A year and a half ago, Nick Lowe had almost convinced himself that his days of making records were over. After a storied forty-plus year career as an artist, producer and one of the most-revered songwriters of his generation, the affable rocker-next-door stepped back to take stock of his situation.
“I’d been dodging the thought of making another record for a few reasons,” Lowe says, “First, I’ve never been particularly prolific. I write songs all the time, but the thing about getting older is that I’m extremely self-critical. I can spend quite a long time fiddling around with some little two-and-a-half minute tune, and then finally go, ‘Oh, I’ve heard this before so many times,’ and just drop it. So I wasn’t exactly laden with new material. Plus, to make the kind of records I know how to make is incredibly expensive. Never mind that nobody really buys records anymore. Also, the live thing is so easy to do now. You can travel in quite a degree of comfort and be nicely thanked for your efforts. So you think, ‘Why would I put myself through making another record?’”
But beyond those practical considerations was a larger emotional impasse – the untimely deaths of Lowe’s two longtime creative partners, drummer Bobby Irwin and producer Neil Brockbank, in 2015 and 2017, respectively. Both had been with him since his career renaissance in the mid-1990s. “They were my two closest friends,” Lowe says. “Losing them really knocked me off my bike, and I thought, ‘I think I’ve sort of had enough of this. ‘
“And then along came the Straitjackets.”
That’s Los Straitjackets, America’s beloved masked men of surf-and-spy guitar instrumentals. Now with their ace backing, Lowe steps lightly back into the fray with a Double 45 featuring two crackling originals “Tokyo Bay” and “Crying Inside,” along with winning covers of Dionne Warwick’s “Heartbreaker” and Cliff Richard’s “Travelin’ Light.”
The match that helped Lowe recapture his studio groove started casually in 2012 when he and the Straitjackets jammed at a party for their shared label, Yep Roc. “Apart from being a really fantastic rock ‘n’ roll band,” Lowe says, “they know how to play tons of different styles really well. They can knock you out a version of Bacharach & David’s “The Look of Love” with no trouble at all. On top of that, they’re just very agreeable fellows to be around.”
Between 2014-17, the group accompanied Lowe on three well-received tours (two in support of his holiday disc Quality Street, one of Rolling Stone’s 40 Essential Christmas Albums). “I’d been out mostly on my own,” Lowe recalls. “And going around with an acoustic guitar has its advantages. It’s a small unit. Usually just you and one other person. But it’s not nearly as much fun as touring with the Straitjackets. I think the experience has energized me.”
It also opened the door in the most organic way for a new recording. Meeting at Diamond Mine Studios in Queens, NY, and continuing with Neil Brockbank’s young protege Tuck Nelson in the mixer’s chair, the affair felt spontaneous and like a natural progression. “It was relatively unplanned,” Lowe affirms. “We happened to be in New York at the same time, and it was suggested that we go knock out two or three things in the studio. We didn’t know if it was going to work or not. I almost didn’t have time to think about it in any sophisticated way, which was ideal. When I realized ‘We can do this,’ it really did force me out of my lethargy.”
The rollicking rave-up “Tokyo Bay,” propelled by Lowe’s snappy rhyming and guitarist Greg Townson’s twangy leads, was inspired by a visit to Japan. “Tokyo Bay is actually all chimneys belching out weird-colored stuff and ugly sea-going vessels,” Lowe says, with a chuckle. “But the name conjured up something very exotic somehow. It got me thinking about a romantic notion of somebody wanting to come here. This rockabilly tune popped up.”
The tuneful “Crying Inside” revisits a favorite Lowe theme of the happy-go-lucky masquerader hiding a broken heart. “It’s that Smokey Robinson vibe,” he says. “I always return to ‘Tears of a Clown.’ It’s a pretty good little tune that moves along.” As with Lowe’s best material, both songs sound brand new and like they’ve been around forever. Contempo-classics.
The originals are complemented by two covers. While Cliff Richard’s “Travelin’ Light” is stylistically akin to Lowe, the Barry Gibb-penned “Heartbreaker” is more of a left-field surprise (“The melody is almost classical, like Bach or Haydn,” Lowe says). Yet in the way that he makes both seem like they came from his own pen, it illustrates his view of a creative junction where originals and covers overlap.
Lowe says. “When I write my own song, I work at it until I start to think that it’s a cover song. Maybe it’s a delusion, but I think that I’ve removed all of my tricks out of it. When it sounds like somebody else’s song, with me doing it, that’s the place I try to reach. The opposite is true when I come across a cover I like. I work at it until I believe that I wrote it, and I can take liberties with it in the same ways I can with ones I did actually write. It’s a sort of a reverse process, but the same thing is going on.”
The concise, colorful four-song set, the first new non-holiday music from Nick since 2011’s masterful The Old Magic, will surely whet fans’ appetites for more. And indeed, it’s a prelude to live dates with the Straitjackets this spring and the unveiling of more new material. “I’ve got a few more tunes ready to go that I’m very happy with,” Lowe says modestly.
On a larger scale, it also speaks to the required patience and fortitude when you have a calling as deep as Nick Lowe’s for making pop music. “Even though I had those thoughts of not recording again, the truth is, you have to keep it coming,” he says. “It’s a tap that won’t turn off, really. Even if you don’t much feel like it. But now with the Straitjackets, something seems to be afoot. It feels like a beginning.”