Not long ago, Nick Lowe was approached by his American record label about releasing a Christmas album. The esteemed UK songwriter, who gave the world "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" and "Cruel to Be Kind," says the idea seemed laughable.
"But I was confused by how snooty I felt when they asked me about doing it," Lowe says. "I think it's a Brit thing, really: Making Christmas records is seen as a not very cool thing to do. And I thinkg it's all bound up with strange ideas from the 1960s, about selling out and things like that."
Lowe says his management was skeptical, too. Then, an idea struck him.
"Instead of just knocking out the same 12 songs that everyone always seems to do," Lowe says. "I thought, 'Well, with a little bit of work, I could make it a little bit different.'"
That meant writing new songs, ones sardonic and original enough to sit alongside any in his catalog, and giving what Lowe calls "a brand new suit of clothes" to the more well-worn classics. He NPR's Arun Rath in the studio to chat about the process and perform a few songs from the new Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family. Hear their conversation at the audio link.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEIGH RIDE")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Quick bells, sleigh bells. Quick bells, sleigh bells. Sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
Christmas can be a difficult season if you can't stand the music. You don't want to be a jerk, uncharitable and humorless, but man, all that sentimentality and sweetness can be hard to stomach. If I'm describing you, don't despair. This might just be the Christmas album for you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
NICK LOWE: (Singing) I'll take a lump of black coal in my stocking this year. Thank Santa Claus for having you here.
RATH: That's Nick Lowe, the man who gave us "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" and "Cruel to Be Kind," among many others. His latest album is called "Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family," and he joins me now in the studio at NPR West. Welcome.
LOWE: Thanks. Thanks. It's great to be here.
RATH: Wonderful to have you. So a Nick Lowe Christmas album. How on Earth did that happen?
LOWE: Well, it wasn't my idea to do it. I was approached by Yep Roc, which is my American label. And I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do less, in fact. But I was confused by how - well, how sort of snooty I felt when they asked me about doing it. It was - I think it's a sort of Brit thing, really.
RATH: How so?
LOWE: Making Christmas records is seen as being a bit, well, not really very cool thing to do, you know?
LOWE: I mean, even my sort of management. But when I finished the record, and I was talking about it a lot, you know, they had this sort of look of pity on their face, you know, like you have - if you're talking to a bit of a sort of confused neighbor, you know, elderly neighbor. And I can understand why because that was exactly my reaction when they asked me to do it.
And when I started thinking about it and wondering why I felt so sort of hoity-toity about the whole thing, I immediately realized that it was ridiculous and it could be pretty good. I thought, well, with a little bit of work, we can make it a little bit different. And I thought we could have a lot of fun with it along the way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILENT NIGHT")
LOWE: (Singing) Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.
RATH: That "Silent Night," that's a very interesting arrangement. Can you talk about how you came up with that?
LOWE: There's a reason why it's been cut - and I think the last time I looked, it's had 3,200 covers there have been of that song. And there's a reason, you know, for it. I mean, it is a great tune. It owes something to a record which I - a version of that song by Huey Piano Smith and the Clowns from the 1950s. He did that sort of treatment.
But I suppose our thing has got a little more of a sort of London style. You know, there's a little scar influence in there. And it - I don't know what kind of music it is, really, but it's cheerful.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILENT NIGHT")
LOWE: (Singing) In that stable there king from afar, wise man singing hallelujah. Chris the savior is born. Christ the savior is born.
RATH: So you're recording this sort of last spring, so this is probably the first time you've actually played these songs during the Christmas season.
RATH: Well, why don't we hear one then?
RATH: How about "Christmas at the Airport?"
LOWE: Yep, I'll do that one for you. I always think that nothing says it's not Christmas more than a man with an acoustic guitar. But I'll do my best. Here we go, "Christmas at the Airport."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS AT THE AIRPORT")
RATH: That's Nick Lowe in the studio with us. That song is called "Christmas at the Airport." It's from his new album "Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for all the Family." Nick, thank you.
LOWE: Thank you for having me on.
RATH: But before you go, we have to hear at least one more tune. Can you play one more tune? Tell us a bit about it first.
LOWE: Yes. I think I'm going to do this one which is - this is another one of my own songs. It's called "I Was Born in Bethlehem." I had it - I sort of dreamt this. I kind of dreamt the title and the first verse when I was waking up one morning in that strange sort of half awake, half asleep.
LOWE: And the idea was to imagine if you were sitting next to Jesus on a plane or something and had a couple of cocktails, you know, and he started telling you this story, this Christmas story. So I tried to make it as conversational as I could. So that's the idea behind it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS BORN IN BETHLEHEM")
RATH: If you'd like to hear the rest of that performance without me jabbering over it, you can find it at our website, nprmusic.org. And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. You can find us on Twitter: @nprwatc. We're back again next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS BORN IN BETHLEHEM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.