15 Minutes with Nick Lowe

Q&A with Nick Lowe, who opens for Wilco Thursday

15 Minutes with Nick Lowe

Nick Lowe didn’t set out to prove there's second acts in life, but he’s succeeded spectacularly. Coming up in the late 1970s with Elvis Costello, etc, he'd turned into a punk rock crooner – Tony Bennett with a taste for Americana – by 1994’s The Impossible Bird. His new The Old Magic is on tap when he opens for Wilco at the Moody on Thursday.

Geezerville: There was a change in your musical style with The Impossible Bird. Is that accurate?

Nick Lowe: Yes, I think so. I started looking at it with the two albums that came before that, but The Impossible Bird is sort of where it came together.

G: Was it something that you planned? How did that evolve to where you are now?

NL: I don’t know whether I planned it out that carefully at the time, but in retrospect I suppose I was a bit. The way I see it now is that when my time as a pop star came to an end, which was in the early 1980s, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, although I knew it was coming because I had been a record producer and knew how it worked, I was sorry to see the back end of it. I enjoyed being the center of attention and having the perks of the job. At the same time I knew that the public had moved on and I could do with a rest. I was worn out really, and fed up with it.

G: You weren’t enjoying yourself?

NL: Well, I was, but I wasn’t really satisfied with my records. I was still with big labels then and they used to crack the whip, saying, “It’s time for another one!” whether you were ready or not. I just couldn’t keep up anymore. I was in the middle of the whole cliché thing, drinking way too much. I was just worn out, running completely on empty. So I stopped. I was sort of forced to really.

But after I had time to reflect on things, I thought I hadn’t done too badly. I’d written a few good songs, I produced some good records. “But I’ve got to think of the future now.” So I started to use the fact that I was getting older in a business that had no interest in anyone in their 40s say – and I was in my mid-30s then. There wasn’t any such thing as anyone doing pop music in their 40s. Now you can’t get away from them.

G: Have you heard Randy Newman's “I’m Dead (I Just Don’t Know It)”? It addresses in a very cynical way the idea of an older performer living on his past.

NL: No I haven’t [laughs]. The one thing I knew that I didn’t want to do is just that. To be condemned to tour around the world performing my little time in the sun. I’m very happy to play my meager number of hits. I’m delighted to do it. But I don’t want to just do that. So I started reinventing myself, re-presenting myself. Writing for myself and recording myself in a way that I could use the fact that I was getting older as a distinct advantage.

G: The Old Magic is your first album in four years. Is the time between because you take your time with songwriting?

NL: Yes, it is. It does take me quite a long time now to come up with a very simple, succinct idea. The work is really trying to make it sound as if no work has gone into it. It takes a lot of time to do that. I’m much fussier now. My quality control antenna is more finely tuned than it once was. But you can’t take forever with it or people think you’re being too precious.

G: Do write on a schedule? Is it something you have to force yourself to do?

NL: A schedule sort of comes along. After I’ve finished a record there’s a period, sort of a respite, where I think, “Right that’s it. That’s the last one now.” Then I get two or three tunes and I’ll round everyone up and record them. If that session goes well, it’s almost like a snowball going down a hill. It sets a process in motion and it might take a while for it to come to some kind of conclusion. In other words, I don’t have a huge fund of tunes. I have to grasp at it a bit harder than that.

G: The songs you didn’t write for The Old Magic really stand apart. I had to do some digging to find out that Jeff West, the writer of “You Don’t Know Me At All,” plays with Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys. How did you find that song?

NL: I have friends who turn me on to music and one of them had a girlfriend that thought that song sounded like me. I was rather flattered to hear that and then my wife really liked it. She played it all the time in the car. Finally I thought it was a really great little song. I changed the arrangement a little bit. I do it more like Johnny Cash with some ska horns, I suppose. I always put at least a couple of other people’s songs on my records. I think, even if I was prolific, I’d put at least one of two cover songs. It shows that you’re not too self obsessed.

G: Jimmie Vaughan is on the record although the liner notes don’t say what he does.

NL: Yeah, he plays guitar on that tune. I’ve known him since his days with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. They toured with Rockpile, which might have been our first UK tour. We really hit it off with them. I produced their T-Bird Rhythm album so I’ve been friends with Jimmie for a long time.

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Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jimmy Vaughan, Jeff West, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys

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