'It's no fun being a celebrity'

Nick Lowe writes beautiful, pain-racked songs - and big-name singers get all the credit. That's just the way he likes it, he tells Robin Denselow

"The older I get," says Nick Lowe, "the more I find that it suits me. I think I was just waiting to grow older so I could sing and write songs that had more substance to them. People seem to like what I do more now, even though I don't sell lots of records. But people cover them."

In his wry and unassuming way, the one-time hero of the 1970s pub-rock scene has become something of a phenomenon. In a business where white pop stars find it difficult to progress into middle age without severe loss of earnings or dignity, Nick Lowe has managed to keep going and to keep getting better.

His career has already lasted for over three decades, in which time he has been a pop star, responsible for such classics as I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass; a highly successful producer (for the likes of anyone from his ex-wife Carlene Carter to Elvis Costello or John Hiatt); and a member of three very different bands. He has been tipped for stardom as a member of Little Village, the failed supergroup in which he was joined by both Hiatt and Ry Cooder; and been dumped by a major label. Then, just when it seemed his career was about to nosedive, he began to write and record a series of pained, witty, mature songs that were seized on by American celebrities.

Over the past few years his work has been recorded by everyone from his ex-father-in-law Johnny Cash to Diana Ross and Nanci Griffiths, while the Curtis Stigers cover of his early 1980s song (What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding was featured on the soundtrack of the Whitney Houston film The Bodyguard and earned him $1m. "But it's nearly all gone. It's amazing. It doesn't go far. I didn't spend it on racehorses, but it did allow me to make another record and tour in a way that was way above my station."

Now, after a three-year gap, there's a new album, The Convincer, which will be promoted with a handful of concerts, including an appearance at the London Palladium. It consists almost exclusively of new songs that deal with typical Lowe concerns - "being blue, and love and the lack of it in all its forms" - and it opens with one of his most painful songs yet, the slow, gently vicious Homewrecker. It then eases into a series of bittersweet studies of the single man's life, from the understated horrors of Lately I've Let Things Slide to a witty, agonised rocker, Has She Got a Friend? There's the more folksy Indian Queens (inspired by a village in Cornwall) and an upbeat, commercial final track, Let's Stay In and Make Love. But, as so often in recent years, Lowe is at his best when he's witty and depressed.

He lives alone these days, in a comfortable house in a smart square in unfashionable Brentford, west London, but he denies that his songs are autobiographical. "I enjoy my own company and I'm not a set-my-diary-to-music man. But I know what I'm singing about." As for his influences, they stretch back to the 1950s, to "old-fashioned pop with its feet in blues and country and western", and to early soul-era heroes such as Smokey Robinson, "who wrote extremely grown-up lyrics". Then there's Arthur Alexander, "who could be pop or country or R&B. You don't know what sort of music it is, and he wrote brilliant, insightful little phrases. I turn to him whenever I'm in a hole."

A&R men across the Atlantic will no doubt be debating which superstar should first be offered these new Lowe works, but his own deliberately sparse, simple recordings, with their increasingly impressive vocals, are often the best. Lowe doesn't enjoy producing other people's records any more, "because these days there's a new kind of producing - you wear a good suit, stand at the back and tell everyone they're marvellous while other people do the work. Then the band decide they want to go off for a Chinese and suddenly it's three in the morning. Oh no. I like a lunchtime start and out by early evening, with three cuts under your belt."

That's the way he produces his own records, spending a very long time working on the songs in advance and a very short time in the studio, "with the vocals always live, and the musicians doing what they like because we trust each other". The aim, he says, is to make "records that are not overproduced and sound like demos. So when the A&R men hear them they'll say, 'Those are pretty good songs, but we could do them better than that!' "

Looking back at his wildly varied career, Lowe has decided that "fame is a mug's game" and claims he's glad he never became a superstar. In the 1970s and 80s, when he was touring with Rockpile, he notes that "We opened for a lot of big acts, and we had much more fun than them. It's no fun being a big celebrity. The poor loves hang around with each other, and a room full of celebrities is a mind-numbingly dull event."

A decade later, with Little Village, he learned another lesson: that being treated as a star does not necessarily help your music. "It was hopeless because Warner Brothers made us their pet project and gave us endless studio time. The record had so many overdubs that it was really dull. But the original demos we recorded in a shed in Ry's garden were fantastic."

Whether he likes it or not, Nick Lowe is famous again, and he is to be the subject of a forthcoming tribute album. At first Lowe tried to stop the project, telling Chrissie Hynde he didn't want it to happen, "but Elvis Costello said he was going to do it anyway and I couldn't do anything about it."

The album also includes Graham Parker, Levon Helm of the Band, Tom Petty and Charlie Musselwhite. Lowe is clearly chuffed but also embarrassed. "It's a bit naff if you're not yet dead," he complains. "It's premature. I'm not finished yet."

• The Convincer is out on Monday on Proper Records. Nick Lowe plays the Town Hall, Reading (0118-9606 060) on October 11; The Stables, Milton Keynes (01908 280800), on October 12; then tours.


Robin Denselow

The GuardianTramp

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