As a singer, songwriter and producer, Nick Lowe was one of the key figures in the rise of the pub-rock, punk and new-wave scenes in the U.K. during the ‘70s. With a hard-edged blend of rock ‘n’ roll, soul and country, he led Brinsley Schwarz and later Rockpile, and collaborated with kindred spirits such as Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, who covered Lowe’s “(What’s so Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
In the last 15 years, he’s transformed himself into a wry purveyor of roots music and standards, a silver-haired troubadour with a wicked wit and an allegiance to the art of the song, as evidenced by his latest album, “The Old Magic” (Yep Roc). It includes “Checkout Time,” in which Lowe sounds like he’s ruminating on mortality: “I’m 61-years-old now/Lord, I never thought I’d see 30” and later wonders, “Will I be beloved and celebrated for my masterly climb/Or just another bum when it comes to checkout time?”
In an interview, Lowe – who opens Monday for Wilco at the Civic Opera House – explained that there’s more to it than just self-reflection.
Q: Parts of “The Old Magic” sound like you’re making your version of one of those winter-of-my-life albums like your late father-in-law, Johnny Cash, once did.
A: The songs aren’t really autobiographical, I do sort of just make them up. A lot of my songs are sung in first person, but it’s a character. I think of myself as an old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley hack when it comes to that. I can’t dodge that bullet on “Checkout Time,” though. That line about being 61, it just came to me and it sounded so good, I could imagine Johnny Cash singing it. But the rest of the song is a load of pretentious puffing about crossing over the Jordan. I don’t seriously mean it when I’m wondering how I’m going to be perceived after I’m gone. It’s supposed to be pompous and ridiculous. A few years ago I did a song with a similar, melancholic feel, “Where’s My Everything,” where I put something in about people having a Nick Lowe memorial day after I’m gone. This song is in that spirit – it’s not meant to be taken seriously.
Q: In the ‘70s they called you “Basher” for your ability to knock out songs. Does it get easier or more difficult to write them as you go along?
A: It definitely gets harder and harder. You are always trying to surprise yourself and do something you can’t believe you came up with. When I come up with an idea, I go into a trance and work it and work it. I imagine I’m singing a cover that I had nothing to do with. That’s when I start to think it’s possibly good. You don’t want to see your little tricks on the page. It does get tougher and tougher to please yourself. The things you know work don’t please you anymore. It’s a very strange process, and the longer I do it, the less I know how it works.
Q: You’re still writing great songs, though. Do you ever think you can sneak another hit onto the charts like you once did with “Cruel to be Kind”?
A: The music business as I knew it is completely gone now. I think the only chance I would get for that to happen is if somebody sort of newer and fresher, not quite so used, would cover one of my tunes. It would be extremely unlikely. I take great care in how my records sound. If you have ears to hear, my records sound delightful, a refreshing drink of cold water in the desert of processed pop music, but the vast majority of the public completely disagrees. They get extremely nervous hearing records like mine. It’s not relaxing for them at all. They hear this sort of homemade quality, which I really like and go out of my way to engender, but the public stays away in droves.
Q: Yet I would imagine you don’t have to work anymore since Curtis Stigers covered “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding” on the (1992) “Bodyguard” soundtrack (which has sold more than 44 million copies worldwide). What do you think of Stigers’ cover?
A: That song has been covered by so many different people: Tahitian fishermen, kids in the jungle of Namibia (laughs), there are many extremely differing versions of that song and this was just another one – I didn’t think anything of it. But after it sold about 50 million, I thought I’d better introduce myself to Curtis Stigers. I said to him, “Thank you, Curtis, for doing my song. Let me assure you, you never have to buy another dinner in London ever again.” Since then, we have become extremely close friends. I have not seen the film. I tried to see it once or twice, but I understand the song is barely in the movie. It’s more like incidental music, a mere detail.
Q: Has it allowed you to buy an island and retire in comfort?
A: Not really (laughs). But it came at the most fantastic time for me. I had been working on a plan to re-image myself, to present myself in a new way whereby I could find a new audience. It was after my career as a pop star ended in the ‘80s. I had done pretty well, but now I needed to start over because no one cared about that anymore. I started formulating a plan, where I could use the fact I was getting older to my advantage because back then there was no one knocking 40 making pop music. Yes, they were doing it in jazz, blues, country and western, but not in pop. So I tried to figure out a way to present self where I could use the fact that I was getting older as a distinct advantage. My career was in the doldrums, so I released a record in that vein (“Impossible Bird” in 1994) and – presto! -- here comes a huge windfall from “Bodyguard,” and I was able to tour the U.S. in a reasonable bus and stay at reasonable hotels and pay my guys. That movie enabled me to do that, and it allowed me to make another record. I took a couple of girlfriends out to dinner and that took care of the lot. It generates the ability to get on with your career, but it’s amazing how short of a million bucks I made off a very successful movie, and it’s odd how not very far that kind of money goes.
Q: Are there any of your older songs from your days as a “pop star” that you just abhor playing live anymore?
A: “Abhor” is probably a little strong. You do some records that were just cooked up in the studio, but they don’t really work in basic form on just acoustic guitar. “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” was a big hit (in the U.K. in 1978) that was cooked up in the studio, but on acoustic guitar it might get a clap of recognition from the audience, and then after 40 seconds they start examining their fingernails because it gets old quickly. Some songs which I wrote when I was a callow youth, I just can’t sing. I can’t pull that sentiment off. But I love doing “Cruel to be Kind.” It’s not a millstone. I’m grateful that I have one tune that nearly everybody has heard.
Q: What happened to the market for adult pop songs?
A: I knew I was going to have to be patient to find it. I lost quite a lot of my audience because I don’t “rock” anymore. I think I rock plenty. I’m more interested in rock ‘n’ roll than rock music, which is a boring semantic. I feel it’s the same music I used to do, but it’s just not screaming as loud as when I was a kid. Many of my contemporaries are condemned to repeat what they did when they had their day in the sun. But there seems to be an audience now, and a lot of my audience is a lot younger. There are a lot more women and fewer of the old guys with gray ponytails. They are still welcome -- everyone is -- but quite a lot of those old guys have dropped away and been replaced by much more attractive people (laughs).
Q: There’s a fine line between cheese and class with these adult pop standards. You could very easily become Rod Stewart. How do you manage to stay on the right side of the divide?
A: He (Rod Stewart) must know it’s just dreadful (junk). He’s made some deal with someone or something to carry on the way he has. I haven’t worked it out to that degree. There needs to be a degree of instinct. I have a little firm back in the U.K., people I tour with and they all chip in, they tell me if something is rubbish. They tell me if something isn’t working. I count myself very lucky. We’re forging a new thing in a peculiar way. It seems to be working. I suppose the final recognition is if people buy it in bucketloads. Of course, they’re not. My current record has sold more than the previous ones, which is the case with each of my records. But Lady Gaga isn’t looking over her shoulder worriedly.
Q: The key I think is that you can forge a certain atmosphere in your recordings that is sparse, with an emphasis on the lyrics and the melody and very little sugarcoating. Is that the thread that you see in all those styles of American music you’ve admired?
A: Those recordings I loved as a kid were like little cartoons. You got a very clear picture of the person singing it -- not literally, but the songs were written and constructed and produced in a way that you had to be really good to pull it off. There was a level of craftsmanship that has gone out of style. My old friend Ry Cooder always says to me we’re the last of the swing generation. I don’t feel like I’m doing something retro. I feel what I do is modern, kind of funny, but I’m doing the stuff I know. I know how that stuff goes. But I’m not a purist, I like to mix it all up. I make no secret of my love for all kinds of American music. But I love what happens to it when it goes across Atlantic. I’m not trying to take on Memphis or Nashville, to copy it, it’s just a taste for me. I love French and Italian pop, too, film music, the German take on country and western. I reference the whole lot. Pop music was all done in the 1970s and since then it’s just been regurgitated. It’s what you put in your particular stew that makes it original.
Nick Lowe opens for Wilco, 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., $36, $48, $60; ticketmaster.com.