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The Long Way Around - Feature from Issue #35 Sept-Oct 2001

Nick Lowe

His aim is trueNick Lowe has found the way to play wisdom over witticism

Today, Lowe lives in West London, where he spends his days visiting friends (including Jake Riviera, his manager now for 25 years), going to the movies (“I especially like French films because they don’t mind having a sort of fat guy as the love interest”), and writing songs. During the last decade, Lowe has seen his songs cut by Johnny Cash, Freakwater, Rod Stewart and BR549, among others, and he’s written with Raul Malo and Jim Lauderdale.

“Get a producer to say this is a great song but we can do it better,” he jokes, “and next thing you know the line goes taut, the rod bends, the reel starts to scream and you’re reeling in a nice fat fish!” Indeed, in the mid-’90s, Curtis Stigers recorded a version of Lowe’s “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love And Understanding”, and because it appeared on The Bodyguard soundtrack next to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Lowe landed over a million dollars in royalties.

Meanwhile, his recording career has proceeded down a less visible track. It’s been two decades since he was among “the monkeys in the wheelhouse,” but he’s making the most emotionally compelling — and the most personally satisfying — music of his career.

“I was really trying to develop another way of recording,” Lowe explains. “I wanted to be sure I was right about the way I wanted to record and the kinds of songs I wanted to write for myself. But I couldn’t get anyone to help me. They all kind of patted my head and said, ‘Yes, Nick, I know you want to do it like that but just do it like everyone else, there’s a good chap.’…When I did Party Of One, Dave Edmunds produced, but he really wouldn’t let me do it. I tried to persuade him to let me cut it live, but he wouldn’t have it. So I had a little hiccup there.

“What I couldn’t understand was when I’d write a song back then, I’d sing it into a little desktop tape recorder. And I’d think, ‘Well, that sounds good.’ But then I’d take it to the studio with a band and slowly it would change. The tempo would generally get faster and it’d be pitched too low for me, so we’d change the key so I could shout above the band. Bit by bit, my idea would get turned into some kind of crappy old rock thing. And I thought, I’ve got to find a way to duplicate what I’m doing here on my tape recorder.…The only way to do that is to have the song absolutely in charge, and the singer.

“It sounds so easy, what I’m saying. But it wasn’t, for me.…I hate to use the phrase ‘the courage of your convictions,’ but I can’t really think of anything better. It sort of came together with The Impossible Bird.”

Lowe recorded 1994′s The Impossible Bird near his home at the Turk’s Head, a little village hall attached to a pub where he booked time between the hall’s “Keep Fit” classes and meetings of the Cub Scouts and local choral society. He rehearsed for 1998′s Dig My Mood and for his new The Convincer there as well, though he eventually recorded them both in a proper studio.

In this setting, Lowe says, freed from the “tyranny of the snare drum,” he’s able to sing quietly, the better to explore the deeper nooks and crannies of his mature voice. “We mike everything up like a jazz group, play quietly and as close to each other as we can. The guys I play with know I’m going to know my songs absolutely back and front. And I just show it to them, just so they can get the barest minimum, know how the chords go.…We try to engender a kind of relaxed concentration in the studio, where we can just use any and everything that comes to us.

“It’s amazing how you wise up,” he continues. “Suddenly you come to a stage in the studio where you can say, ‘Well, it’s got sort of that feel from ‘Band Of Gold’ by Freda Payne. But it’s got this chorus like that one Supertramp song, remember?’ And no one holds their hands up in horror and says ‘Supertramp! You must be joking!’ You just use what works. And it’s wonderful when that happens. It’s a real breakthrough, really, when you can shrug off all that youthful kind of snobbery. It’s liberating. And once we got our version, we’d go right ahead and start overdubbing and turn it into a pop record.”

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Originally Featured in Issue #35 Sept-Oct 2001

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