"For me—and I've said this a lot over the years—music has always been about emotional communication," Costello tells me over Skype. Indeed, there is an emotional thread that runs through his work, from the dramatic dub techno of Growing Up In Public, to the stark solitude of Together Is The New Alone and the lived-in warmth of Before We Say Goodbye, which was Costello's farewell album of sorts. Costello's new record strips his music down to its emotive core.
The album is the latest in a series of reinventions from Costello, a pattern that started back in 2001 with Together Is The New Alone. Released on Mille Plateaux, it was a prime example of the glitchy, clicks & cuts-style of minimalist electronic music. But Costello's take on it was more inviting than most, injecting feeling into music that could otherwise come off as cold and computerized. (The album's enduring influence is underlined by a remastered reissue, correcting some pitch problems with the original CD.) Three years after Together Is The New Alone, Costello started the Colorseries, a hardware-focused project of straightforward house and techno.
The Colorseries releases were a reaction to prevalent trends at the time, the antithesis of the clicky minimal house that ruled dance floors around Europe. They were made quickly and released quickly, on vinyl, initially with little fanfare. It showed the DIY spirit that has followed Costello throughout his career. Love From Dust and its forthcoming follow-up, Stay Perfectly Still, are two more examples. They were both made from entirely from untouched, one-take live jams, and they're being released entirely on Costello's terms, through Bandcamp and the subscription service Drip.
The simple palette of Love From Dust isn't new to Costello. The "Cocoa" instalment of Colorseries from 2005 is in the same vein, while he's released plenty of other ambient pieces, and an experimental album for Raster-Noton as Modul. What's new is the approach and the motivation behind it. This music emerged from a happier period in Costello's life, where he no longer relied on his art to pay the bills. Though he still had creative impulses, he directed his energies elsewhere, going back to university for a Masters degree in cognitive science, and eventually landing a full-time job at a digital agency. He also started a family with his wife. He was too busy to commit to music outside a few sketches here and there, and he liked it that way.
In 2014, Costello received word about an EMS Synthi he had pre-ordered almost 15 years prior. He had been on a waiting list for the massive, vintage modular synth, which was finally ready for manufacture if he could raise the money. He thought this might be a good time to try music again, at least as a hobby. By that point, however, Costello had essentially abandoned the music industry. He couldn't justify a €6,000 investment as a fun experiment, and he had no idea whether people were interested in his work anymore. He decided to start a crowdfunding campaign to test the waters, a move that laid the groundwork for an increasingly direct communication platform with his fans—or "supporters," as he prefers to call them.
"I wanted that project to be completely self-financing and completely ring-fenced from the rest of my life," he says. "The choice of equipment was like... OK, this Synthi has come back into my life, the time is right, so yeah, OK—if I can raise some money then that's the choice to make the album with. I was really nervous launching it. I got a couple of really, really negative comments from people online. I got trolled about it a bit. But I stuck with it, and the response in the main was really, really positive. It was really cool after being away for a couple of years to come back and get that support."
Though Costello was surprised by the eager reaction, he still couldn't cover the price of buying a Synthi (along with the costs of manufacturing and distributing an album). So he went with a cheaper option: the Buchla Music Easel, which was also being remanufactured around the same time. It called to Costello, who had been daydreaming about modular synthesizers and was attracted by the Buchla's compact design and relative simplicity.
"I wanted some self-contained system that had the flexibility of modular but that also had some inherent constraints and had a fixed architecture," he says. "There are lots and lots of patch points on the Buchla which allow you to re-architect it, but you're still dealing with a limited set of two oscillators, two filters, a little sequencer and one envelope and that's pretty much it. Lots of different of modulation possibilities, but it's a limited system and it's got a keyboard built into it. So it's really this self-contained, one thing that you can make music with. I've always been interested in instruments and it's a self-contained instrument. I felt like I knew it already before it arrived."
Costello keeps his new home studio in two flight cases under his bed. It's a simple setup, comprising the Buchla and a few effects pedals, including the BlueSky reverb, which he says was the missing ingredient in completing his new sound. He would work on Love From Dust late at night after his family had gone to sleep, giving the largely improvised tracks a feel of serenity.
"My window for making music is much shorter, so my method has to be more direct," Costello says. "It's just live takes, straight two-track recordings of live performances. No subsequent edits, just, 'This is what I did tonight and that's how it is.' The only editing I ever might do is just to top-and-tail something that I ended up improvising for 20 minutes.
"It gets me back a little bit more to the way I was working when I was doing Colorseries. Because when I was doing those, I had a room full of gear, all hardware stuff, a big desk and all the rest of it. So I was only working on one piece of music at a time, because there was no way to work on multiple pieces... It was about recording spontaneous, improvised performances."
The new setup and working parameters is the most barebones Costello has ever worked with. The music is, conversely, his most expansive. He recorded the entirety of Love From Dust in one month, whereas before it would have taken him months of consecutive 12-hour days to finish a record. Costello is already partway through its follow-up.
"This is something that I've talked about over the years as well that sounds paradoxical," he says, "but there is no freedom without limits. Actually, imposing restrictions and limits on yourself allows you to become more creative and more free, in a way. You're not worrying about lots of choices. When your choice space is reduced, it's actually a relief more than anything else."
In spite of its basic recording style—or perhaps because of it—Love From Dust is also one of Costello's most directly emotional works, and a high watermark for his discography. But it's a different kind of emotional: where Together Is The New Alone felt empty and yearning for the human touch, Love From Dust glows with warm, positive tones inspired by Costello's more comfortable life.
"The title is inspired by my family. I have these two kids now and there is all this love in my life that has come from out of nowhere. That's amazing to me. Connecting back to the music world and getting the support back that I was talking about earlier—that's love and support that you're getting back from people that also comes from nowhere. That's Love From Dust, really."
Everything about Costello's new situation points to contentment. He's surrounded by love, he has a job that lets him travel like he did as a DJ without the pressure to produce art regularly, and now, thanks to the artist-direct platforms he uses, he has a closer connection to his fans than ever before. He's taken to retweeting every person who has received a copy of Love From Dust on CD.
"The old way, you would do a 12-inch and you'd send it out into the world and you'd have very little idea of what was happening to it, or who was listening to it, or what impact it was having on their lives," he says. "And when you're doing things through digital platforms, you send it out and almost immediately you can see where it's being played, you can see how many times particular people are playing it, you can get really nice comments from people like five or ten minutes after you put it out."
In the wake of Love From Dust, Costello posted a new version of Together Is The New Alone's classic "Dry Retch" made with his new ambient setup, showing that he wasn't completely divorced from his older, more famous work. He says he's unlikely to return to techno anytime soon—his head's more in a jazz and post-rock place these days—but he leaves it with a firm "You never know." He doesn't need to rely on music anymore, so he can go wherever his emotions take him.
"Sometimes it takes a little bit of a break from something to realize what it is that you actually loved about it in the first place," he says. "For so long—from about '96 to like 2011—I really had no other interest in the world other than music. You end up with quite a narrow focus in your life. So even though travel broadens the mind, and you're out there seeing a lot of different things and so on, you're still focused on that one thing. I'm better off now."