Q&A: Nick Lowe Talks Songwriting, Being Covered by Costello and Finding Inspiration
At 62, singer/songwriter Nick Lowe can justifiably claim to have just about seen it all. From his days fronting the pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz in the '70s to his heralded production work for Elvis Costello to his fascinating, recent solo efforts, Lowe has always maintained a remarkable commitment to quality songwriting.
Of course, most folks know Lowe simply as the writer of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," a song that would foster the popular ascension of Elvis Costello. But there's much more to Lowe than any lone song. As a matter of fact, Lowe's output from 1994's The Impossible Bird to the recently issued The Old Magic, is considered his most fruitful period.
Speaking from his home in London and in anticipation of Tuesday's night performance opening for Wilco at the Music Hall at Fair Park, Lowe spoke with DC-9 about his continued evolution as a songwriter.
Your new CD is The Old Magic. Is the title a reference to returning to a familiar theme?
No, it's sort of a sporting cliché. There is no deep meaning behind it.
Your song "The Beast in Me" was used in an episode of The Sopranos. Does that make you a fixture in American pop culture?
[Laughs] Well, I hope so. That song was actually used in the very first episode of The Sopranos. It was kind of them to use the song.
It is a great song. When you write, do you have a feeling that a song is particularly solid?
Yes, I do. I wrote that song for my ex-brother in law, Johnny Cash. It took me a long time to write it, actually. I knew it was a good one, and I had to take my time with it. Finally. I finished the thing and Cash recorded it.
One article about you described you as a pivotal figure in both punk rock and new wave. Do you feel pivotal?
No, I don't really feel pivotal. Occasionally, when you get older, one of the perks is that you get to meet much younger musicians who ask you about stuff you've done and things like that. I remember doing that when I was a kid. I enjoy talking about the work I've done. It's like you throw another Stratocaster onto the fire.
What did you think when you first heard the term new wave?
I first heard the phrase in terms of the cinema. I thought it was referring to French films. I thought it was really a great idea, especially if I could worm my way into whatever it was.
What's more difficult, being a producer or a songwriter?
I think being a producer, although I stopped producing records in the 1980s. There was a seismic shift in how records were made. I couldn't keep up with it anymore. My thing was being more of a cheerleader. Then, it became all about computers. It's a more solitary job with no room for error. Some of the fun was taken out of it. Producing records is hard work. You have to have the answer all of the time. Being a performer is much easier.
How would your career have been different if you had never heard of Elvis Costello?
It would have been different, although I knew him a long time before he became Elvis Costello. The one major way it would be different is that he was a big fan of this band I was in called Brinsley Schwarz. We had a song called, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." When we broke up, that song would have gone into the dustbin along with the rest of our repertoire. When I became Costello's producer, he told me he wanted to record that song. Of course, he did, and he's the guy who really got the song all of the attention. In that respect, my career would be quite different.
Was that another song that when you first wrote it, you knew it was good?
Yes, I did. I wrote that song a long time ago, back in 1971. I always thought of it as the first original idea I ever had. Before that, I had been writing songs for a couple of years and I had been just writing my heroes' catalogs. It was very, very obvious. These were very small alterations of other people's songs. I remember the day I had the idea for that song. I was surprised and shocked that it was a really good idea. I had to tell myself not to mess that one up.
The song has been interpreted by many people, musicians as well as politicians.
I supposed people hear Elvis' version as having a political theme. He added quite a bit of animation to the song. I've heard that song covered by so many people. One of my favorite versions is done by a kid's choir in Africa. The song can sound like a prayer, depending on the context. Some people hear the song and want to punch their fists into the air. It's almost as if the song doesn't belong to me anymore, although my publisher would strongly disagree with me.
Your debut album came out in 1978 under the title Jesus of Cool. Why do you think the label in the United States changed the title to Pure Pop for Now People?
Well, we were changing titles all of the time at Stiff Records. We would release albums under one name and then withdraw them. But as hard as it is to believe, there was a time when a title like Jesus of Cool was considered so offensive. It's amazing, really.
There have been two tribute albums made of your songs. Does that validate you as a songwriter?
In a way, it does. But when I make an album, I am very picky about how the songs sound. It is sometimes odd to hear other people singing your songs. It can be a refreshing change to hear these songs sung by other people. There seems to be something about the songs when I do them that makes people nervous. That's too bad, I'm afraid. I am not a big-selling artist, so I am always surprised when someone does one of my songs. I didn't think anyone was listening to my songs.
Is your songwriting process the same as when you first started?
No, I never dreamed that I would be doing this in my 60s. As you grow older, you lose some of the snobbery that you had early on. When I was young, you would never listen to what your parents listened to, but today, kids and parents can listen to the same kind of music. When I was very young, I liked the music my parents listened to, but when I became a teenager, I rejected it. When I got older, I lost a lot of the old snobbery. It wasn't rock and roll good, everything else shit. All of that falls away and you find inspiration in all kinds of things.