This interview was originally broadcast on September 15, 2011.
Nick Lowe's songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke and Diana Ross, to name just a few. But the English singer-songwriter, who wrote the hits "Cruel to Be Kind" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," doesn't only write songs. He's also recorded quite a few critically acclaimed pop albums of his own.
On Fresh Air, Lowe joins Terry Gross for an in-studio interview and performance featuring several songs from his 13th solo album, The Old Magic.
On Writing His Songs
"I'm not an autobiographical writer, really. I'm an old-fashioned hack. I do actually make it up. But I know what I'm singing about. I know what it means to have your heart broken and feel blue and feel happy and overexcited and all those sort of things. But the [songs] are characters I've made up and put into situations."
"It's a funny thing when somebody covers your songs, though I'm extremely happy when anybody does it, of course, because I'm a professional songwriter. But sometimes, it's disappointing when people do it, because they do it too much like my version. And I always like when people take it somewhere else."
On Going Mainstream
"Because of the way I like my records to sound, I will never be a mainstream artist. Whereas some people are delighted by the homemade quality of my records, other people feel kind of nervous. Because they've been trained to hear thoughtless recordings, because most of them are made on computers and they don't have any mistakes on them unless they're really by design. Whereas I record with real musicians in a recording studio; I go out of my way to try and get an atmosphere where you can hear humans have had something to do with it. I don't want to sound like I'm a Luddite, because I know there are great records made in the modern way. But this is the way that suits me, and I think it sounds really good."
On Buddy Holly
"I had an older sister who ... who used to bring the records home. She had a real taste for Pat Boone singing. But Buddy Holly, when she brought that home, I got it straight away. There were all sorts of reasons why he was very popular in the U.K. One of them was the fact that he looked like the way he did. People really liked that he had glasses and that he was kind of geeky. And the other thing was, I always think of him as the first kind of rock 'n' roll fan who made records. There's a picture of him at a record store waiting to get Elvis Presley's autograph. And I think that's really important. He's like the first guy who was just after the first wave, but his songs really were timeless."
"I knew I wasn't going to be one of those people like Elton John or Cher or Neil Diamond, whose careers just span the decades in pop. I knew I wasn't one of those people. And I knew the end was coming. ... Even so, when it did come, I had very mixed feelings. I was sorry to see it go. You know the public has gotten fed up with you and moved on. On the other hand, it had made me ill. It had made me completely exhausted and washed out. So I was relieved on one hand, so I could lie low."
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Songwriter, singer and guitarist Nick Lowe has a lot of fans at FRESH AIR. You can tell by the number of times we've had him on our show. His latest album, "The Old Magic," is so good we wanted him to perform some of the songs from it in our studio. To help celebrate Thanksgiving, we're going to listen back to that performance and interview, which we first broadcast last September.
Nick Lowe is best known for writing "Cruel to Be Kind," and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding." Johnny Cash, Lowe's former father-in-law, recorded Lowe's song "The Beast in Me." In the '70s, Lowe performed with the British pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz and the band Rockpile. He produced Elvis Costello's early albums.
Nick Lowe, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's always such a treat when you come and perform, and I love the new album, and I'm delighted you're going to be playing some songs from it. So let's start with the opening song from the new album with you performing it in our studio.
The song is called "Stoplight Roses," and let me start by saying this is an expression I'm totally unfamiliar with, even though I know the guys who sell the roses in the cellophane at the intersection. But I never heard that term before. Did you make that up, or is that a term?
NICK LOWE: I made it up, in fact, because I had the idea for the song, and we don't have - we don't call them stoplights in the U.K. We call them traffic lights more. And traffic light didn't seem right. I didn't know what to call these roses, you know, that we're all familiar with, but traffic light roses didn't sing very well. Also, you can buy them in the U.K. in gas stations, again as you call them, we call them garages.
And where you actually pump the gas is called a forecourt in the U.K., and forecourt roses didn't sound right, either. So I thought, well, wait a minute, stoplight roses, that sounds like - it rolls off the tongue.
GROSS: It does.
LOWE: And everyone just sort of knows what it means.
GROSS: Great. Well, do the song. It's a great song.
LOWE: Oh, thank you, okay.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOPLIGHT ROSES")
LOWE: (Singing) You've practiced and rehearsed it, but in your heart you know it's too late. Experience should tell you never get your story too straight. You'd better steel yourself and prepare for some blues to descend 'cuz you've broken something this time, stoplight roses can't mend.
(Singing) You've dusted off your shame face in the mirror behind the bathroom door. That little-boy lost look that used to work so well doesn't anymore. If you believe your same-old used-to-be will see you through, you'll last about as long as stoplight roses do.
(Singing) Stoplight roses in their said array. Love's promise in cellophane, lace or dead giveaway. You'll need time to devise a stylish plan, and you'll do it driving over to the stoplight roses man. If you believe your same-old used-to-be will see you through, you'll last about as long as stoplight roses do.
GROSS: That's such a nice song. So we talked a little bit about that phrase, stoplight roses, and how you came up with it. But how did the idea for the song come to you?
LOWE: Well, I was at a traffic light one day and was approached by someone, and I was struck by how - they had a huge armful of these things, and I was struck by how they all looked the same. And we all know that they're all forced, and they're all grown in somewhere or other tulip field the size of Delaware somewhere or other. And they're all forced, you know, so they don't smell of anything.
And I was struck by - if you were going to give somebody some flowers by way of apologizing for something or for any of the reasons that you give people flowers, and you gave them a bunch of those, it's a real insult.
The opposite would happen.
GROSS: Like you didn't even make a trip to a florist, you stopped at a red light, and some guy approached you with these flowers.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOWE: Yes quite, quite. I mean, I'd be really - I'd be really hacked off if somebody gave me a bunch of those. You know, sorry about the other night, you know or I'd figure they were joking, you know. So I thought this was a good idea for a song, you know, for somebody who's been able to get away with murder, time after time, you know, and you say - and the song is sort of saying, well, not this time, pal. You know, you won't be able to get away with is just by handing over some of those.
GROSS: You have a really nice line, it's love's promise in cellophane, lace or dead giveaway. Love's promise in cellophane lace, very nice.
LOWE: Well, that's very kind of you, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: So the mood of that song and of many of your original songs on this new album, is so blue, and there's so many kind of ended relationships, fading relationships. I was hoping you were still married, you know, when I was listening to this CD, honestly. I hope he's okay.
LOWE: Well, that's kind of you, but no, no, I am. But as I think I've said to you - and very happily so, thank you. But...
LOWE: But as I think I've said to you before, I don't really put my - I'm not an autobiographical writer, really. I'm an old-fashioned hack.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOWE: You know, I do actually just make it up. But the older you get - I mean, I know what I'm singing about. You know, I know what it feels like to feel blue and to have your heart broken and to feel happy and overexcited and all those sort of things. So I do know what I'm talking about, you know, when I - but the situations are characters I've made up and put into situations.
And I think the older you get, it's more fun to sing about frailties and people, you know, making mistakes and putting their foot in it and things. That's why I like a lot of French films, for instance, because nothing much happens except the drama is all generally at some dinner party when someone has too much to drink or something, you know, and starts spilling the beans and saying things that they're not supposed to say.
I think that's much more interesting than - you know, where I've got to the age now when I think that's much more interesting than a car chase, you know. And so it is with songwriting, as well. I think they're much more interesting songs. But it's hard to write a happy song, as well.
GROSS: Well, my guest is Nick Lowe, and he's performing some songs for us from his new album "The Old Magic." And I'm going to ask you to do another song that made me worry about you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Unnecessarily, as you said, and worry about the state of your marriage, because this is another song about a relationship breaking up. It's called "House For Sale," really again another really beautiful song. Would you perform it for us?
LOWE: Yes, sure.
GROSS: Is there a story behind it you'd like to tell - behind writing it?
LOWE: Not really, no. This really is - I was walking along the street and saw a sign saying house for sale, and it says - those three words, you know, you see them all the time, house for sale. And I thought: I wonder if anyone's ever written a song called "House For Sale." It's so simple, and yet it's got a great scope for a little song about why someone would sell their house. Yes, I didn't - there's no hidden meaning in this one at all, really.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE FOR SALE)
LOWE: (Singing) House for sale, I'm moving out. I'm moving on. This bird has flown. House for sale. I'll tell you where to redirect my mail. House for sale, take a look inside. This is where love once did reside. But now it's gone, and that's the reason I'll be traveling on.
(Singing) Well, the roof's given in to the weather, and the windows rattle and moan. Paint is peeling, cracks in the ceiling. Whatever's happened to my happy home? House for sale, I've had enough. I'll send a van to get my stuff. House for sale, I'm leaving like I'm getting out of jail.
(Singing) The stairs are alarmingly shaky, and the carpet threadbare and worn. Fence needs mending, garden needs tending. How soon it's become overgrown. Oh, house for sale. I've had enough. I'll send a van to get my stuff. House for sale, I'm leaving like I'm getting out of jail. I'm leaving like I'm getting out of jail. House for sale. I'm talking to you because with time, care, cash, peace, love and understanding it can be as good as new. House for sale, house for sale.
GROSS: That's Nick Lowe in our studio performing a song that's on his new album, which is called "The Old Magic." Love the way you get in peace, love and understanding at the end of that, very sneaky.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOWE: Well, I'll try everything.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: As you know, one of Nick Lowe's most famous songs is "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." We're going to take a short break, and then he'll perform some songs for us and talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is songwriter, singer, guitarist Nick Lowe. He has a new album called "The Old Magic." I want to - although you're playing songs from your new album, and some other songs, as well, I want to actually play a track from the album because I want people to hear the production, which is so good. And you're a record producer, as well as a songwriter and performer, and you produced Elvis Costello's, what, first five albums. Do I have that right?
LOWE: Yes, I think so.
GROSS: And the production on this album is really good. The arrangements are really good. So I thought I'd choose something that I think shows that off pretty well, and the song is called "Checkout Time," and this is again to change up the pace a little bit. This is a livelier song, although it's a song that has something to do with death.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So talk about writing this song, and then we'll talk about the production.
LOWE: Well, I was sort of idly watching the TV one day, and the melody came into my head. I just had - holding a guitar and playing a few chords, as sometimes quite often happens. And I came up with the tune, and I sort of heard Johnny Cash in my head saying I'm 61 years old now, I never thought I'd see 30.
And it sounds - as I said earlier on, I'm not really an autobiographical songwriter, and that is a pretty autobiographic thing to say. But I thought it was so sort of funny, really, because I don't think it's a very serious song, you know, even though it is about death.
GROSS: But you just said it's autobiographical. So you didn't think you'd live to see 30?
LOWE: Yeah, I think there were times, you know, that - when you're - I might be in any kind of walk of life, but when you were young, and especially if you were in, as I was, in rock-'n'-roll bands in the 1970s, when everybody seemed to be very excited about everything, it was - there were quite a lot of opportunities for disaster to befall a lusty young man. You know, climbing out of windows and along the - I mean, I remember climbing out of a hotel window, you know, to surprise someone who was in the room next door, you know, sort of five or six stories up.
GROSS: Were you high or just eager?
LOWE: High is your word, Terry. I will just say - you know, I think eager is probably good.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOWE: Yeah, I was just mad, you know, like - well, not mad, but yes, eager. Thank you for that.
GROSS: So okay, you mentioned you heard Johnny Cash singing this. I was going to suggest Johnny Cash, because this is a very Cash recording kind of bass guitar sound on this.
GROSS: But, as well as organ. So did you do the arrangement for this or have input into the arrangement for this recording?
LOWE: Yes, I suppose that's my job. It's very nice of you to say how much you like the production and the sound and things like that. But I have a lot of help. You know, the guys I play with are - I've played with them quite a long time, and it's very much a sort of cooperative effort. And they're not just hired session men. You know, they are into the - my trip, you know, and the way I take great care in making my records sound a certain way.
And I know it's not to everyone's taste. I mean, I really - it's - I wish it were otherwise, but because of the way I like my records to sound, I will never be a mainstream artist. Because whereas some people are delighted by the sort of homemade quality of my records, other people - it makes most people feel kind of nervous, because they're - they've been trained to hear faultless recordings because most of them are made on computers, and they don't have any mistakes on them unless they're there, really, by design.
Whereas I, because I record with real musicians in a recording studio, I go out of my way to try and get an atmosphere where you can tell that human beings have had something to do with it.
Now, you know, I don't want to sound like I'm a Luddite, you know, I know there's great records that are made in the modern way, you know. So I'm not saying oh, my way, or nothing else will do, definitely not. But this is the way that suits me, and I think that it sounds really good. But I know that most people don't agree.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Well, I want to give our listeners a chance to hear this track. So this is called "Checkout Time," and this is from Nick Lowe's new album, "The Old Magic."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHECKOUT TIME")
LOWE: (Singing) I'm 61 years old now, lord I never thought I'd see 30. And though I know this road is still some way to go, I can't help thinking on will I be beloved and celebrated for my masterly climb or just another bum when it comes to checkout time.
(Singing) I'm fearful my chances are crossing over Jordan into glory, maybe compromised by the pies I've had my fingers in. Must I be condemned, forever damned for some long-forgotten crime, or singing "Rock of Ages" with the angels soon after checkout time?
GROSS: That's Nick Lowe from his new album, "The Old Magic," and the song is called "Checkout Time." Are you worried about your legacy? You said the song is kind of autobiographic, unlike many of your songs.
LOWE: No, I'm not - no, I don't really, you know, waste too much time thinking about that. It's sort of - it's sort of pompous. There's lines in it about crossing over Jordan into glory and things like that, which I think are sort of - well, they're really fun to sing, those kind of gospel lyrics, you know, but I don't really believe that at all. I just like singing it.
GROSS: Nick Lowe will be back in the second half of the show. His new album is called "The Old Magic." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of the performance we recorded with songwriter, singer and guitarist Nick Lowe. Lowe has been performing since the '70s, when he was with the bands Brinsley Schwarz and Rockpile. He's best known for the songs "Cruel to Be Kind," which was a hit for him, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," which was made famous by Elvis Costello, and "The Beast in Me," which Lowe's former father-in-law, Johnny Cash, recorded. Lowe's interview and performance were first broadcast on FRESH AIR last September when his latest album "The Old Magic" was released.
So what came first in your life, the desire to perform or the desire to write songs?
LOWE: Oh, to perform, I think. I was a terrible show-off as a child, and my mum would sort of wheel me – my parents were both very sociable, you know, and used to throw quite a lot of parties and I was sort of wheeled out, you know, at quite in early age, to do my latest party piece, you know, and I was very pleased, you know, when that happened. So I was...
GROSS: Was that guitar or piano?
LOWE: Yeah. With guitar. No, I can't play the piano, unfortunately.
GROSS: Oh, okay.
LOWE: So yes, I was wheeled out to do my latest Lonnie Donegan song or some pop song, you know.
GROSS: And when you got to like high school age, where people were starting bands, you were playing with Brinsley Schwarz then?
LOWE: Yes. I went to school with him and he, we had a band at school. And I became the bass player because no one else really wanted to play the bass back then. I had a friend who was pretty good at woodwork. And he made me one in the woodwork class.
GROSS: Wow. Did it sound good?
LOWE: Not really. No. You couldn't really hear it at all but, and you have to tune it with a pair of pliers as well. We couldn't get the tuners for the thick strings, you know.
GROSS: Do you think that helped you as a songwriter, playing bass, because you're hearing more like chords and baselines, and...
LOWE: I do actually, yes, because I've got quite a rudimentary guitar style, but it's very, it's very - I mean, I can demonstrate to you what I mean.
GROSS: Sure. Yeah. Play.
LOWE: I mean I've got a song called "Raining," which has got a very simple little bass line that goes like...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINING")
LOWE: (Singing) It's sunny and dry without a cloud in the sky. But here inside it's raining. Lovers go for a stroll dressed up in summery clothes, but in here it's cold and it's raining. It's raining so hard, how I wish it would stop raining, raining, raining.
LOWE: So you can hear the bass, sort of, going through it, and that sort of informed that song. I mean I remember when I thought it out; it's very simple and kind of not exactly original. It's like a little soul progression, you know, but it sort of suggests that melody and it's simple and it's kind of sad.
GROSS: Now I read in Billboard, one of the first songs, well, one of the first performers who you really loved was Tennessee Ernie Ford.
LOWE: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: American country singer, a very deep voice. And when I was a kid, one of the early songs I remember on the radio was Tennessee Ernie Ford singing "Sixteen Tons." And I started to tell you before we did the sound check, that that song used to terrify me as a child because it's about death and it's about not being able to die yet because you owe your soul to the company store.
And growing up in Brooklyn I had no idea what a company store was, but I knew 16 tons, like, that weighs a lot. And there's...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: And there's a song about death, and lyrics about muscle and blood, and I thought, oh god, this is scary stuff. Would you tell us why you like that song and maybe do a few bars of it?
LOWE: Well, I was a little boy, of course, and muscle and blood and death and everything, are far more appealing...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOWE: ...I suppose, to the species, you know. But again his voice, I thought – although I liked some of his other stuff, like his sort of boogie things. He did "Shotgun Boogie" and he had another one about food called "Fatback, Louisiana, U.S.A.," which is all about food and the kind of food I'd never heard of and thinking about...
(Singing) Let me tell you, when you get a call down there, you're going to get a ham gravy that'll curl your hair.
And something about black eyed pea. Let me tell you boy, when you're ill you get a black eyed pea instead of a pill. I'd never heard of black-eyed peas or grits or any of these things he was singing about, but it was his voice, and I think in "Sixteen Tons" it was his voice, I just thought was unbelievable.
And I was - actually the other week, I was doing this sort of Q&A thing at the Grammy Museum in L.A., and mentioned Tennessee Ernie because my mum, for some reason when I was very young, growing up in the Middle East – and I think I told you last time I was here my dad was in the military – and my mom for some reason, amongst her Sinatra and Nat King Cole records, Doris Day and Peggy Lee – she had some really great records - but she had these two Tennessee Ernie Ford 10-inch LPs.
I don't know where she got them from, but it was my sort of introduction to country music really, even though I know now that it was from California. It wasn't the Nashville kind. It was the sort of Bakersfield kind of country. But I just thought it sounded unbelievable and his voice was something else.
GROSS: Can you do a little bit of "Sixteen Tons?"
LOWE: I'll have a go, yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SIXTEEN TONS")
LOWE: (Singing) You load 16 tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: That sounds just great. So, you've known country music for long time. I think over the years it sounds like your songwriting has become more and more immersed in country kind of music.
LOWE: Yes. I've always liked it. But I like all sorts of other kinds of...
LOWE: ...of popular, certainly American popular music, as well. But I'm very anxious not to sort of cop some kind of half-baked Nashville thing or Memphis thing or New Orleans thing. I like what happens to it when it crosses the Atlantic, because I'm very anxious to keep a European sort of thing, so it keeps light, you know, and is not confused for the real thing.
And also, that way, as I was talking about my colleagues, you know, that I make these records with, you know, we, they're really great musicians. There's plenty of people who are more skilled than them, but they've got this great attitude, which I've played with some pretty - people who are pretty rated, you know, rated and very good musicians.
And although some of them undoubtedly really are, quite a lot of them I think has in a way kind of got one trick that the public really likes. And they don't have that, sort of a broad kind of view of it, and an un-earnest way of making music, if there's such a word as that. And my guys know a little bit about lots of different kinds of music.
So if we say well, we're going to do this sort of country thing, but let's put, you know, like, when the solo comes, let's try and a make kind of Italian. You know that Italian film music sound? You know, or some sort of German jukebox pop, you know? We'll put a bit of that in it. So it just throws it off a little bit.
And that way, you know, you can come up with your own style because it's all been done, I think. All been done. It's just what you stick in your particular stew, you know, the elements that you put in that makes it original.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer, guitarist Nick Lowe. He has a new album called "The Old Magic." He'll perform more songs for us after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
If you're just joining us, my guest is my guest is Nick Lowe. He has a new album called "The Old Magic," and he's performing some of the songs from the album and some other songs as well for us. Now there's a Buddy Holly tribute album and you do a track on it of a not very well-known Buddy Holly song, called "Changing All Those Changes." I mean, I don't think I'd heard the song before I heard you do it.
LOWE: Yeah. I don't know why that is. A few people have said that. I don't know why. I knew this one.
GROSS: Maybe it was more popular in England, than here. But was he important to you?
LOWE: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: I know he's very important to the Beatles, but what about you?
LOWE: Definitely. Yes. I had an older sister who brought home, you know, the original wave of rock-and-roll singers - Jerry Lee and Little Richard and Elvis were a little ahead of my time, a little before my time. But I had an older sister who used to bring the records home. And, you know, I like quite a lot of them.
Although she had a real sort of taste for the kind of Pat Boone singing "Tutti Frutti," you know, which I knew, even at age seven wasn't as good as Little Richard. But Buddy Holly, when she brought that home, I got it straight away. And there was a - they're all sorts of reasons why he was very, very popular in the UK. One was the fact that he looked like the way he did.
People really thought that was fantastic - that he had glasses and he was kind of geeky looking, you know. And the other thing was that he was the first - I always think of him as the first kind of fan, a rock 'n roll fan who made records. There's a picture of him in a crowd at a record store, waiting to get Elvis Presley's autograph. And I think that's really important.
He's like the first guy who was just after the first wave, you know. And his songs really were timeless. A lot of those original rock-and-roll songs are great, of course, they are, but they're very much of their time. There's sort of the "Happy Days," the Fonz, you know, and so on, whereas Buddy Holly's were well, you could see why the Beatles liked him so much.
GROSS: So, would you do a little bit of the Buddy Holly song that you do on "Rave On," the Buddy Holly tribute?
LOWE: Well, I'll have a go. Yes, I haven't actually played this since we recorded it. But I'll...
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)
LOWE: Yeah, I had a little intro like that.
I won't bother with the introduction.
(SOUNDBITER OF MUSIC, "CHANGING ALL THOSE CHANGES")
LOWE: (Singing) I should have reconsidered all those things I said I'd do. So now I'm changing all those changes that I made when I left you. Sweetheart, I'm changing all those changes that I made when I left you. Because I made those changes when I thought you were untrue. A-but now you're gone, I've found I'm wrong, and there's a-nothing I can do, except to change up all those changes that I made when I left you.
(Singing) I didn't stop to think, I just left without a care. And now I know I'm wrong and I can't find you anywhere. I should have reconsidered all those things I said I'd do, but now I'm changing all those changes that I made when I left you. Yes, I'm changing all those changes that I made when I left you.
GROSS: Excellent. Thank you so much for doing that. That sounded great. That really sounded great. So did the British Invasion have any impact on you? I mean these are the British, the bands that we in America think of the British Invasion bands, including the Beatles.
What impact did their, like, international success have on you, who was, I think, a few years younger than the people in those bands? So you were on the verge of coming up when they were really big.
LOWE: Yes. Yes. Well, I thought that it was great, of course, and I wanted to get to join the invasion, you know, after the beachheads had been established, of course, you know, myself as soon as possible. But in retrospect, now I'm older, I'm not quite so sort of kind about it, because I think in a way they sort of ruined things in some way.
Suddenly everyone could write songs, you know, which I think is a sort of a shame because people can't. And the Beatles came along and sort of encouraged everybody to do it.
GROSS: I know exactly what you mean. Like everybody feels like they have to write their own songs and...
GROSS: ...most people aren't that great at it.
LOWE: That's right. And a lot of the skills of making records were suddenly not needed anymore, which in retrospect I think is rather a shame.
GROSS: So you wanted a taste of that big fame and that big like international success. Probably the height of your fame was when you had "Cruel to Be Kind?"
LOWE: Yes. That was, I think it was. That was the height of my...
GROSS: Like '79?
GROSS: So how did it feel? Like what was like a high or a low point of actually getting the fame?
LOWE: Looking back on it now, it was a very curious time, because it felt as if it was just my turn. I didn't, I don't remember being really excited, and - I mean it was really great fun. You know, the perks of the job, so to speak. You know, I mean it lasted about three or four years, what I describe as my brief career as a pop star, and it was very good fun.
And the perks were obvious, you know, get a, you know, you get a table in a restaurant very easily. You know, and there is a lot of very exotic looking girls who wanted to go out with you purely because you've been on the TV, you know, had your mug grinning out of the pages of the pop rags.
GROSS: But that's part of what you wanted, isn't it?
LOWE: Yeah. Yes. But it seemed that it was just my turn. It didn't seem like I'd really, you know, was striving away for this. It was like almost a voice said, you know, right son. Step forward. It's your go now. What have you got? But most people, they get a shot and then it's all over. And if they can score a little, a nice little apartment and a decent car out of it, then they've done well.
But when my time finished I had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was sorry to see it go. And, you know, you know that the public has got fed up with you, they've moved on. On the other hand, I was ill. It had made me ill. I was completely exhausted and washed out. And so I was relieved, on one hand, that it was - I could actually lie low, you know, and...
GROSS: Why did it make you ill?
LOWE: Well, I was drinking like a fish. You know?
And having to keep on coming up with new stuff, you know, and producing this, and the feeling of whoa, grab it while it's there, you know? It just completely drains you. And you can't keep on coming up with it, it's - coming up with the good stuff. You just come up with the watered down - more and more watered down version of what people liked about you in the first place. And - until finally, you know, all you can do is keep knocking back booze or whatever else, looking for a little inspiration. And it doesn't work. It's - and I'm telling you kids, it doesn't work.
GROSS: So did you go through this big depression afterwards?
LOWE: I suppose I did. But it wasn't, you know, I'm not really a poor me type person. But I had paused, after I'd sort of started - I'd lie down in a darkened room for a few months...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOWE: ...I started to think about what my situation was. And I, sort of, thought, well look, you've done pretty well here. You know, you've had a few hits and produced some pretty good stuff and written some stuff for other people, you know, and done all right. But, here you are in your 30s, on the scrap heap.
And I didn't feel as if I had really done anything really good, really, really good. I'd had my - it's almost like being a pop star. I could tick it off, some kind of box, you know, right? You've done that, now onto the next thing.
And I started to figure out a way I could use the fact I'm getting older in this business that has no use for older people – but I wanted to figure out a way I could use the fact that I'm getting older as a distinct advantage. So...
GROSS: How do you feel you've done that?
LOWE: Well, a funny thing is that I always used to hear these old timers say this, what I thought was a real copout, kind of cliché. In fact, I must say that Johnny Cash, himself, said this to me: Nick, all you've got to do is be yourself. I mean, you've heard people say that, haven't you? Oh, it's easy. Just be yourself.
And I always used to think that's complete nonsense. What do you mean, be yourself? No one wants to see me myself. You know, they want to see something magnificent on the stage, not me. But, in fact, that's exactly what you have to find a way of doing. If you can find a way of being yourself and doing your act, and the public paying attention to you, of course, which entails a little bit of stage craft.
LOWE: You know, you've got a few smart – but then you can never be outdated as a phony. You know, they cannot like you that's, of course...
GROSS: Well, had you felt that you had not been yourself before that?
LOWE: Oh, yeah. Sure. When you're young, you're anything but yourself, really. You're trying to get attention and...
GROSS: Have a look.
LOWE: Yeah, have a look and getting, yeah. Well, I still like to have a look, you know.
GROSS: An attitude. Yeah.
LOWE: Yeah, I still enjoy that side of it too. But, yes, you're insecure, you know, when you're starting out, unless you are really something special. But most people are insecure and trying to copy their heroes - the way they think their heroes are anyway.
GROSS: So when you realized okay, what you needed to do was find yourself and be yourself, did you know where to look?
LOWE: No. No, I didn't. But my problem was that I couldn't find anyone to help me with it. When I...
GROSS: You mean like a band or a producer?
LOWE: Just somebody. Yeah. A producer type person. There was someone. It was my, the guy who plays drums with me, Bobby Irwin. But he got married and was living in San Antonio. He wasn't in the UK and so I didn't have access to him. But he knew what I was talking about.
But I started trying to formulate this idea of how I was going to sort of present myself, you know, and I knew it was going to take some time. And so it wasn't going to happen overnight, because I knew I'd lose a large part of my audience. Well, I had lost a large part of my audience already. So in fact, I was starting to win already, you know, even though I was kind of flat-lining.
But I thought that I could replace the people who would think oh, he's not rocking anymore, you know, because my thing was going to be a little more mellow. But I wanted it to be hip. You know, not just old geezers would like. Especially old geezers. You know, I was always a sort of a guy's singer, you know, a performer. I didn't want to do that.
I wanted to have way more female - to appeal to women much more, and for the best of reasons, I mean, you know. And also to do something that younger people could dig, as well. If you make it fun enough and hip enough, then youngsters will like it as well. You don't want to do something just for my age group. And also I'd seen Johnny Cash's audience, and where there were, you know, there...
GROSS: Let me just interject that you were, for a while, Johnny Cash's son-in-law.
LOWE: Yes. Yes. And I loved him. You know, I thought he was just the greatest, and also I was a fan. But I had seen how his audience had three generations.
LOWE: You know, they were grandparents and parents and children, none of whom were at his shows under duress. Unlike say when, you know, whoever is the latest teen sensation. You see the parents with their children, but the parents have all got their fingers in your ears and making faces at each other and kind of laughing. You know, they don't really want to there but they're there for their kids.
I wanted to try and find a way of getting my audience expanded. And I don't even know if it'll work, you know, if it'll ever work. But occasionally I see signs, you know, that it's starting. It's starting to work and it's really great when that happens. There's a few cities and towns, that when I come to town the audience is really great and sort of get it, what I'm on about.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nick Lowe and he has a new album called "The Old Magic." We're going to take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
If you're just joining us, my guest is Nick Lowe. He has a new album called "The Old Magic." And he's performing some of the songs from the album and some other songs, as well, for us. Well, as you know, I love your music and I want you to do one more song for us.
And this is another song from your new album "The Old Magic," and it's called "Somebody Cares for Me" So tell us a little bit about writing this song before you do it.
LOWE: This song. Oh, I suppose I thought I'd better do one that's a little bit more - I think I needed an up-tempo song, really.
LOWE: And because a lot of the tunes were a bit blue. I wanted to...
GROSS: A bit?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOWE: Yeah. Yeah. I thought, oh, I'll have this one, which is a bit more - is a little bit more cheerful, even though it's got a kind of melancholic side to it. But I think it's a nice little song, and thank you for asking me to have a go at it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "SOMEBODY CARES FOR ME")
LOWE: LOWE: (Singing) I'm on a lonely street, but nobody told my feet, they're walking on air 'cause somebody cares for me. I'm in a blue hotel, room like a prison cell. But I'd sleep on the stairs, while somebody cares for me. In a dim saloon, anytime before noon, there's an empty chair 'cause somebody cares for me. I find myself in church.
(Singing) I don't go in here much, but I'm saying a prayer 'cause somebody cares for me. It's like I filled the hole that was shaped all wrong, where the piece of the puzzle that's been missing all along. If you think I'm glad, I'll say I'm more than that. I'm glad as can be that somebody cares for me.
Oh, do-do, do-do-do-do-do. Bo-do-do-do-de-do-do-do-do-do-do. Well, it's like I filled a hole up, but that was shaped all wrong, where the piece of the jigsaw puzzle that's been missing for too, too long.
If you think I'm glad, I'll say you've got that, dad. I've got more than my share 'cause somebody cares for me. I'm glad, so glad I'm glad as can be - somebody cares for me.
GROSS: Oh, that's great. Nick Lowe, thank you so much for performing for us. I love it when you come on the show. Thank you so much.
LOWE: It's been a great pleasure, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: It's great to have you. Nick Lowe's performance and interview was first broadcast last September when his latest album "The Old Magic" was released. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.