Nick Lowe Brings His 'Quality Holiday Revue' To America

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Nick Lowe's Christmas album is called Quality Street. He's currently touring the U.S. (Courtesy of the artist)
Nick Lowe's Christmas album is called Quality Street. He's currently touring the U.S. (Courtesy of the artist)

When Nick Lowe was approached by his label to make a holiday album, he says he was "slightly appalled, really — we think it's all a bit vulgar, you know, cashing in on Christmas." Ultimately, Lowe says he took it as a challenge: Quality Street came out of that effort. It includes some traditional songs, such as "Silent Night," as well as British Christmas favorites and some originals, such as "Christmas At The Airport."

Lowe recently visited the Fresh Air studio to talk with Terry Gross and perform songs from the album.


Interview Highlights

On how Ry Cooder ended up writing a Christmas song called "A Dollar Short Of Happy"

He's quite an old friend of mine now; we've known each other for quite a long time. And when we started doing this record, we had one of our semi-regular phone calls, and he said, "What are you up to at the moment?" And I said, "I'm just doing this Christmas record." And he sort of rather characteristically snorted a bit derisively and said, "Oh, why are you bothering with that nonsense?" And I said, "Well, as a matter of fact, we are having a ball doing this record. And what'll be really nice, actually, is if you were here to help us do it, because I think you'd really have a good time."

"Ah, I doubt it!" or something like that, he said. And this is quite par for the course, you know. I don't want to say that, "Shock, horror! Ry, a bit grumpy." And then, a couple of days later, this fantastic set of lyrics turned up, and I had no trouble putting a tune to them.

On what Christmas was like for him growing up in England in the '50s

I don't want to get my violin out here — "We were poor, but we were happy." England was a pretty grim old place in the '50s when I was a kid. There were shortages, for sure. I loved Christmas. We had a really great time, but you had to be happy with an orange and a couple of walnuts in your stocking. There were sort of three toys for boys and three toys for girls. And the boys — I can remember [there] was a Dan Dare Ray Gun. Dan Dare was a cartoon character; he was like a Battle Of Britain fighter pilot, only in space. It was the 1950s. He had a ray gun, which was basically a flashlight with a trigger on it, and it buzzed and the red light came on. We all had one. A Davy Crockett hat. Davy Crockett was very big, so we had a Dan Dare Ray Gun, Davy Crockett hat — it was kind of a crazy look when you had both of them. And painting by numbers, I seem to remember. So it was that sort of thing. And the sound of Bing Crosby.

On the role religion plays in his Christmas holiday

I have a rather complicated relation to it. I have all the equipment to make me rather devout, I would almost say. I'm very interested in religion and different religions. I know quite a lot about it. I love gospel music, and I love going to churches, but the one drawback is that I don't actually believe in God. It is quite a handicap. As Craig Brown, he's an English humorist — I heard him talking in a rather similar way on the radio. And he said, "I'm the sort of person that can be reduced to tears in an empty church and feel like I'm the CEO of the devil's organization in a full one." I tend to feel like that, as well. I love empty churches and going into them and looking around, but I'm not a churchgoer at all. I've got something going on, but ... I don't know what it is.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Even my guest, Nick Lowe, was surprised that he made an album of Christmas songs. He's going to perform some of those songs for us, as well as a couple of other songs. The Christmas songs on his album "Quality Street" aren't ones you're likely to know. There's a few originals, some pretty obscure ones and a few classics. Some are funny. Some are moving.

Nick Lowe is a British songwriter, singer and guitarist who's best known for writing the songs "Cruel To Be Kind" and "What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding," which was made famous by an Elvis Costello recording that Nick Lowe produced. Nick Lowe, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's such a treat to have you back in our studio.

NICK LOWE: Thanks very much, Terry. It's great to be back.

GROSS: So I want to start with you performing a song from your latest album, "Quality Street" - your album of Christmas songs. And this is an original that you wrote called "Christmas At The Airport."

LOWE: Yes.

GROSS: Now, your band isn't with you. You're solo. But we were able to arrange some of the finest back-up singers in America, and they are the new FRESH AIR back-up singers. So I will introduce them by name afterwards. But here we go. So this is "Christmas At The Airport," an original song played for us by Nick Lowe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS AT THE AIRPORT")

LOWE: (Singing) Outside the taxi window, on the way to catch my flight, I notice snowflakes playing in the ever-failing light. When he dropped me at departures, it was really coming down. Deep and crisp and even, it settled on the ground. It looks like Christmas - Christmas at the airport. All the planes are grounded, and the fog is rolling in. It looks like Christmas - Christmas at the airport this year. All the doors are locked and bolted. Let the festivities begin.

The terminal was seething without much Christmas cheer, so I found an empty closet, and I settled down in there. When I awoke much later, I was quite alone. Check-in was deserted. Everyone had gone. It looks like Christmas - Christmas at the airport. I took a set of x-rays. They came out pretty well. It looks like Christmas - Christmas at the airport this year. Now I'm doing Santa's sleigh ride on the baggage carousel. It looks like Christmas - Christmas at the airport. I should be at the table with all of my kith and kin. It looks like Christmas - Christmas at the airport this year. Don't save me any turkey. I found a bugger in a bin.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: That's wonderful.

LOWE: Well done, well done.

GROSS: That's Nick Lowe performing his original song "Christmas At The Airport," which also performs on his latest album called "Quality Street," which is a whole album of Christmas songs. And also we had at the new FRESH AIR background singers (laughter), which includes Audrey Bentham, John Myers and Sam Briger from FRESH AIR and then Jonathan Aaron (ph) from our neighboring program Radio Times. Bravo, new FRESH AIR background singers. Thank you so much. (Laughter) So, Nick, can you tell us the story behind writing that song?

LOWE: Well, this is shortly after the idea was put to me because it wasn't my idea to do a Christmas record. We can talk about that a little bit, if you like, later on. But I wrote that song actually about two days after the idea was put to me. I found myself in Zurich Airport. I'd done a TV show, oddly enough, with Mavis Staples. That's the way they do it in Switzerland. And I'd had a bit of a late night with members of her band. And I was - my flight was delayed. And I was sitting in the airport, and I just came up with the idea. And by the time, we landed at Heathrow, I'd pretty much sort of got it.

GROSS: So you were reluctant to do a Christmas album. Your record label Yep Roc convinced you to do it. Why did you say yes?

LOWE: Well, they didn't really convince me. The idea was put to me, and my initial reaction was of slight sort of - I was slightly appalled, really, because in the U.K., we don't - we think it's all a bit vulgar, you know, doing Christmas or cashing in on Christmas. And there's a word we have for it, which is naff. And it's not exactly uncool. It really sort of means kind of vulgar and a bit - not very stylish.

GROSS: So in England, you're not surrounded by Christmas music. There aren't stations that become 24-hour Christmas music radio stations.

LOWE: No, nothing like that. No, you're surrounded...

GROSS: You don't walk through the street and hear people singing Christmas songs.

LOWE: You do, but...

GROSS: You don't go into every (laughter) - every restaurant and every store, and they're doing Christmas songs of every genre.

LOWE: To a certain extent, yes, we do. But there's - but there's a very limited menu. There's only about sort of 20 songs that you hear on rotation.

GROSS: Name three of them.

LOWE: "Mary's Boy Child."

GROSS: Oh, I don't even know that. What's that?

LOWE: I've never done it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY'S BOY CHILD")

LOWE: (Singing) Hush now. Hear the angels sing. A newborn doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo (ph) - and Mary's boy child, Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas Day.

LOWE: It's like a little folk song. I think it might've been Harry Belafonte or someone like that who did it. And "Merry Christmas, Everybody" by Slade, which is a rock group - a rock-pop group who are very big over there. "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day," which I actually recorded on "Quality Street" because I don't think anyone has ever covered it before. You hear it every single Christmas, and it is a great record. That's by Wizzard. It is a really great record, but I don't think anyone's ever covered it before, so I had to go it doing it differently. It's quite different from how the original goes.

GROSS: But you don't want to do that here because you need your band for that.

LOWE: Well, I - it sounds better with the band. I'd have a go at it, if your - if your listeners wanted to sort of get a flavor of it.

GROSS: Yeah, a flavor would be great.

LOWE: All right. I can do - all right. Well, we did it with a kind of this sort of (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WISH IT COULD BE CHRISTMAS EVERY DAY")

LOWE: (Singing) When the snowman brings the snow, he might just like to know he put a great big smile on somebody's face. If you jump into your bed, pull the covers back over your head, but don't you lock the doors. You know, Santa Claus is on his way. Hey, hey. I wish it could be Christmas every day when the kids start jumping, and the band starts pumping away. Oh, yes, I wish it could be Christmas every day. Let the bells ring out for Christmas.

LOWE: So on and so forth.

GROSS: That's wonderful. Thank you so much for doing that. I thought that sounded great. That's another song that's on Nick Lowe's Christmas album, which is called "Quality Street." But, of course, he's performing it live in the studio for us. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nick Lowe. And his latest album is an album of Christmas songs, which is called "Quality Street." Now, you're coming off a tour now in which you're performing Christmas songs from your album. And on the tour with you was supposed to be the keyboard player Ian McLagan, who just tragically died a day before the tour was scheduled to start. He had a stroke. And I think his body was found shortly afterwards?

LOWE: Well, he died in hospital, actually. But he was - yes, he was unconscious at home when they found him. He died in hospital.

GROSS: That must have been such a shock to you.

LOWE: Yes, it certainly was a shock. I mean, it was a shock to everyone, of course. I don't want to maximize our share of the shock. But I'm on tour with the Straitjackets - Los Straitjackets. We're doing a sort of review. The idea was to do a review, you know. So I'd do a little bit, then the Straitjackets, who are acting as my backing group as well. But it's collaboration, you know. So I'd do a bit, then the jackets would do something. And then I'd come on and do something with them and so on. And Mac was going to fit in with that somehow. We didn't know how. We didn't know how any of it was going to work. And we met in Minneapolis to rehearse. And we missed him on the first day of rehearsal and thought he'd - we phoned up the hotel. And they said, yes, he's checked in. And he didn't turn up. And so one of our party went to his room with a member of the staff, you know, to - and I've done this. I've had to do this in my career as well, to go to a band member's room, you know. And you open up the door. And it's not a very nice experience, I can tell you. You don't know what you're going to find, you know. Anyway, the room was empty. And it turned out that the hotel thought that he'd checked in because he was part of our party. And because of all our party had checked in, they thought he was there. And that's when we found out that someone had been around to his house and found him. And then the next day, which was the second day of our rehearsal, that's when we got the news that he'd unfortunately died.

GROSS: Had you been close with him?

LOWE: No, I hadn't. I'd only met him once. I did Austin City Limits two or three years ago. And he came to see me. And we got on so well. He's just one of those people that it's impossible not to get on with, really. And we have many mutual friends. And I was really looking forward to this tour being a sort of a cementing of what I thought was going to be a firm friendship. I thought this - this is going to be really great with him. So I didn't know him very well. But everyone I know always talks about his - this amazing ability he had to talk to anybody and to cheer them up and to make them feel good about themselves I suppose, a tremendous, tremendous gift. He liked meeting his public, you know. He didn't sort of hide away from them like some of my colleagues in this business are prone to do.

GROSS: How have you paid tribute to him and honored him in the concerts that you've been doing?

LOWE: Well, I make a rather sort of clunky and clumsy speech. At least I think it's clunky and clumsy because it has to be done every night. I thought in my sort of stupidity that I'd only have to do it the first - on the first gig. But of course you don't. You have to say it every night. And it's quite fulsome, you know. And I try not to make it too mawkish. And the Straitjackets do a fantastic version of "Itchycoo Park," which was one of The Small Faces' big hits. But I - in my speech, you know, I say that we're doing the shows and trying to spread a little bit of his sort of fairy dust around. And it's a tribute really to that gift he had. This one very poignant - it would be funny if it wasn't so poignant, you know - the one thing we haven't done is cancel his rider. You know what a rider is? That's what the artist has for their refreshments, you know, in the dressing room and things.

GROSS: It's part of the contract. The rider is where you would have, I only want the chocolate M&Ms.

LOWE: That's right. That's the thing, yeah. Anyway, we didn't cancel Mac's rider. And every night, there it is. And it's a six pack of Guinness and two bananas. And as I say, there's something extremely poignant about that. Every time I see that, you know, I think, I miss him. And...

GROSS: Well, you know, Ian McLagan's passing so close to Christmas is just a reminder of all the people who've lost somebody around Christmas time. Christmas is a sad holiday for a lot of people. And you actually wrote - co-wrote with Ry Cooder a terrific song called "A Dollar Short Of Happy," about all of the things you wish you had that you don't that you've lost around Christmas. Can I ask you to do the song but introduce it for us first. And tell us how you ended up collaborating with Ry Cooder on this.

LOWE: Well, he's quite an old friend of mine now. We've known each other for quite a long time. And when I'd started doing this record, we had one of our semi-regular phone calls. And he said, what are you up to at the moment? And I said, I'm just doing this Christmas record. And he sort of rather characteristically sort of snorted a bit, you know, derisively, you know, and said, oh, what are you bothering with that nonsense? You know, and I said, well, as a matter of fact, we are having a ball doing this record. And it - what would be really nice, actually, is if you were here to help us do it, you know, 'cause I think you'd really have a good time. Oh, I doubt it, you know, or something like that he said. And - (laughter) - and this is quite par for the course, you know. I don't want to, you know, say that, you know, shock, horror, Ry a bit grumpy, you know. And then, a couple of days later, this - this fantastic set of lyrics turned up. And I had no trouble putting a tune to them. We fiddled - you know, then we sort of fiddled around with it a little bit over the phone. And here comes the song. But it's - I loved your intro. But I think it's a little more lighthearted then perhaps you might have suspected. It's got a sort of a mock solemnity, you know. Shall I play it?

GROSS: Please play it.

LOWE: OK, it's "A Dollar Short Of Happy." Here we go.

(Singing) A dollar short of happy. Can I get one from you? A dollar short on Christmas, just a smile won't do. Standing on the corner with my dog named Blue. She don't know it's Christmas, so it's down to you. City sidewalks, busy sidewalks turn a darker gray than any Russian playwright would allow. Although it's been said many times, many ways, I'm a dollar short of happy now. You pulled up to the light, the phone up to your ear. The deal has fallen through. Your job is gone. An unfamiliar look of pain on your face then did appear. How are you going to tell the folks at home? No more private schools or exercise machines. No more crazy nannies getting high in the SUV. Meet me on the corner. We'll get along somehow, a dollar short of happy now. Do do do do do. Do do. Do do do do do. Do do do do do. Meet me on the corner. We'll rub along somehow, a dollar short of happy now.

GROSS: That's a wonderful song. I really think that should become a classic.

LOWE: (Laughter).

GROSS: No, I do. It's just a wonderful song. I mean, but obviously, you're right about how it has a sense of humor. But it's a nice blue Christmas song.

LOWE: I think it's great. I love it.

GROSS: And, you know, Christmas is the kind of holiday where you're like - everything's supposed to be perfect and beautiful and the big, happy family and perfect, perfect. And I bet, like, half the world is thinking, things aren't perfect in my life today.

LOWE: Absolutely.

GROSS: Or everybody's having a better time that I am today.

LOWE: (Laughter). Yeah, I'm convinced of that.

GROSS: Yeah, something went really terrible in my life yesterday, so I'm not feeling great today. So I - the songs like that I just think are perfect for the season along with all the joyous ones.

LOWE: I agree. I agree. I like them too.

GROSS: Yeah, so thank you for writing it. And thank you for doing it. Send my thanks to Ry Cooder. (Laughter).

LOWE: I shall, yes. He'll be very pleased.

GROSS: Nick Lowe will be back in the second half of the show. His album of Christmas songs is called "Quality Street." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with British songwriter, singer and guitarist Nick Lowe, who's best known for writing the songs "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding" and "Cruel To Be Kind." His latest album is a collection of Christmas songs - some originals, a few obscure songs and a few classics.

I was, you know, reading an interview that you did around this album "Quality Street," your album of Christmas songs, and you were asked about your approach to songwriting. And I don't remember you ever saying this before, but I love this image, if you'd like to expand on it, that sometimes writing a song is like listening to a song through the walls that somebody else is playing. And you're trying to, like, hear it, and it's not really clear yet. Can you go on with that?

LOWE: Yes, I've - I sort of have various sort of theories when when people ask me about songwriting because it is a mystery. You don't really know. Sometimes you can do it, and sometimes you can't. It's really peculiar. But my latest, which I think you're referring to, my latest theory is that it's - well, I describe it as, like, being in an apartment with kind of thin walls. And in the apartment next door, they've got a radio tuned constantly on - tuned to a really cool radio station. It's on all the time. And you can just hear it coming through the wall all the time.

And then, one day, they program and new tune, and it really catches your ear, you know, because you can be doing the washing up or something, you know, in your apartment and suddenly you go, whoa, what are they playing in there? And you run to the wall, but it's finished - but the song's finished. You only heard enough of it just the pique your interest. And you never know when they're going to play it again, of course, like a normal radio station.

So you can be about your business, and then on it comes again. And this time you're ready, and you've got a wine glass or something. And you put the glass up to the wall, and you can hear through the wall a little bit more of the song - maybe just the middle bit this time. You know, you managed to get in a little bit of the end. And so it goes on until - because you just got to - you really just want to sing it. You want to sing this song. And so it goes on until eventually, after however long it can take - sometimes a few days, sometimes months - you piece the whole thing together. And I think the best songs that come to me are the ones that you sort of listen for. The ones - when I listen to some of of my old stuff, I can tell when I had a good idea, but I forced it through, and I can hear myself - the bit that I've written, which sounds clunkier than the stuff that just sort of comes.

And the older to - the older I get, the more I think it's this listening. You listen for it, and you have a bit of patience. And it'll come until it sounds - to me, the best songs I've written, I think, are ones that I can't hear anything - any of myself in it. It sounds like a cover song, like somebody else's song - really something you've stolen wholesale off a radio that you've listened to in someone else's flat.

GROSS: Can you think of one of your songs that perfectly illustrates what you're talking about?

LOWE: Well, I wrote a song on my last record which I think is a good song, which I remember getting the idea and, you know, waiting for it, which is a song called "House For Sale."

GROSS: Oh, I love that song. Yeah, do a little bit of that for us.

LOWE: Let me see. I haven't played it for a while.

(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. 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.

GROSS: That's such a wonderful song. I'm going to ask you to do another Christmas song that you include on your album. And this one is called "North Pole Express." Tell us about the song.

LOWE: Well, this was found by Bobby Erwin, who plays drums with me, and is also not very well at the moment, I'm sorry to say. But he found this one, and it came from a kids label called Peter Pan Records. I think they came in yellow vinyl.

GROSS: Oh, I remember yellow and red vinyl...

LOWE: You do?

GROSS: ...Singles.

LOWE: Well, because we've never be able find out who wrote the song because he just heard about this, and it was a real sort of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" kind of thing. But we listened to it - well, Bob listened to it - and said I - he said, I think we could turn this into a really great little record, this. We just change a few things around, and we could make something of this. And I think he was right. It was one of my favorite tunes. But if anyone knows who wrote this song, please get in touch because we want to give you some royalties.

GROSS: You've tried Mr. Internet, and that didn't work?

LOWE: I'm sure my publisher has tried the internet and spared no effort.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Would you play it for us?

LOWE: Yeah, I'll do the sort of acoustic version. I got to apologize for my croaky old voice. I've been giving it some on this tour. But I'll do my best, so here it is.

(Singing) Down at the station, lights all aglow, eight reindeer engines are raring to go. There she stands in the land of ice and snow - the North Pole Express. Loaded with toys up to the caboose, huffing and puffing, can't wait to cut loose. The mighty power eight reindeer rockets produce - the North Pole Express. There she goes. Look at those deer feet fly, kicking out sparks from the tracks in the sky. Streaking along at a cracking pace, look at that smile on the driver's face. Along about midnight, he'll be checking in, dropping off your presents with a great big grin. You can hear him shout up through the whiskers on his chin - all aboard North Pole Express. Oh, yeah. Here we go. Look at those deer feet fly, kicking out sparks from the tracks in the sky. Streaking along at a cracking pace, look at that smile on the engineer's face. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Yeah, along about (unintelligible) he'll be checking on in, dropping off your presents with a great big grin. You can hear him shout through the whiskers on his chin - ho, ho, ho - North Pole Express. Here he come. Here he come. Here he come. Here he come. Here he come. Here he come. Doors to manual and crosscheck.

GROSS: (Laughter)That's great. That's Nick Lowe performing in our studio a song called "North Pole Express," which is featured on his album of Christmas songs which is called "Quality Street." Yeah, that was really fun. I'm glad you chose that.

LOWE: I did my best, Terry. I did my best.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, I'll tell you what - let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more and I'll ask you to play some more music for us.

LOWE: OK.

GROSS: OK, great. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Nick Lowe who is a songwriter and singer, record producer and guitarist and among other things wrote the songs "Cruel To Be Kind"...

LOWE: Gardener, taker-outer of rubbish,

GROSS: (Laughter).

LOWE: Recycling boxes.

GROSS: I thought you wrote the song Gardener. I thought, like, I don't know that song.

(LAUGHTER)

LOWE: Odd-job man.

GROSS: Odd-job man, OK.

LOWE: Sorry, Terry.

GROSS: No, that's OK. And he also wrote the song "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding." I thought I'd mention your most famous songs. And his latest is - his latest album is an album of Christmas songs called "Quality Street," and it includes some originals.

So before you became cynical about all of the commercialism surrounding Christmas what did Christmas mean to you as a child? You just played a children's song.

LOWE: Yes. Well, I don't to get my violin out here and, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter). Sob story.

LOWE: Just extracting tears, you know, we were poor, but we were happy. But England was, you know, a pretty sort of grim, old place in the 30s - I said the 30s - the 50s and - when I was a kid.

GROSS: Still recovering from the war.

LOWE: Yeah, yes. There were shortages. I mean, I loved Christmas. We had a really great time. But there wasn't - it was all - you had to be happy with, you know, an orange and a couple of walnuts, you know, in your stocking. And there were sort of three toys for boys and three toys for girls. And the boys I can remember was, well, there was a Dan Dare Ray Gun. Dan Dare was a sort of a cartoon character. He was just sort of a - he was like a Battle of Britain fighter pilot only in space. It was the 1950s, you know, and they had a ray gun, which was basically a flashlight with a sort of trigger on it. And it buzzed and a red light, you know, came on. But anyway we all had one. Davy Crockett hat.

GROSS: Even in England?

LOWE: Yeah, Davy Crockett was very big, yes.

GROSS: Wow.

LOWE: So we had a Dan Dare Ray Gun, a Davy Crockett hat. It was a kind of crazy look when you had both them, you know.

GROSS: (Laughter). That's right. The Western and the space story combined into one.

LOWE: Yes. And the other thing for the sort of posher kids was a sort of lethal scooter, you know. One of the things that you just push along with your - really heavy, lethal, you know, trap your fingers in and every bit of metal got rusty very quickly. And the girls I seem to remember they had a thing like a broomstick with a horses' head on the top which they sat astride.

GROSS: I kind of remember them.

LOWE: (Laughter). You obviously had the same, deprived childhood as I did, Terry, I guess. And painting by numbers I seem to remember.

GROSS: Oh, of course, yeah.

LOWE: So it was that sort of thing. And the sound of Bing Crosby I always seem to remember.

GROSS: Well, of course.

LOWE: And what's wrong with that? Actually just conjuring it up now it sounds pretty good to me.

GROSS: You're a father now. You became a father relatively late in life.

LOWE: Yeah.

GROSS: Your son is 9, I think?

LOWE: Yes.

GROSS: So has being a father changed what Christmas means to you because it means something - it means a lot to him?

LOWE: Oh, immeasurably it's changed it to me. Yes, I used to sort of take the phone off the hook, you know, put my feet up and watch the TV until it was all over, but...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LOWE: No, now the lad's around. Yeah, you really get into it. And now we have a pretty funny old time of it now.

GROSS: What's your Christmas Day like nowadays?

LOWE: Well, it's remarkably similar to how - I think you sort of recreate what you had when you were a kid.

GROSS: So you give him an orange and two walnuts?

LOWE: (Laughter). He does actually insist on getting an orange and a couple of walnuts, poor devil. You know, it was good enough for me; it's good enough for him.

(LAUGHTER)

LOWE: But, yes, I've sort of forced him into enjoying the same stuff as I did, you know, back then. No, he has a great time. He's far from deprived.

GROSS: Was going to church and the more religious part of Christmas ever part of your life or childhood?

LOWE: No it wasn't. I came from a very un-church going family. My father was, as I've told you before...

GROSS: In the Royal Air Force.

LOWE: He was in the Royal Air Force, yes.

GROSS: I remember.

LOWE: And he, because he was quite senior - in fact he was in a lot of places. He was the senior officer, he was camp commandant, you know, so he had to do a lot of churchgoing. And I remember here it really pained him, you know, he didn't have - he couldn't bear it actually. Whereas I have a rather complicated relation to it. I have all the equipment to make me rather, you know, devout I would almost say. I'm very interested in religion and different religions, and I know quite a lot about it. I love gospel music, and I love going to churches, but the one drawback is that I don't actually believe in God. And it is quite a handicap, you know. And as Craig Brown, he's an English humorist, not a comedian but he's just a writer and humorist, I'm quite a fan of. I heard him talking in a rather similar way on the radio. And he said I'm the sort of person - I can't remember exactly what he said, but it was rather interesting. He said I'm the sort of person that can be reduced to tears in an empty church and feel like I'm the CEO of the Devil's organization in a full one, and I tend to feel like that as well. I love empty churches and going into them looking around, but I'm not a churchgoer at all.

GROSS: And are you giving to contemplation in those empty churches?

LOWE: Yeah, I do I think about something. But I've got something going on, you know, but I...

GROSS: It wouldn't be named God.

LOWE: Yeah, I don't know. Yes, I don't know what it is.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Nick Lowe. His latest album, "Quality Street," is an album of Christmas songs including some originals. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nick Lowe, and his latest album is an album of Christmas songs which is called "Quality Street." One of the serious songs - perhaps the only real serious song you wrote for the new album - is called "I Was Born In Bethlehem," which is written from the point of view of Jesus.

LOWE: Yes.

GROSS: It's kind of his narrative. And I'm wondering, since - you know, since you're not actually devout, how you came upon - how you came about writing this song? And I think - it's probably - you know, my guess is it's probably easier to write, you know, funnier, lively Christmas songs than one that really wants to sing about the fact that Christmas recognizes, celebrates the day that Christ was born.

LOWE: Yes, it is. They call it the greatest story ever told, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

LOWE: And I - as I say, I love gospel music...

GROSS: Yeah.

LOWE: ...And religious music and the sort of symbolism of it and everything. But I had this idea. Actually, I sort of dreamt it. I woke up - just before waking up one morning, I sort of dreamt this song or the idea of it and the first little bit of it. And I jumped out of bed and I thought, well, you're still asleep. You're going to forget this in a minute - you know, like you do when you've had a dream, and you can't remember it, you know. And I got out of bed and got the guitar and started playing. And I could - I sort of was doing it, you know. And I thought it's going to go away in a minute, it's going to go away in a minute, and it didn't. Another line came, and I said - then it stopped, you know. And I wrote a few things down.

GROSS: Sounds like the listening through a wall principle you were telling us earlier.

LOWE: Yes, sort of. Yes, sort of. Yeah. This was slightly different. But anyway, I was convinced that it would go away, you know. But the idea was that he was sitting out of flight - you know, one of those sort of fairly long flights, like sort of, you know, Newark to Denver or something like that - so, you know, a few hours. And after having the old chicken or whatever it is they bring around and a couple of cocktails, you turn to the person sitting next to you and say, you know, you going home, then? You know, where have you - what have you been doing? You know, and you find yourself sitting next to Jesus, and he's rather an agreeable man. And you have an opportunity to say, so what went down then, you know, that night? And it's supposed to be like him just sort of telling you very conversationally. That was the idea I had. Whether it - whether it comes - came off or not, I don't know.

GROSS: Well, you have to play it for us.

LOWE: OK. What's it called?

GROSS: (Laughter).

LOWE: Oh, yeah - "I Was Born In Bethlehem."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS BORN IN BETHLEHEM")

LOWE: (Singing) I was born in Bethlehem. Two-thousand years have been since then. And I've done what I can to be there when a man can't find a friend on the streets of Bethlehem. As the story always said, we were trying to find a bed. It was cold. I was late. And we stood outside the locked gate of the inn until the kindness of strangers led us in to a stable around the back - little more than a shack - where my sweet mother, meek and mild, and herself only a child, gave her best, then took her rest. Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo, -doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo (ph).

At the door, then came a knock - shepherds who had quit their flock, with their eyes round with fear. Daddy jumped up and cried get out of here. Mama's stilled him and bid them draw near. I was there, but could not see the unfolding mystery. Kings with their presents of gold, myrrh and frankincense who set them before the lamb beneath the star of Bethlehem. I was born in Bethlehem. It's been 2000 years since then. And I've done what I can to be there when a man can't find a friend. I was born in Bethlehem.

GROSS: That's Nick Lowe performing a song that he wrote for his album "Quality Street," which is his album of Christmas songs. It's a beautiful song, Nick. And I'm interested in hearing why - what you wanted to emphasize about Jesus as being there when a man needs a friend.

LOWE: Well, that's a very sort of deep question, actually. I - you know, as I say, I don't have the faith now. I certainly believe in Jesus - you know, that he existed and he was a very nice man. And who can disagree with a simple philosophy of treat other people like you like to be treated yourself? It's absolutely - nothing I can disagree with that.

And I - how can I put this? So I use the name and the thought very, very easily as a sort of comfort - as a kind of comfort, in some way. And in that way, it's just like having a friend, I suppose. I mean, the way I'm talking, it sounds like I'm - you know, I'm about to go out and sign up for the nearest seminary, and you'll never see or hear from me again. But it's a hard thing to talk about, really, 'cause I'm not at all sure myself about it. But I've got a very, very simple sort of outlook to it. Yeah, that's all I can say, really.

GROSS: I so enjoy hearing you perform. I just - I love your songs. I love your singing. I'm so grateful you were able to come back to our studio.

LOWE: Oh, how sweet of you to say. Thanks. Me, too.

GROSS: Yeah, and increase the joy of the (laughter) holiday season with your music. Thank you so much.

LOWE: Not at all, Terry. Thanks so much for having me. (Laughter).

GROSS: Oh, it's truly my pleasure. Nick Lowe's album of Christmas songs is called "Quality Street." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.