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Nick Lowe bridges tacky and tasteful with Christmas album.

Byline: Ben Sisario

Nick Lowe, the British producer and songwriter, is surely up there with Bob Dylan, and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, as one of the most surprising artists to record a Christmas album.

From his days at Stiff Records in the 1970s, when he helped define the sound of punk and new wave with Elvis Costello and the Damned, to his wry meditations on recent solo records like "That Old Magic,'' Lowe, 65, has never been one for sentimentality.

But last year, he released "Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family'' (Yep Roc), with unusual takes like a skiffle-influenced version of the spiritual "Children Go Where I Send Thee'' and deadpan critiques of the season's iconography.

On Monday, Lowe set off on a holiday-themed tour of the United States. With Ian McLagan of the Small Faces and the masked instrumental band Los Straitjackets as Lowe's guests, the tour comes the Paradise Dec. 16 in Boston and the Narrows Center for the Arts Dec. 17 in Fall River.

Lowe spoke by phone from his home in London about the differing attitudes toward the holiday in Britain and the United States and the inherent, irresistible "naffness'' of the season's music. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Q You've released a holiday record, and now you're going on a holiday tour. Does this mean you actually like holiday music?

A I do, as a matter of fact. I went through a long period of not really liking Christmas at all. But I got a little boy who came along rather late in life, and his arrival has stoked my interest in it again.

Q How did the record come to be?

A The idea came from Yep Roc, my label, and my immediate reaction was one of appalled horror. "Don't they realize I'm a serious artist?'' But that feeling only lasted about 45 seconds until I thought, "Wait a minute, this could actually be a really good laugh.''

Over here, we've got a completely different attitude to Christmas from the United States. You guys are much more big-hearted about it all. Here, releasing a Christmas record is seen as sort of ... do you know what "naff'' means? It means if you're trying to impress someone with what good taste you've got, and in doing so, you actually demonstrate that you have no taste at all. And that's what people here really think, that if you make a Christmas record, you're a bit stupid and a bit of a sellout.

Q When you were making it, did you think of this as a record that your son would enjoy?

A I think I told everybody that that's what I was doing, but, in fact, we were just trying to please ourselves. The secret is getting the right material. I knew that was going to be tough, because people tend to record the same 12 tunes, and we wanted to avoid that. Earnestness was going to be our enemy. It had to be in the spirit of Christmas, and sound as if we were enjoying ourselves -- which we certainly did.

We were trying to find some good overlooked songs that we could mess around with, rather than just trying to rehash somebody's gimmick. There's a song which I think is quite well known in the States, though I'd certainly never heard it before, the Roger Miller song "Old Toy Trains.'' A super little song -- like a lullaby.

Q You're touring the U.S., but not England. Why not? Isn't it the home of wassail cups and figgy pudding?

A They do still have this strange Dickensian view of Christmas over here. But they don't really embrace it. It is something to be endured rather than celebrated.

There was far more interest in the U.S. for this record. I actually heard "Christmas at the Airport'' in a Starbucks. It was sandwiched between Johnny Mathis on one side and Frank Sinatra on the other. It sounded like there had been some terrible mistake. I was almost pitifully pleased.

Q "Christmas at the Airport'' really gets at the grown-up side of Christmas, the frustrations of travel and everything.

A Yes, but somebody pointed out to me that the character in the song who gets locked in the airport over Christmas actually sounds like he's quite happy about it -- that he's not going to have to go home.

Two days after Yep Roc asked me if I fancied doing this, I found myself in Zurich airport. I had done a TV show with Mavis Staples, and had stayed up at the bar and had a few extra drinks with her band. The next day, I was sitting in the airport, nursing a bit of a hangover, and suddenly this idea occurred to me. I had most of it done before they brought round the cheese sandwich.

Q When the record came out, reviews called it "tasteful,'' a word rarely attached to holiday albums.

A I think it's just naff enough to join in with the spirit of Christmas. If we'd had a little more money and a little more time, we could have made it a little bit better. But by better, if that means backing down the naffness that's there a bit, then that might have been a bit of a shame. So the way it is, I think, is just about right.
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Title Annotation:Living
Author:Sisario, Ben
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Dec 2, 2014
Words:901
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