Nick Lowe – Half a boy and half a man
“I like country & western, and I like soul, and I love that place where the two of them live, black and white, together. It makes sense to me.”
Nick Lowe was a tender lad of 17 when he began his recording career as a member of Kippington Lodge, the band that eventually evolved into pub-rock pioneers Brinsley Schwarz. It’s now 41 years later, and given that Lowe’s new album is titled At My Age, one can’t help but wonder: What would Nick Lowe, youth, make of Nick Lowe, elder statesman?
“Wow, that’s quite a thought,” Lowe muses. “When I was a teenager, there weren’t any sort of middle-aged rock ‘n’ roll people. I wouldn’t have actually believed it was possible.”
By the time Lowe accepted he was in the game for the long haul, he had a few notches in his belt. Between 1975 and 1985, a string of stellar singles — “And So It Goes”, “Cruel To Be Kind”, “I Knew The Bride When She Used To Rock & Roll” — had made him a moderate success on both sides of the Atlantic.
It eventually became clear that superstardom wasn’t in the cards. What he refers to as “my brief career as a pop star” began to wane, “and I started to think about what to do when it was all finished,” Lowe says. He looked around for other models to emulate.
“They were nearly all country and western artists,” recalls Lowe, 58. “These sort of people seem to be able to go on, right into old age, and get better and better.”
And so, as it turns out, has Nick Lowe. If he’d hopped in a time machine way back when and rocketed into the 21st century, would his adolescent self give the current incarnation a thumbs-up?
“I would have thought I was probably all right,” he decides, “and look upon myself fairly benignly, as a pleasant old boy who’s been through the mill and knows a couple of things.”
At My Age follows, by six years, Lowe’s last studio album, The Convincer. It was the longest interval between studio albums in his career; “that sounds shameful,” he says. Part of the hold-up was that Lowe isn’t nearly as prolific as his extensive back catalogue might suggest.
“I think about writing all the time,” he explains. “When I’m doing my shopping or driving the car. But it’s nearly all rubbish.
“And then every so often, you’ll get an idea and think, ‘Oh, now that’s quite good, nice and simple. I can deal with that.’ If a couple of them come along, accompanied by this feeling that it’s time to make a new record, then that’s it. And if the first recording session goes right, that will serve as the engine, so to speak, that drives the writing and recording of the rest of the record. That is what has happened in past.”
But not this time. Life kept getting in the way of art — “the same sort of stuff that happens to everybody: births, marriages, and deaths,” he says. So the recordings that eventually formed At My Age were eked out over an extended period. “I was recording recreationally, almost as a refuge,” Lowe explains.
He would call up his longtime band drummer Bobby Irwin, keyboard player Geraint Watkins, and guitarist Steve Donnelly and if they were available, studio time was booked. “Eventually, the time came for us to have a look at and see what we’d got,” he continues. “And we started to say, ‘Oh, there’s quite a cheerful record lurking in here.'”
At My Age does have a surprisingly good-natured character. There are peppy numbers (“The Club”, “People Change”) that recall his heyday as Dave Edmunds’ foil in Rockpile, while chugging, country-flavored numbers such as “Long Limbed Girl” and his rendition of the Charlie Feathers/Quinton Claunch number “A Man In Love” point back to his fondness for the Everly Brothers and his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash.
Lyrically, there is still plenty of Lowe’s trademark bite, particularly on “I Trained Her To Love Me”. Sung from the point of view of a despicable roue, the song is practically an inverted ’60s girl-group gem, with masculine sadism replacing teenage masochism. But where the Shangri-Las or Shirelles could put their point across by singing with unchecked abandon, Lowe struggled to craft just the right vibe.
“You’ve got to get it to sound just mean-and-sleazy enough — and rather feeble — to get the point across,” he explains. “We tried it a few times, to get the balance right, get it just unpleasant enough.”
Although this seedy gem is not strictly autobiographical, the author concedes it is rooted in real experience. “I have a certain sympathy with that character. I hate to admit it, but I do…and I know a few other people who do, too.”
Despite its overall tone of reflection, At My Age is not torn from the pages of Lowe’s diary. Far from it. “My songs are not autobiographical,” he says. “I do know what I’m talking about, what it feels like to feel rotten or happy. But, in the main, it is all made up.”
During his lengthy run of weddings and funerals, acquaintances and relations less familiar with his muse kept wondering why he didn’t reach for his guitar more often. “Friends sort of look at you reproachfully, and say, ‘C’mon, there’s a good song in this. You should be writing this down!'” he admits. “Oh my God! Can you imagine? The most awful experiences…”
“Although there is no doubt about it, if you are going through a period where you are feeling particularly blue, then it will be represented in the songs you write. But I love writing blue songs. They cheer me right up. And the older you get, the more fun it is to really ladle it on.”