Labour of love

Nick Lowe, still the Jesus of Cool, ages gracefully-- and gratefully

"It took a lot of work to make it sound as though it took no work at all," he explains. "I start on a record with three or four songs in mind instead of a whole concept. Then I rent out an empty hall--one with great acoustics--and I go there to sing these songs out loud over and over, until I know them so well they almost feel like covers." With that, he enters the studio every so often and just barely teaches the songs to his band before a recording session, which gives each track an instrumental freshness that's anchored by Lowe's own inside-out familiarity with it. In effect, he's found a songwriting-recording process that, although time-consuming, has won him one of the most cohesive, immediately appealing records of his life.

And specialized: While Dig My Mood goes as well with morning coffee as it does with a road trip to Austin or a late-night poker game, it's hard to imagine any of the tunes, however lovable, topping the charts. Here's a groovin' organ riff, there's a lilting violin, and over here a wistful accordion; the lyrics straddle sincerity and irony with elegant cunning. His voice is as modest and stark as the music, and he never tries to push it past its evenly textured limits. There's a sophistication about the whole that Lowe's loyal following has come to expect from him. Yet when asked about the classy styling of the Gershwin-tinted "You Inspire Me," Lowe quickly insists: "It's much like jazz, though I'm not nearly sophisticated enough to play that sort of music. Once undressed, it's just four chords."

That deceptive simplicity simply blows past, or over the heads of, the oft-moronic radio and MTV element--a long-running fact Lowe never loses sleep over. "I hate to admit it, but I'm really not concerned with reaching a broader audience. I'm sure that sounds terrible," Lowe says. "My record sales are poor--the people who listen to and appreciate them are musicians, and industry-types, and critics--and they usually don't even have to buy them. The only way to get new listeners is through their honest response to what I'm doing: They hear something they like, the rug bends, and the line goes taut, and then I can reel 'em in."

Lowe's discriminating fishing line has, over the years, hooked a reverent fan base--a process that found initial footing in 1976, when Lowe's hardworking, nose-thumbing pub band Brinsley Schwarz broke up and Lowe joined manager Jake Rivera and scenester Dave Robinson to form Stiff Records--"The World's Most Flexible Record Label"--the first to take punk rock's punchy energy seriously. The label's debut single, Lowe's hook-laden "Heart of the City"/"So it Goes," immediately sold out; at the same time, Lowe was trying his hand at producing. He had already helmed the soundboards for Graham Parker's debut Howling Wind when his friendship with the caustic young Elvis Costello provided another opportunity, and Costello's 1977 debut My Aim is True not only showcased the former Declan MacManus' edgy, melodic brilliance, it also proved Lowe's gift as a producer. The two teamed up for Costello's next four records, each one a gem.

By 1978, Lowe had produced most of the Stiff roster and beyond--including the Damned and the Pretenders--while writing and recording his own records, and by the following year, his success as solo artist rode tandem with his acclaimed production work. The prankster in him found a way into his various projects: he named an EP Bowi after David Bowie put out Low; he put sugary '60s hooks to lyrics about fascism or a corpse-eating dog ("Little Hitler" and "Mary Provost," respectively); he "saluted" the absurd Bay City Rollers with a sideline called Tartan Horde. Then his 1979 single "Cruel to be Kind"--infinitely catchy, subtly sinister--would thrust his name into new households and find a trans-Atlantic audience for his solo second LP, Labour of Lust. And with both this and Stiff Record's developing penchant for wise-ass good taste, New Wave was born--a smirking, articulate off-shoot of punk's explosive, anti-establishment energy.

The musicians who backed Lowe on his solo outings--Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner on guitars, Terry Williams on drums (Lowe served as a bassist on the producer-cum-R&B revisionist Edmunds' works)--also worked together with Lowe under the banner Rockpile. Rockpile's jocular, twangy nods to rockabilly garnered a small media blitz that by 1980 had all but fizzled. "It seemed my career was over; the wheel had moved away," Lowe says. "Rolling Stone was no longer quoting me. I was 30 years old, yet I hadn't even started."

This realization, however dramatized (Lowe had gotten started, obviously, and quite well) led to the epiphany that would inform the rest of his career, including his most recent work. "Before, playing guitar was just a means to an end, and all I wanted to be was famous," he says. "My view had to shift." His reconsidered M.O. included a growing disregard for music-industry politics and traditional spotlight-chasing; his concern swung from a youthful crush on elusive, rising-star promises to a more focused and sincere love affair with producing and songwriting.

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