TODD BARRY: So this was the last show of the tour. Do you have the urge to do five more shows now? Or are you ready to catch the first flight home?
NICK LOWE : No, not really, no. Sometimes I find that I have this sort of… this sort of other—I have this person or this thing which I call “the Bloke.” The Bloke is, I suppose, a kind of inspirational thing that—I used to say that when I, you know, was writing songs—I have written a couple of songs, but since I’ve had a little boy, it’s very, very difficult to devote time to it, so I haven’t written much for a while. But I always used to talk about how the best songs that I write are written when the Bloke comes ’round. And it’s this sort of person who I never know when they’re gonna come, or how to get in touch with him, or anything like that, but when they come along, it’s almost like they’re not interested in doing any interviews, they’re not interested in being on the TV or doing any tours; they’re this fantastic songwriter to show me their songs and I write, I do their songs, and claim them for my own. And sometimes the Bloke doesn’t come ’round for months, you know, and I don’t know how to get in touch with him, but I’ve seen him work so many times that I can do a very good impersonation of the Bloke, you know. And I know the difference, I know the difference between my songs, the ones I do and I write, and the ones the Bloke writes. But also the Bloke comes along on the live gigs, too, and sometimes we find that near the end of the tour, the Bloke goes home and leaves me to do the shows on my own.
TB: So does that mean you’re sleepwalking through the show?
NL: Sort of, yeah.
TB: Really? Wow.
NL: Well, I wasn’t sleepwalking through it tonight, but it has happened in the past. I mean, the Bloke goes home and leaves me—
TB: So do you do anything to shake it up, or do you just wait?
NL: I just wait. I used to fly into a terrible panic about it, but I find that if you wait it comes back.
TB: So you’ve never said, “I wake up at nine and at ten I start writing songs”?
NL: No. I have tried that, because my friend John Hiatt told me once, he said, “I’ve got an office”—it was when he was living in Nashville—he said, “I’ve got an office in town, and every day I would go to work. I’d have a piano in there and a guitar and stuff, and I’d go and work in there from nine—take lunch off, you know, and work through the afternoon—and write songs. If I didn’t write at least one, and preferably two, a day, I’d think it’s a bad day.” Well, that is absolutely—I cannot understand how anyone could do that.
TB: Two songs a day sounds like quite a bit of songwriting.
NL: It’s too many! It’s too many. It takes me months to write one two-and-a-half-minute song. Months! Not always, but—weeks, it can take me weeks to get it, to go over and over it. But I do it when I’m driving my car or I’m doing my shopping or something, and I just think about it and think about it and hit myself with it, you know, “How’s this?” And you jag on a bit, “Woah, hold on, that’s not good,” and then you smooth it out, maybe employ a clever use of a cliché, you know, just to smooth it out, and then you do a clever bit later. So I work on it like mad to get it to sound like I haven’t written it. That’s when I think it’s good—when I can’t see any vestige of my influence in it.
TB: So you see your talent as a completely separate entity?
NL: Yeah, I think it’s almost like a—if it’s not the Bloke, the other thing that I always think about is that I am living in an apartment, and next door they’ve got their radio tuned to this really fantastic radio station, which is on all the time but I can hardly hear it. And then they start playing this really cool new tune in their programming, and I can’t hear it, but every time it comes on, I stop and I try and listen through the wall, and it’s very muffled and every time it comes on I can just get two or three words or I get the tune and I really want to hear it played, you know, because it’s a really great new tune. I never know when they’re going to play it, but every time they do play it, I stop and I get a little bit more, a little bit more. And the trick is to not rush it, to wait until you’ve learned the whole song, because the temptation is—because you want to play it so quick—is for you to finish it off the way you think the song is. But the trick is to wait and listen for the way it actually goes, and then you’ve got it. And I find that that’s how I write songs. It’s something I hear, and it’s not me doing it, it’s something that I hear—so it’s always somebody else’s work, you know. I don’t think that there’s barely anything original about what I do at all. Maybe how I put shit together is original. But I think that that’s the way it is for everybody—Johnny Cash always used to say the same thing—that it’s just bits and pieces that I’ve picked up. The way you put it together suddenly becomes your style.
Why am I telling you this? You must know this better than anybody.
TB: I heard an interview with a writer, and they asked her how she writes—and she says you don’t know when the muse is gonna strike, but you should be there when it arrives, or something like that.
NL: Yeah, it’s the same thing.
TB: But I think she was sort of saying that she does what John Hiatt does, but maybe not to that extreme.
NL: Right, so she’ll go and look at a blank piece of paper and sit with her fingers in front of the typewriter. That’s so—I just cannot do that. I wish I could.
TB: So what if the Bloke visits you while you’re shopping? Do you pull out a pad and write something down, or do you hope you remember?
NL: No, no, you want to think that if it’s something really good you’ll remember it. A good title is really half the battle. A really good title. If it’s not too original, it’s just got a little hook in it somewhere, and it just grabs you. And if you forget it, then it probably wasn’t as good anyway.
TB: Really? OK.
NL: But I don’t think that’s particularly an original thought in itself; there are plenty of ways that people have described being inspired so that you’d write something. That’s my latest.
Nick Lowe and Todd Barry in conversation (May 2009).
Also see: Nick Lowe’s Tiny Desk Concert.