To call Elvis Costello an artistic chameleon is almost too easy. He’s more akin to a Cheshire Cat, appearing and disappearing across the pop music spectrum at will, identifiable only by the sly grin that permeates his work. The breadth of his collaborations are limited only by his own imagination and good taste; over the last two decades he’s played with everyone from the Roots to the Brodsky Quartet, Allen Toussaint to Chet Baker, Marcus Mumford, Roy Orbison, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and his crack backing band, the Imposters.
So, it makes total sense that he would show up on a kid’s show featuring an animated feline.
The 63-year-old legend has lent his voice to Pete the Cat: A Groovy New Year, Amazon Prime Video’s new series based on the children’s books by Kimberly and James Dean. As well as singing the theme tune, Costello plays the titular character’s endearingly hapless, sax-playing father. In a touch of art imitating life, he’s joined by his wife of 14 years, Canadian jazz virtuoso Diana Krall, who voices Pete’s punk rocker mother. In reality the couple shares (human) twins Dexter Henry Lorcan and Frank Harlan James, 11, but their household is just as musical as their cartoon counterpart.
His turn on Pete the Cat provides Costello yet another opportunity to correct any misconceptions held by unfortunate souls who took him seriously 40 years ago when he joked that his creative fires were fueled solely by “revenge and guilt.” Quite the contrary, he approaches this new role with all compassion and warmth required of fatherhood. It’s a fitting tribute to a relationship that had a significant impact on his musical life. Costello’s own father, Ross MacManus, sang for light entertainment orchestras in postwar Britain, and later worked as a prolific recording artist — releasing low-cost cover versions of contemporary hits in a dizzying array of styles. Observing his father would be a valuable education for Costello, who clearly inherited his genre-spanning gifts.
In anticipation of the upcoming premiere for Pete the Cat: A Groovy New Year on Dec. 26, Costello spoke with PEOPLE about fatherhood, his father, and, of course, music.
What made you decide to sign on to the Pete the Cat series?
I was particularly tickled by the idea that my wife and I would play these two characters. They gave us a little outline and I loved the fact that she was in a cat punk band. She actually plays jazz in real life but that’s the magic of the theatrical animated cartoon. I’m an absentminded handyman who plays a saxophone in his spare time, so we both had reasons to have an instrument in hand. Pete plays the guitar, so there’s music through it. And of course we’re not just singing, we’re also speaking. We saw one of the first episodes and I found it really touching. I’ve seen animated versions of myself — I’ve done a cameo on The Simpsons — but this was different. More often than not, in live action films, I’ve been a version of myself; or Man in Glasses or Man Who Wears Hat and Glasses, or another kind of nonspecific person. This is a complete transformation.
You definitely transformed. As someone who has listened to you sing for many years, it was strange to hear your speaking voice on the show. I almost didn’t recognize you! Where did you come up with the voice for Pete’s dad?
I don’t know! [laughs] It just came out and they didn’t stop me. When I was a kid I loved the English comedy records that were mostly done by actors. That’s what George Martin did before he did the Beatles; he produced records by Peter Sellers and Bernard Cribbins. I’d loved those records as a kid, and they always had mad voices on them. I grew up in radio comedy. So I just started doing it and nobody said to stop! I think it must have fitted. I had a little bit of a head cold the first day [of recording], so it came out a little like this [demonstrates] and then that was it. It’s very playful, that’s the thing. And the songs are little lessons that kids have to learn in life. We’re not talking about the complexities of Ibsen here — it’s simple but true lessons done with good heart and a little bit of wit.
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The songs are really fun to sing because they’re nothing like anything I’d ever write for myself. Like any other kind of game of dress-up, it’s great. In some cases they’re not even in the keys I would choose to sing for myself. I’m singing the title song and it doesn’t sound like some of the records I’ve made because I’m singing in a different register than I usually do. It just makes, I think, a great change. It felt fun to sing it that way, kind of casual like that. The vibe of the show is quite laid-back. I like that because there’s way too much anxiety, particularly around children. Children pick up the anxiety of their adult companions, whether they’re parents or people shouting on the news or people shouting in advertisements. There’s a lot of shouting. I like the idea that there’s a sense of perseverance in a lot of these [Pete the Cat] shows; it’s going to be okay. That’s mostly the fear — if that’s the right word for it — as a child: that something bad is about to happen. And it isn’t. I hope it’s not, anyway.
That’s true to the books. I do remember reading the books when my boys were younger. The whole point of it is that it’s going to be all right. Mostly the stories revolve around lessons like being kind to your friends and being kind to yourself and respectful of things that deserve your respect. Simple things that confound adults, let alone children. There’s so much fear that it’s really refreshing to do something like this that doesn’t have any other reason to exist than to be in some way joyful and positive. It’s not my way as a songwriter to always be writing those kind of tunes for myself, so I’m very happy to sing some songs that serve that purpose.
Have your boys seen the show?
They saw the first episode. I think they were prepped! They loved it. They’re a little older than I imagine the audience is, but the thing about this is that it doesn’t really matter what age it is. Anybody can watch it. It’s just got a charm to it. With young lads, I tend to know more about animated films of the last 10 years than live action. I can’t remember the last live-action film I went to see in the cinema. I mostly see animated films with my boys. So I know the good and bad of all that — and I know how spectacular some of those are, as well. More than the equal of some live action films.
Speaking of fathers and sons, I loved the song you did with your brothers in the BibleCode Sundays, “Willie Redmond’s Volunteers,” which I understand took its lyrics from a poem of your dad’s that you’d recently found. What was that experience like for you?
I’m really pleased you heard that! It was really great. I have four half-brothers who are 20 years younger than me, so we didn’t grow up together but we’re still family. It was a wonderful thing that Ronan [MacManus] found this poem of my dad’s and set it to music. He got all of the brothers to play on it and I sing on it. It’s a really good record, the whole record is great. Russell Crowe is on it, and there’s some really great players. The drummer for the band died recently, so it’s been a tough time, but having a song that was written by our father and hearing his voice on the end of it was nice. That’s an actual telegram sent to my grandfather’s address notifying that he was injured. [My grandfather] joined the army as a boy. That was his family, so to speak, in the First World War. It’s quite a complicated story to impart in a few words, but in 1912 he joined the army as a soldier and as a musician. It’s probably the reason I’m a musician. So to bring it back a hundred years later — that letter is from 1917 when he was wounded. Thankfully, he survived, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. My father read it in his best post-English accent. My father was a singer, but he could do a little acting. I guess that’s where the theatrical funny voices bit comes from.
In your memoir [Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink] you talk about your father sharing a bill with the Beatles and Burt Bacharach at the Royal Variety Performance in 1963. It’s funny to think now, considering what a big role both those artists played in your life.
Very recently I stumbled on a photograph taken at the press call for that performance. Everybody was in their day clothes, but I think they had gathered the company to practice singing “God Save the Queen,” which they used to do at the end of the show. So you’ve got this congregation of mostly British television stars of the day, many of whom were household names. Central to the picture are the Beatles and Marlene Dietrich. Most of the shots focused on the juxtaposition of a very young Beatles and Marlene, evidently having taken quite a shine to George Harrison. If you’re looking at the shots, she’s looking at him like a shark looks at dinner.
They’re fascinating pictures, but when I was looking through the files, I stumbled on one that was a wide-angle shot taken from the balcony of the entire company of the show, which included members of the Royal Ballet and members of West End shows and singers of the day and other American stars and comedians and all sorts of people. I was able to enlarge it enough to see that three rows back to the left of the stage were the three singers from the orchestra my father sang with, including my dad, and he’s two people away from Burt Bacharach. At that point he’d written several really, really famous songs, but he wasn’t quite the star he would be in two or three years. Amazing.
And at the front, Paul McCartney! It’s so curious to me to see these two people I’ve written with, in this completely old period when the Beatles were just breaking through. They were the sensation of that year, of course, and there was a big to-do that they were on that show. It was very exciting for me as a 9-year-old. My dad was on the bill with the Beatles? I couldn’t believe it! It was the best thing ever. Much more important than he was singing for the Queen Mother, you know?