Nick Lowe Looks Back Because He Can

Nick Lowe

In the Summer 1982, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds toured independent of each other for the first time in years. Rockpile had come apart following the release of 1980’s Seconds of Pleasure. The difference between their shows was instructive as Edmunds played as if he were the curator of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum, careful to give proper credit and to get tunings and guitar sounds as right as possible. Lowe, on the other hand, treated every song with the casual assurance of someone who invented it all, even when his songs pointed to obvious influences. Lowe’s show had a more rock ‘n’ roll attitude and was a lot more fun for it, and even though his career has changed quite a bit since then, that same offhanded charm can be heard on his most recent album, The Old Magic.

His tongue isn’t as compulsively in his cheek as it once was, and even though remains an admirably clever songwriter, Lowe uses his wit to help make emotional songs accessible. “Checkout Time” considers our legacy after we pass, and “I Read a Lot” is a ballad that anatomizes a lonely life and how the singer spends his time. It’s not all grim, though, and Lowe hasn’t forsaken his sense of humor. “Sensitive Man” is punctuated by Tijuana Brass-like horns, while “Restless Feeling” is a lounge bossa nova fantasia.

Lowe discussed humor, songwriting, his career and aging while on tour in Australia.

 

What’s touring like for you these days?

It’s really good fun. A lot of the things I used to enjoy touring for when I was a younger man are either not available to me anymore, or I’m not interested in them. The show is the thing to me now, whereas when I was younger the show was more of the irritating interruption in the day’s events.

When had you finally been most everywhere you wanted to go?

Well I’ve never been to South America, and I’d quite like to go to South America. Being able to come to Australia, New Zealand or Japan is pretty exotic, but at the same time they’re pretty well-traveled rock ‘n’ roll destinations for British and American artists. I’ve never been to Eastern Europe or behind what they used to call the Iron Curtain. I’ve really only gone where other people have trodden before.

Those had to be places that you were excited to visit at one point.

Absolutely, and I still am. It’s fantastic to be able to climb on a plane with a few of your friends and come to these far-flung places, although the strangest thing about Australia is that it’s so far away from the UK—or from anywhere really—yet it’s so reminiscent of the UK. It’s very strange, and when you arrive in Australia, I get messages on my mobile phone from all the countries we’ve flown over: “Welcome to Romania!” etc. That just reinforces the remoteness of the place.

I assume your show these days is a mix of your new material and older songs.

Yeah that’s right. There are some tunes, especially someone whose been going as long as I have, that you just simply have to play. It’s no chore. A good song is a good song. It’s only an issue if you’re saddled with a bad song which for some reason or another the public got a hold of and you’re forced to play it for the rest of time, but I don’t feel like that about the well-known tunes that I’ve been lucky enough to have along the way. I enjoy playing them. Also, the new stuff I do seems to go down just as well. Maybe not as well as “Cruel to be Kind” or something like that that people always get extra-excited when they hear, but there isn’t what you might call a “mercy clap” for the new stuff.

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How do you relate to the older songs now when you have to play them live?

Well that’s a good question because as I said before, a good song is a good song. I think a good song is one that you can play almost any way. You can speed it up, you can slow it down, you can swap the verses around, you can play it on the acoustic guitar, or play it with a big band, and it’ll still work. But not all of them do. There’s a few of my early songs which people like that I just can’t do anymore. They’re too callow, and I’m just too old to stand up there and sing some stuff. Some of the others have a way of changing themselves without you knowing it. Sometimes in the rare occasion that I hear one of my songs on the radio, I’m always surprised at how different it is to how we do it on the stage and how it was on the record. They seem to do it themselves. It’s rather pleasing, I think, that that happens.

Could you do a song like “Marie Provost” anymore, or is that too a part of its moment?

That’s a good example. I can’t do that one because everyone knows the joke. It’s not really that shocking anymore like it once was. There’s another song I do sometimes called “All Men Are Liars.” It’s got this little joke in it about Rick Astley, and it really dates the song. When I wrote the song, Rick Astley was absolutely everywhere, and I still do that song from time to time—generally when I do my acoustic shows. Everyone is waiting for this Rick Astley line and they roll in the aisles. Anyone would have thought Richard Pryor had come back again. It’s really not that funny, and I feel kind of sorry for poor old Rick now.

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Did you ever have a chance to talk to him about it?

No, I’ve never met him. I shouldn’t think he’s ever heard of it. I’m sure he couldn’t care less.

When did you realize your songs didn’t have to be funny?

I suppose when I was younger I used to do them on purpose, but they were really more smartass. That made them funny. It’s a natural progression. One of the perks of getting older is that you can put across something with some bottom, to use the old-fashioned sense of the word—some depth. You can put that sort of stuff across, which is a little harder to do when you’re young. That’s the stuff I wanted to do. I always wanted to play music that was by people older than me. I always wanted to be an old bloke, and I got my wish. (laughs) It’s a different deal, though. Even so, my big enemy is earnestness in my writing. I can’t stand songs that are earnest. Earnestness is my enemy, so I’ve always put my stuff across with some humor. Not that it’s got to be funny, but it’s got to have some humanness there, something that lets people know you don’t take it too seriously. It becomes more powerful in a way.

You clearly take care in your craft and care in your songs, but there’s never been anything precious about your music.

That’s very kind of you to say that, and I’m very pleased that you do say that. I see myself as an old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley hack more than a very troubled artist. What I do take seriously is the crafting of it. That I find interesting, a sort of uncanny process. I’m not really an autobiographical writer. I don’t set my diary to music, although I know what I’m singing about. I know what it feels like to feel blue, and misunderstood, and righteous. I know exactly what that feels like, and I can express them, or attempt to express them. But I always make up a character to do it. It’s never really me, even though most of my songs are in the first person.

Are you a reviser? Do you work a song, or do your songs come out pretty close to whole when you get them?

No, I have to tease them out. When I listen to my old songs, it’s frustrating because I think, “Oh this is a good idea, why did you rush that?” or “Why did you do that bit? It wasn’t necessary.” So nowadays I have to be careful with what I say because it can sound very precious, to use your excellent word. But I feel almost like—imagine you’re in an apartment, and the apartment next door, they’ve got a radio tuned to a really good station. They’ve got it tuned all the time to a really good station and you could just hear it through the wall. And one day, they program this new tune, a really cool tune, and you notice it when it comes on in the apartment next door. You think, “Oh wow, I’ve got to learn this song. This is great,” and you get a wine glass and hold it up to the wall. Each time they play it, you learn a little bit more of it. You never know when they’re going to play it, of course; it comes on random times of the day, and each time it does, you stop what you’re doing and have a listen at the wall and learn a little bit more of it. One day you’ve learned the whole song, and it could take a few days, and it could take weeks. And that’s how the writing process is for me at the moment.

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Do you start with a title or a phrase? How does a song like “I Read A Lot” move from first thought to finish?

That song, I can’t even remember writing it or where the title came from or anything. I’ve got a feeling I did have the idea hanging around for a while. I thought, “Oh I read a lot.” I thought it was a really good title. It’s not many words and it’s intriguing, And, I could see how the story went. Somebody just can’t face anything, so they’ve got their head in the books all the time. But the song, I seem to remember, really wasn’t a problem at all even though it’s a quite complicated song. I mean, it’s simple, but there’s a lot of music in it. It didn’t take much time, but I can’t actually remember doing it at all.
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As we’ve talked, and on The Old Magic, it seems like age is a theme of the record and what you’re thinking these days. Are you feeling conscious of your age?

Yes, I am. So many people tell me, “Oh, you’re marvelous. Still out on the road on tour after all these years?” And I’m like, “Hang on a second.” I don’t recognize the person who stares back at me when I’m having a shave. It’s a real cliché but you still feel you’re a much younger person.

I do feel older, but nobody thought when I started out that there would be anyone doing this stuff into their 30s really, let alone 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Love it. Heck, people are in their dotage practically and still churning it out, with pretty good stuff too. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen—they’re good. I’m not comparing myself with those people; I’m just mentioning that we’re at a certain age and we’re churning out work and its being well-received and critically chewed over.

And there are perks to it. You can take your time, and consider stuff, and do it at a slightly more leisurely pace. You’ve got some people around that can help you with it—good band, good musicians. You can really create some excitement, its pretty good.

I think the last time I saw you in New Orleans that I can remember was on the Little Village tour. What are you recollections of that project? [Little Village included Lowe, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner.]

It was a wonderful experience. I’ve done tours with Ry since then. In fact, the last time I was in Greece I was with Ry. We did quite a lot of touring together—him, me, and his boy Joaquin playing drums.

The Little Village thing was an incredible thing at the time it happened. It was really great. I don’t think the record we left behind was very good. They were too nice to us, the record company. They gave us unlimited studio time and made a big fuss. Also, there wasn’t anyone who stepped forward to take charge of it out of the four of us. It was too democratic, really. When we first got together with John Hiatt to do his Bring the Family record, we had four days to do it. John had these incredible songs, of course, but it all had to be done in quite a hurry. That was why it was so good, but the record we did was poorer because those conditions didn’t exist.

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I have talked with Bob Andrews since he lives here in town about the influence of New Orleans music on the pub rock scene. What New Orleans artist do you remember having an impact on you at that time? [Andrews played in the pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz with Lowe.]

Lee Dorsey is the one that comes to mind straight away. I absolutely loved Lee Dorsey. Cootie and the Cupcakes. Love them. There are so many. Oh, Johnnie Allen! How could I not say the great Johnnie Allen. Tommy McLain. These guys are just fantastic. Warren Storm, my hero.

One of the things I always appreciated was how it was very clear from the start that you were a music fan first, and a music player second. Or, that’s what it always felt like as a listener. Are you still as much of a music fan as you were?

Oh yes, I am, definitely. I’m not quite as obsessive as I was. You tend to relax a bit more the older you get, but I still get excited. The other day we were flying from Auckland to Brisbane on Air New Zealand, and they played on one of the music channels, they played a track from this Dutch CD called The Roots of New Zealand Rock and Roll 1957 to 63, and, it was a song by a group called the Carlisles—I wrote it down I thought it was so great—a song called “Crazy Dreams.” It had this Everly Brothers feel to it. I thought it was so great. I still get excited when I hear something I haven’t heard before.

My theory is that we all eventually go back to the music we listened to between the ages of 16 and 18. Is that this period for you?

Yes. That’s when I was first introduced to it, and I still love that stuff. I don’t really listen to much stuff that’s much later than that. I’m aware there’s great music that’s been done since then, but for some reason it doesn’t speak to me in the same way. There seems to be a never-ending supply of stuff that was recorded at the end of the war up until about the 1970s. A never-ending supply of great stuff. I’m continually hearing stuff, and it still sounds so witty to me and dangerous. It makes the current music sound so bland and conservative to me.

I like juggling it around. I don’t feel like I’m trying to do a New Orleans thing or a Nashville thing because it’s pretty obvious I love almost all kinds of American popular music, including Broadway music, film music, and things like that. All different genres. But I love what happens when it crosses the Atlantic because you can take a bit from here, a bit from there, and put it with a bit of Italian pop or French pop music. You just give it a European slant, and suddenly you come with a slightly different recipe. But it’s all been done. There’s nothing new under the sun, except how you tell it.

 

Nick Lowe plays House of Blues Saturday with the Autumn Defense opening. Tickets are on sale now.