Our friends at Sodajerker meet a songwriter who’s been a stalwart of the UK music scene since the early 70s
ith classic songs like I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass and Milk And Alcohol, Nick Lowe has been gainfully employed in the UK music industry for over four decades. He’s worked as a member of pub rock veterans Brinsley Schwarz and Rockpile, as a solo artist in his own right, and as a songwriter and producer for other artists including Dr Feelgood and The Rumour, and his songs have been covered by everyone from Elvis Costello to Curtis Stigers (whose version of (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding featured on 1992’s multimillion-selling The Bodyguard soundtrack).
In recent years, the former pub-rocker has adopted a mellower, more acoustic style influenced by classic Americana. Towards the end of 2013 he released Quality Street, an album of Christmas songs.
Let’s start by talking about your Christmas album, Quality Street… it’s kind of a tough thing to do well, isn’t it?
“Yes. My initial reaction was quite snobby and snotty about it when it was first suggested I should think about doing one… I didn’t think it was a very good idea. And then over the course of an afternoon, those same snobby thoughts made me change my mind and I thought, wait a minute, this is a much-maligned genre of music-making… why not have a go at it and see if you can do something that doesn’t involve chestnuts roasting on an open fire and one-horse open sleighs?
“There’s no real tradition over here of Christmas music. The last song to join the canon of Christmas songs that you hear every year was probably Fairytale Of New York. There really isn’t that tradition of people making Christmas records that there is in the United States, but there are thousands of Christmas songs you can dig out.
There are some original tracks on there as well… can you tell us a little bit about the writing of Christmas At The Airport?
“I never thought I could write a whole album of original Christmas songs, but I thought I should do at least one or two. Christmas At The Airport I wrote coming back from a show with Mavis Staples in Switzerland… I was a bit hungover and I had to hang around in this airport, and I had the idea of writing one of those oompah-loompah, ‘we’re going to Torremelinos’-type tunes that Brits love when they’re going on holiday, with this ridiculous proposition of being locked in the airport at Christmas. It’s a ridiculous idea, it would never really happen, but that was the idea I had and while I was sitting in the airport I pretty much wrote the whole thing. It’s a daft thing, but there we are.”
“I was thinking, that’s it for me being a pop star”
The album continues the theme of your last four albums, where the music’s configured to support a more laidback, crooning vocal style. What inspired you to start going in that direction?
“I think it sort of chose me, rather than me thinking right, I’m going to start crooning. There was a point where I thought, I’m getting older, I’ve got to change my act now. I felt one door closing after my brief career as a pop star, and I was looking for another to open. I’d enjoyed that period of my life but it was very exhausting as well, and when I felt the wheel turning – as it inevitably does, unless you’re Cliff Richard or Elton John or Cher or someone – I had very mixed feelings. On the one hand I thought, bang goes it all, and on the other hand I was thinking, thank God that’s over, now I can lie down in a darkened room and recover!
“And at that time I was thinking, okay that’s it for me being a pop star, but as a songwriter I felt I was just getting started. So it was time for a rethink.”
So you didn’t feel you’d really hit your stride as a songwriter back in the Brinsley Schwarz or Rockpile days?
“No I didn’t, really. You see even when I was young, I kind of wanted to be an old guy. I liked old guys’ music – blues, soul, jazz, country and western. And I always wanted to be old enough to put across emotions that were more adult – shouting my head off never really suited me. By the time I was about 40 I was ready, I thought, to do something good.”
Was Peace, Love & Understanding something of a milestone for you as a writer?
“Yes, I always say that was really the first original idea I had. Because when you start out as a songwriter, you rewrite your hero’s catalogue. And then you move on to someone else and you rewrite their catalogue, and it’s all very obvious where you’re getting it from. And then one day, when you’re rewriting your latest hero’s catalogue, you’ll take an idea from the first person’s. And then the next song will have a little bit of the latest guy’s, plus bits of the fourth, fifth and a tiny bit of the second guy’s. And hey presto, after a while you’ve got yourself a style, and you’re away.”
As a producer you were known for a very rough and ready way of working… has that informed your songwriting technique?
“I think when I was producing – because I haven’t produced another artist for quite a long time, I stopped doing it in the 80s really – yes, it was rough and ready and I’d knock them out. But I’m more considered about songwriting now, I like to let songs gestate for a little while. I don’t force the issue like I used to when I was a kid: it takes a lot of work to make a song sound like it took no work at all.”
“When I listen to my early stuff, I cringe”
You’re also know for having a great sense of humour, but can your facility for wordplay and wit ever get in the way when you’re writing?
“Yeah, I have to rein that aspect of my personality in sometimes! When I listen to my early stuff, I cringe because some of it is so over-written and over-punny, a bit too clever-clogs. Or I can hear that the idea was good but I forced it too much. That humorous aspect… unless you’re an actual comedy songwriter like Richard Stilgoe or someone, you should keep that out of rock & roll, I think.”
Another song we wanted to talk about was I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass, which has so many musical hooks in it. Was that born out of a studio jam session?
“Yes, in fact that’s probably the one and only time when I’ve gone in with a very vague idea and then we’ve worked it out in the studio. Normally that never works – you might think it does at the time but it never really sustains. It certainly never worked again for me! But in that case I had this vague notion and we all worked it out together – which is why the bass player and drummer are credited and I should really have credited Bob Andrews, the piano player, as well. Because they all really helped work the song out, it was a real collaborative effort.”
Your song The Beast In Me was recorded by your late father-in-law, Johnny Cash… did you actually write it with him in mind?
“Yes I did. It was during that period from the mid-70s up until he started working with Rick Rubin, which was probably the lowest part of his career. He was doing this show at Wembley, which was a big family affair… he wasn’t a well man and he was working his arse off to keep this thing afloat. And I had this idea for a song and Carlene told him about it, and he said, ‘I’ll come round and hear it on the way to Wembley,’ and he turned up with his whole entourage at our house. And I played him the song, which was incredibly embarassing because it wasn’t really ready yet. And he said to me, it’s not right but it’s a really good idea… and every time I’d see him after that he’d always ask me, ‘How’s The Beast In Me coming on?’ and every time he asked, I’d kind of mentally take it out of the box and look at it again.
“And finally, after he did a show at the Royal Albert Hall and asked me about it again, I went home and finished it! And then I sent it to him, and I didn’t hear anything, and then my stepdaughter went to stay at his house in Jamaica and she told me, Grampa’s singing your song to everybody… and the next thing I knew, it came out on the American Recordings. I was really thrilled, because it is a good song and he was a brilliant bloke. I really loved him.”
With over 50 episodes under their belt, internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker. Established last year by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn and Suzanne Vega among many others.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 45-minute interview with Nick Lowe – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.