From ultra-hip punk rocker to smooth silver-haired crooner of Americana-inspired ballads, British singer-songwriter Nick Lowe has seemingly done it all in the world of music.
Lowe has had hit songs in America and England, most notably “Cruel to Be Kind.” He produced Elvis Costello’s first five groundbreaking albums. And he even wrote songs recorded by Johnny Cash, including “The Beast in Me.”
He returns to Pittsburgh fronting a group billed as “Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets” on Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. at Mr. Smalls Theatre in Millvale.
New Wavers of the late 1970s remember Lowe bursting onto the scene with the electrifying single “So It Goes,” a song so catchy that it inspired critic Jim Connelly to write that it’s “a serious contender for the greatest power pop song ever recorded.” Lowe had in fact become an integral part of a fresh sound breaking through in rock ’n’ roll.
“The music scene had split into two halves back then. There was a sort of cool hip side, and a sort of mainstream pop side and we liked both and we wanted to mix it all up. If you mix up stuff, you come up with something that sounds new,” says Lowe, in his relaxed morning voice over the phone from New York.
“So It Goes,” which was featured in the film “Rock ’n’ Roll High School,” led off side two of Lowe’s critically acclaimed solo debut album, “Pure Pop for Now People,” a reconfigured U.S. version of the album titled “Jesus of Cool” in Britain. It included other gems like “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” and “Heart of the City.”
But those songs would be overshadowed by “Cruel to Be Kind,” Lowe’s only major American hit, which rose to No. 12 on the pop charts in 1979. That same year Lowe married American roots singer-songwriter Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. The official video for “Cruel to be Kind” was filmed at their wedding.
At that point Lowe had a lot to be happy about — a successful career, a talented wife who shared his passion for music, and a famous father-in-law with whom he had a great relationship.
“He was a quite normal guy in many ways,” says Lowe. “We lived in London and I would see him once or twice a year. And always, always, always, for the first 15-20 minutes, I could barely breathe. He was the most charismatic person I’ve ever met, and I couldn’t breathe or speak. But he was so friendly and nice.
“He and June came to stay at me and Carlene’s house on a couple of occasions and we lived in a very modest house in an area called Shepherd’s Bush in London. Back then it was a sort of poor part of town. John and June were so fantastic. I’d get up in the morning and go down to my little kitchen and see Johnny Cash sitting in his bathrobe playing the guitar and June was making scrambled eggs. He was a brilliant bloke, fantastic guy, and June too. I miss them both.”
The marriage lasted until 1990, when life shifted for Lowe.
“I found myself at a crossroads. My initial pop success had worn off and I felt pretty washed up,” he says.
In addition, Lowe’s private life was in disarray. With his marriage falling apart, he began to self-medicate.
“I was doing all the cliché things. I was doing too much drinking and taking drugs and things like that and I wasn’t inspired. I wasn’t a happy man and I just thought, ‘It’s time to withdraw and consider my options.’ ”
Lowe got his affairs in order. He finalized his divorce, stopped drinking and taking drugs, and went into seclusion.
“I decided to try and think of a way of writing songs for myself and presenting myself in a way that could take advantage of the fact that I was getting older in a business which, at that time, had no use for anyone over 30. This involved a much more restrained, intimate, confessional style,” says Lowe.
The eventual result included the 2011 album “The Old Magic.” It was a record that saw Lowe at the height of his second act in which he embraced his age and churned out a memorable collection of stripped-down, introspective songs. They included “Til’ the Real Thing Comes Along,” with its haunting refrain “Let me love you til’ the real thing comes along,” and the contrastingly comedic “Sensitive Man.”
Lowe was touring in support of “The Old Magic” when he last appeared in Pittsburgh, at Mr. Smalls, nearly seven years ago to the day.
Around that time, an article in The New York Times related a story about Huey Lewis inviting Lowe on stage for “I Knew the Bride,” a Lowe composition first popularized by Dave Edmunds. Lowe’s response: “Huey, I don’t rock anymore.”
Back in rock
But that was then. Now at the age of 70, Lowe has his rock ’n’ roll boots back on.
It all came together when he hooked up for a holiday show with Los Straitjackets, a five-man instrumental rock band known for its surf sound and unusual stage attire, which includes personalized Mexican wrestling masks.
“They’re very agreeable fellows to tour with. It didn’t take very long before they were dutifully learning up my records very carefully,” says Lowe. “But I said, ‘Look, fellas — don’t bother about learning up my records. Let’s treat each song as if you were going to do an instrumental version of it and I’ll just join in on the singing.’ And that’s when we started to get our own sound and our own feel. It actually sounds like a thing now.”
A setlist from earlier this summer includes songs Lowe is famous for, including a couple recorded with his former bands Rockpile and Brinsley Schwarz. They include “When I Write the Book” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a song many people mistakenly think Elvis Costello wrote.
“I’m very proud when people say the songs are better known than I am. That’s just fine.”