Things are looking up again for Nick Lowe. His new album, "The Rose of England," has been widely hailed as his best effort since 1979's "Labour of Lust." The new album's first single, "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll)," looks like his biggest hit since "Cruel to Be Kind."
The British new wave singer-songwriter-producer got crucial help on the album from two old friends: Huey Lewis and Elvis Costello.
"Huey Lewis is the only person I ever knew as a normal person and then watched him become a megastar before my very eyes," Lowe says.
"His first band, the Clover, played on Elvis' first album, which I produced, and Huey played some bits on my first album. So this year I was telling Huey that Columbia didn't like my new album, because they didn't think it was commercial enough.
"Huey said, 'No problem, let's do "I Knew the Bride." 'But that's a bit of a chestnut,' I told him. 'I wrote it nine years ago for Dave Edmunds.' And he said, 'Your fans may know that, but let's face it, their numbers are not exactly legion. Let's recut it with a more modern sound.' So we cut it in three days with his band, the News, and all of a sudden Columbia decided the album was exactly what they were looking for."
When Lowe started recording, longtime friend Costello came down to the studio as always. "Elvis got real excited that we were recording almost totally live," Lowe recounts. "We just set up the microphones, and away we went. He phoned me up a few days later and said, 'I've got this song you might like to try, Nick.'
"I sort of dreaded listening to it. Although Elvis is a great songwriter, his songs usually have tons of chords and vocal twists and very personal lyrics, none of which really fit my style. But he played me the song, 'Indoor Fireworks,' and it was pretty straightforward; I suppose it's about the breakup of his marriage. I was very pleased to record it; my own marriage had also just ended, but there had been no fireworks; it was all quite amicable and boring."
Lowe was the hub that connected the spokes in Britain's new wave invasion of 1976-79. Lowe produced the early records by Graham Parker & the Rumour, the Pretenders, and the Damned; wrote Dave Edmunds' best songs; produced Elvis Costello's six best albums; formed the seminal Rockpile quartet; and recorded two acclaimed solo albums and the American hit single "Cruel to Be Kind."
But the '80s have been leaner for Lowe. He continued to produce (Costello, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, John Hiatt and Paul Carrack) but failed to come up with hits, and his own albums drew increasingly indifferent reviews. He married into America's first family of country by wedding Carlene Carter (Johnny Cash's stepdaughter and Maybelle Carter's granddaughter), and then divorced his way out again.
Lowe's on the rebound now with his new album and tour. His band, the Cowboy Outfit (ex-Squeeze keyboardist Carrack, ex-Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont and ex-Sinceros drummer Bobby Irwin), has become a tight unit after more than three years. It plays at the Bayou tomorrow.
Unlike his best known production clients, Lowe writes songs without a strong personal stamp -- many of his originals sound like fluke bits of inspiration by one-hit wonders from the past. He purposefully cultivates this style, so you can't tell the difference between his own "Lucky Dog" and Moon Mullican's obscure 1957 gem "Seven Nights to Rock."
"When I write a song," he says, "I sing it over and over to myself until it sounds like someone else's song, so it sounds so natural that my friends can't tell the difference when I play it for them. I want my songs to sound like those great B sides you discover in the back of record stores -- songs that are entertaining and don't get above themselves.
"At the same time, those songs took far more risks than anyone does today; you can find so many different beats on those old records. That's the trouble; no one takes any bloody risks today. With these machines, you can make records without any mistakes on them, but to me, music isn't supposed to be like that. If there aren't any slips on it, it can't have any soul. My record company would like me to sound more glossy, but it doesn't work for me; I'm just not a glossy guy."
Lowe attributes the critical success of "The Rose of England" to three factors: his new sobriety, a new sense of direction and just getting older and wiser.
"I was probably drinking too much when I got into the studio," Lowe says, "and I probably listened to a lot of bad advice because I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I'm off the booze now, because I saw myself turn into a rock 'n' roll cliche'. There's so many people like that in this business; they get a little bit of success and immediately wreck themselves by thinking they don't have to work very hard anymore.
"The stuff I do is American roots music, and I figure you get better at it as you get older. I mean, you hear a young guy singing the blues, and it sounds ridiculous. But you hear guys like Muddy Waters and Merle Haggard, and they did their best stuff after 40."
Lowe, who's 36, laughs. "So I figure there's hope: maybe in another 10 years, I'll start making some really good records."