On Sat., March 1, André Costello will debut his "visual EP," a 15-minute video spanning the entire length of his 2012 three-track EP, Summer's Best. The video will be released by Wild Kindness Records — part of a relationship that goes back four years to Costello's debut solo album, Tumbleweed, which is now being distributed by Get Hip Recordings. He also saw the transition from owner and founder of Wild Kindness, David Pokrivňák, to current owner Jeff Betten, and its move to Pittsburgh.
"Jeff was always hanging around, so he seemed the most likely guy to take over," says Costello. "He's done a great job. He has an amazing amount of energy."
The video, being premiered at Blackbird Studios in Lawrenceville, is a poignant reflection of a piano's final moments — the last basking under stage lights, a funeral procession and an eventual pyre, backdropped by the setting sun.
It's not easy to direct an audience's emotions toward an inanimate object, but that's exactly what director Samuel Price accomplishes. We are introduced to the piano as Costello sits at it silhouetted by stage lights. The fact that the opening track of Summer's Best highlights a guitar but Costello is singing the track while playing the piano, hints at an ambiguous connection between the artist and instrument. But as the piano is wheeled out of the performance space and down city streets, complete with graffiti on stone walls referencing the lyrics, one begins to the understand that the piano is more than a prop. And when it's pushed out of frame, followed by a procession of mourners clutching flowers, it becomes clear that the piano is being rolled toward its grave. When the flowers are placed in between its exposed strings and on its keys, it evokes real sadness.
"I got a little teary-eyed when my friends were putting the flowers on it," says Costello. "I spent a lot of time with that piano."
As meaningful as the piano may be in the video, it played an even deeper role in Costello's life as a musician and songwriter. When he first got it, he was a guitarist, but hardly a pianist. "Once I owned a piano," though, he says, "I had to learn how to play it."
In the months following, Costello painstakingly mapped out some chord progressions, until whole songs were taking form. "I saw enough people play the piano that I knew you didn't usually hit two keys that were directly next to each other," he notes, "so I found middle C and would sit at it with my guitar in hand and find all the notes and chords that way."
"New instruments are great for songwriting," he adds. "Even if you're a guitar player, simply playing a different guitar will inspire new songs."
Such an intimate relationship with an instrument usually doesn't call forth a desire to destroy it. But "I needed the space," Costello admits, "and pianos are really hard to move." That may seem a bit unemotional, but the final straw came when Costello had an infuriating experience with another instrument.
"I found this tenor guitar in a pawn shop in Wellsville, New York," he recalls. "It was amazing. I was going to make it my signature. Then someone stole it right out of the venue we were playing!"
Looking for a way to vent his frustration, Costello came to a decision on the piano's fate. "After that I was like, ‘fuck it, we're burning the piano.'"
So, Costello and the film crew headed for a farm in upstate Pennsylvania.
"We burned it on a buffalo farm," he says. "It was strange because we were in a corralled area with this bull named Unkus. He couldn't get around the other bulls or else there would be a fight to the death.
"One time we left the piano alone and one of the farmhands told us, ‘If he sees something new, well, he's going to want to rub on it.' We ended up getting a really great shot of Unkus."
Despite the finality of the act, Costello remains firmly attached to the songs that pay tribute to the instrument — and so in a sense, the piano remains. And, Costello says, "Had I sold it, someone would have just stripped it of its metal and left the wood to rot. That's what they do with these old pianos. By burning it and making more art out of it, I feel we honored its memory."
If there seems to be a spirituality buried somewhere in this tale of a piano's demise, there's reason for that. Costello admits that his worldview and, by extension, his songwriting, hovers somewhere between science and theology. The opening track of Summer's Best, "Roll On (Spaceship)" has Costello, in his beautifully throaty warble, advising, "Don't trade your faith for science or else you'll have to think," then dismantling the apparent sarcasm and genuinely confirming the advice: "'Cause using your head all the time will make your knees get weak."
"I always felt that we shouldn't understand everything," he says by way of explanation. "It's important not to be too concrete about our ideas."
While the Summer's Best visual EP celebrates a time that Costello is proud of, he also is looking forward to his newest album, slotted for November 2014, also to be released by Wild Kindness. Whether any instruments will get consumed by flames is yet to be determined.
"I really do find instruments to be sacred. I think the video captures that."