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Features

The Age Of Reinvention

How getting older fits into Nick Lowe’s latter-day renaissance

F. Scott Fitzgerald may have famously said that “There are no second acts in American lives,” but Nick Lowe apparently never got the memo. Ever since the release of 1994’s The Impossible Bird, he has re-emerged as an introspective singer-songwriter caught somewhere between classic country crooner and melancholy saloon singer. Out in support of last year’s The Old Magic, Lowe has seen his profile raised even further after being personally invited to open for alt-rock giants Wilco on a few legs of their 2011 tour. Always a critical darling, the 63-year-old singer-songwriter is currently enjoying the accolades of a younger generation of fans mostly unfamiliar with his prior incarnation as a major player in the late 1970s pub-rock/punk-cum-new wave scene.

“[When Wilco] asked me to do a leg of their tour, I thought it was an extremely bold move on their part. I didn’t know how it was going to go. I suspected it would be alright because I thought their audience might be my audience except they didn’t know it yet because they’re musically literate younger people who wouldn’t in the normal course of events run across me,” Lowe recalled on the phone from a tour stop in Phoenix. “And also I thought, they’re sort of playing rock and roll shows and when an old bloke with an acoustic guitar comes out, it doesn’t exactly make your pulse race with excitement. In any event, the shows went extremely well.”

And while his role as producer-for-hire (Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, The Damned, Graham Parker) and founding member of power-pop/rockabilly revivalist outfit Rockpile alongside Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner and Terry Williams flies under the radar of most casual music fans, Lowe’s best-known songs have achieved significantly more recognition than their composer. Aside from his sole American hit “Cruel to Be Kind,” the British native has gotten the biggest bang for his creative buck when others have deigned to record his material. Former father-in-law Johnny Cash, (who himself experienced a career rebirth), cut a better-known version of “The Beast in Me” (despite Lowe’s original being used in the pilot episode of The Sopranos). Longtime friend Costello first introduced the public to “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” before blue-eyed jazz vocalist Curtis Stigers took it into the stratosphere in the ’90s (more on that later). It was this part of his craft that Lowe clung to when record company offers started drying up in the early 1990s.

“As always happens, the public had gotten tired of my schtick and actually, so had I. I was in full accord with them,” Lowe said. “I had produced a couple of records for other people, [so] if I had to go back and get a proper job, I hadn’t done too badly. But I knew that was ridiculous because I felt that I hadn’t really even kind of started. I didn’t feel like I had actually done anything really good. I had kind of ticked some boxes. I had a calling card and I had a couple of hit records under my belt. It was time to get on with something. I felt like it was the beginning of something really. But I knew that’s not how the pop music business worked back in those days. There wasn’t really any consideration for people in their 40s really, let alone their 50s, 60s, 70s or God help us, their 80s.”

It was around this time that Stigers’ version of “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” made its way onto the soundtrack of the 1992 Whitney Houston romantic thriller The Bodyguard. The fact that it sold more than 40 million copies worldwide enabled Lowe to start recording music in a manner that he’d been aching to do but had been unable to get a major label behind. It was a break that couldn’t have come at a better time for Lowe.

“All I had was this idea and some songs and we got some money together and made the record we thought was a really good record. But I couldn’t find anyone to put it out and by this time, my stock had fallen very, very low. I had these ideas and I couldn’t really find anyone to give me a hand with it. When I explained it to people, they looked at me sort of sympathetically when I told them I wanted to make it sound like a demo. They didn’t really know what I was talking about. I didn’t want it to sound like a demo but I didn’t want it to sound like glossy pop music. I wanted it to sound like something really intimate, more like a jazz record and I couldn’t get anyone to give me a hand” he explained. “All of a sudden Curtis, God bless him, recorded [the song] and it went into this film and suddenly through my door dropped a succession of very tasty checks. And suddenly I could bring this record to my American [fans], which is really where my audience really lays, although it was a bit dormant at the time.”

While the younger Lowe sang about being cruel to be kind or loving the sound of breaking glass, his older self is content to sing about living and loving during the autumnal years of his life. When he’s not singing about being left high and dry in a loveless land in the lush Burt Bacharach/Hal David-inspired gem “I Read a Lot,” he’s just as quick to don the guise of a cad luring in members of the fairer sex only to break their hearts in “I Trained Her to Love Me.” In singing about this deeper fare, Lowe has come to embrace getting older and the freedom it’s given him.

“When you’re young, the whole thing is putting on an act all the time and sometimes it’s cool and sometimes it isn’t, but that’s what you do. As you get older, you get a bit fed up of doing it and that’s when people pack it in because they feel they’re too old for this,” he explained. “But if you can break through, find a way of being as natural as you can be and bring out all the things you used to try and cover up about yourself, it cheers everyone up. It makes things a whole lot easier as well and it improves your music and all the rest of it. I’m sort of a work in progress.”

Nick Lowe appears on October 13 at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (www.whbpac.org/631-288-1500) and on October 14 at Port Washington’s Landmark Theater on Main Street (www.landmarkon main street.org/516-767-1384).