Labour of love

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

That Nick Lowe has ducked the big, bright spotlight of Rock Stardom is a longstanding mystery of pop music. That he's also managed to enter his fourth decade as one of rock's most respected songwriter-producers with so much grace and wisdom is no mystery at all; he's a clever one, and figured out long ago that rock and roll's obsession with youth and novelty doesn't leave much room for a veteran, unless that veteran outsmarts it.

The redeeming generosity of rock and roll is in the way it encourages its own practitioners to break or even ignore the rules, and as popular music trips toward the next millennium and young musicians stake out new sonic territory, Lowe has created a unique space for himself by carving away at rock's roots with his own brilliantly sharp knife--a process that's driven him forward since the early '70s. He has served pivotal terms throughout: as a wunderkind of pub rock with his band Brinsley Schwarz, as the favorite uncle of punk while co-founding Stiff Records, and as the genuine godfather of new wave not only as a solo artist, but also the wily producer of Elvis Costello's and Graham Parker's early work. Nowadays he's simply Nick Lowe, fucking great songwriter--and he likes it that way. If only the rest of the rock world knew how to credit him...

"I've worked toward a career that doesn't require my presence," Lowe says, on the phone from his London home. "I'm not interested in being highly visible. I don't even bother with a huge part of the industry anymore. As far as I'm concerned, they may as well be selling shoes, or maybe I'm selling shoes to them. We can't help each other much."

This sentiment could sound bitter from the mouth of any other performer, but Lowe remains breezy and cheerful, like an immune citizen who finds his corrupt government mildly amusing. In fact, Lowe never takes a sour tone when discussing his career--its uneven past and its respectably obscure present--and it doesn't take long to realize that his astoundingly clear perspective is nearly as powerful as his musical insight.

That clear head and talent are in full cooperation on his latest record, Dig My Mood, which he's supporting with a compact tour of the U.S. this week and next. The follow-up to his introspective 1994 release The Impossible Bird, this new album extends a phase that has won Lowe some of the strongest praise of his career, and proves that rather than fading or slowing, he's only growing sharper.

"I've had to use getting old as an asset, rather than let it become a problem," he says, laughing. "I'm nearly 50, and I simply can't play that loud and fast anymore, and I don't even like to go see anybody else do it. When an older performer tries to hang on to that, it's unseemly. And while I've never taken myself seriously, I've always taken what I do very seriously."

His serious-but-not leanings permeate Dig My Mood, or at least set the record's spare, moody boundaries; while the album honors the constructs of old-school jazz, country, Motown, Stax, and even roots rock, it's injected with sporadic hints of Lowe's self-effacing wit and his droll homage to the purveyors--Johnny Cash, Marvin Gaye, Cole Porter, Bob Dylan. For Lowe himself, the late '70s claimed him as a burgeoning pop craftsman--one who employed plenty of rattling guitar and frenetic drumming and prankish lyrics--but he has since become a master songwriter who now takes his pop with a dose of subtlety. The raw American bent of nearly every song on the record--from the torchy beauty of "You Inspire Me" to the slide guitar of "Failed Christian"--has its edges smoothed by a thoughtful Englishman who nails the genres, or the essence of them, better than most American songwriters could ever hope to.

"I've always liked the way the English do American music," he says. "Ever since the Beatles and the Stones started covering blues and such--rock is really just R&B and country, anyway. The American accent is the standard for rock music. And for a boy from West London, that was the Holy Grail, that's how you started getting into it."

Indeed, Lowe spent his earliest music days as the bassist-vocalist in a harmony-pop group called Kippington Lodge, which recorded songs on the beat-happy Parlophone label, no less. By 1969 he would outgrow such eager mimicry. "In learning, you try to cram your songs into one style or another, and come up with wretched individual songs," he says. "Then you start making new connections between them--this mishmash of ideas--and you find a personal style. It sounds a bit pretentious or something, I know, but the songs start writing themselves."

Dig My Mood carries a spontaneity that comes with such confidence and experience. Loose, spare, assured but never smug, it sounds as though it were recorded in one spectacular day--a day blessed with that intangible voodoo that pervades rock's best recordings. Any potential fat or filler has been trimmed away, leaving a lean, rangy animal. Surprise, surprise--it took Lowe and his band a full year to capture that quality.

"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.

And his runs at new ways of approaching rock music--that very perspective that's kept him from becoming a cartoon parody of What I Once Was--have unfolded slowly, quietly. While Michael Jackson and Van Halen and Duran Duran climaxed and then nose-dived in front of the whole world, the 1980s nudged Lowe's career along in uneven fits and starts: He produced records by John Hiatt, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Paul Carrack, and his then-new-now-ex-wife Carlene Carter (stepdaughter of Johnny Cash), among others. He paced himself on releasing four of his own albums, offering up a fascinating single here and there--"Ragin' Eyes," "Rose of England," "Half a Boy and Half a Man"--and backing his efforts with sporadic touring. This may have kept him on critics' and musicians' best-of lists, but commercial regard stayed to more accessible roads.

The inconsistent, long-wearing '80s granted Lowe personal growth without burn-out; he avoided music videos ("They just cost so much, and the few I made were miserable experiences.") and money-grubbing nostalgia tours; without cynicism, he lost interest in the trappings of fame. Nonetheless, by 1990, upon the release of his Party of One album, his insider reputation as one of rock's most consistent and compelling pop craftsmen had won him a respectable seat in the hall of great singer-songwriters--Lennon and McCartney, Ray Davies, Paul Weller, David Bowie, Elton John, and certainly Lowe's longtime buddy Elvis Costello. That his last two records are his best in years only support this understated truth.

(Accordingly, Lowe was asked to be the keynote speaker of the overwhelming, overhyped South By Southwest music conference in Austin last March, which he accepted with bemused grace. "I understand I was the first English person to do it," he states drolly, "though I still don't know what 'keynote' means, and nobody I asked could answer that question. So I just got up there and opened my mouth.")

He tackles his tours with the same patience and good humor, and admits that his approach to live shows has changed considerably over the years. "In the past, [we] had the alcohol and stimulants; we'd spend all day in the bars and such, then get up on stage that night and just carry that mood over. But I can't do that anymore. I'm quite reclusive in my daily life, and on the road, I'm always certain I'm racked with some affliction or terrible disease," he laughs. "Some rare Panamanian condition--I'm absolutely neurotic. But it's very important to get up in front of people, to see the whites of their eyes. It's fueling, and these days I can't just spend all day lolling about in a bar and then take the stage. I want the show to be personal, conversational."

He trusts his backing band implicitly (keyboardist Geraint Watkins, drummer Robert Treherne, and guitarist Steve Donnelly have been with Lowe since The Impossible Bird), and the still-lean-and-angular frontman, with his shock of thick white hair, lets a live show take whatever organic shape it must--sometimes forgoing bass, adding an extra guitar, paring things down or thickening things up--to find the evening's mood.

While pop music re-invents itself every few years, it refuses to grow up. Its pioneers don't have that luxury. The relaxed dignity of Lowe's persona and the songs on Dig My Mood are anomalies in the crush of established artists who just don't get it anymore; while Lowe keeps enough distance from the game to have a clear view and see the big picture, others go blind with greed and complacency. From Billy Joel to Sting, Bowie to McCartney, it's as though these performers forgot the very thing that put them front and center in the first place: an uncompromising edge, an attack on audience expectations in the building of artistic backbone. They've become has-beens or easy-listening poster kids way before they had to; far be it from them to take risks, challenge their fans, or reach deep enough inside themselves to find that original pulse.

Dig My Mood isn't rock and roll, per se, but it's very concerned with that pulse--the pulse of its artist and the origin of rock itself, which ironically (and irony is Lowe's forte) makes Lowe a far worthier Rock Star than his more famous counterparts. But that was the trap, the very shiny trap, that Lowe spotted and sidestepped long ago, and thank God for it.

Nick Lowe performs June 13 at Deep Ellum Live.

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