Having established the anti-glam-rock ‘pub rock’ scene, singer-songwriter Nick Lowe is a British institution. Robert Leemingtalks to the craftsman about the ancient art of songwriting, the evolution of his songs and the stories he tells through them.
Nick Lowe used to be a pop star, but now he’s a songwriter, fully-fledged, paid up and probably Britain’s best. If this country had a Brill Building with songwriters banging out hits on old oak pianos in every room, then Nick Lowe would occupy the top floor, buzzing in and out minions and underlings seeking song writing advice, while sitting in an understated office, filled with beer mats and country records.
“The kind of song writing I do,” he says, “is akin to knowing how to thatch a roof or build a dry stone wall, it’s like an old craft.” Of this particularly ancient vocation Nick Lowe is an old hand, having just released The Old Magic, an album of wistfully romantic sketches imbued with a deep sense of the blues, his fifth critically acclaimed album in a row.
Lowe, now 62, cuts a rakishly elegant figure when you meet him face to face, sporting a full head of white hair and thick black glasses. He resembles Buddy Holly, had he lived to mellow in Brentford and dodged the plane crash in order to totter into antiquity.
His new album is a master class in “old fashioned” verse, chorus, bridge, style song writing, a process he finds endlessly enthralling and fascinating.“You would think after a few years of doing it would get the hang of it, but actually song writing gets more and more mysterious,” Nick says, describing the process as more ethereal than physical.
He has two ways of articulating the evolution of a song to interested parties, one involves “a bloke,” in his words, a shadowy imaginary figure, a perfect songwriter, who arrives at Nick’s door every now and again to show him a couple of songs before disappearing into the night, “and they are the really good tunes,” he adds, and then if he doesn’t come back for a while, “well, you learn to do a pretty good impersonation.”
“I was absolutely buggered, I was alcoholic pretty much, completely burnt out.”
One cannot avoid detecting a note of modesty in Nick’s explanation, and that instead a good song is actually the product of a lot of his hard work. “I tend to work and work at my songs,” he says later, “until they sound like I’ve had nothing to do with them at all.” The brilliant songs, of which he has had his fair share, “What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding” being but one, may appear out of thin air in a moment of inspiration, but the work-horse numbers are the products of meticulous crafting, “a new song can be played in any style, fast or slow, it can take any kind of abuse when you’ve got it down solid and the words mean something, it’ll be totally fireproof,” he adds.Nick, unusually for a songwriter, cannot be described as “confessional” in his lyrical style, “I’m not a ‘putting one’s diary to music’ guy at all,” he says, with a smile, in fact he hardly ever writes about himself, but instead creates character portraits of hapless foils losing in love and life.
In a song on the new album, “Stoplight Roses” he depicts a man, who, in need of some article of apology for a wronged loved one, opts to purchase some posies from a gentlemen plying junk on motorists at a set of traffic lights, the lesson being for potential scoundrels, that a token of love and adulation should not be cheaply found.After years playing in the rough Camden gin palaces to an almost “Hogarthian” audience, and giving birth to the famous “Pub Rock” scene which was, in all its boisterous and crude glory, the antithesis of glam rock, Nick had a successful, if lightweight, pop career, with songs such as “I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock ‘n’ Roll,” becoming particularly endearing in 1985. “I never really took it that seriously at the time,” he says, “I thought, well, I’ll have a bit of fun here, and that’s really what I did, I had too much fun.” Nick’s years as a record producer had taught him that all pop careers have to end eventually, yet when his did he was still unprepared. “I was absolutely buggered, I was alcoholic pretty much, completely burnt out, my marriage hadn’t sort of broken up as disappeared, everything was in disarray.”
His reaction was to take a year out to reconfigure himself and re-evaluate his life and career. “I started to think about how I could re-present myself, write myself, produce myself, record myself and use the fact that I was getting older to my advantage, to the extent that people would think ‘I just can’t wait to be as old as Nick Lowe,’ I wanted to imbue my thing with some lived-in quality, but make it hip enough to attract a younger audience, without having to get down with the kids and squeeze myself into tight jeans.”The result was the “Brentford Trilogy”, three albums recorded between 1994 and 2001 in church halls and pubs amid aerobics classes and scout meetings, which re-launched Lowe as a melancholy balladeer,his songs lived-in, tinged with American country music and inspired by the passing of time and romantic heartbreak. The albums did not sell in huge quantities,but the critics and those in on his new style, raved.
It is instead your view of love which changes as one gets older, he says, and Nick, in his attempt to record something “really good” and age with taste, has become expert in expressing this. He crafts songs like a modern day stonemason, creating perfection out of an antique form, a dying form, a form which, he predicts, “no one is going to have any interest or use for in about fifty years time, not song writing the way I understand it anyway.” A worrying thought and a talent to treasure while it lasts.