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Sep 13, 2012
04:00 AMTalk about Arts
The Man He’s Become: An Interview with Nick Lowe
Christened the “Jesus of Cool” for his first album and newly identified as the “Headmaster of British Rock,” singer songwriter Nick Lowe has earned many titles over the course of his 40-plus year career. Somewhere between “Jesus” and “Headmaster,” Lowe went from pop star to cherished cult icon.
Lowe’s current solo tour includes a rare local appearance at Asbury Hall on Wednesday, September 19. Support comes from California-based singer songwriter Eleni Mandell. Visit babevillebuffalo.com/events for ticket information.
At age 63, Lowe recently played to huge audiences during a lengthy support stint on Wilco’s 2011 North American tour. His latest record, The Old Magic (Yep Roc Records), has garnered near universal acclaim for its mix of rootsy country, soul, and songwriter craft. Lowe has released two music videos—his first in eighteen years—for his new songs “Sensitive Man” and “House for Sale.”
One could marvel at the second act Lowe is enjoying; however, the curtain on his first never really closed. Musically speaking, Lowe has always been an old soul—favoring the storytelling song craft of Tin Pan Alley, the Nashville Sound of the late 1950s, and early rock n’ roll. While most purveyors of old traditions are quickly dismissed, Lowe has earned respect from peers, critics, and fans for steadfastly refusing to get with the times.
Lowe’s career began in mid-1960s London with the group Kippington Lodge (later renamed Brinsley Schwarz). Brinsley Schwarz is largely credited with helping to create pub rock, the short-lived, back-to-basics movement that inspired punk. Pub rock’s calling cards were brief, fast-paced songs that were high on energy and low on nonsense. Lowe carried these qualities over to his solo career after leaving the Brinsleys in the mid-1970s.
Joined by like-minded rock purist Dave Edmunds, Lowe formed Rockpile as a vehicle for the duo’s separate solo careers. Release in 1976, Lowe’s first single, “So It Goes,” was the debut offering from the nascent punk label Stiff Records. While Lowe’s musical style and tastes ran far from the brash quality of early punk, the songwriter admired the new style’s irreverent attitude and up-tempo rhythms. Lowe was quickly enlisted as Stiff’s in-house producer and went on to record some of the most celebrated recordings of the era, including what is widely considered the first British punk single, “New Rose” by the Damned, the Pretenders’ debut 45, and the first five albums by Elvis Costello.
Costello would turn Lowe’s earnest lament “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” into an anthem that ranks among Lowe’s best known songs (even if most believe Costello to be the song’s author). In 1979, Lowe charted a massive international hit with “Cruel to Be Kind,” toured widely with Rockpile, and married Carlene Carter (stepdaughter of Jonny Cash).
Though he released a string of well-received solo albums in the early 1980s, Lowe was unable to repeat the commercial success of “Cruel to Be Kind.” By the end of the decade, his records were no longer selling, his production worked had dried up, and his marriage to Carter was crumbling. Along with alcohol and drug abuse, Lowe’s life was set to make the perfect storyline for a VH1 Behind the Music episode.
Instead, Lowe re-evaluated his career and quietly planned a rebirth. The 1994 release The Impossible Bird marked the beginning of Lowe’s retooling his craft and image. The album’s sound was unadorned, and direct. Rather than fighting his role as elder statesman of rock, Lowe celebrated growing older. Lowe’s records in ensuing years have followed The Impossible Bird’s blueprint and been rightly praised as the work of a master songwriter.
Remarried with a young son, Lowe still resides in the outskirts of London. He still tours regularly, sprinkling his sets of new material with his trademark hits, while refusing to be labeled an oldies act. As always, Lowe’s use of acerbic humor and one-liners are his signature.
Buffalo Spree caught up with Lowe for this telephone interview.
You’re getting ready for your first solo tour since going on the road with Wilco. How is playing solo before a large audience different than playing to a more intimate crowd?
I did a solo show this past weekend in Stockholm and it was quite a useful reminder of how to do it. It’s not really that different from playing with the band, but I play slightly different tunes. So the Stockholm show was very instructive. Wilco was playing big places. When they asked me to do it, I was really pleased and rather surprised. I didn’t know how I would go over with their crowd. I thought it would probably be ok. In fact, that’s how it turned out. … They played really great rooms, they were big theaters, so they all sounded very good. They didn’t play any basketball places where you’ve just got to blast the audience, so it worked very, very well.
Have you noticed a change in your audience since that tour?
Yes. The last time I was in the United States with my band, I could tell that the audience had changed. There were a lot more younger people and a lot more women than I usually play to. That’s a real good thing, because if the girls and the women come, the men have a much better time. They behave themselves better and it’s altogether a much more fun evening. That’s what I’m in the business of.
Do you think the change in audience is due strictly to the Wilco tour, or do you think people are just finally catching on to what you’ve been doing for years?
I think it’s a combination of those things. I have been working towards this sort of stealthily for quite a long time. I really think that the Wilco thing was the turning point. When this large number of younger people heard what I’m doing and realized it wasn’t going to be some sort of history lesson, that it was going to be an entertaining evening, I think that was the key to it. There was a seismic shift and suddenly they sort of got it. I knew I was going to have to be patient if I was going to try and not really reinvent myself but re-present myself to try and make the fact I was getting older in this business an asset instead of something I had to try to disguise.
In other interviews, you’ve mentioned how carefully you consider your audience when writing. Would you still say that’s true?
I like corny stuff and I always try to entice people in with a sort of corny, easy-to-digest surface thing and then just have a little nugget of something in there that will stay with them. Sometimes I get it right, but very often I get it wrong. But when I do get it right, people seem to like it because they know I don’t take myself too seriously. I take what I do very seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously. I think people are starting to understand that.
Do you ever consider continuing your role as a producer? I’m sure there are plenty of contemporary artists who would want to work with you.
I’ve lost my mojo for producing. I produce my own records and I have this little firm of people who I get on with, I tour with them and they’re my band. There’s a little gang, a school of musicians over here who understand what I’m after and we have fun when we do it. Being a jobbing producer now, doesn’t work with the way I do it. That has definitely gone the way of the thatched roof man. The school of record producing that I came from was you were kind of a cross between a cheerleader and a counselor. You’d go in and crack some jokes and encourage them. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. At some point in the ‘80s, the record companies suddenly had no patience for that. And then the recording equipment changed to make it sound like it was working even if it wasn’t. I lost my interest in it. Like so many of these things, once you get off the bus there’s no going back again because the bus has taken off and everything’s gone in a different direction. I don’t miss it. I had a great time doing it, but I don’t miss it.
Do any of the records you produced stick out as particular favorites?
I always like the stuff I did with Elvis Costello. I always think “Watching the Detectives” sounds great whenever it comes on the radio. And the Damned’s “New Rose” always sounds good to me when I hear it. I can hardly believe that we managed to make something that sounds that good still. [laughs]