it onstage at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris… Just because it was such a mammoth undertaking. My partner Muriel directed it on the stage. We did six performances and we had Sting, Elvis and various great opera singers [like] Sylvia Schwartz. And it was people coming from different worlds of music and working on something together, all with their different experiences. And it was wonderful. We had orchestral musicians, choirs… that was great.
And the other thing I like is when we do small things. We did a tour with Elvis – just the two of us, a duo tour. I really enjoyed working in that, sort of, stripped down way.
This project that I’m doing now, I’m totally alone for the first part of it. I’m going to Australia to do it and am doing some shows there just completely by myself. And then when I get back to the States, Tall [Ulysse] is going to be joining me. So that’ll be a good experience I think.
Q. Is there anyone out there that you’ve never had the chance to work with that you’d still like to collaborate with?
SN: Yeah, there are several people. Some of them are no longer with us unfortunately. But of people that are… that’s a difficult question. I have worked with, and gotten to know very well, Annie Clark of St. Vincent. Recently she did a tour with David Byrne. And I’ve never been in a project with David Byrne but that’s a person that I find very interesting and I’d love to work with him one day.
Q. As quite possibly his closest collaborator over all of these years, in your opinion, what is it about Elvis Costello's song catalog that stands the test of time the way it does?
SN: Well, his songs have got several great qualities. One of them is that he’s a great a melodist. I mean, he composes some wonderful melodies that are sometimes very ambitious in terms of, I should think they are quite difficult to sing, some of them. And they all seem to take you to unexpected places.
And I would say that maybe it’s the same with his lyrics. They’re not the sort of lyrics that you can have one understanding of: different people will see different things in them. The same lyrics that, for me... you might find several different layers of meaning inside [that] lyric.
So I would say that there’s a mystery to him and his work that is also extremely interesting. All those qualities are what makes him and his songs eternal, you know?
- Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
Never miss a story or interview! Simply enter your email address and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.
(Details on Tuesday's Steve Nieve show below)
Steve Nieve Plays Elvis Costello: Piano Solo Reinterpretations of Elvis' Best Songs
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Doors open at 6PM
Show starts at 8PM
Also performing: Tall Ulysse
Click HERE to purchase tickets