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Nick Lowe on Crafting "Swinging" Pop in His 60s

Nick Lowe
Nick Lowe
Dan Burn, Yep Rock Records

Nick Lowe has worn more than a couple stylistic hats in his 40-plus years as a songwriter, performer, and producer. He played ambling country rock with Brinsley Schwarz, ushered in pub rock, punk, and new wave with solo records and production for Stiff Records, and eased into a remarkable career as a singer/songwriter, touching on blues, rockabilly, country, folk, and blue-eyed soul.

Johnny Cash (his one-time father-in-law) and Elvis Costello have covered his songs. He's produced records for The Pretenders, The Damned, and even an early Motorhead single. He's played with Los Straightjackets and Little Village (featuring John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, and Jim Keltner).

Through it all, he's proven his knack for a hook, melody, and charming wit.

His latest, The Old Magic, shows no signs of diminishing returns: "Checkout Time" winks slyly at death, "Sensitive Man" cracks wise on the state of men in the modern age, and "I Read A Lot," a song I first heard Lowe perform at The Rhythm Room in 2008, is positively crushing, the kind of sad bastard ode that has finds hardened listeners reaching for a handkerchief.

Lowe talked to Up on the Sun from Nashville about his "two" careers, touring with Wilco, and his fear that "good songs" might not be enough to sustain careers in the future.

Up on the Sun: You're coming to the Musical Instrument Museum solo, but you've done a lot of full-band touring this year. Do you prefer that?

Nick Lowe: I suppose I do, really. The touring aspect is certainly much more fun, but there are advantages to doing it on your own. You can change things up. I pretty much do the same set every night, because you almost have to -- there are certain songs that people really want to hear and I want people to have a good time at my shows. I don't just want to please myself, but if you don't leave a bit of room to change things up each night, you go a bit crazy.

With a band, it's a little more difficult to do that. The other thing -- probably the most important thing -- is that I make about five times as much money on my own as I do with a band [laughs]. But it swings in roundabouts, as they say. Both things have their advantages.

The Old Magic is a pretty swinging album -- it feels like there's a lot of energy to these songs.

I try to keep the solo show -- to use your fabulous word -- as "swinging" as possible. I really don't want to deliver a too serious set. I try and keep it swinging along. It's surprising -- if you have a nice audience, the sort who's coming along with you, you can really turn it into quite a good little dance party, even if there's only one of you.

I caught you in 2008, at the Rhythm Room, and I was struck by how the show moved, how you were able to go from things like "I Trained Her to Love Me" to "All Men Are Liars." You avoid the "boring, guy with an acoustic guitar" kind of thing.

Since that show, I did two tours with Wilco, and I thought it was a really cool thing for them to ask me to do, to open up solo. I was conscious when I went on people would say "Oh, who's this old bloke with an acoustic guitar?" So I was very anxious to dispel that feeling as soon as possible by keeping it in the groove, keeping it swinging, not boring people, and not staying on too long, as well. That's very important [laughs].

Jeff Tweedy of Wilco has sort of a habit of working with people he admires, and that clip of you, Mavis Staples, and Wilco covering The Band was wonderful. Have you and Jeff talked at all about recording some songs?

We certainly have talked about it, but that's as far as it's gone. He wanted me to do something him and Mavis at one point, but Wilco's been touring sort of endlessly since I saw him. I haven't heard anything, so maybe he's changed his mind, I don't know [laughs].

But the Wilco audience seemed to catch on to what you were doing?

It really did seem to work and as I said, I can see the results. My audience, there's a lot more younger people now; a lot more women come to see me now. A few of the old-timers have sort of dropped away a bit, because it's not noisy enough for them, but they've been replaced with other people. Funnily enough, the new people, they don't really know much about [my older work]. I feel as if I've sort of had two careers, one that lasted till the end of the '80s, and one that sort of kicked off around the end of the '90s. The new people don't really know much about Rockpile and all that business.  

I had a friend ask me last night, "You're always going on about this Nick Lowe guy, if I were to start with one Nick Lowe record, which do I pick?" I was torn, because I'm a fan of both of those phases your career -- I love Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust, but I didn't want to leave out At My Age or Dig My Mood, which are just as affecting to me. If someone asked you that question, how would you answer?

That's a really tough one. I love the later things. It's such a relief when you can do stuff that comes later in your career and people don't all start looking at their watch or, you know, going to the bar, or going the restroom. People really do dig some of these later songs. But I'm not sort of ashamed about the old tunes. Well, some of them, I am a bit [laughs]. But the ones that people can remember -- there's a lot that people don't remember -- but the popular songs from the first era if you like, they are good, too. There are some really cool songs, and I find that when I play them, there doesn't seem to be any difference, they seem to meet up in the same sort of place.

I suppose that's because I managed to write a few quite good songs when I was a kid. There's sort of a knack, you get better at it when you get older. Well, I've got better at it the older I've got -- most people have sort of had enough of you by the time you've got older. By the time you know what you're doing, people have got fed up with you. I think I'm in an unusual position: I had my career as a pop star for three or four years, and I really enjoyed it, but when it finished, I thought, "Well, I've hardly started yet. I've got to figure out a way of doing something else."

At that time there wasn't any such thing as people who were old timers doing it unless it was the greats, like Jerry Lee Lewis, or Chuck Berry, just sort of hacking around, but not really putting out good stuff anymore, but everyone turns up to see them because they're great, and they're the originals. But nowadays, you've loads of people in the business in their 60s and 70s: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, churning out stuff that the critics go, "Christ, this is fantastic." Back in the day there was no such thing as that. No one thought anyone from the rock 'n' roll era was going to be making real class work in their 70s. Though I'm not comparing myself to those people I just mentioned, I can in one way claim an allegiance, because I'm in my 60s and I put out records that are very well received.

But it took me awhile to figure out how I was going to do it. I needed to make sure I wasn't sort of preaching to the converted. Some of my contemporaries have the same audience, they've come along with them since the 1970s, and they have to sort of behave as if it's the 1970s still. I wanted to avoid that habit at all cost.

So I thought, "What I have to do is write my stuff and present myself in a way that's hip enough to attract a younger audience," without me feeling like I was "getting down with the kids," you know? It had to be something that I could do naturally. A lot of the older types have stuck with me. God bless them -- everyone is welcome.

Aging with grace in pop music is rare, but you, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Joe Jackson -- you guys have put out recent records that really strike nerves. It excites me, because it proves that even if it was packaged in pub rock, new wave, or punk fashion, good songs just sort of do their work.

That is the key to it, although I sometimes feel nowadays that it's a dying craft -- that it won't actually be around in about 30 years. Maybe not. It seems incredible to me that a song I might have written in the '70s still moves people now. It's quite amazing now. At the time, we never thought about it -- we were just kids knocking it out. We were in such a hurry. We came up with a lot of rubbish as well, but we had a good one now and then.

Nick Lowe is scheduled to perform Monday, October 1, at the Musical Instrument Museum.


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Musical Instrument Museum Music Theater

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