When the punks sent a generation of British musicians packing in 1976, Nick Lowe could have easily gone off to storage with them. By then a veteran of one minor chart-pop band (Kippington Lodge) and a pub rock institution (Brinsley Schwarz), Lowe — who was all of 27 at the time — had the outsider’s sense to join the rebels, becoming a new wave auteur (his solo debut was released in the UK with the self-mocking but not exactly ironic title Jesus of Cool) and the first-choice producer for Elvis Costello, the Damned, Wreckless Eric and the Pretenders. But while challenging complacency with such modern originals as the apocalyptic “So It Goes,” the black-humored “Marie Provost” and the oblique “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” Lowe also pledged allegiance to American rock & roll tradition in Rockpile. The 1979 showing of “Cruel to Be Kind” in the Billboard Top 40 even gave weight to the export title of Lowe’s debut (Pure Pop for Now People).
As others dined out on such parenthetical compositions as “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding?” and “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ‘n ‘Roll),” their author lost the plot in the ’80s. But he managed a low-key return in the ’90s, reborn as a restrained elder statesman, more like the dignified relic of America’s golden age than a glib smart-aleck clinging to new wave glory. It’s worked wonders for him, as he has made a handful of warm and intimate albums that put him in a completely different and utterly engaging artistic realm. His latest, At My Age, has just been released, and we met in the cramped business center of a Manhattan hotel in July to discuss it.
eMusic: Is there a particular significance to the album title?
Nick Lowe: When my career as a pop star finished in ’82 or ’83, I was relieved but fearful. I was an alcoholic, my marriage had disappeared more than broken up. I thought, well, I’ve had a couple of hits. I’ve produced some pretty good records for other people, written some good songs. Why am I now on the scrap heap when I don’t think I’ve done very much at all? I started trying to figure out a way I could re-present myself and use the fact that I was aging in this business as a distinct advantage instead of feebly trying to hide it. It’s amazing how hard it was to do, to figure out a way of writing and recording myself. It’s so easy and logical to me now, but it was so hard to find anyone who knew what I was talking about and to help me with it.
eMusic: Time is a very tricky commodity in pop music.
NL: When I went into the music business — I left home to join a band in 1968 — I actually thought that I’d missed the boat. I thought music was all over. If you say that rock & roll started with “Rocket 88″ [in 1951], it was 17 years old then, and it’s been 40 more since then. It’s unbelievable.
When punk music came along, I didn’t think that [we] were ushering in this brand new day, this fantastic new dawning. I actually thought it was all over. We were dancing around the corpse of pop music, giving it the occasional kick, and we’d all be back in the biscuit factory by the end of the month. I still do think that’s what happened, but I have enjoyed a fantastic career since then.
eMusic: You, like many Englishmen of your generation, seem to have an abiding affection for American music idioms…
NL: My generation looked solidly to the States for musical inspiration because we didn’t have any. Our whole thing was that the United States was the promised land for everything. Between 1952 and the mid ’70s, there was an unbelievable amount of fantastic music recorded in the United States by people who seemed to have beamed in from Mars. And now there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that they ever existed. All that’s left is these amazing records. I keep hearing absolutely incredible records all the time by people I’ve never heard of. Pop music now seems so conservative to me and safe and done by the numbers.
eMusic: Is that due to modern studio technology?
NL: I’m all for some of the things that take the sweat out of it, but you have to be careful, because if you take all the sweat out of it, then your records will sound like everybody else’s — like they all do! The machines hold the thing in time, so everyone’s record is in time, which I won’t have. I think the shit is supposed to speed up and slow down. So that’s the first thing — get rid of the metronomic beat. A good drummer will do the job for you — and tells better jokes. In order for my records to sound the way they do, I have to do it to a certain extent in the old-fashioned style. You stand a better of chance of making accidents happen. A mistake is a mistake, but you can get these lovely little accidents which are absolutely priceless.
eMusic: Two elements in your songs now are self-loathing and antipathy toward women. Are these songwriting ideas that you explore or are they things inspired by your or other people’s experiences?
NL: I claim the Randy Newman defense on this. He says, I think of a character, and think what’s the sort of song he would like to sing. But singing about people who hate women is very good fun. I don’t think that at all, but I know lots of people who are like that. A song on the new record, “I Trained Her to Love Me,” is almost so brutal that it’s funny. It’s quite comedic. It’s amazing how it’s divided the audience. I started putting it in my act in my last acoustic solo tour of the United States about three years ago. Usually, when you play new songs you don’t get much of a reaction. But people reacted to this thing immediately. A lot of women knew that it was a sympathetic thing, that it wasn’t me talking, I was just pointing out that there are people like this. But some of the males in the audience were sort of punching the air, going “Yeah Nick, way to go! The truth is told!”
If I get a good idea or a title that occurs to me like “I Trained Her to Love Me” you don’t think, “Oh, I can’t tangle with that,” you fall to your knees and give thanks and try and make it as clear as possible.
eMusic: Your records make you seem like a very unhappy fellow. Even “Hope for Us All” has a barb in it.
NL: Once you’re in the songwriting process, something takes over which you don’t really have much control over. I actually welcome that. The older I get with writing songs, the more baffling it is how it actually works. I used to have this theory that every so often someone would come ’round and see me, and this person was a fabulous songwriter but had no interest in being on the TV or doing gigs or making records. They’d selected me to do their songs for them. They’d come ’round and show me their latest songs, and I would do them. Then they would disappear. They wouldn’t come back for months, and I would have no way of getting in contact. The thing is, I’d seen them work so many times that I could do a very good impersonation of their thing. And that’s what I would do. But the person’s songs were way better than mine.
eMusic: You do a couple of covers on each album. But you choose them so effectively that they never feel like covers, and they’re not songs many people are likely to know, so they fit right in with the originals. Is that the goal?
NL: Indeed it is. It takes me an enormous amount of work to make my own songs sound like someone else wrote them. And when I find a cover song that I want to do, I work at it and work at it until I feel like I actually wrote it. I change it until it fits me rather than me fitting it.
eMusic: Between the Faron Young song (“Feel Again”) on this record and a couple of originals that are a little countryish, people are calling this your country album, which it doesn’t feel to me at all. There’s always been a bit of country in your music. Does this album have a particular character for you?
NL: No. This record was done over a long period of time. I had some stuff happen. Both of my parents died. And also, suddenly, from almost out of nowhere, appeared a son and heir for me. I never thought I would ever have children, and now I have this two-year-old boy. And that certainly is quite a change of pace, especially for someone like myself who’s led an almost entirely selfish existence for the last 40 years.
What normally happens is I get a feeling that it’s time to do another record. I always think [each is] my last one, but you always get a feeling that it’s time to do another, generally accompanied by the arrival of a couple of good songs. If I record those and it goes well, that serves as the engine or the motor that drives the writing and recording of the rest of the record. That never happened with this record because of my domestic situation. I would just record “recreationally,” almost to get myself out of the house. I’d phone everyone up and go in and cut something, anything — a half-baked idea, a cover song. Just to go to the studio and drink tea. Not as casually as that, but…So this record doesn’t have any particular feel about it, because it’s just a bunch of tunes that I did in isolation.
eMusic: Did being a onetime member of an American country music dynasty have an impact on you? [In 1979, Lowe married Carlene Carter, whose mother was June Carter Cash and whose stepfather was Johnny Cash. They divorced in 1990.]
NL: Oh, I think so. I’m extremely proud of my friendship with John and June. I don’t speak to Carlene as regularly as I want to — she’s had her problems, as everybody knows — but I’m in touch with her again. I’m ever so fond of her. I miss them terribly, both John and June, and I’m proud that he recorded a couple of my songs, especially “The Beast in Me,” which was on American Recordings.
Both of them said to me, we know it hasn’t worked out with you and Carlene, but it’s nothing to do with us. You’ll always be welcome here. I saw them regularly after that. Whenever they came to London, John used to get me to sing with him. The last time he came to London, I went down to the Albert Hall. I was in the dressing room, talking about what we were going to do, and I must have made some sort of face because he asked me what the matter was. And I told him, “I’ve got to admit, John, I’ve got these terrible mixed feelings. On the one hand, I love the fact that you phone me up and want me to sing one of my songs with you on this big show. But on the other hand, I’m also a Johnny Cash fan, and I know how British Johnny Cash fans are. And if I didn’t know me, and I was sitting in the audience, and I walked out on stage, I’d say, ‘Who the fuck is this guy? Get him off! I didn’t come down here to see this bloke.’” He rolled with laughter and said, “Maybe we should do a few more than one.” He was a lovely man and I miss him very much.
eMusic: How did Chrissie Hynde, who sings on the new album’s “People Change,” get back into your recording life?
NL: We’ve always been friends. I didn’t see her for quite a long time, but a mutual friend of ours died, a rock photographer named Keith Morris, and there was a wake for him. Chrissie and I were going to do something at the wake. Anyway she had an accident, fell off a ladder or something, and did her leg in. So I went ’round to see her. At the time, I was halfway through writing a song for Howard Tate. I said, look, I’ve got this song. While you’re laid up, why don’t I make a cup of tea, and I’ll play you what I’ve got and see if you want to finish it off.
It was really good fun. Then this song “People Change” that she’s singing on, we’d had two or three goes at doing it and I’d given up on it. It sounded like a jingle or something (not that I have anything against jingles). The others guys all liked it, so I said I’d take it ’round to Chrissie and see what she thinks. She was typically forthright: “Oooh, this is all wrong, how much longer can we wait for the chorus to come? I missed the last three trains!” [I decided to] do it her way. She said, “I’d better come and sing the chorus.” I’m not going to argue with that.
NL: It was hers. She gave me a cassette of four tracks, including that one. I thought it was a brilliant idea, because it was such a great song and everyone had forgotten about it. I always thought she sounded like what we call a shop girl. Back then, there were two kinds of female singers — the center-parting folkie, the simpering hippie; or else the blues mama belting it out. There didn’t seem to be anything else. She sounded like the girl who works at the supermarket checkout or something. That was a brand-new concept at that time. On that song in particular, she sounded like that. It’s brilliant.
eMusic: How do you see yourself these days?
NL: I did the Glastonbury Festival a few weeks ago. I was waiting to go on, reading the paper in a little tent, and every so often there’d be a little shake of the canvas door and there’d be somebody from one of the young bands. I rather feel like an ancient sage, saying, “Draw nearer my child. Tell me your songwriting problems.” I quite enjoy being like a sort of white Howlin ‘Wolf surrounded by young blues fans.
It’s very difficult to see how people see me, because I feel like such an outsider. I’m not a joiner-inner at all. I loathe any kind of pop event, like an awards ceremony. It’s rubbish to believe that all of us musicians are friends. I wouldn’t give you a tuppence for most of them.