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Elvis Costello on music, religion and the act of writing songs

Elvis Costello performing in July of 2010 in Spain.

AFP/Getty Images

With a cover showing a cartoon wolf in robber-baron garb, running off with a carpet bag spilling cash, it's not too hard to guess whose ox is being gored on National Ransom, the title track of Elvis Costello's latest album, out Tuesday. And even though some of the songs are imbued with the sweetness of bluegrass and gospel, there's plenty of the satirical bite that made Costello a new-wave icon.

He spoke about the album by phone from Vancouver.

Although there are certainly a lot of topical songs on the album, your lyrics tend to avoid pointed, direct political comment.

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Yeah. I never really went for that. The very first record that I ever released, Less Than Zero, was about watching television, and seeing an interview with this old, now vaguely respectable fascist. I made a fantasy up based on that. I couldn't actually report it as it was - one, it was too tedious, and two, it was too disgusting.

A lot of songs are like that. You make some sort of drama or narrative to walk you past the stuff that's on your mind. Otherwise, you'd just be writing an op-ed.

There are a number of songs addressing religion on the album, but they don't seem anti-religious so much as opposed to the abuse of religion.

I'm suspicious of people who think they know what God knows. Myself, I actually think that's blasphemy.

I once sat on the steps of a church with an Orthodox Ethiopian boy. And he said, 'Are you Orthodox?' And I said, 'No.' And he said, 'I'm so sorry.' And I thought that was very beautiful, that he thought it was more a sorrowful thing, than he hated me because I wasn't what he was, you know?

You were brought up Catholic?

Yes, I was. I don't go to church, or have the beliefs I was brought up in. But I grew up just after the scare-you-out-of-your-wits era, and didn't encounter any of the unfortunate people for whom, perhaps, the demands of the prohibitions were too great for their nature, and hence these horrendous abuses of the power that they had over children. I had friends who did experience it. But I won't just fall in with the demonization of the clergy, because I have in my life kind experiences [with priests and nuns] I mean, nuns taught me to read, That was my fortune, and somebody else will have a totally different experience. And that's the danger of making these broad statements, that 'all those people over there, they're all this thing.'

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You've got quite a range of players on the album - guitarist Marc Ribot, fiddler Stuart Duncan, pianist Steve Nieve - and yet they play as a coherent ensemble.

One of the most enjoyable things about making this group of songs come to life in such a short period was combining those sounds and making a new-sounding band. With Stations of the Cross, for instance, I don't even know what kind of music that is.

Um, good?

Well, it is good, yeah. [Laughs.]But when those particular personalities inhabited the different parts of the song, it was very easy for me to sing it. Actually, all of the songs were the easiest I've ever felt in singing in the studio. Ninety-five per cent of the singing is done in the room with the band.

I make a great thing about live recording, because most of the music I like was recorded like that. It was just a performance of people playing in a studio space. Having good musicians around you and sense of what is going on in the song gets you most of the way there. Then you've just got to not put your hands in any of the wrong places on the guitar.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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