Bird Of Youth has no business being this good. Really. If writing and recording a really beautiful album was as easy as Beth Wawerna and her crew made it look, wouldn’t everyone do it? That’s sort of the story here. For most of her decade in New York, Wawerna was, in the words of her pal Timothy Bracy, “the consummate green-room insider.” Her background in journalism and her unerring taste had led to a number of indie-rock acquaintances who eventually became friends. It sounds like a pretty good time, hanging out in Brooklyn with the Mendoza Line’s Bracy and Pete Hoffman, Will Sheff of Okkervil River, Carl Newman, Charles Bissell of the Wrens, Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws and others. But it turned out Wawerna had a secret stash of her own songs, which she’d worked on and demo’d and never, ever let anyone hear. Eventually, she decided it was time to set those songs free. Her pals not only liked them, they helped her form a crack band—guitarist par excellence Clint Newman, drummer Ray Ketchem, bassist Johnny North, keyboardist Eli Thomas and accordion player Elizabeth Bracy Nelson—and recorded them. Sheff and Phil Palazzolo (New Pornographers, Ted Leo) produced. Bissell contributed a terrific guitar lead on one song. Caws sang. Members of Okkervil River and the National played. The finished album, Defender, was released in May, just in time to give your summer a worthy soundtrack. Wawerna and Clint Newman will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week, and once a day, Wawerna is having one of her famous friends guest blog. Read our brand new Q&A with her.
Wawerna: Given my love of Squeeze and Elvis Costello, it should come as no surprise that I am also a huge fan of Nick Lowe. When I first heard the album Jesus Of Cool (1978), I felt like I was on a carnival ride; I could not even begin to process what I was hearing, and it irrevocably changed the way I think about pop music. Lowe’s songwriting is absolutely fearless to me. For instance he can write about a silent-film star who died in seclusion only to be eaten by her own Jack Russell terriers, and although it’s funny (“That hungry little Dachshund!”), it never feels goofy.
Because alongside the obvious humor and irreverence, there’s also real sweetness and real heart running through that song. That duality is difficult to achieve and tenuous to maintain, but it’s one I feel is threaded through most of Lowe’s work both musically and lyrically, and it’s something I’ve always admired him for.
He was similarly unafraid to experiment with genre.
Disco. Because why not.
Huh? This song totally exploded my brain. The beginning sounds like the Jackson 5, then at about the 1:12 mark, it switches gears and basically becomes an entirely different song. This happens a lot over the course of the album, and my thoughts upon hearing it for the first time can be summed up thusly:
“What?! You can do that? Oh my god, there are no rules!”
And I am forever indebted to Nick Lowe for that. It’s a tenet I keep with me at all times as I write my own songs. I am not suggesting, of course, that my songs sound like Nick Lowe songs or that I have even one ounce of his talent, but I am most definitely inspired by him daily.
I mean, this song is fucking sick. Plus, look at the guy.
Now, I only harp on Jesus Of Cool because it was my first introduction to Lowe, and I certainly don’t mean to overlook his previous work in Rockpile or Brinsley Schwarz, which has always felt equally as compelling to me.
Nor am I trying to purposefully gloss over Lowe’s incomparable work as a producer (Elvis Costello, Graham Parker) or the wealth of albums that he’s put out over the course of his solo career, the titles of which deserve their own sidebar for being awesome:
Labour Of Lust
Nick The Knife
The Abominable Showman
Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit
The Rose Of England
Pinker And Prouder Than Previous
Party Of One
The Impossible Bird
Dig My Mood
At My Age
But I digress.
I’m too young to have seen Nick Lowe play back in the 70s or 80s, so all I have are these videos and the countless others floating around online, and I watch them frequently. But I have had the pleasure of seeing him live three times over the past couple of years: once at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, again at The Bell House in Brooklyn last October and lastly at a taping of Elvis Costello’s Spectacle talk show on which Lowe was a guest. And each time, Lowe’s performance has moved me in a way that is difficult to articulate without getting sappy. There is an almost mystic presence about him onstage that exudes so many things at once: Confidence, self-possession, tenderness and wisdom are met with flashes of the wily irreverence and quick-witted humor that have defined him over the years. But what I am struck by most is the fact that he does not seem old. That might seem like somewhat of a crude statement to make, but I can’t really put it any other way. He seems just as relevant and exciting to me now as I can only imagine he did back then. And I think it’s because he is not trying to be anything other than what he has always been: one of popular music’s greatest storytellers. He seems entirely content with that, as he should be. And when I watch him play these songs (both new and old) that are so timeless and so affecting, I can honestly say that he seems happy. And as I get ready, with great fear, excitement and apprehension, to put my own songs out into the world for the first time, I find this fiercely inspiring.
Last October, we went into the studio for a day to record acoustic versions of some of our songs for a live video series (many are currently floating around on various websites, should you want to see). And at the time we’d recently worked up a cover of “When I Write The Book” from Rockpile’s Seconds Of Pleasure (1980). We’d played it out live once as a full band, but Clint and I decided to try an acoustic version on the fly. It was the last performance of a very long, very exhausting day in the studio, and I had a ticket to see Nick Lowe play in Brooklyn that same night. We tore through this cover so that I could make it to the show on time—which I did, just barely—and 45 minutes later I was standing alone in the crowd, watching Lowe himself play the very same song right in front of me.
I didn’t know if we’d ever have cause to put this video out there for people to see, but if ever there was an appropriate time, I suppose it’s now. I’m not saying it’s great. I’m not saying it’s good. But I’d like to think it’s a spirited and fitting tribute to one of the all-time greats.
And finally, I end this post with a performance of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” because it substantiates my feelings on Nick Lowe more eloquently than my words ever could. Even though Lowe wrote this song (it first appears on Brinsley Schwarz’s 1974 album The New Favourites Of Brinsley Schwarz), it was Elvis Costello’s version a few years later that actually made it famous. I’m not sure why that is. And I could rave on about the injustice of that, but I won’t, because Lowe certainly never does. I’ve seen him play this song on three separate occasions, and each time it has left me covered in both tears and chills. Because this—this profound, yet effortless relationship between a song and its writer—is something I will always strive for and few will ever achieve.