Nick Lowe: ‘My feeling is the longer I go on writing songs, the more mysterious it is’

Veteran singer songwriter Nick Lowe has a new album and is on tour. He talks to Duncan Seaman ahead of his Yorkshire gigs.

Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets. Picture: Nils Schlebusch
Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets. Picture: Nils Schlebusch

Seasoned musician of 50 years standing he might be, but it seems these days that Nick Lowe needs some persuasion to re-enter a recording studio.

Two EPs with the masked US surf rock band Los Straitjackets mark the Brentford-based singer songwriter’s first substantial output since his 2011 album The Old Magic (save for a Christmas album in 2013). Tokyo Bay was released late last year; it’s now been followed by Love Starvation.

Lowe admits he had been “dodging the thought” of making new records following the deaths of his long-time musical partners Bobby Irwin and Neil Brockbank, and that finding Los Straitjackets had been a godsend.

Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets. Picture: Nils Schlebusch

“I was really at a loose end and I thought, ‘Ah well, I think I’ve had enough of this, really. I’ve done all right but I can’t see that I’m going to start again with some other people’. It’s understandable you have those kinds of thoughts because we’d made so many records together and we were such good friends. But in fact Bob especially had been encouraging me to go somewhere else, in the nicest possible way. He’d said, ‘Don’t you think we’ve done enough together?’ But it was so agreeable when we’d get together and make these records, it was so much fun and relaxed and we could take our time, so I was rather unwilling to go somewhere else.”

Hooking up with Los Straitjackets to make the Christmas record Quality Street was to prove the “catalyst” for further collaboration. Lowe explains: “Much to everyone’s surprise it found quite a deal of success, especially in the United States where I suppose I do most of my work nowadays. Because of Bob and Neil dying I didn’t feel like going to promote it, but a Christmas record is the gift that keeps on giving, every year it comes around, so it was suggested to me, ‘Why don’t you get a Christmas show together and promote this record with the Straitjackets?’ That we did and people seemed to like it, so we did it for two or three years. Then we started to get offers to do what you might call ‘out of season work’ and that’s when it really started taking off.”

Lowe did, however, have to insist that Los Straitjackets applied a less reverential approach to his back catalogue than they initially tried. “It was perfectly OK but I did have to say, ‘Look, fellas, if this is going to really work you forget about the records. Let’s just get familiar with the songs and do them your way and I’ll join in with you, so we make up something which is a real mixture of both of our styles’. When that happened that’s really when it got in focus. They’re very good musicians and can adapt to all sorts of styles but they’re rock ’n’ roll players so they know how to make it swing and be fun. That led on to me thinking, ‘We could do with a song like this…’ So I started writings songs for this project. It really does feel like we’ve made this up ourselves now.”

Songs such as Love Starvation and Trombone bear all the hallmarks of classic Nick Lowe – a certain lyrical wryness coupled with warmth and instant familiarity. The singer, now 70, says of his song writing process: “My feeling is the longer I go on doing this, the more mysterious it is. I haven’t the faintest idea how it happens or even why it doesn’t happen, which is quite often too. You can’t turn it on any more than you can turn it off when it’s actually going for you. I keep on thinking, ‘This isn’t really real, it’s not like a proper song writer, they can go to work every day; I’ve got to wait to be inspired’. Then I look round and see that I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of songs, most of them not great it has to be said, but you’ve got to write quite a lot of duff ones to actually come up with something which is pretty good.”

Lowe himself has compared Love Starvation to Brinsley Schwarz, the 70s band for whom he wrote his signature songs (What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding and Cruel To Be Kind. He looks back upon the capital’s pub rock scene with affection. “It was good fun because it pre-empted the punk rock scene, it was underground, we were all a bunch of outsiders, but it was a very sociable scene. The audience came from all strata of society, you’d see debutantes in white gloves and long dresses dancing with Sikh bus drivers, it was fantastic. They tried to get it going in other cities but it only really worked in London. The Dutch went for it, there was a really great bar scene in Holland in the 1970s, which we used to go and take advantage of too. It was really good fun. We were still kids, really, we were learning, and you had to have a real flow through of songs, every week you had to have at least four or five new things to play so we’d do whatever was in the charts as well as our own songs. It was very non-snobby in that respect and that did appeal to me.”

Where back in the day Lowe might have followed up a flurry of media interest with a new album, these days he seems more cautious. “I don’t know how inclined I am really to do a full album, it’s that sort of thing which I’ve got fed up with,” he says. “I think, ‘why would I do that now?’ I’ve made so many records and it’s quite expensive to do them then you get one week in the sun, one week of publicity, do the round of radio stations to bang the drum a bit for it and then if nothing’s happened after that ‘sorry, mate, that’s it’.

“I think the way the public consume music now is so different to how I was trained that you can really make up the rules as you go along. I don’t think the world is absolutely on the edge of its seat waiting on a new album from me, and anyway if I did do another one it would be exactly like all the others.”

At 70 Lowe does still enjoy life on the road. “Having said that, this is the first UK tour I’ve done for decades and I do not know what is going to be on my plate when I go out here,” he says. “I’ve played in London over the years but that’s completely different. If I’m not greedy and wait every three years I can play a fancy place in London and fill it up, but come with me now to the deep West Country or even East Anglia, I haven’t the foggiest idea what I’ve got in store because I simply haven’t worked the UK due, I might add, to a lack of interest.

“When I was changing my style back in the 80s, I realised I was getting older and I consciously dreamt up a change in the way I present myself and write songs to take advantage of the fact I was getting older in a business which at that point it was very rare to find someone even in the forties or fifties who were still doing pop music. Now you can’t move for old blokes and old girls all over the place still at it, but back then it was rare and I really thought hard about developing this new style.

“The United States, where I worked a lot when I was with Rockpile [the 70s band he formed with Dave Edmunds], that’s where my audience was and they went for it, they got it over there, and here there wasn’t really any call for it so it’s my own fault that I’m in this position where I’m about to go on tour and I’m not sure whether any b***er’s going to show up. I told the Straitjackets, I said, ‘Look, this could be a really problem here’, but they don’t care, they’re up for it. We’re playing a lot of village halls and community centres and boy scout huts and in fact those are the kind of places where the sort of music we do sounds really fantastic, so as long as few people show up at these joints we’re going to turn in some great shows, I think.”

Lowe is also a renowned producer who has helmed records by The Damned, the Pretenders and Dr Feelgood, but his most famous work was with Elvis Costello, for whom he produced five albums between 1977 and 1981. He thinks “undoubtedly” they had a mutual admiration as song writers. “I’d known him for a long time,” says Lowe. “It took me a long time to learn to call him Elvis because I knew him as Declan [MacManus]. He was a fan of the Brinsleys, that’s how I knew him, he used to come to the shows whenever we played up in the north west. We met when we were playing at the Cavern in Liverpool, or in the pub across the road. Then when I became his producer, when he signed to Stiff, to start with because I was older than him I called the shots and he did what he was told. But that arrangement soon changed and pretty soon I was turning up to work with my hat in my hand, tugging my forelock, saying, ‘Good morning, Mr Costello, what would you like to do today?’ We did manage to make some really great records together. I don’t really remember what I did to have that happen, I just used to encourage him to get on with it. But we’re still very good friends, I’m pleased to say, and speak to each other all the time. There’s no doubt he’s a fantastic talent and what a lucky fellow I was to work with somebody like that.”

For 11 years Lowe was married to the American country singer Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. Lowe once said of his then father-in-law that he was quite different to the stern, father-of-the-nation figure of popular renown. “That’s why I loved him so much,” Lowe says now. “He was sort of like me and my friends were. He lived in Nashville and I lived in London, so I didn’t seem him that often – four or five times a year, something like that – but for the first 20 minutes whenever I saw him it was almost like all the air had been sucked out of the room, he was so charismatic that I could barely speak. I suppose I affected a jolly and affable, ‘pleased to see you, dad’ kind of vibe but inside I was, ‘Oh my God, it’s John Cash, this is fantastic’, but that did subside after a while. He and June came to stay with us on a couple of occasions in our little house in Shepherds Bush, which seems incredible now, it was just a little terraced house, and the two of them they wouldn’t go out in shades and a baseball cap and tracky bottoms, if they went out they went dressed as Johnny Cash and June Carter and all the people in the street – it was a largely Irish area, actually – were thrilled and they were so nice to people, they’d stop them in the street, they were really great.

“But while he was there we used to play records, and it was just like playing records with my friends, ‘listen to this one’ and the needle not finding the groove, all that stuff, a couple of glasses of wine, it was brilliant.”

Lowe’s songs, which also include I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass and The Beast in Me, have been covered by many artists over the year. But he really hit paydirt when (What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding was covered by Curtis Stigers on the multi-million selling soundtrack to the Whitney Houston film The Bodyguard. He admits it helped keep the wolf from the door. “It couldn’t have come at a better time that particular cheque, or series of cheques, actually,” he says. “I was trying to rejig my act and sort out my personal life as well, I was in a bit of a state, like many of us get in this business, so I had to clean myself up and get myself straight, put on a new set of clothes, so to speak.

“And during that time – well I’d taken a few faltering steps – but I made a record in a style that I wanted to pursue, and I thought it was probably the best record I’d done for a while, but the people who played on it had done it pretty much for nothing and I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but when this cheque came along suddenly bingo. I was able to tour the United States with the guys that played on it, I was able to pay them, take them on the road with me in a decent bus, stay in decent hotels where we wouldn’t get our stuff stolen and also, most importantly, make another one, and with the rest of it I bought a couple of suits, took a couple of people out to dinner and it was all gone, but in doing that it starts generating business again, so that was the start of the second half of my career. I’m very grateful to Curtis, as I’ve told him on several occasions. That was a wonderful red letter day for me.”

Love Starvation is out now. Nick Lowe plays at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on June 8, Jubilee Central Church, Hull on June 14, and Pocklington Arts Centre on June 25.