In conversation with Nick Lowe

On the musician's latest album, opening for Wilco and what he has Elvis Costello to thank for

Very few musicians continue to put out great records into their 60s. Nick Lowe, on the other hand, is one of the rarer few releasing better albums now than he was in the late ’70s and early ’80s. His only hit single remains 1979’s Cruel to Be Kind, though his song (What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding was covered by Elvis Costello (whose first five albums were produced by Lowe) and, even more lucratively, by Curtis Stigers on The Bodyguard soundtrack, which sold 44 million copies and made Lowe almost a million dollars in royalties. His ex-father-in-law Johnny Cash (he married Cash’s stepdaughter Carlene Carter in the ’80s) covered Lowe’s The Beast in Me on the first of his acclaimed ’90s comeback records; the song became beloved by recovering addicts and was a late-career calling card for Lowe. Now 63, Lowe’s latest album, 2011’s The Old Magic, is one of his finest.

Q: Of the artists your age who still put out exciting new records—people like Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen—their sound has almost completely transformed over the years; listening to their earliest records and their latest, you wouldn’t recognize them as being made by the same person. Your records, however, still sound very much like you.

A: I’m not presuming to put myself in the league of the people you just mentioned, only in the way that you just described: we’re all making records way into early old age that are critically approved, as opposed to what you might describe as people who are still around from the early day of rock’n’roll. And God bless them, but nobody really notices their records anymore, if they’re still making them.

Q: Those artists’ records are more of an excuse to tour.

A: Exactly. I find that there are real perks to getting older and doing this. It might be more difficult to walk to the shops, but it’s easier to make music. That ridiculous snobbery is gone. The new generation only cares if the music is good or bad, whereas my generation would not have anything to do with our parents’ music. Now I love what [my parents] listened to—and I probably did back then, too, but I would never have admitted it.

Q: The compilation of your work that came out a couple of years ago, Quiet Please, is arranged chronologically, spanning 1974 to 2007, and I don’t really hear your current singing voice until tracks from 1982’s Nick the Knife record.

A: My career as a pop star lasted about four or five years. When it was over, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt, thank goodness that’s over. It had made me ill: I was drinking like a fish, exhausted, had no ideas—all the clichés. I hated the sound of my own voice. On the other hand, I rather missed the fripperies and nonsense that were perks of the job. I had to figure out a way of using my age as an advantage, not to be fearful of it like my contemporaries who squeezed themselves into tight jeans and bad shoes and were condemned to recreate their moment in the sun for their dwindling group of fans. I absolutely did not want to do that. I had to find a new audience of younger people. I thought what I do was not for everybody, but youngsters would like it, too, if I got it right.

Q: Let me get this straight: you thought that if you acted old, you would appeal to the young?

A: Yes! In the same way that I like Howlin’ Wolf and George Jones when I was growing up.

Q: Between the last two albums, there was a slew of reissues: the aforementioned compilation, 1979’s Labour of Lust, and even vinyl reissues of the more recent albums. What, if any, kind of stock-taking did you do during that process?

A: Listening to one’s records—especially early ones, like [1978’s] Jesus of Cool—it’s like watching a home movie of yourself being rather drunk at a teenage party, behaving rather badly. I could hear why people like those records. But what struck me was how I approach songwriting now, as opposed to how I used to. I could tell I was young and in a hurry to get the thing finished, whereas now I’m much more intent on stripping it down. That comes from Elvis Costello: I have a lot to thank him for, God bless him, but he also encouraged me to play solo shows with an acoustic guitar. It’s fantastic for songwriting: you send the song out into the air and you see it in incredibly stark relief. When you write new stuff and know you’re going to do solo shows, you write with that in mind and make everything count. You have to know the rhythm of the thing will work under any circumstances, in a huge theatre or a little club, and that it will take any kind of abuse. There’s no fat; every word has to count. They take longer to finish, but they’re more useful.

Q: Are you like Leonard Cohen, who can take literally decades to finish certain songs?

A: I don’t know if I’ve ever taken 20 years to write a song, but The Beast In Me took 12 to finish before I sent it off to [Johnny Cash].

Q: So you’re no longer “the Basher,” which was the nickname you had in the early ’80s for your productivity rate and your quote: “bash it out now, tart it up later.”

A: In a sense, yes. Now when I go into the studio I still don’t like to spend a lot of time there. I like to get some energy into the music. But I do a lot of work ahead of time. Now you can’t rely on a lightning bolt of inspiration to hit you when you’re in the studio, like we used to—when studio time was much cheaper than it is now.

Q: You produced a lot of people in the late ’70s, but have you produced anyone other than yourself in the last 25 years?

A: The last official thing I did was with a group called the Mavericks for the movie Apollo 13; that was in the early ’90s. They got hired to do a version of Blue Moon. They flew me out to Nashville and put me up in a fantastic hotel—no wonder movies cost so much to make—and I stood at the back of a room while a whole team of knob-twiddlers and executive people with clipboards did all the work. At the end of each take, all the heads would turn to me, and I would either nod or say, ‘Do it again.’ I thought, this is pretty good, but it’s not really much fun.

Q: Are you one of those old guys who laments modern recording?

A: I don’t lament anything, really. I’ve been through my lamenting process. It didn’t get me anywhere. Nowadays, I think there’s plenty of room for everybody. What I like about my records—and records like mine—is the hand-made quality to them. You can hear the human beings at work on it, the sound of several people working toward the same goal. But the general public can tell as soon as a record like that starts, they’re not going to like it, no matter who it is. That’s too bad, because I like it my way, and there’s just enough people who agree with me so that can pay my rent.

Q: The new album opens with Stoplight Roses. The image of the title is so evocative, and the lyrics wonder whether they are “love’s promise in cellophane lace, or a dead giveaway?” If a guy is giving roses, there has to be something wrong, and red is the colour of being alert, of stopping to figure out what’s going on. What inspired that song?

A: I was stopped at some traffic lights here in London, and an eastern European woman approached my open window and shoved a bunch of these things in my face, all looking exactly the same and with no smell. I was struck: does anybody buy these things? One of the reasons you buy people flowers is to apologize if you’ve done something wrong, or to celebrate someone and try to turn them on. But if you gave someone a bunch of these things, it would have the exact opposite effect; it would be an insult. I thought surely somebody must have written a song about this before, it seemed so obvious. It didn’t take very long to write.

Q: I find House for Sale, where the narrator is “leaving like I’m getting out of jail,” both hilarious and devastating, and it’s hard not to think of U.S. homeowners walking away from their mortgages.

A: I was driving along one day and saw a house with what looked like an extremely hastily written cardboard sign that someone had shoved into their window. It looked really desperate, like it had all been decided very quickly. Again, I thought that’s a great title; if you get a good title that stares you in the face, it’s difficult not to come up with a little story.

Q: Your current partner is much younger than yourself, yes?

A: Yes. It’s 18 years’ difference. It’s not drastic, I suppose. But we have a young son as well—he’s a wonderful lad. I don’t want to sound like a doting parent, because I’m so anti-that. But he can definitely sing in tune and pick up a lyric after one or two listens. Right now he’s in a drummers’ boot camp in north London. He’s seven, but he’s good so he’s playing with all these older kids. My wife is very musically literate, and she likes music that’s older than her age, the same way I do.

Q: So she doesn’t break out Duran Duran records at home.

A: No, but she’s a big David Bowie fan, and he’s someone I admire but I’m not really a fan of his music. It came along when I started losing interest in pop music in the mid-’70s. I thought it was all done by then—I hardly listen to anything recorded after 1975, apart from people like Prince; I love Prince. There are always great new things; Michael Bublé had a great single that was really catchy: I Just Haven’t Met You Yet, which I think he wrote himself.

Q: He did. On every album he has one song he writes himself.

A: Well, he should do it more often, then. I also like Ron Sexsmith, whose last record was really great. Ron has an uncanny ability to write gorgeous melodies.

Q: How was your experience opening for Wilco last fall?

A: Brilliant. You know when you tell a friend, “Oh, I know someone you’d quite like,” and then they meet and they can’t stand each other? So many people told me how great Wilco was and I thought, oh bloody hell. But they’re great guys. I didn’t know how I would go over in front of their people. We were playing big rooms, 5,000 seats, and I was playing on my own, but it worked out really well. It was a good idea, because they’re the kind of audience I want to attract: young record collectors with a bit of disposable income.

Nick Lowe and his band play the Phoenix club in Toronto on April 23. His latest album, The Old Magic, is out on Yep Roc Records, as is the compilation album Quiet Please: The New Best of Nick Lowe.


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