Nick Lowe has the trifecta of musical skills: One, he is a widely regarded producer; two, he is a capable musician; and three, he is a master songwriter. It's a triple threat that has served Lowe well during his varied 30-plus-year career.
Lowe began as the primary songwriter and bassist in the rock band Brinsley Schwarz in the early 1970s. During this period, Lowe wrote two of his best-known tunes: "Cruel to be Kind," a song that was reportedly dissed by his band members at the time but later became a huge hit for Lowe, and "(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" which would become a huge hit for Elvis Costello in the late '70s and another hit for Boise's own Curtis Stigers in 1992.
After Lowe's tenure with Brinsley Schwarz, he went on to become the house producer at Stiff Records—a label that has since served as a template for nearly all indie rock labels. (A popular Stiff Record's slogan was "When you kill time, you murder success.")
At Stiff Records, Lowe was at the helm for seminal records by The Damned and Elvis Costello. Lowe also did production work for bands that weren't on the Stiff roster, such as The Pretenders. Eventually, Lowe's production style earned him the nickname "The Basher."
"When I was producing music, I was better at the old-fashioned style of man management. You go into a studio and find where the power lies. I used to say, 'What we'll do is bash it down and tart it up later.' You have to get the initial energy. It was kind of hit and miss. When the '80s came around, there was no room for hit and miss," Lowe said in an interview.
And so, when the '80s crept in, and the style of music production became more computer oriented, Lowe all but hung up his producer's hat. He also turned his back on the genre in which he had originally found success.
"In the '80s I had finished my little time as a pop star. I was relieved. I didn't care for that world. I had to try and figure out what I was going to do. Up until then, the business had no use for someone over 35," said Lowe. Things are different now, he said. Artists who are well over 60, such as Neil Young, are often still in high demand.
A few years later, Lowe was able to do exactly what he wanted thanks to a little help from Boise musician Curtis Stigers, who recorded a version of "(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" for the soundtrack of the 1992 blockbuster, The Bodyguard (Whitney Houston, Kevin Costner). The album eventually went on to become the biggest selling soundtrack of all time—selling over 40 million units worldwide. In the course of a few months, Lowe became a millionaire from royalty payments. Independent wealth allowed him to pursue a new incarnation of his solo career—an evolution that found him ditching what he calls the "tyranny of the snare drum."
"I had done pretty well up 'til then, and when my time was up, I thought, 'I haven't done anything that was really good yet.' I had to figure out a way to reinvent myself. [The money] couldn't have come at a better time," said Lowe.
But the money from The Bodyguard royalties lasted only a few years. "Mind you," Lowe said, "[the money] is all gone now. I paid for the recording of two albums and touring. I paid musicians, we had nice buses, stayed in respectable hotels ... with the rest, I bought a couple of suits and took some people out to dinner and that was it." The money did allow Lowe to reshape himself and, in short, achieve relevancy in a genre much removed from the pop landscape in which he had originally found success.
"Once people see you are in contention again, they come sniffing around. Money breeds money ... then you get other people recording your songs ... you get back in the game again," said Lowe.
Lowe's post Bodyguard life has been one filled with solo recordings of his own quirky style. "I listen to a lot of American roots music. There is so much of it that you never, never hear. It's filled with wit and humor," he said. "It is almost like the people that made that music went to Venus. They came here and made the music, and then they just went away. I don't feel compelled to go out and buy [new] stuff. On VH1, there are just scads of really bad rock bands. And they look like sacks of spuds ... I have no idea what they are even singing about. I know there are good people about, though, and quite a lot of them are my friends."
When asked about how he wants his solo recordings to sound, Lowe responded, "The way my records sound is not much to the mainstream's taste. It's more of a handmade feel. [Mainstream listeners] think it is going to fall to bits any second, [but] if you have ears to hear, then it is a refreshing change," he said. "There is method in my madness by recording like that. A lot of people in the business listen to my stuff [which increases my chances for getting someone to cover a song]. I think of myself as a songwriter now."
Lowe's personal life has been just as colorful as his music career. For several years, he was part of Johnny Cash's family. In 1979, Lowe married Carlene Carter, Johnny Cash's stepdaughter and the daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith. Lowe said he got on well with his stepfather-in-law.
"Johnny and I were very good friends," said Lowe. "I was lucky to have him record a few songs. Even after we got divorced [we remained friends]. They weren't strangers to ex-son-in-laws. They were lovely people. I still miss them very much indeed."
Lowe's plans for the future are to keep it mellow and steady. "The world isn't exactly screaming out for new product from me. I have a great following though. When I come up with something that I think is good, I'll put it out. I am not striving for world domination ... that sounds like too much hard work," he said with a laugh.
Nick Lowe plays the Egyptian Theatre on October 4, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28. Ron Sexmith—who Lowe said is one of his favorite songwriters—will open. The Egyptian Theatre, 700 W. Main St., 208-345-0454.