Perhaps no other element of my job (not even data entry) beats getting the opportunity to sit with a legend like Nick Lowe — whose record sleeves adorned my walls in college — and pick his brain for an hour-and-a-half, as I got to do in the lobby of The Hutton Hotel last month, when Lowe was in town performing at The Country Music Hall of Fame.
If you missed that, then you should really try and make it out to The Ryman to see Basher bang it up opening for Wilco. But first, check out Lowe's musings on songwriting, touring with Jeff Tweedy & Co., contemporary pop production, Brinsley Schwarz reissues (and the lack thereof), his marriage to and divorce from Carlene Carter and the process of recording his stellar new LP The Old Magic in the full Q&A (be-lowe) for this print piece.
Just out of curiosity, are there any plans to reissues any of the Brinsley Schwarz records?
No. Not that I know of. I don't know who would do that, but I certainly haven't heard anything about it. They're out in Japan. You can buy them in Japan, but I don't really have anything to do with the leasing of those records. I was fortunate enough to take control of my records much later on. Now those Brinsley records, I don't now who owns them.
Are there many songs in the vaults that haven't been heard?
There's actually a whole album, actually, which never came out, including our version of "Cruel to be Kind." We did one version of it which came out, which was a demo of it, and that was issued. I think it was kind of a giveaway record when I was with Columbia. But we did an actual proper version of it, which actually wasn't very good. It wasn't as good as the demo, and that was on the last album we did, but it never came out because we were fighting each other back then. It really wasn't very good music.
That's a shame. How do you feel about artists that go back and kind of empty out the vaults, and you know...
Scrape the barrel?
Scrape the barrel, right. Like Costello did with those sprawling Rhino reissues. All those kind of extra features, they're like deleted scenes — do you have a problem letting people hear those kinds of things and letting them in on the process?
Yeah, well I prefer not to because if it was any good, I'd release it. I understand that there's an interest in hearing something which, as you said, is part of the process. As far as I'm concerned, in my case, I don't think it's much good. But I know some people like that stuff and are very interested in it, and sort of I am as well for the people that I'm a fan of. (But) I prefer that it didn't exist.
Is it hard to be a good critic of your own work? Do you ever go back and re-evaluate those songs and decide later that maybe at the time you were too close to them to see their potential?
Yes, somewhat. I mean I think that a lot about records I've actually put out, and whenever I hear them now I very often think, "Oh boy, I wish we had done that differently," or, "I wish I hadn't done that bit there, and I wish I hadn't done it again there." When you get older you learn stuff — that's not always a good thing — you sort of have to unlearn stuff as well to keep it real simple and to the point.
Are there any specific examples of songs or parts in songs that you can think of that make you cringe when you hear them now?
I really can't think of an example right now, no. But there are many, but also I don't want to diss my old stuff because one man's cringe is another person's really great bit.
Yeah, I was almost hoping you would say my favorite song or something like that. At The Country Music Hall of Fame you talked how the life of a song changes when you're singing it, or how when singing someone else's song you almost assimilate it as your own. And you've talked about being disappointed in cover versions of your songs that try and get it too close to the original. How much of a song, in your opinion, is the chords and the melody and the lyrics, and how much is the man — the artist singing it?
That's a really good question. That's a really, really good question. I suppose the better the song is, the less important it is for the singer, for instance, to have to be any good. The song does all the work for you. That's in the song's case, but a record is different. I always say, for instance, my song "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass," which people ask me to play. I never do it. There's actually no song there, and I gave the bass player and drummer credit on the song because I just had a little idea when we went to the studio and made it up in the studio. When you strip it all back, strip the great drum part and the fantastic bass line...
And that piano part, too.
Well I know, I should have actually put Bob Andrews' piano and given him a taste, but he overdubbed his bit after I said to the guys, "There you are, you've done a really good job on it." I really should have given [Bob] a bit more than a session fee, that's all he got. But precisely, yes, because they did such a great job, I thought they made it into something. There isn't really much of a song there. If I played it on an acoustic guitar, the audience would probably give me a clap when they heard it, but after about three minutes they would be staring at their shoes and looking at their fingers waiting for it to finish because really there's nothing to it.
So it's just the character in the recording in that case?
Yep, it's a good song and a fantastic character, real good vocals. But most times that doesn't happen — it's one or the other.
I feel like "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" is really a much different song when you sing it than when Elvis (Costello) sings it. Your version is almost like a requiem mass or something, it's a kind of somber, mournful kind of song in a way. Then it's this total anthem when Elvis delivers it.
Yes, most people do do it [that style], and actually Brinsley's version is much more like that as well, the original version. But that song's been covered by so many people — I've heard it so many different ways. I've heard it by African school kids singing it, Tahitian fisherman, let alone all the actual pop people. And all different styles, even reggae versions. So I just thought, "Well I have to figure out a way of doing it myself," and I just thought that slightly more contemplative style suited me to get it across. But even then I find I do it differently. You know I hear versions of it that have been recorded since I think I've been doing it the way I do it, I mean it's quite different from how I'm doing it currently.
How does the life of a song change when doing a one-man show? How did you get in to performing solo?
Elvis Costello encouraged me to do it. He gave me a job in his band, The Confederates, with James Burton and Jim Keltner, those guys. I just was playing rhythm guitar, and it was very nice of him to do that. That wasn't really a job for me [laughs], he just said, "Come along and do a bit." After we'd been out on the road for a while, he said, "Why don't you open the show? Go and do a few songs on your own," and I didn't think I could do that because I had never done it before. He had just started doing it and said, "Go on, you'll really like it. You'll really enjoy it." So I tried it and I was amazed at how well it went, people really did like it. It really changed the way I wrote. When you stand with an acoustic guitar you can really see how a song can work for you and help you, and how the arrangement is very, very crucial for how well the song is going to come over. To start with, I was doing songs just like the record, and there were lots of little bits and pieces you don't really need and get in the way, really. So the songs I wrote after I'd been performing live, I always had an eye — or an ear — out for that, however you describe it. Or, "How is this going to be when I stand up in front of an audience?" I would think of it as actually just a guitar and vocal thing, and I found that my records started improving when I thought like that because I cut straight to the chase. And if you put a little fancy bit in it better work really strong. Any kind of noodly stuff or when you can't really think of what else to do except some silly chord change, that goes right out the window — forget about it, work it out. If you can't think of anything to do, well think of something right now. Everything tightened up, it got a lot more interesting really, because you have to have an idea and really tell people about it and there's no doubt about what you're talking about. Just like the music that I love, like country music from this city, and soul and R&B and gospel and all the other things I like. That's how I found I could improve myself.
So writing songs for the stage, or with the stage in mind, fostered that. Before would you say you were kind of coming at writing with more of a producer's ear, where you're thinking about all the other bells and whistles and studio orchestrations?
Yes, I was really, and thinking about the band. I was always thinking about that first. "Oh yeah, the band would sound good doing this," instead of actually thinking, "Well I don't know what the band would do with this, but here's a really good song to give to a band." I was thinking about the sound of a band first, and it's not so successful when you do that, artistically successful. Sometimes it can be commercially successful, but artistically, not really.
Is it nerve-wrecking for you to go up and sing without a band, with so little between the sound you're making by yourself and the audience?
No, it might seem like that, but it's not, really. It's what I do for a living, so it's quite normal to me. In a way, in my case, I love playing with a band because it's almost like I play acoustic anyways, because we play very quiet. It's very rhythm-led, you know. It's sort of song-led really, but I try to keep a lot of rhythm in the vocal so the vocal helps the rhythm. So it doesn't feel that different to me doing it on my own or with a band. It doesn't feel like the band is swamping me to sort of keep up. And actually, when you're on your own it, in a way, is sort of easier. You don't have to worry about, you know, if you feel you want to do it slower, then you just do it slower, you don't have to worry about the guys picking up on that. You can change the set list if you want.
I've actually only ever seen you perform solo — at The Belcourt here a few years back, and then I saw you at the Paradise in Boston six or seven years ago, and I was impressed at how you break the fourth wall, so to speak, and interact with the audience. At the show at the Paradise, you played this song about Bingo, the dog...
Oh [laughs], "Bingo," yeah.
OK, so it is called "Bingo"?
Yeah, it is called "Bingo," it's about the game of Bingo. It wasn't my song, it was a cover, actually.
Okay, I remember this moment in the middle you gave this self-deprecating nod at how you weren't happy with the way it was going over with the audience, then later you wanted them to cheer louder for something and threatened to play "Bingo" again. It became this whole kind of cat and mouse game. Is it harder to do that with a band?
No, it's not actually. We've known each other for a long time, and they think it's funny too. They like it, so I can play around with them. I've got a pretty nice audience, and they like that sort of thing. It is part of the show to talk to them and crack a few jokes. I don't normally think of myself as an earnest and serious artist. I take what I do seriously, but I don't really take myself very seriously.
That's an important distinction because I think a lot of people mistake having a wit, or some element of humor in songs, to mean that the craftsmanship isn't the same. But isn't almost easier to gravitate towards being earnest?
I think it's hard to not waffle with a lyric, to write a lyric that's just really clear. It's much easier to put a little waffle in there and call it poetry or art when it's actually just nonsense. I've done it myself, but I'm older now and try to make what I want to say very, very clear. But when I was younger I wasn't quite so on the ball. I'd shove a bit of old flannel in there and hope people thought I was being kind of deep, but in fact I just didn't know how to get out of it.
Do you think there's a lack of wit in today's pop music?
I don't think there is, no. I hear some pretty funny tunes. I'm not really an expert on contemporary pop music because I don't like the way it sounds, so I can't listen to it for very long. Whenever I do, I think there's some pretty clever people doing it.
Is it the production that turns you off?
Yeah, most contemporary pop music has got a sound frequency they use, it's very digitalized. The sound frequencies disagree with my ears. Also when I hear auto-tunes and things like that, it doesn't sound very good to me, and I think it's just a generational thing. My little boy loves that. He's only a kid, so he's heard a lot of rock 'n' roll music. He knows that there's some music that he doesn't really hear in our house, but there is some music produced for him. He recognizes it straight away; it's just starts, and he knows it's for him. I'm sure it's because of these frequencies they use which, for an old person like myself, I just don't like it. The sound disagrees with me.
Something that I think is different with today's pop music is that you don't picture musicians playing when you hear it. There isn't that mental image that relates to an audience, or when you see it live and a lot of it is tracks, or there's sequencers. It feels like you're watching a stage perform music to dance show or something, but it's not relating to an audience the organic way that musicians performing in the moment does.
Yeah, exactly. I like when you think, "Wow, what's that drummer doing there? What's that fella' doing over there in the corner?" sort of thing, but there's a large section of the audience that don't like that at all. They don't want to hear somebody, you now, a human being [laughs] or something, and that's just the way it goes. Tastes change.
As you moved into the third phase of your career, you’ve talked about trying to cultivate this multi-generational audience. Is that why you’re touring with Wilco?
Well I'm hoping that these shows with Wilco are going to really work for me in that area. Everybody tells me that I'm going to have a great time, which can be the kiss of death. It's like telling someone about a friend you've got, "Oh wait until I introduce you to this friend of mine, you'll really like him." Very often the two of you just don't get on. Maybe it's not going to work. But everybody tells me that these are great guys and that I'm going to have a ball. I do hope that that's going to be true, and I expect it will be. If it works well, I've got a feeling that their audience, or a section of their audience, could actually be my audience too.
I think that's probably true. I imagine a lot of Wilco fans are Nick Lowe fans.
Well they might not. It's the ones who've never heard of me that I'm kind of after. I mean, the ones that have — great. It's the ones who haven't, that's what I'm really interested in seeing, if I can get them interested in me. That's a demographic, an age group, that I would really like to cultivate.
Have you played The Ryman before?
No, I haven't. I'm very excited to play there. I went there to see the Johnny Cash memorial concert and sat on one of the pews for three or four hours, so my ass was really sore [laughs].
Whenever I go to a show there and it's not the kind of standing, like some rock show, and people are sitting I always wonder why, at least for that reason. What are some of your other Nashville experiences, are there any specific standouts? I'm sure there would be some with the Johnny Cash connection or even Hendersonville, I don't know if you ever went out there to the lake and all that. What have some of your work experiences been like here?
Let me see, as you mentioned, I played a few places here like The Belcourt, and I've done the Opry, the big new place, but that was opening for Tom Petty way back. I've done a little bit of recording here. In fact, the last production I did was in Nashville with The Mavericks. I did a track, two tracks, and one was for a Buddy Holly tribute record, which there has just been another one which I did a track on. But this was for one a few years ago, and the Mavericks asked me to produce their contribution to that. And also, we did a track for a movie called Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks. It was a big fancy studio, I can't remember, but it was near Studio B. It was a real big fancy studio, I can't remember now. But anyway, even though I was supposed to be the producer, I just sort of stood in the back and sort of said, "Hmm, pretty good!" A team of other people did everything else. It was nice that they said that I was the producer, but I didn't really do anything [laughs].
Do you have much of a desire to produce artists again?
No, I don't. I've let it go now, really. I do my own records.
I'm so stuck on the way I like to make records, and I can't really do it any other way. Most records are made in a fashion now that I don't really have any interest in, in a much more clinical kind of way. I don't really want to foist my way of doing things on them.
But certain artists might come to you wanting that, right? There are producers who change their production style based on situations and artists, and then there's producers that are known for a certain sound or a certain approach, and people go to them for it. Would you be interested if there was an artist you liked that wanted you to produce a record your way?
Well maybe, but it's incredibly expensive to record the way I do. You need real musicians who are expensive and a really good studio, of which there are hardly any left. Certainly in London there's only two worthwhile places, Abbey Road even is a tourist attraction now.
Yeah, what are the two, would you say?
In my opinion, people might disagree, but in my opinion RAK Studios is the one I really love, which is Mickie Most's old place. Hit after hit has come out of there, everything from Hot Chocolate to Donovan. You know, it's got a real pop history, and it's a real fantastic studio. The other one is probably Mark Knopfler's studio, but that's eye-wateringly expensive. Even when he does a deal or his people do a deal, I still can't afford to go in there, but he's got all the equipment. He's got the Abbey Road desk.
Do you still record to analog?
I don't now, but I can cheat it so they sound analog. I haven't recorded on tape for decades, but there are ways you can de-digitalize the sound. There's a few tricks you can pull, but you get the advantage as opposed to editing especially.
The Old Magic is a warm, sunny record, and the first thing I noticed is this '60s pop subtext that's on there. Parts almost kind of remind me of girl-group-style songwriting. Do you think that gels well with the country elements and economics of your writing style?
Yes. It's not a thought-out strategy because we tend to treat each song as we think it wants to go. The way we present it is suggested by the song itself, other than something we have an idea about from the get-go. The fellows that I record with and (producer) Neil Brockbank especially, he does the actual knob-twiddling and he usually does my live sound for me, we all love pop music. Sort of old-fashioned pop music, and old-fashioned pop record-making techniques, we love all that stuff. Also, mixing and matching, you know, so you put two different elements which you wouldn't think of as being compatible. You stick them in, and then you come up with something new. Sometimes three or four different (ideas), and stick them in. But you're right, we do do things like get into actually acting out the backing vocals, how we imagine people doing the backing vocals. So somebody will say, "They're definitely white, definitely white,with sweaters, clean cut." And we'll go in and sort of make that noise.
So it's like imagining a visual aesthetic?
Yeah, it's an imagined visual. With our little firm, I could describe it, our little outlet, they're really great musicians, but not particularly skillful in that there's bags of better drummers and better keyboard players who got more chops. But what I'm really interested in, the people that I think are great musicians, is the sort of attitude to make music which is very rare. I know lots of really great players, but they haven't got this thing. I don't really know what it is, it's certainly humorous. They know a little bit about a lot of different kinds of music, so they can bluff; they're fantastic at bluffing. If you say, "Look, like a sort of Italian film music thing." "Oh, I know what you mean, yeah!" and they pluck some funny chord, you know, that sort of thing. And the guitar player is going, "bing"!
So when I'm listening to the new record, am I listening to that conversation in a way, or the result of that kind of conversation happening? You know, with bluffing different aesthetics and things like that, am I listening to like a poker game in a way?
Yeah, I suppose it is, really. I mean we get a real kick out of it if it comes good. And when I say this, they are skillful players, and soulful, they got bags of soul, but when we get away with something we get a real kick out of it. When it sounds really convincing, like the real thing, and the fact that it's not quite right sounds even better to us. It sounds kind of homemade and funny.
And it's capturing a moment.
Yes, yes it is. You have to sort of know when you've got it or if the moment is not going to ever turn up for you, in which case it's time to go home [laughs]. I'm very lucky to have those fellows, they're really great.
How many songs did you write for this record or do you usually write for a record? Is the record all the songs?
No. I'm not really that prolific, you know, I don't have hundreds of them and then when trying to make a new record say, "Let's pick from these thirty." I suppose from when we started there's three others which bit the dust that we couldn't make work, one in particular. I worked really hard on the song and thought it was pretty good. When we came to record it it just really didn't happen at all. It sounded too old-fashioned and just didn't work at all. It seemed like it was a good song, it wasn't like we would re-jig the whole thing. It just couldn't be done, just wasn't good enough. There's a couple of others, but we probably pinched, stole a little bit, cannibalized the other ones.
Do you usually go into by deciding that you want to make a record and then going into the writing process, or does the writing process compel you first? Do you take breaks between writing songs, or are you always toying with ideas?
Generally what happens is, after a period of time after the record before, there will be a period of time when nothing's going on at all. Then suddenly I'll start writing a couple of ideas and maybe two or three songs will come along, and that will be it. I'll go into the studio and record them, see what happens. If it sort of catches fire, then the process starts, which is a bit akin to a snowball rolling down a hill. Those three will lead to another two, and those five will lead to another eight, and then the thing will finish. That's generally how it works, and it takes quite a long time. A few years certainly, but there's no point in me banging them out one after the other really, so it's quite lucky.
You used to put out a record every year or so — as it used to be a (?) it was probably de rigueur in the '60s, '70s and '80s.
When Brinsley started out we had to do two albums a year and all the gigs as well. We used to gig all the time, that's how we earned our living. The sales we had on those records, we were one of hundreds of groups all in the same boat. We all had the same sort of record deal: two albums a year. We played all these clubs and colleges and things up and down the the UK and Europe and in Germany. Hardly any of us sold any records, but if those sales were nowadays we'd be doing real well. Selling about 30,000 records is a real lot now. Back then we'd consider it to be our daily take.
Being in that situation, making two records a year, since bands don't have to do that now, is that almost unfortunate? How much did you learn by having to work that hard in the beginning?
It wasn't much fun, really, because you knew you didn't have enough material for it to be good enough. You had to really put out some bad stuff to fill up space. And it's sort of depressing to have to do that, but there's the record company saying, 'Come on, boys, it's time!' It wasn't the happiest of experiences, and you only had a week to do the record, the whole album. It was good training, you know, very good training.
Did you feel like it made you grow as a musician and a performer?
I suppose so. It either makes you grow or it drives you mad or drives you to drink or something and you get out of the business. If you stick with it, you can learn something from it.
Have you ever thought about getting out of the business?
Oh definitely, yes. There was a time when I just couldn't stand it any longer. The thing is, that the one thing I couldn't turn off was the urge to write songs. So that would never leave me alone, so I couldn't, some might say (I was) trapped. I think I am very lucky.
When was it you thought of getting out exactly?
Well, after my pop star career was at an end and my domestic life was in tatters. My first marriage to Carlene Carter had not broken up, but sort of disappeared, just sort of vanished. I let everything go and didn't have control over anything. I was an alcoholic, really, to all intents and purposes, I certainly was drinking all the time, and I felt bad, ill, and very dissatisfied with my career. At that point you just want to run away from it all, and I would have done any other job. After you calm yourself down a bit and give yourself a talking to, you realize I'm not suited for any other job, I'd be unable to do it. You just have to get yourself well and behave yourself. Get back with it. I got a divorce, tried to make it amicable as possible, I didn't want to have a fight, and she was fantastic. She is really great.
Are the two of you still in touch?
Yeah, oh sure. Because we have my stepdaughter, Tiffany, from her first marriage, I was her third go at it. So we had a mutual interest in Tiffany. I got myself another situation, an apartment, and just laid low for a while. I cut myself off from the rowdy friends I had, and bit by bit I felt myself getting better. That's when I started making plans. The problem was I couldn't get anyone to help me with it, anyone who would understand. When I started thinking of where I wanted to record myself and thinking about using the fact that I was getting older in the pop business as an advantage. I wanted to figure out a way I could use it as an actual advantage instead of saying, "Oh dear, I better wear tighter trousers. I better wear makeup." Hanging onto your youth in that really inappropriate way is what people sort of have to do sometimes. They're condemned to forever relive that time when they were most successful. The public will grow with them, and all they've go to do is carry on like they did when they were 22 for the rest of their lives, and I absolutely didn't want that to happen. I wanted to figure a way I could move on really naturally. I remember hearing old timers in the business whenever they were asked what advice they would give youngsters, they would say — and Johnny Cash even said it to me personally — "Just be yourself." I always thought, "What the hell does that mean? People don't want to see you being yourself, they want to see something magnificent. What does that mean? It's a copout." I used to think, "It's a copout, come on. Must try harder than be yourself." But the older I got, I started to understand what that meant. If you can figure out how to do it — and it seems ridiculous to tell somebody to do — but if you can figure out how to do it, that's exactly what you have to do. Then everything becomes quite simple to do, you don't have to pump something weird out.
So there's no pretense.
Yeah, and there's the danger of being found out, then you're a phony. If you can figure out how to do it, then everyone relaxes around you as well. You go out and just do what you do and everyone sort of — they don't even know they're doing it — but they are sort of relaxed. And you can get on entertaining them. Once I figured that out, bit by bit things started to get a bit clearer, then two things happened to me. This is after a couple of years. One was I got a phone call right out of the blue by John Hiatt. He called me and I hadn't spoken to him for ages, I mean probably not since we had this horrible experience happen. I hadn't spoken to him since it happened, and he called me and said, "Look, I'm feeling better. I'm out in the wide world again and I want to make a record, and I want you to play bass on it." And I thought, "That sounds pretty good. Yeah, I think I could play a bit of bass. I haven't played for a while, but I could probably do that." I said, "Where are you doing it?" And he said, "In LA," and I said, "Oh okay, yeah. Alright, yeah, I'd like to do that. Let me get my diary, and when do you want to start?" He said, "Well there's a plane leaving in about four hours," he said, "I've got a studio for four days, and I've got Ry (Cooder), (Jim) Keltner's gonna do it, and Ry may or may not do it. He said he'll come and have a look and if he likes it he'll come for the other four days. He'll give us a day and if he digs it, he'll stay for the other three, but he's made it very clear that if he doesn't dig it, he's not doing it."
So, in a sense, everyone was kind of auditioning for Ry Cooder?
Yeah. So, anyway, that threw me into panic, I thought, "I'm not ready to do this. I don't feel good enough to do this. This is like a dream, but I don't think I'm up to it. And not with someone like Ry and Jim Keltner, I don't want them seeing that I'm not up to it." So I said to him, "Sorry John, I can't go, I have something else to do." And he said, "Oh alright, well I'll get somebody else then." So anyways, then I put the phone down and then about an hour later my manager, a fellow called Jake Riviera, who's managed me for many years — quite a formidable character, at that point he was still managing Elvis Costello — and he was in a car going to the airport with Elvis, who was going on tour in the States. He was on a phone, which in those days didn't really exist — mobile phones — they had one in this car, this limo. He got on the phone to me and [laughs] he told me in no uncertain terms what he thought of me for turning this down. He had heard that I wasn't going to do it. He told me in no uncertain terms what he thought of me for turning this down. "Look," he said, "you missed this plane, you won't make the one that he was talking about. But there's one going two hours after that, so get your ass on that plane. You'll have to go straight to the studio, there is no time. You have to get off the plane and go straight and start cutting." So I said, "Alright, you really spooked me," so that's what I did. I called John back and said, "John, I've canceled what I was doing, but I missed the plane. I can get the next one." So he said, "Okay," and I got picked up at the airport with my bag, and I went from the airport to a music shop where I rented a bass. I didn't have a visa to work, so I couldn't turn up with a guitar, you know, tell him I was doing something and I was just coming for a visit. I went to the music shop, just got a bass off the wall, rented it, and went straight to the studio, dumped my bag down, and started playing. And that was Bring the Family. Well that was such a great experience and started a really great friendship. We've become very good friends and Keltner as well, I haven't seen him for a while. They were such great players and had this attitude towards making music which made a lot of my ideas. I couldn't find anybody to bounce off of or help me with this stuff, but a lot of the things I thought I wanted to do suddenly became very crystalized. I thought, "Ah, now I can see how," and what not to do as well because it was not by no means, you know, "Oh, I want to do it just like that." I thought they made quite a lot of mistakes, it could have been much better, but I was the junior partner in that organization. I had to keep my peace, I held my tongue. It was a real turning point for me, making that record. It made a lot of the ideas and things I'm doing now, that was sort of the start-off.
What kind of ideas specifically would you say?
One of the main things about that record was that John had these great songs ready to go. They were really, really good and they were sort of pre-arranged, and so you didn't have to fiddle around too much in the studio. He had to do the vocal at the same time, which was another thing back then you were told you couldn't do. I thought it was real important to sing the vocal at the same time because I think that brings it a tremendous amount of this feeling, this sort of sense of performance, which I think the listener can hear, whether they realize it or not. I really believe that if you sing the thing at the same time, this other element comes into the room and the music sort of molds to the vocal in a way that if you just do the backing track and sing the vocal afterward — that's the way you make a pop record — that's the way you do it. It's the model of pop tunes, not going back to Sinatra or Nat King Cole of course. But yes, it molds to the music much more apparently than if you just sing the vocal on top of a backing track. So I tried doing it a bit, but the engineers and people I worked with, they were kind of patronizing about it, saying, "That'll do for now. We'll do the vocals properly later."
Like it was a scratch vocal?
Yeah, but I said, "Oh no no no, oh no no no no. That is going to be the vocal." And they would go, "Really? What, with that little wobbly bit?" "Yeah, absolutely with that little wobbly bit, when it goes off pitch a bit. Yeah, I like that." I mean I try now to get it as good as I can and not have wobbly bits where you go off pitch, but having the personality in there and good musicians backing you up is gold dust. But I know it doesn't — it's one of the reasons I will never be a mainstream artist. It does make most of the public nervous to hear records like mine which got this sort of homemade quality about them, which I really like. People who like my records think it's delightful.
Isn't the audience a big part of that? Like cultivating an audience that you can sort of have this conversation with in a way that, you know, there's maybe some kind of like-mindedness in a way. A way of seeing the world or kind of a sense of humor.
That's right, you're absolutely right, they do. You're telling a story and they like it. They like the way you tell a story.
Because with mainstream artists, it's trying to have this mass appeal too.
Yeah. I suppose it's like the same thing, I don't know. The thing is that I've got to listen to my records as well — I've got to like them. If I can't listen to them then that's no good. How can I expect anyone else to like them? That's why I'm anxious to expand my audience. Any artist wants to do that, but I'm very aware that it's unlikely that I will be embraced by a massive amount of people because of this fact. It makes people nervous if they can hear its sort of fragile nature of it which I really like.
Would you say your approach to singing has changed over the years? I mean, you've got this very natural, almost conversational, singing voice sometimes, but you can't sense the English accent.
Yes, well that comes from the generation I come from. All we listened to were Americans, we didn't like English pop music until The Beatles, really.
What about The Bay City Rollers?
[Laughs] No, that was all nonsense. Until The Beatles came along we didn't like any home-grown, a little bit of Cliff [Richard] and the Shadows — the early stuff that they did — but all the stuff we liked was American. So we all naturally sang in American accents. Now I still sing with an American accent, but I think I've got something else; a bit of European in it as well. You know, I'll sing "betta," for instance, I'll say "betta," instead of "better." So some things I'll sing in a sort of European way. So you can always tell people from my vintage one by that, how they generally sing with an American accent, and the other is when they play the guitar they hold their thumb down there because the guitars that we had back then were so bad and the action — the gap between the strings and the fretboard is called the action — and it was really high. Nowadays it's practically on it, you know, and there was only one set of strings you could get, and they were about that thick (while pointing to a half-inch thick plant stem). In order to get the chord down you couldn't do it with what they call a bar chord, your finger just wasn't strong enough, so we used to use our thumb. So you can always tell people with those two elements.
Is it a "grass is greener" kind of thing, too? It seems like it transcends decades — the English having this infatuation with American music. Do you think there's anything specific that explains that?
America saved the world from Hitler with a bit of help from us, and everything, as far as we could see, was better. Better food, better clothes, certainly better music, and I can remember going — and I wasn't the only one, I've met other people who did this as well — I remember hearing that somebody had, on one occasion, a Jimmy Reed album. A stranger, finding out where they lived, knocking on their door, and asking to hear it, and we all sat around and listened to Jimmy Reed, "Thank you very much," and off we went. The same thing when I heard someone had a Stratocaster. I loved Stratocasters. We went around, knocked on their door, and asked if we could see it, and the guy opened it up. I remember sniffing the case, the case had this smell of America, it smelled of Americans. We were all, "[inhale] Whoah!" We didn't smell anything like that, and I was holding this thing and it seemed like it had come down, beamed in, from outer space. In fact, I feel a lot like that about this fabulous music — that it seems to be, arguably — it started sometime after the war, and in my view lasted up until about the mid-'70s. That's when suddenly it started regenerating itself, sort of eating itself; pop music.
It became referential.
Yeah, yes, it'd be like something that had gone before it.
And the punk thing was pretty referential with bands like The Ramones and The Clash.
Indeed. There seems to be no — some of those records, you can hear, get to hear so easily now with internet — there's nothing hidden. You can hear everything. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of incredible music that was recorded between 1948 and 1972. But there seems to be no sign of the people who did it. It's almost like they came in, made this amazing music, and then all cleared off. And all that's left behind is a few busted up guitars and pawn shops and a few broken-down old recording studios. When I look at pop music here and in the UK, there's no sort of evidence of any of these people who made this incredible stuff that finished in 1972. It seems sort of amazing to me when I hear some of that stuff because it's so innovative.
Who are some of the musicians that come to mind exactly?
Well I love rockabilly music, for instance. That stuff, to me, amazes me how inventive and terrific it is — really funny, witty songs, great playing, really great playing. When I hear a record like Jungle Rock (by) Hank Mizell, if you know that, that's absolutely wild, wild, fantastic stuff. Who could do that now? Who is capable of making a record as cool and as funny and as hip as that now? I don't know what else he did, maybe that was all that bloke did. But you think, "Well they did that one, why couldn't they have made another three or four as good as that?" but it wasn't to be. That to me is really interesting, and I'm continually influenced by all that stuff.
Getting out of pop music, that whole "escaping the tyranny of the snare drum," comment you famously made. Maybe just explain that a little bit.
I think what I was talking about with that expression was when I was getting out of producing. The new techniques of making records which came along in the '80s when they started making music on screens, on computers, that early digital sound. My wife, who's younger than I am, she quite likes a lot of that stuff, but it's absolutely unlistenable to me, that real old first wave with the horrible snare sound.
Where it sounds like it's in another room?
Yeah [laughs] exactly. I think that's what I was talking about when I said I can't be doing this with the tyranny of the snare drum. It's not for me.
Pop production, and this goes back towards the frequency range of contemporary pop music. It's put together like an Erector Set, and there would be these very constant rhythm parts. Just the choruses, new ways to put the chorus in over and over again, and then all of a sudden the high hat and kick drum will drop out for three bars. It's always very random, like they were sitting in there mixing, and then just be like, "Okay, this is going on for too long, it's getting boring. Let's take one thing out so it sounds different for a second, and then bring it back in with a kind of digital cowbell on top of it or something like that." There's a difference between making records that way, and what you're talking about with making records — this craftsman's approach. Do you think that's something that's lacking in this generation?
Well I really hesitate to start saying, "Oh, it was much better in my day," and, "Everyone should do it my way." I really don't lose sleep about it at all. I think that if I can create something which is hip in a way that I've been talking where kids will dig it. It's a lot like I was talking about at the Country Music Hall of Fame. I think that they'll realize that making music can be real good fun, really good fun. I mean it is good fun to get a great big amplifier and turn it up; that'll never go out, everyone's got to do that. After you've gotten over that, if you can make music that's got a saucy feeling — that's the best way I can describe it — if it's saucy, then you can have so much fun with it. And girls like it as well, you know, so it's not just a guy's thing, then you're on to something.
Right on. How much longer do you see yourself making records and performing?
Well I'm getting a bit of arthritis in my hands now, you know, but I feel good. But one day if I can't do it anymore or until no bugger turns up to me — that's the other thing. I saw poor ol' B.B. King the other day on TV playing at Glastonbury, and he shouldn't be doing it anymore. He really shouldn't be doing it anymore, he's not good enough anymore. I'm sorry to say it. So I would try and make sure that that doesn't happen to me.
You did Glastonbury this year, right? Was that fun?
It's quite hard work, really. But I do it nearly every year, it's a huge thing. There's loads of different tents and stages, so it's not like I'm following U2 or anything — I'm miles away. It's an unbelievably huge deal, Glastonbury is.
Do you like doing festivals?
Not really, no. I don't, but they're generally very well-paid. You're just another sideshow, really. I prefer doing my own shows just smaller, more elite [laughs].
Cool, well I'm looking forward to seeing you at The Ryman.