Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Producer Rob Seidenberg on "Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe"

On September 18th, Fiesta Red Records released Lowe Country: The Songs Of Nick Lowe, featuring Hayes Carll, Chatham County Line, Robert Ellis,  JEFF The Brotherhood, Ron Sexsmith, Lori McKenna, Caitlin Rose, frequent Justin Townes Earle and Jason Isbell collaborator Amanda Shires, and many others.

Proceeds from the album will benefit victims of the 2010 Nashville floods and Texas wild fires of last year via The Central Texas Wildfire Fund (administered by the Austin Community Foundation) and The Nashville Rising Fund (administered by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee).

Music industry veteran Rob Seidenberg founded Fiesta Red Records, which is based in Austin. Prior to that, he lived and worked in New York, NY and Los Angeles, CA as, among other things, the president of Mammoth Records; a record producer and music supervisor; an A&R executive at Hollywood Records and Rykodisc; and a journalist/editor covering the worlds of music and film. Rob has worked with such artists as Los Lobos, John Wesley Harding, the Posies, Joe Henry, and the Minus 5.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the making of Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe with Rob Seidenberg.

Please describe your own history with Nick Lowe's work. (How did you get into his music? What has his work meant to you on a personal and professional level? What are your thoughts on the man, his music, his legacy, etc.?)

Rob: I was in high school when I first heard Nick Lowe: the first Stiff single, “So It Goes”/”Heart of the City,” and his first US album Pure Pop for Now People. Of course, it wasn’t punk rock, but amidst a late ‘70s musical wasteland, it sounded just as bracing and fresh.

Lowe also played a huge role in much of the best music of that time--as an artist and a writer but also as a producer for the likes of Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, the Pretenders and Dr. Feelgood. This was the music I was listening to, and Nick Lowe was at the center of so much of it.

Plus, he was part of the inimitable Rockpile, the band he formed with Dave Edmunds. Believe me, my band in Providence, the Prime Numbers, tried. We played Lowe’s “Marie Provost,” “Shake That Rat” (an instrumental B side) and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” But we could only dream of being a small fraction of what Rockpile were.

I mean, nobody could hold a candle to Rockpile. They had an uncanny stylistic versatility; they were potent and powerful, yet deft and sensitive when necessary; they had memorable songs, incredible hooks, fantastic harmonies, spontaneity, bite, humor—everything I was looking for in a rock & roll band.

A few years after I graduated from college, I delivered a lecture at North Adams State College in western Massachusetts on the influence of country on rock & roll. Once again, Nick Lowe featured prominently. After all, country had always been huge influence on his early 1970s band, Brinsley Schwarz, and his second solo album, Labour of Lust, included “Without Love,” a tune that was eventually covered by Johnny Cash, Lowe’s future father-in-law.

I’ve always been impressed by the way Lowe can mine so many different strains of American popular music and create something of his own, something that doesn’t fit neatly into sharply defined genres. And as I say in the "Lowe Country" liner notes, his best tunes—from 40-plus years ago or from this past year—display the same laudable trademarks: catchy melodies, clever word play and wit, a sense of fun and musical adventure, and the appropriate delivery of a lyric, whether it be outlandish or heartbreaking.

When/ how did the idea of making a Nick Lowe Tribute strike?

As I delved farther into Lowe’s career, I realized that so many of his influences, including American country music, were audible in his music from the get-go. Like some of my other favorite songwriters, most notably Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, he was able to gracefully work within so many mediums, often blurring the line between, say, country and Southern R&B, which are, after all, so closely linked both geographically and emotionally.

And in the past few years, I became more and more astonished by Lowe’s longevity, his ability to stay fresh and make compelling music. In fact, some of his recent songs are absolutely on a par with many of his earlier gems. Not only that, but starting in the mid ‘90s, with albums such as The Impossible Bird, he has cultivated and refined an entirely new approach and sound for his latter-day career. That’s an amazing feat.

At the same time, I’d lately been hearing more and more musicians create stunning, original music that had at its heart country music but was ultimately genre busting. Many of these artists like Hayes Carll, Robert Ellis, Amanda Shires, Colin Gilmore, the Parson Red Heads, and Caitlin Rose were fantastic songwriters on their own, but I became more and more curious to hear what it’d sound like if they recorded songs by their spiritual/stylistic forefather, Nick Lowe.

The actual tipping point, the absolutely identifiable moment when Lowe Country coalesced into a realizable idea was one morning two years ago, in October, 2010, when I read a New York Times review of Lowe’s three-night stand at City Winery, during which he premiered tunes such as “Stoplight Roses” and “House for Sale.”

I read the review on Friday. By Saturday morning, I had sent off an e-mail to Gary Burnette in Nashville, which, in part, reads:

Here’s an idea. Just formed, but serious. We’ll see if it ‘has legs.’

Let’s you and I make an album called something like Lowe Country or Down Lowe.

Songs written by Nick Lowe, beautifully played, and sung, by some country-ish artists (some mainstream, some left of center). He’s written some incredible tunes, along the lines of some great class country stuff, and they just need to be sung by the right singers.

How did the project take shape?

Rob: The fact that I was in Austin was perfect, since this town has always been a hotbed of roots-influenced music, a place where non-mainstream country music (the entire outlaw country tradition) has always thrived. It’s a place where, on a nightly basis, artists blend country music with other American popular music forms such as rock & roll, which is exactly the kind of approach that Nick Lowe has taken for the past four decades.

But I also felt that it was important to incorporate Nashville, not so much for its chart-topping mainstream artists, but rather to seek contributions from the younger generations, who are making some of today’s most compelling country-influenced music. And Gary was a great way to plug in to that.

What was the next step?

Rob: You sit down and draw up a wish list. Then you wait a few days and tell yourself to get real, that you’re probably not going to land busy, multi-platinum artists. Then you wait a few more days and realize that, hey, you actually don’t want to include the kind of artist whose first question is going to be, “How much are you paying in artist appearance fees?”

Soon, there’s a new challenge ahead: how to find creative, unique artists for whom the subject (in this case: Nick Lowe) has been a significant influence. Then lastly, you become even more realistic and figure out which artists you can actually reach directly, without having to resort to cold calling. Then, and this is most important, you take the plunge.

Can you discuss how the artists got involved? (Please feel free to discuss how specific artists got involved, were approached, etc.)

Rob: One big question was: Would these younger artists be into the idea? Would they even know who Nick Lowe is? It wasn’t long before I got my chance to find out, when Caitlin Rose came to Austin to open for Justin Townes Earle at the Parish. Out by the merch booth after her set, I introduced myself to Caitlin. Literally, the moment I mentioned the Lowe Country concept, she interrupted me, jumping with excitement. “I want to do ‘Lately I’ve Let Things Slide,’” she blurted out. “I’ve got to do that song. Don't let anybody else do it, okay?’” I was convinced we had something.

With that shot of confidence, I started making calls and writing e-mails. I tried to narrow down to a reasonable number the list of tunes that we felt could work for the album, but that was an impossible task. I was aiming for 20 and ended up with a compilation of 44! There’s Nick Lowe for you. And then, seemingly every day, we’d compile wish lists matching songs with artists.

Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5, who I really wanted to involve, introduced me to the Parson Red Heads. It turned out that I knew the band’s manager, Jeff Wooding, and the band thought recording a tune for our album would be a perfect way to try out Scott as a producer. Perfect for them, perfect for us.

I had been speaking with Colin Gilmore, who lives in Austin, and much like the Parsons situation, we figured that this would be a great opportunity to try working together. In turn, Colin introduced me to Amanda Shires, who hails from Lubbock (like Colin’s family) but had recently relocated to Nashville.

One day I went to visit Gary Briggs at New West Records to discuss the band Ponderosa as a possible contributor and ended up hearing Robert Ellis, who I was then determined to get on the album. As a guitarist, Gary had recently worked on an impressive debut album by Erin Enderlin, and upon hearing her voice it was obvious that she should cut a track.

Little by little, through personal and professional connections, the album starting taking shape.

Were there specific artists and/ or songs chosen that set the course for getting the album together?

Rob: Since the list of potential tunes was so huge, at first we weren’t as concerned about song selection as we were with artist selection. And as the slate filled up, it would become more obvious what was lacking. Did we want more stripped-down solo artists, or more bands? Did we want somebody more traditional (a la Erin) or somebody farther out (a la JEFF the Brotherhood)? Did we want more men? More women?

Each situation was different. Sometimes, as with Caitlin or Robert or the Parsons, they picked the tune. Other times, like with Amanda and Colin, the selection came after a lot of back and forth. And occasionally, as with Chatham County Line and Hayes Carll, the artist thought our suggestion was right-on.

How did artist/ song selection/ pairing come together?

Rob: Well, Gary was determined to have a twisted rendition of “Marie Provost,” replete with barking dogs (and what kind of fool would object to that?). It’d be hard to find a more appropriate choice for that than JEFF the Brotherhood, whom Gary had produced a few years back.

Ron Sexsmith, who has actually had one of his songs covered by Nick Lowe, has been playing “Where’s My Everything?” live for a few years now, so he was pleased to have an excuse to record it.

And here’s a little secret: With two artists, we had an exceptionally tough time narrowing down the choice. We wavered between a slower tune and something more up-tempo. So there are in existence two non-LP B-sides: a rollicking “Raging Eyes” by Colin Gilmore and a stripped down “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” by the Unsinkable Boxer. Stay tuned for further news on how those songs will make it out into the world.

Which artists and songs pairings came together as you had imagined?

Rob: So many of them. Chatham County Line’s earthy bluegrass rendition of  “Heart of the City” is as compelling as I’d hoped, as moving as some of their fine originals, including the magnificent “Wildwood.” Erin’s haunting take on “Lover Don’t Go” packs even more emotional wallop that I’d expected. And Hayes Carll perfectly delivers the deadpan humor of “(I’m Gonna Start) Living Again If It Kills Me,” which should come as no surprise to anybody who has enjoyed Hayes’ countrypolitan barstool wit.

Which one(s) were most surprising and / or produced the most unexpected results?

Rob: We knew they were the right men for the job, but nobody really knew what JEFF’s version of “Marie Provost” would sound like. Try listening to that one without cracking a smile.

Though I’ve long admired Lori McKenna’s songwriting and singing, I am continually floored by her heartbreakingly beautiful version of “What’s Shakin’ on the Hill.”  And it’s still rather shocking to me (in a good way) how different Amanda’s “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” is from the original—even though I produced it.

Initially, I had demoed the tune as a ghostly kind of lament, thinking that that would work well with Amanda’s astonishing voice. But then when we first started recording, it was faster and more rockin’, almost like a Waylon tune. It sounded good, but not great. And I could tell that Amanda wasn’t thrilled. So when she came back the next day, I played her my original demo, which she quite liked. And we decided to push the tune in that direction, as something sparse and haunting. And though it’s fairly different from most of Amanda’s previous work, I love it, and I hope the discoveries that we made during its recording will inspire her to keep on taking creative leaps in the future.

One aspect of the collection I really enjoy is the mix of emerging artists and established, better-known ones. Can you speak to this culmination of artists/styles/sensibilities, and how they all come together for you as a diverse range of interpreters of Mr. Lowe's work?

Rob: With any album like this, there are certain decisions to make. Do you go for the bigger names? The main reason for that is usually for commercial reasons – and, believe me, I don’t begrudge that. It’s nice if everybody can make a few bucks for their hard work--and in our case, it’d be nice to make some money for the charities.

And though I love the work of many superstars, we decided early on that we would only go after artists a) that really wanted to do it, b) whose work we admired, and c) who we thought we could reach.Then purposefully we started leaning more and more heavily toward the younger, less established artists, knowing that one of the most satisfying roles an album like this can play is turning on listeners to artists that they might not have heard otherwise.

As for the range of artists, it would only be appropriate to celebrate a songwriter with as diverse a catalog as Nick Lowe with as varied a roster of contributors as possible.

While working on the project through completing the final album set, how has the experience of working with these artists and the material changed, enhanced, and or challenged some of your thoughts on your own personal responses/ feelings/ interpretations of the originals?

Rob: For one thing, I marvel at the way wit and smarts can retain their power and impact in virtually any kind of sound environment, proving that the exceptional elements of Lowe’s songs are, well, exceptional. It’s just hard to successfully come out on the end of a project like this without a new-found and profound respect and appreciation for a brilliantly written song.

Then, as a producer on some tracks—and even just in helping to assemble the album—you take out the magnifying glass on these tunes. And that can cut both ways. As you delve deeper, you realize that something like I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass—which was stunning when it first came out and remains absolutely magnificent—isn’t really much of a tune, in the classic songwriting sense. But that actually allowed us a tremendous freedom to reinterpret it, to take its elements and try to, in a way, create a new song.

At the same time, it was a great pleasure to look closely at songs like “You Make Me” and “Lover Don’t Go,” which are seemingly so simple (and which Lowe performs so effortlessly) but are actually full of lovely subtleties and nuances.

For newcomers who may be drawn to the collection from artists they are familiar with, but not with Nick Lowe's records, which of Lowe's albums would you personally suggest as a good starting point to dig into his discography?

Rob: As with any any artist (or author or filmmaker), I think it’s best to investigate their early work. And it’s hard to beat those first two solo albums, Pure Pop for Now People and Labour of Lust.

As previously mentioned, the Rockpile album, Seconds of Pleasure, is magnificent, particularly “Heart,” “When I Write the Book” (recorded on our album by the Unsinkable Boxer) and “Now and Always,” which I very badly wanted to include on Lowe Country. Since that song was Lowe’s homage to one of his favorites, the Everly Brothers, I dreamed of having it sung on our record by a group with American brothers (e.g., the Avett Brothers, the Wood Brothers, etc.). Unfortunately, the timing for that didn’t work out.

Next, I’d suggest that listeners delve into Lowe’s more recent albums. My two favorites of these are The Impossible Bird, which includes such gems as "The Beast in Me" and "Withered on the Vine", and The Convincer.

Lastly, everybody needs to check out Brinsley Schwarz. My favorites of their tunes include “Funk Angel,” “The Ugly Things,” the amazingly titled “I’m Ahead If I Can Quit While I’m Behind,” and, of course, the original version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”

On the flipside of that last one, what would you say this collection offers to fans of Nick Lowe's work already?

Rob: Nick Lowe has always admired (and contributed to) a musical cycle that’s been occurring for decades (nay, centuries). Great pop songs ultimately form and become part of a canon—a repertoire of standards. And Lowe--and some of his cohorts, most notably Elvis Costello—has always been part of this process, singing live and on record songs by some of our greatest songwriters, people like Gerry Goffin & Carole King (“Halfway to Paradise”), Phil Everly (“When Will I Be Loved”), Burt Bacharach & Hal David (“Baby, It’s You”), Webb Pierce (“Bo Bo Ska Diddle Daddle”) and Isaac Hayes & David Porter (“Love Is After Me”).

In that light, Lowe Country is a natural step in that continuum: for a songwriter as prolific and talented as Lowe, some of his tunes are bound to become, in effect, standards. The pleasure, then, is hearing fresh, youthful, surprising takes on those classic tunes. For Lowe fans, it’s hopefully an exciting, interactive journey of discovery.

Last, but not least regarding Lowe Country, I read that proceeds of the album sales will go towards benefiting victims of the 2010 Nashville floods and the Texas wildfires last year. Can you provide more information/ details and discuss how this came together?

Rob: This was part of the concept from day one: giving back to the communities that nurtured the music.

Well before we started work on the album, I had seen the devastation caused by the 2010 floods in and around Nashville, the way that they destroyed people's property and homes and displaced so many. And as soon as I came up with the title Lowe Country, an image flashed in my head of low-lying lands inundated with water. That’s why my initial idea was for giving some of the proceeds to flood relief.

Then, before the album was finished, another disaster struck, this time even closer to my home: the devastating wildfires that impacted Bastrop, Texas, which lies just on the outskirts of Austin and is, in fact, home for many musicians. Suddenly it was clear that some of the proceeds should go to assisting victims of those fires as well, since Austin is as big a part of this album as is Nashville. Not only do several of the artists live in one or the other, but also both of those cities play an enormous role in the sound of the album.

We’re hoping that we’ll be able to make some significant donations to the two charities that we selected: The Nashville Rising Fund (www.cfmt.org), which helps to meet the needs of flood victims throughout Middle Tennessee; and the Central Texas Wildfire Fund (www.austincommunityfoundation.org), which was created to help meet the immediate and long-term needs of those people, families, and organizations impacted by the wildfires across Central Texas. Both funds help affected people restore their lives and rebuild their communities.

What's next for you and Fiesta Red Records?

Rob: Firstly, the work on Lowe Country has just begun. I never expected it to be an immediate chart-topper. So the plan is to keep working, diligently and creatively, to find ways to get music lovers to hear the album. And that’s always a challenge.

I’m also hoping to continue working with some of the Lowe Country artists. Right now, in fact, I’m co-producing some tracks with Colin Gilmore. You can, by the way, always  see what’s happening at Fiesta Red by checking out our site (www.fiestaredrecords.com).

Fiesta Red recently released a single (digitally, and on 7-inch vinyl [red vinyl, of course]) by Full Service, a band in Austin. Like much great music, their sound is hard to categorize. Elements of Flaming Lips and the poppier side of Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear mix with a laid-back Jack Johnson vibe and some funkier elements a la the Chili Peppers. We’re finishing up another single right now, and then we’ll likely release a full-length album in spring, 2013. As a huge plus, the guys in the band always come up with incredibly creative ways to market themselves. And they’re constantly working. Chances are, they’re coming to a city near you soon.

We’re also about to release the first of two debut EPs by a refreshingly original Austin rock trio called Blank Slate, which is led by Steve Glazer, an exceptionally talented songwriter, guitarist and singer.

And lastly, though the label was absolutely not founded to be a vanity project, I do stand accused: we’ll soon by releasing The Rut Not Taken, an album by Globe Factory No. 23, which is, essentially, me. Really, the album is the culmination of my desire to finish up a large batch of songs that I’ve been working on for the past 4-5 years. But more than anything else, it was an opportunity for me to improve upon my skills as a writer, musician, singer and producer, to stand me in better stead to helm a new label that is firmly committed to the highest level of quality across the board.

This featured first appeared in No Depression online.

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