No substitute: Elvis Costello & The Imposters head for Belfast

Elvis Costello will soon return to Belfast with his faithful sidemen The Imposters. David Roy spoke to the London-born, Vancouver-based musician about finding new ways to enjoy 'the hits', penning his recent autobiography and why he's done with making albums

Elvis Costello plays the SSE Arena on July 19
Elvis Costello plays the SSE Arena on July 19 Elvis Costello plays the SSE Arena on July 19

BESPECTACLED, genre-hopping and collaboration-loving songsmith Elvis Costello was, until fairly recently, one of the most prolific major recording artists around.

The London-born muso released a new album (sometimes even two) pretty much every 12 months for over three decades, from 1977's auspicious new wave debut My Aim Is True right up until 2010's countrified National Ransom.

However, all of a sudden he seems to have slowed down.

Just two new Elvis Costello-related releases have appeared in the past six years: 2013's Wise Up Ghost, a gritty and groovesome team-up LP with progressive hip-hopsters The Roots, and 2014's Lost on The River, an album of songs featuring 'lost' Bob Dylan lyrics recorded by T-Bone Burnett co-ordinated musical ensemble The New Basement Tapes, featuring Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim Jones and others.

Having finally hit the big 6-0 in 2014 and with a new young family at home (he has nine-year-old twins with his jazz musician wife, Diana Krall, whom he married in 2003), it's understandable that Costello might be wanting to cool his jets.

Also: it's the economy, stupid.

"I still write new songs, I just haven't recorded any of them – because what's the point?," reveals the man born Declan Patrick MacManus.

"The business has changed in that now we're being pretty much asked to give away our recordings for free."

Thus, 'the road' is where it's at for Costello right now, specifically his fast approaching date at Belfast's SSE Arena with long-time sidemen The Imposters.

"I kind of decided to just concentrate on live performance," explains Costello of his recent lack of recorded output.

"That's why the recent live show has been much more of a 'show' – there's been a definite style of presentation to The Spectacular Spinning Songbook and Detour, both of which have become very successful tours.

"These stage shows have taken the place of the release of a record in order to generate the reason for playing live.

Thus, over the past couple of years, Elvis Costello fans have been enjoying high energy concerts by The Imposters and their aformentioned 'Spectacular Spinning Songbook' – literally a big wheel pasted with titles spanning the entirety of the Costello catalogue, spun by lucky audience members at regular intervals during the gig to dictate where the set goes next.

With Detour, Costello has also crafted a more intimate, 'unplugged' solo show, allowing him to explore his canon in a de-constructed manner on guitar or piano (with occasional musical assists from US duo Larkin Poe), complete with complementary video clips and introductory anecdotes.

As mentioned, Costello hasn't stopped writing: a smattering of new, previously unreleased material in the sets (including songs from a forthcoming politically themed stage musical he's involved with, A Face In The Crowd) keeps things interesting for both performer and punter, while the inventive format of his current tours also helps him to breathe fresh life into well-worn old favourites like Oliver's Army, (I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea et al.

"I think the biggest responsibility you have when you've been doing this for a while is to find a way to feel something in the older songs for yourself – because otherwise you're just reciting something as a ritual," Costello tells me.

"Breaking a song down to its component parts and maybe taking a song at the piano that you used to play on the guitar, that can make you think of it 'in the moment' again.

"The Detour show by its very nature, by its very title, takes a different way through the songbook every night. There are narrative elements to it: visual elements on the big TV screen I use trigger anecdotal introductions to some of the songs.

"Obviously I repeat certain elements from night to night but it's not 'hard scripted' – it's not a 'talk with slides', and one show will influence the another. So it keeps on changing."

The latter presentation dovetails nicely with Costello's recent autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, a mammoth tome in which the musician weaves his way back and forth through his life and works in an illuminating, often highly amusing manner.

"I had no interest in writing a book for train-spotters," he says of the project, which he insisted would have no easy-reference index for those more interested in fact than emotional context.

"I don't have that mentality. I know a lot of stuff about music but I'm really only interested in its emotional core rather than irrelevant details.

"All of my work has been driven by impulse and emotion. I've never been an intellectual – I'm not even well read!

"I stopped reading when I was 18, I got everything I know from records and movies."

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is also available as 15-hour-long audiobook read/performed by the author, who says he committed to the project for the sake of his children.

"There were a bunch of half-assed offers to write my life story," he says.

"There are lots of dilettantes with scissors and paper and people who want grudges settled out there. But I've got nine-year-old boys – if they wanna read the story of my life, I want them to hear it from me, because one day I might not be around or clear minded enough to tell them what really happened."

As for his most recent and possibly final recorded output, it seems fitting that Elvis Costello should get to hang up his studio headphones on a double high: "Wise Up Ghost which was a fantastic experience and unlike any other record I've ever made in terms of its methodology," he enthuses.

"I had different company in the studio: the record was largely a three-way conversation between myself, Questlove and Steven Mandel the engineer.

"Then I got involved in The New Basement Tapes at T-Bone Burnett's request, which put me in a studio with a bunch of younger musicians.

"We ended up being each other's bass player, organist or whatever – just trying different stuff. We had a lot of fun and laughed a lot of the time.

"The fact that the lyrics happened to have been written by Bob Dylan was almost kind of just a bonus."

:: Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Tuesday July 19, SSE Arena, Belfast. Tickets via SSEarenabelfast.com.