A rocker finds new magic by embracing change

“I’m 61 years old now / Lord, I never thought I’d see 30,” Nick Lowe sings on his new release, The Old Magic. The subject of aging, and how to do it gracefully, is one that Lowe has given much thought over the last two decades. The British rock icon’s solution has been to reinvent himself as a bard steeped in a timeless-sounding blend of classic country and jazz standards. We caught up with Lowe (who turned 62 in March) to talk about muses, million-dollar checks and the advice from onetime stepfather-in-law Johnny Cash that saved his career.

How did you leave the pop world?

I laid low for a few years in the late ’80s, contemplating my next move. I thought, “I’ve got to figure out a way of using the fact that I’m aging in a business that doesn’t value that at all.” I used to hear old-timers say, “Just be yourself.” In fact, Johnny Cash himself said that to me. And I thought, “What the hell does that mean? No one wants to see me. They want to see something magnificent on the stage.” But that’s exactly what you have to do. You must find a way of conversing with your audience in a naturalistic way. You never want to be looking over your shoulder to see that you’re going to be called a phony. And it all suddenly made sense to me.

Was that difficult?

I was quite broke at the time. Not in dire straits, but for me to show something new to the public required a certain amount of risk. This huge check I got for The Bodyguard [which featured Curtis Stigers’ version of Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”] paid for a couple of tours, a decent bus and some good hotels—ones where we wouldn’t get our stuff stolen and we could have separate rooms. Also, I could pay the band. And I could start making another record. Without the check, I don’t think it would’ve happened at all.

How has your writing changed?

When [frequent collaborator] Elvis Costello first encouraged me to start doing solo shows a few years ago, I had my doubts—but people liked it. I found that people were really listening, which I hadn’t felt before. It changed how I thought about writing, because I started thinking in terms of telling people something. Not just sloganizing away, which I’d done when I was younger. I’m not having a go at my early stuff. It’s real good fun. But with this new thing, I always think about performing a song and how best to record it so it gets the story across.

You’ve said your best songs are actually written by “the bloke.” Who’s that?

The bloke is a fantastic songwriter who shows me his songs and I claim them for my own. Sometimes the bloke doesn’t come ’round for months, and I don’t know how to get in touch with him. I’ve seen him work so many times that I can do a very good impersonation of him. But I know the difference between my songs, the ones I write, and the ones the bloke writes.

Sounds a bit like possession.

(Laughs) You do sort of go into a trance when you get a good idea, with no memory of how the song was written. When you come out of it, there it is, sitting there. But I spend a lot of time weighing individual words, putting them together, setting them aside. It’s very painstaking nonsense to achieve something that doesn’t sound as if you’ve taken any pains about it all.

–Bill DeMain

‘You must find a way of conversing with your audience in a naturalistic way.’

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