One of the gems of British music is making an all too swift solo acoustic tour of the colonies. I caught up with Nick Lowe during the Olympics, and he admitted he was one of the converted curmudgeons. Most folks thought it was going to be a horror show of gridlock, but much like the LA Olympics in 1984, the London Olympics was a delight. We bantered about the understandably British-centric nature of Danny Boyle’s brilliant Opening Ceremony production. Lowe admitted he hadn’t pondered how the National Health segment would be perceived in the States, what with all the debate around ObamaCare.
But we quickly turned to a discussion of Lowe’s inveterate love for all sorts of American music. “I am a complete dilettante,” said Lowe. His “recipe for songwriting” is to pick and choose a spicy blend of American styles. “I am serious about the music I make, but I don’t take myself seriously,” he quipped.
We talked much about the phenomenon of rockers growing into their 60s and 70s. “I never even thought I’d be doing this in my 40s,” reflecting on his mindset when he started down the path of music many decades ago. Lowe is not alone in distinguishing his music from that of Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King and Chuck Berry. While those pillars initially defined their music, it did not evolve much over the arc of their career. In contrast, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have remained in a near-constant state of evolution. Lowe is too modest to compare his work with that latter camp, but the comparison is relevant. “I don’t have to follow the rules anymore,” admits Lowe, a realization shared by a small handful of other musicians in his cohort.
He pointed out that when he was coming up, the British perspective and distance allowed for more clarity about the diversity of American music styles. Perhaps we Yanks were too close to the musical melting pot to discern these regional differences. Lowe clearly loves the variety of music styles from America.
Of the many questions I enjoy asking musicians of a certain age is how the digital revolution affects their work. “Well,” he paused, pondered and admitted “I am relatively untouched by the MP3 revolution. When I was in my prime as a producer I had 16 and perhaps 24 tracks. When 100 tracks became available and making records meant looking at a screen, I stepped away.” He hasn’t recorded with tape in eons, but he likes to “cheat the technology to make it sound mellower and to create a certain atmosphere. The response is that people hear it as a lovely breath of fresh air, or more often it puts people off when they first hear it. I like the homemade quality of it, but I know a majority of folks don’t like it.”
We then turned to one of my favorite stories in rock music, how Nick Lowe sorta woke up one day and found he was a millionaire when his song appeared on the soundtrack of The Bodyguard. He didn’t usually pay attention to these license agreements when they came by, as not all deals came to fruition. “Often you are in the theatre, eating your popcorn when you realize they have actually used your song.” But The Bodyguard situation was different, as Lowe noticed that Kevin Costner was both a producer of the film and music supervisor. After the album was selling in the tens of millions, he called Curtis Stigers, the singer who covered his song. It turns out recording “What So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding” was a last minute suggestion by Stigers. Lowe and Stigers are now understandably friends.
The royalties from Stiger’s version (Lowe’s first recording of which precedes Elvis Costello’s classic version) put Lowe in a financial opposition to undertake the curve in his style that started about six albums ago with The Impossible Bird. The subsequent series of albums (the most recent of which is The Old Magic) portrays an aging man coming to grips with being in the second half of his life. Wry, playful and eminently musical, this series of albums represents one of the strongest testaments to a rock star who has figured out how to age gracefully with all his songwriting prowess intact.
His most recent tour was opening for Wilco, which undoubtedly exposed him to a younger and receptive audience. Wilco has covered the first song Lowe wrote and recorded when he and Costello formed Stiff Records: “I Love My Label.” On many nights, Wilco and Lowe teamed up for a near-perfect version of Lowe’s biggest hit “Cruel to Be Kind.”
We closed our chat with Lowe recalling fondly a prior gig at the Belly Up. This special show will be an acoustic, solo, sit down show. It is a perfect setting for what Lowe has been up to these past few years.
Nick Lowe will be at at the Belly Up, Solana Beach (October 2) and the Troubadour, W Hollywood (October 3).