Nick Lowe: Party of one

By Nick Bollinger

Nick Lowe has been on the road intermittently since the ’60s, when the London-based singer and songwriter, then in his teens, followed in The Beatles’ footsteps on the Hamburg pub circuit. He had never been to New Zealand until he played Auckland and Wellington in 2009 with Ry Cooder. Now he is about to return with his own band, on the heels of his latest release.

Nick Lowe. Photo / Supplied
Nick Lowe. Photo / Supplied

Nick Lowe's new album The Old Magic is a masterful record: unpretentious, humorous, and in places unexpectedly moving. It represents the latest refinement of a style that began to take shape in the '80s, around the time Lowe realised his brief career as a pop star was coming to an end. As he explains: "I knew these things had a natural lifespan, and I'd had quite a good run. But at the same time I felt I hadn't really done anything yet."

Realising that self-reinvention would require an approach befitting an ageing artist - "a way of making being old seem cool" - Lowe eased off the pub-rock and turned his attention to crafting songs that combined the qualities of all the styles he liked: country, southern soul, swing, Brill Building pop. An early example of his mature style was The Beast in Me, a song he wrote for Johnny Cash.

Some songwriters become wordier and more portentous as they get older, driven by the feeling that as senior statesmen they ought to be addressing the world's problems. Yet Lowe, always an economical writer, has only become more succinct. If he found himself writing a song about, say, the international monetary crisis, would he stop himself?
"Yes, I probably would," he says, laughing down the phone line from London.

"If you sit down and try to write some worthy piece about where everyone's going wrong - earnestness being the enemy of good songwriting, in my view - that's when the wheels come off.

"I'm really a kind of old-fashioned hack, in that I don't really put my diary to music which is one of the things most people do. I mean, I know what I'm talking about. I've had my heart broken; I know what it feels like to be abused and used and to feel like you haven't had justice. But I just make up characters and they tend to be in very everyday situations, kind of shocking in their banality. I'm interested in that, like a familiar object viewed from an unusual angle."

Diarist or not, there is a character that inhabits most of Lowe's songs who he seems to know well. The character is a bit confused or unlucky, like the narrator of Stoplight Roses on the latest album, who knows that the hastily purchased flowers aren't going to win him a pardon for his latest transgression.

"Obviously I recognise something of myself in there. But most of my friends are what I would describe as hapless and I suppose I'm rather attracted to people like that. It's a device that enables you to write about a serious subject. You can explain some sort of emotional thing in a funny way, and it has more impact."

The songs on The Old Magic have the quality of standards; songs you feel you have known all your life, even when you have just heard them. Where do the songs come from?

"This sounds awfully pretentious, I know, but it's almost as if the song has already been written. It's like it is playing on a radio station in a flat next door to you, and you never know when it's going to come on the radio, but when it does you put a wine glass up to the wall and you can just about hear a few of the lyrics, and each time they play it you learn a little bit more of the song, a few of the words, a little bit of the melody, that tricky middle bit. It's an extraordinary process that gets more baffling the older you get."
And how do you know when you've got the whole song?

"When it sounds like somebody else wrote it. When I feel like I've learned a cover song that was written by someone else. That's when it's finished."

*Nick Lowe plays The Powerstation in Auckland on Saturday 31 March.

A FEW THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT NICK LOWE

• He wrote (What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding, for his early band Brinsley Schwarz. The song was subsequently a hit for Elvis Costello.

• In 1992 a cover version of Peace, Love and Understanding by Curtis Stigers appeared in the soundtrack of the blockbuster movie The Bodyguard, for which Lowe received a cheque for a million dollars.

• He produced The Damned's New Rose - generally accepted as the first British punk single.

• He was Johnny Cash's stepson-in-law, through his marriage (1979-1990) to Carlene Carter.

• He produced the first five albums by Elvis Costello, who has called him "England's greatest living songwriter". They first met at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.

• He wrote The Beast In Me for Johnny Cash, who recorded it on his career-reviving American Recordings album.

• Has been a member of two supergroups. In the '70s he was a member of Rockpile, with legendary Welsh guitarist Dave Edmunds; in the '90s he joined Ry Cooder and John Hiatt in the short-lived Little Village.

• He shares members of his excellent band with Van Morrison.

• He thinks Facebook is "twerpy".

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