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Nick Lowe, without compromise

The 'Jesus of Cool' is now a 'Convincer'

Nick Lowe
Nick Lowe: At 52, he's getting some of the best reviews of his career for his new album, "The Convincer."  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- Rock 'n' roll is not kind to practitioners of a certain age. Those who dare to continue their careers after the bloom of youth fades are often met with critical disapproval, a declining audience, and -- perhaps most damning of all to the music industry executives fixated on boy bands, Britney wannabes and metal hip-hoppers -- dwindling record sales.

They're "too old to rock 'n' roll, too young to die," as an old Jethro Tull title puts it.

Nick Lowe is now 52 years old. His hair, though still thick, has long since become a shock of white and gray. He is more than 20 years removed from his only top 20 hit, "Cruel to Be Kind," and the era when he was the leading producer of the British punk/New Wave movement, spinning the dials on albums by the Pretenders, the Damned, and Elvis Costello.

What's Nick Lowe listening to? 
Friends in Lowe places 

 The Nick Lowe file:

Born: March 25, 1949, in Woodchurch, Suffolk, England

Bands: Kippington Lodge, 1965-69; Brinsley Schwarz, 1969-75; on and off with Rockpile, 1976-81; solo, 1975-present

Notable albums: "Pure Pop for Now People" (aka "Jesus of Cool"), 1978; "Labour of Lust," 1979; "The Rose of England," 1985; "The Impossible Bird," 1994; "Dig My Mood," 1998; "The Convincer," 2001

Interesting facts:
- Opened (with Brinsley Schwarz) for Paul McCartney, 1973
- In attempt to free himself from mid-'70s contract, recorded songs such as "Bay City Rollers We Love You" and "Let's Go to the Disco"
- In-house producer for protopunk label Stiff Records
- Was married to Carlene Carter, Johnny Cash's stepdaughter

But he refuses to fade into a golden oldie sunset. His new album, "The Convincer," was released in September and has earned some of the most glowing reviews of his career.

The album is testimony to growing old gracefully in a young business. Lowe can still rock -- witness the sizzling "Has She Got a Friend?" -- but the songs are more introspective now, more thoughtful, the lyrics carefully wrought from pieces of a life well lived.

"I work very hard on getting the songs as direct and examined as I can before I go in the studio," he says in a phone interview from his home in London, England. He listens to a lot of jazz nowadays, and likes the tightness and interplay of the best combos. "I think, I'd like a bit of that to go on my music. ... But in order to do that, you've got to really know your song, inside and out."

Formerly 'the basher'

That wasn't always the way with Lowe. He used to be called "the basher," a name given for his ability to write and record tunes quickly.

It was an ability borne of necessity, he says.

"In the '70s, because you had to come up with an album every year whether you were ready or not, sometimes I didn't have enough decent material," he says. "So I'd grab some half-assed ideas and do what I could with them."

Some would say Lowe is being modest. His 1978 LP "Pure Pop for Now People" (titled "Jesus of Cool" in Britain) is considered a classic, and his repertoire of songs -- "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll)," "So It Goes," "When I Write the Book" -- is richly melodic and cleverly lyrical.

But, Lowe continues, he has little desire to play many of his old songs today.

"They're young man's songs. I can't really sing about getting laid on the road, 'Here I come baby,' " he laughs. "And, if they're really callow -- even if they're quite good records -- I just can't do them."

Hitting the lottery

One exception is "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," a song dating back to the mid-'70s.

Nick Lowe
"I work very hard on getting the songs ... direct and examined," says Lowe.  

"That was the first original idea I had. I couldn't believe it when the idea of the title came to me," he recalls.

"Peace, Love and Understanding" became an Elvis Costello staple -- it closes his 1979 album "Armed Forces" -- and, in a quirk of fate, ended up on the 1992 soundtrack to Whitney Houston film "The Bodyguard" in a version by soul singer Curtis Stigers. For Lowe, it was like hitting the lottery. The soundtrack sold more than 15 million copies and earned Lowe more than $1 million in royalties.

At the time, he was without a record label, wondering if he should hit the dreaded oldies circuit or give up music entirely. The royalties allowed him to record "Impossible Bird" and its follow-up, sign with a small label, Upstart Records, and tour America comfortably.

"He was only interested in doing exactly what he wanted artistically and Upstart was a good venue for this type of scenario," says Glenn Dicker, one of Upstart's co-founders. Upstart later folded, but Lowe followed Dicker to his current label, Yep Roc.

"I like being a big fish in a small pond," says Lowe. "I'm not interested in having a huge audience, because it brings its own headaches. If anyone comes along, I'm more than happy to welcome them, but I'm not interested in world domination."

'Producing music that he wants to produce'

The $1 million is long gone, says Lowe, but he still follows his own path.

'Producing music that he wants to produce'

"Nick is producing music that he wants to produce, in his own way, without question," says Dicker.

On "The Convincer," that means soulful ballads ("I'm a Mess"), pensive George Jones-esque country ("Lately I've Let Things Slide"), even the type of timeless standard that would seem comfortable in the hands of Tony Bennett ("Let's Stay In and Make Love," the album's closing song). "The Convincer" also includes the traditional Lowe cover tune, though this time it's not an obscure nugget but Johnny Rivers' No. 1 hit from 1966, "Poor Side of Town."

That wasn't his intention, Lowe says. He thought it was obscure.

"I'd never heard it before," he says, adding that the song had never been released in England.

He learned otherwise when some American friends came over and he played them the version he'd just recorded. "I put it on and to my horror, they all said 'Poor Side of Town,' good idea. I thought it was an overlooked little gem, and now I discover it's the national anthem."

Still, Lowe might be on to something. As he's learned to the benefit of his bank account, cover songs are big business. (After "The Bodyguard" soundtrack took off, he called Stigers and told him "you'll never have to buy dinner in London ever again.") Maybe "Poor Side of Town" is just what he needs to get back in the good graces of the Top 40.

Well, he wouldn't mind a hit, he says. But he's perfectly content with the way things are.

"If (a hit) came along, I wouldn't be unhappy about that. But it's ... all the stuff you have to do to chase that," he says. "I'm a bit too old for that now -- doing videos and all those types of TV shows. I've kind of done all that, in the '70s. I'm not so interested in that side of it now."


• Yep Roc Records
• Nick Lowe official site

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