Q&A: Nick Lowe on Dying Arts and Second Acts
English songwriter tells SPIN about reinventing himself and knowing when it's time to call it quits
This week, Nick Lowe reunites with Wilco for another leg of American dates in support of his latest album, The Old Magic, his first full-length since 2007’s At My Age. Magic is a boutique pop offering that finds the pub-rock pioneer playing with far smoother, gentler textures than those that defined much of his ’70s and ’80s heyday. But there’s a great deal of mischief to be heard, too. It comes, after all, from a guy they once called “Basher.” SPIN caught up with the 62-year-old songwriter to chat about the difference between Tom Waits and Chuck Berry and his newfound female audience.
Having been a pop star and produced the records you did in the ’70s, is there any overwhelming sense of your own legacy when you’re sitting down to write another album?
No, I must say there isn’t. It’s so hard to write a simple two-and-half minute song that if you saddle yourself with any other extraneous shit, then you really have had it. With my songwriting process, I try to remove myself from the equation as much as I can. I have to wait for some sort of inspiration. Writing songs is sort of a dying craft; I think in 20 or 30 years it’ll be gone.
At one time, classical music was a popular art form. But, people’s tastes change and I don’t think that people can be kind of bothered to write songs. It’s quite tricky. Songwriting is a bit like knowing how to thatch a roof or make one of these stone walls you see in the country that are just made of stones without any cement holding ‘em up. It’s like a country craft and I don’t think people will have any use for it in a few years time. And I’m not whining about it, you know, it’s just sort of the way it goes. It’s here and then the human race is sort of done with it.
What do you see taking its place?
It’s getting so much easier to make a pretty good sounding record now in your bedroom. So pretty good is the new shit. And there is sort of a tsunami of pretty good that we’re in at the moment because everyone can do it themselves.
How much do you follow what’s happening with young up-and-coming songwriters?
I don’t, really. I know it’s nothing to be proud of, but I really only kind of listen to dead people’s music, because I don’t know where to find the good stuff. I’ve sort of given up looking because I just can’t find anything that’s for me. You’re not supposed to be doing it at 63 years old. So I don’t really. I’m doing my thing, trying to make as many hits as I can and not try and interfere with anybody else.
In a song like “Sensitive Man,” how much of you are we hearing in those words?
Oh, I don’t write autobiographical stuff. I write a lot of songs with “I,” the first person, but the characters are made up. But I know what I’m talking about, I know how it feels to feel abused and used and have your heart broken and to feel happy, all those human emotions. I’m sort of a hack really. An old-fashioned hack, Tin Pan Alley guy really. I just make it up.
It seems as though so much of this record has a tenderness to it, something that seems at odds with how you made your way in the ’70s and the feel of Born Fighters.
When my time as a pop star in the ’70s finished, I had quite mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was quite sorry I wasn’t able to be a source of tremendous attraction to lots of exotic-looking woman who wanted to go out with me purely because I’d been on the TV or had my face grinning out of the pages of the pop press — all the frivolities that come with being famous. But on the other hand, I was fairly seriously ill. Mentally and physically, I’d had it, so I was glad that I could stop. When I sort of recovered a bit, I started to think about my situation and I realized that although I’d done pretty well, here I was, it was all over, I was in my mid-30s. I’d produced a few records, I had a few hits myself and I’d made a bit of money. So I thought, “Why is it that I’ve done pretty well here and I should sort of go into civilian life without any complaint? I don’t think I’ve done anything that’s any good yet.”
So I started wondering how I could sort of, re-present myself, write for myself, in a business that had no interest at that time — I’m talking about the sort of early to mid ’80s — in anyone approaching 40, especially if they’d had a go already. How I could use the fact of getting older as an actual advantage and how would it actually improve what I was doing, rather than being embarrassed or condemned forever to go round the circuit doing what I did in the ’70s, jumping up and down like a kid, which a lot of people have to do. I knew it was going to take a few years. I know what I do is not for everybody but I’m starting to see it begin to work. My audience has changed. There are a lot more young people and a lot more women now. I used to have an exclusively all male audience, which I don’t anymore. I’m lucky enough to still be making records that are pretty well received and they sell okay, you know? Adele isn’t looking over her shoulder, worrying about me coming up on the outside, but they do pretty good.
Why is it that you think that you’re seeing far more women in your audience?
I think because I can put sort of tenderness in my songs. I suppose I’ve reached an age when I can put that stuff in that song and not sound wet, you know, like a bit of a pussy.
At the same time, there’s this idea that aging, successful artists become comfortable in way that only makes for soft, some might say less potent work.
And music isn’t as important as it once was to some people, and to Neil Young it clearly is, you know. Tom Waits, too, for instance. Then you have some people that I love, I really love them like Chuck Berry and B.B. King who are just past it, they’re still out there on the circuit. You can’t blame ‘em, they have to pay the rent like everybody else, but I wouldn’t want to go and see them now because they actually can’t do it anymore. Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones can. Do you see the difference I’m trying to make? There’s sort of three ages of pop right there. The ones who can’t actually do it, the ones that can but they’re not saying anything anymore, and there’s other people that are still trying to do something which is interesting and might not be for everybody. You know I’m not going for a huge audience, it’s impossible for me to get one because my records sound too homemade and too kind of creaky to have a big audience. It’s like I’m not trying to make an Aston Martin here.
R.E.M. broke up a little while ago and some people have said they could have done that much earlier than they did, but that there was no one there who told them that they should have. How do you feel about that idea of knowing when to stop or when to continue?
Well, it’s a tough one, but it’s very tempting. I don’t know Michael but I know the other fellas and I went to see them in London last summer. They were really good and they played at a huge rugby stadium, which was packed. I supposed if you’re so financially successful and everything is working, it must be very difficult to say, “Why do we want to break this up again?” With the bands I’ve been in, there comes a time when the thought of going to make a record with these guys or climbing into a van or getting on a plane and flying to some festival or something in Finland just fills you with despair. It’s not that you hate them, but what happens when you get together is just gone, it’s void, and I think you can probably ignore that a whole lot easier if you’re playing to 30,000 people all going mad and you have a big catalog of solid gold hits. You can probably avoid that. When you’re a solo act you’re much more governed by whether or not you have arthritis or not or your voice is gone or you’re just too knackered to stand up on the stage for an hour and a half. Those sorts of things will tell you it’s time to quit. Or if you can’t bear the thought of sitting in economy after you’ve had a few years of having your ass in a wide seat. You know, suddenly you see yourself in economy more and more, and that will probably tell you, “All right, time to put this away.”
But when you say that songcraft is dying, how much of that do you think comes from hearing things as a songwriter and hearing things as a producer?
I think they’re inextricably bound. If you do your homework ahead of time, a real good song, it’s pretty hard to fuck it up. You can do it many different ways, fast, slow, take away the drums, do it with only drums, no bass, soft voices, any idea you can, a good song will take you. But, I still have my ear to the ground, and you start to realize that there’s nothing new. In the ’70s when punk came along I thought, “Well this is it. This is when it starts to eat itself.” Old was now new. It’s all recycled, it doesn’t matter what it is. Radiohead is the new Pink Floyd, for example. I think that each generation has it’s own version of something that went before and they call it new, but it ain’t really, it’s the same old stuff with a few new foot pedals to make it sound a little bit different, but it’s the same old guff. Yes, I supposed I’m sounding like I’m kind of suicidal here, but I promise you I’m not. I’m waffling on holding court, but anyway, here we are.