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Nick Lowe enjoys preaching to the unconverted

Nick Lowe
Nick Lowe

If you are going to see Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples at the Kauffman Center on Sunday night, you have Jeff Tweedy to thank.

Wilco frontman Tweedy began working with Staples when he produced the soul legend’s 2010 album, “You Are Not Alone.” The next year, Tweedy invited Lowe to support Wilco on the band’s North American tour. He also asked the Englishman to write a song for Mavis.

That tune, “Far Celestial Shore,” eventually appeared on her 2013 album “One True Vine.” The collaboration sparked a fast friendship between Staples and Lowe, and an unlikely double bill was born.

Lowe, who lives in London, spoke with The Star by phone last week. He was in Texas. It was the night before his tour opened, and Lowe still wasn’t sure what songs would be in his solo acoustic set.

“I don’t know whether I can say at the moment, actually,” he said in a clipped, slightly posh British accent. “Because I’m not really sure who I’m going to be playing to — if it’s all Mavis’ people, and they aren’t really going to know who I am.”

The new audience thrills him, though.

“And I’m very pleased about that,” he said. “Because, as welcome as everybody is, I don’t want to just preach to the converted.”

The conversion of Lowe’s flock began in the late 1970s. He was playing in the band Rockpile with Dave Edmunds. He was also releasing solo album classics like “Jesus of Cool” and “Nick the Knife,” achieving modest fame with wry, melodic pop hits like “Cruel to Be Kind,” and “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” — the latter made far more famous by a raucous Elvis Costello cover.

During that time Lowe also built a sterling reputation as a producer. He was the helm for some of the seminal albums of Britain’s punk and new wave scenes, producing The Damned’s first record and Costello’s first five, along with work by Johnny Cash, The Pretenders and Graham Parker.

Things changed, though, in the mid-80s. Lowe’s recording career had stalled. He was having problems with booze. His marriage to singer Carlene Carter was falling apart. He called the time a “low ebb.”

“Things weren’t going very well for me at all,” he said. “I just sort of metaphorically sat in a darkened room for a couple of years and tried to recover.”

That recovery began when he wrote “What’s Shakin’ on the Hill,” a tender, quiet ballad about lonely outsider gazing up at a gaiety-filled mansion. The tune eventually ended up on his 1990 release, “Party of One.”

“That was the first song I wrote (in that time) that was any good, really,” he said. “It was the first one that made me think ‘Hmm … there might be some life in the old dog yet.”

There was, indeed. In a remarkable act of self-reinvention, Lowe completely rebuilt his career. For most pop stars, “reinvention” means a new haircut. Lowe, however, totally remade his sound. He shifted from pop rocker to elegant, world-weary balladeer, influenced as much by Nashville and Tin Pan Alley as The Beatles and Rolling Stones.

He also changed the way he recorded, using techniques that were directly at odds with what most musicians was doing. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, as studio tricks and effects grew ever more popular, Lowe embraced a studied simplicity, stripping down his sound, both to showcase a talent that doesn’t need trickery and to create an unusually intimate experience.

Then, in 1992, he caught a break. Curtis Stigers did a version of “Peace, Love and Understanding” for Whitney Houston’s film vehicle, “The Bodyguard.” The soundtrack sold a massive 44 million copies, largely on the strength of Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”

The windfall of royalties gave Lowe the freedom to fully realize his new sound. He released a stunning succession of albums, including “The Impossible Bird” (1994), “Dig My Mood” (1998), “The Convincer” (2001), “At My Age” (2007) and “The Old Magic” (2011).

Around that time, Tweedy cometh. Low ebb had turned to high tide, and Lowe’s rebirth as an elder statesman was complete.

With a career now covering more than four decades, he’s seen massive changes in the music business. The biggest, he said, is simply the shift in scope.

“When I started out, in the UK especially, there wasn’t really a music business at all.”

Music back then, he said, was just a small part of the much-larger entertainment industry.

“My first proper agent, when we used to go and see him, we would be in the waiting room with his other clients. There would be these plate-spinners and dog acts and strongmen, and we were this pop group. That’s the way it was. It was just a branch of show business.”

Songwriting, he said, has also changed, turning into by-committee affair.

“I feel like songwriting is a craft which is sort of dying.”

He compared himself to someone who knows how to make a traditional English thatched roof: “There’s just not much call for it anymore.”

The future still looks bright for the 66-year-old, though, with yet more reinvention on the horizon. He has a new publishing company, and after he finishes this tour, he’s going to Nashville

“They’re sending me to see if I can do some writing with people,” he said. “It’s something I’ve never done before. I’m looking forward to it. At this point I’m up for absolutely anything.”

Freelance writer Hampton Stevens writes about entertainment and the arts for regional and national publications. He lives in Kansas City.

Sunday

Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples perform at 7 p.m. at the Kauffman Center. Tickets are $49-$79 through KauffmanCenter.org.

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