Nick Lowe will headline the first night of Yep Roc Records' three 15th anniversary concerts at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, N.C. It's a logical booking for Lowe: Yep Roc might have never existed were it not the desire of three men to release his albums in the U.S.
Lowe, who is playing solo acoustic shows through Oct. 14, was at a standstill in the early 1990s after his 1989 album, Party of One, was a one-and-done release on Reprise Records. It was a bit of a shock to the system: While known for composing "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," releasing the power pop classic "Jesus of Cool" (aka "Pure Pop for Now People"), producing Elvis Costello and getting airplay with "Cruel to be Kind," Lowe was suddenly label-less.
"I was unable to secure a deal with a major label -- (the opportunity) to do what I want to do had all dried up," Lowe remembers. "It seemed, for all intents and purposes, I was washed up."
Labels were only interested in veteran acts trying to hold onto the style of their youth. Lowe wanted to move forward, hoping he could find a home for what he terms the first album of his later period, The Impossible Bird.
"I figured that I wanted to present myself with a new approach and this was my first effort with a new approach. Much to my astonishment, record companies said they thought it was good but didn't want it. 'Oh a good record? Sorry.' Somebody told me about these kids who had started a label called Upstart, a subsidiary of Rounder. Glen Dicker was the (managing director), Jake Guralnick, who became my American manager and still is, and Chris Cody, who has moved on to other things."
Upstart released three of his albums in the 1990s, but closed up shop. Undeterred, Dicker moved to North Carolina to start Yep Roc with Tor Hansen and made Lowe his first call. "He said 'I suppose you don't fancy another go?' I said 100 percent yes. The small operation was the way to go," says Lowe, who has three songs written for his next album.
Yep Roc, with a catalog of 300 releases, has released four new Lowe albums in the last 11 years, reissued Jesus of Cool in an expanded edition and a greatest hits collection. His sales have been quite consistent in the 22,000 to 33,000 range, according to SoundScan sales figures, with The Convincer and Jesus of Cool being his biggest sellers.
Fiesta Red Records released a tribute album, Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe, on Set. 18; Hayes Carll, Amanda Shires, Robert Ellis and Caitlin Rose are among the artists interpreting Lowe's music on the album.
On his current tour, Lowe is making his first trek without a band in awhile.
"The less I ask of my audience the better," he says. "They kind of know beforehand, especially when I show up with just an acoustic guitar, what I'm going to serve up. The thing that has to happen with the songs I do nowadays, especially solo, they have to be good songs. I made a number of records by coming up with a riff in the studio and we made good records but they're not great songs. I love '(I Love the Sound of) Breaking Glass,' but it's not a great song. 'Peace Love and Understanding' -- that's watertight, a pretty solid little piece.
"Occasionally I'll hear one of my songs on the radio -- I never play my own records and I don't know anyone who does -- and sometimes I'm amazed by how differently I do the song now. Whole lines have changed and I don't even know I'm doing it. There definitely is an evolution and I'm pretty sure they're better now."
Yep Roc's 15th anniversary celebration begins Oct. 11. On the bill with Lowe are Robyn Hitchcock, Los Straightjackets, Dave Alvin and others; Fountains of Wayne and Liam Finn headline the Oct. 12 concert and John Doe is atop the Oct. 13 bill.