Photo by Dan Burn-Forti
It wouldn’t be a particular exaggeration to say that Nick Lowe has lived and done enough for three perfectly good lives. Certainly three markedly different careers.
There was the permanently casual bass-playing songwriter in a band once unfairly seen merely as a preamble to the bigger moments of the 1970s (Brinsley Schwartz, who recorded the original (What’s So Funny About) Peace Love And Understanding, later made much more famous by Elvis Costello).
This was followed by almost a decade as a pop star of drolly energetic manner (I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass, Cruel To Be Kind, So It Goes, Time Wounds All Heels, All Men Are Liars) simultaneously operating as the slightly older/not always more sensible producer to the cream of the New Wave (the aforementioned Costello, Pretenders, The Damned).
Then, after what you might call a hiatus, a late in life resurgence as a witty chronicler of adulthood in songs built on classic principles and sung in the manner of someone torn between being Roy Orbison, Perry Como, and a rockabilly balladeer.
And that’s before we even before we get to the yarns he could tell of Johnny Cash (one-time father-in-law), the early days of Stiff Records, touring America at the high and low end, sessions with Costello and the Attractions, squiring Margot Kidder, and more, going right back to a childhood on various airforce bases in the UK and Europe.
Jeez, maybe calling his first solo album Jesus Of Cool was merely stating the truth. If we were being grumpy in our far less successful or interesting lives, we could say it’s outrageous and more than one man deserves. And Lowe wouldn’t disagree.
“I think you’re right, and I don’t want to come over as a bore about this. I know I’ve had some fantastic chances and opportunities, maybe that’s the reason I am rather embarrassed about it,” he says amiably, for Lowe is nothing if not charming and accommodating. Even accommodating things he suspect are not true.
“I have sat at dinner parties, or in the pub, and somebody has said ‘oh do you remember that time we went to so-and-so?’ and I’ve nodded, thinking ‘when was that? Go on.’ And they have enlarged on this story about me, which I have absolutely no recollection of and sometimes I’m certain it hadn’t happened. But it’s a really great story and I see no reason why I should interfere with it.”
Not that he is averse to spinning a yarn or two himself, as anyone who has seen him drop some wry tales on stage between songs could attest. Or as some of us will see when he tours Australia in early 2020.
“I’ve got a few anecdotes myself which are fairly well honed, fairly well told, and we all know what happens with that: if you tell it enough times, suddenly reality starts to disappear, starts to get glossed up and ‘improved’,” says Lowe. “Not that long ago I was telling one of my most polished anecdotes and in the middle of it I thought, ‘wait a minute, I don’t think any of this bloody happened. I think I’ve made the whole thing up’. So I exist in this netherworld, but there it is.”
Netherworld schmetherworld. One of the advantages of being of a more advanced age than the whippersnappers who might be listening is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. Who is going to care or contradict given half the people who know are not alive anymore, and the other half probably can’t hear?
“Well you make a compelling point,” says Lowe, chuckling.
At the truthful end of things, one of the most interesting aspects of Lowe’s 70 years is the relatively late-in-life realisation of what he is most comfortable doing and what kind of musician he is. It’s a realisation that’s been accompanied by abandoning any need to be something else - pop star, wily drink-sodden pun-master, lad about town - and just be that relaxed music fan and songwriter.
That dawning self-awareness, which you might place somewhere around the early 1990s shortly before a run of classy, wonderful albums - The Impossible Bird, Dig My Mood, The Convincer, At My Age and The Old Magic - was the turning point for him wasn’t it?
“I think so, actually,” he says, remembering a story about how Johnny Cash told him once: ‘Nick, the secret to it all is be yourself’, a line which landed a dropped bass amp at the time. “I was really disappointed with this, thinking ‘Johnny Cash, is that the best you can do? Be yourself?’ That’s what every clapped-out actor or pop singer says.
“But as I got older myself, I thought, now I do get it. It’s much easier if you don’t hide behind some persona, which is what you do when you’re a kid and think you’re not interesting enough. Really, it’s so hard to keep that up that you might as well just put that away and embrace yourself, warts and all.”
How did understanding that, change how he wrote and how he performed?
“It definitely does, definitely, definitely does,” he says in what turns out to be effectively a long pause as he mulls the question over before diving into a surprising spin on a familiar answer from a songwriter, that they are merely a “conduit” for something greater.
“Certainly with the writing I found that you don’t feel the necessity to put your own spin on it; it’s more of a listening thing,” says Lowe. “When I listen to my early records - which is extremely rare, may I say, but occasionally they might play one on the radio - and I listen to it through the cracks in my fingers I think ‘oh, why did you do that? Not only did you do that but now you’re doing it again’.
“And that’s because I can tell I had a good idea and I just wanted to finish it quickly and ‘I’ wrote the rest of it and the stuff ‘I’ write is really piss-poor.”
You could practically see those inverted commas around I in that last sentence in flashing lights, so adamant is he. Even with his modesty though, that’s some weird-arse self-disparagement. But it’s less cerebral than that.
“The stuff I like is when I go into a sort of a trance and it’s almost like I’m learning a cover song, a song written by somebody else and you follow an instinct and learn it like you did Rock Around The Clock or Blue Suede Shoes from the radio, as I did when I was a kid. And you do that while you’re driving around or going to the supermarket or picking the kid up from football, listening to this thing until suddenly it’s as if you have learnt it.
“The opposite applies to me as well. When I hear a song I really like and think, man I could do that, I work away at it and work away and work away until I start to believe that I wrote it. And it winds up in the same place.”
Lowe readily admits that “this is an old geezer’s view of writing a pop song. It’s quite different from a kid’s idea of it”. So, given the relative simplicity of his albums in the past 25 years, lyrically and musically – which is not the same thing as saying dumb by the way, for they’ve all sounded casually sophisticated - is part of this solution a matter of not trying to be clever, not needing to show a listener how smart you are?
“Oh, definitely, definitely yes: thinking up a witty line but being able to say it’s much better without the witty line, as a matter of fact,” he says. “A bad rhyme is much better than your clever witty rhyme that’s so witty it makes me feel a bit sick.
“Being able to know that something that apparently isn’t as shiny and glittery works much much better, comes along with the passing years.”
As someone who admitted that in his successful youth – as distinct from his prime, which many including Lowe himself would argue has been running the past few decades – he actively avoided thinking about how and why he did things, there’s an interesting experience happening with him at the moment.
Photo by Jim Herrington
On this coming Australian tour he is being backed by the masked talent of twangin’ surfing rockabilly instrumental quartet Los Straitjackets, who have played with him for several years now, including recording an album of interpretations of his songs and backing him on his recent Tokyo Boy EP.
What has working with them shown him about the songs? How differently does he see those songs through the lens of Los Straitjackets?
“That’s been quite an eye-opener. These guys are really great musicians. They wear masks and all that sort of stuff and it makes people think one way about them, but in fact they make what they do seem easy when it’s not,” Lowe says. “When we first got together, they dutifully learned up my records and it didn’t take very long at all, half an hour or something in the rehearsal room, before one of us said, look we shouldn’t do it like this. We should just learn the chords and play the songs our way rather than imitate a record. That’s when it clicked into place.”
For those of us who haven’t seen them on stage together, there is still hope that Lowe would be wearing a mask too. But it’s only a metaphoric one. After all, does Lowe look like someone who’d match a mask to one of his pin-sharp suits? Speaking of which, where does he get his suits? Pretty sure it’s not – oh yes, I’m going there – at Lowes.
“I’ve had all sorts of brushes with tailors, including a quite expensive dalliance in Savile Row in my time and I’ve made a few expensive mistakes. But nowadays, my wife, and I, I suppose, work for a British designer called Margaret Howell and I love her clothes.
“I’d never be able to afford as many without the hefty discount but I’m also the music consultant - they hire me! - twice a year, when they have the new collection fashion shows. It’s a pretty good fee and I invest it back into buying her wonderful clothes.”
That is not just a gentleman’s solution, but let’s face it, a perfect example of how a keen and experienced eye can find an excellent lurk.
“Oh yes,” he laughs. “It’s a fine wrinkle.”
Nick Lowe’s Quality Rock & Roll Revue starring Los Straightjackets plays: Enmore Theatre, Sydney, February 16; Forum Theatre, Melbourne, February 18; The Tivoli, Brisbane, February 19; Astor Theatre, Perth, February 21; The Gov, Adelaide, February 23