When Lyle Lovett was just a lad growing up in the German farming community of Klein, TX, his granddaddy laid a little homespun philosophy on him: “Even a blind hen finds a piece of corn every once in a while.”When Lyle Lovett was just a lad growing up in the German farming community of Klein, TX, his granddaddy laid a little homespun philosophy on him: “Even a blind hen finds a piece of corn every once in a while.”
And that’s how Lovett responds to the ever-increasing critical acclaim his music draws with each new album. The singer/songwriter may be genuinely humble in the face of praise but he is by no means a blind hen. The soft-spoken Texas has the eye of a reporter and the heart of a poet. In their own unique ways, all his songs have a kernel of truth in them somewhere.
From his debut LP, Lyle Lovett, there were such glimpses of genius as “God Will,” “Cowboy Man,” “Farther Down The Line,” and “An Acceptable Level Of Ecstasy (The Wedding Song).” But it was his second album, Pontiac, that really set things humming.
With his most recent LP, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, he has solidified his position as one of the most profound singer/songwriters in America. His tunes are strangely interesting, wry, witty, caustic, satirical, imaginative, and always emotionally on target. Melodically, his songs are a melting pot of influences – jazz, blues, and folk.
With all the success as a recording artist, Lovett still considers himself primarily a songwriter. “I’m not really a singer,” he says modestly. “And I’m not a musician. I mean, nobody is going to hire me to play guitar in their band. So what I had to say in songs was the most real thing I had that someone might be interested in. For me, that’s what I’ve got going.”
Although Lovett earned two degrees from Texas A&M University in Journalism and German, music was his career of choice. He became a respected solo performer on the club circuit and wrote a song for and appeared on the CBS television movie Bill On His Own, which starred Mickey Rooney.
But the most critical point in his career, as far as the songs themselves were concerned, came when he played the month-long country music festival, Schueberfor, in Luxembourg. It was there he met the musicians in J. David Sloan and the Rogues, a popular hot-playing country group from Phoenix, AZ. The band members, realizing what a tough spot Lovett was in, trying to entertain the nightly crowds armed with only an acoustic guitar, offered to learn his songs and back him up. This provided the dimension to his music that Lovett had only imagined. Today, those same musicians still form the core of his touring and recording group.
After returning stateside, he financed his own 18-song recording project in Phoenix with the band. His intent was to put out the album on his own label. Those basic tracks with only a few overdubs and some remixing became his initial MCA Records release. Suddenly, the guy with the weird hairdo who wanted to be a songwriter was a recording artist in his own right. In fact, Rolling Stone dubbed Lovett “perhaps the most important country sing/songwriter to emerge in the past decade.
Looking back on the series of events, Lovett reflects “in hindsight there’s always a way that everything happens, if this hadn’t happened things could have all been different.”
However, recording and touring can be hard on a songwriter, and Lovett is certainly aware of this fact. “It used to be that music was something I did for fun and would retreat to as a release,” he notes. “It’s different when all of a sudden it’s your job. I find I don’t open the guitar case as often as when I was working another job. That’s something you really have to come to terms with or else you stop writing songs.”
In the following interview Lovett explains his approach to songwriting. His thoughts also reveal why Lyle Lovett will always be a songwriter. He’s always hunting for those kernels of thought that become some of the most original songs ever recorded.
AS: How did you come upon “I Married Her Because She Looks Like You”? That’s such a complete title.
LL: I really ran into somebody who looked like an old girlfriend. It’s basically a cheap shot, you know, this person is exactly like you, only she’s nice. I was on my way from Austin to Nashville and I made it up on the airplane. It was a flight attendant, she was nice. Flight attendants are always nice.
AS: So it didn’t involve much rewriting?
LL: No, just years of painful research were behind it all.
AS: You make it sound so easy.
LL: Writing has never been easy for me, but some things work easier than others. It is hard and you do have to edit somewhat. And playing a song for a while you can figure out things that work and things to change.
AS: You kind of put them to the acid test then?
LL: A lot of my older songs I played acoustically for years and that gave me a lot of time to think about them – what sort of band arrangements would be nice. Then when I met the guys from Phoenix it seemed possible to do all that stuff. But songs always change a little bit.
AS: Do you come up with such fresh ideas for songs just by letting your imagination take over?
LL: Yeah sure. But you don’t always have to let your imagination take over. The most important thing about writing is insight. You don’t always have to take off with your imagination; you can just write about what’s there.
AS: Should songwriters try to get beyond the mere commerciality of an idea and try to get more out of it than that?
LL: It just depends on what somebody wants to do. It’s really an individual thing. You always have a choice. If you’re a staff songwriter you’ve still got a choice. The choice might be between writing a certain way and having a job – that may be the choice. I’m not going to say anything bad about the way something works. It’s what you consider your job to be and what you’re after in your writing. I don’t get any outside cuts and sometimes I think, ‘Well if I’m such a good songwriter, how come nobody is calling me up to do any of my songs?’ But I can write more for myself because I get to do them. If I weren’t able to do that and I was looking at this as more of a job and concentrating on trying to get cuts, I might think about things differently as well.
AS: Do you approach an idea lyrically or musically first?
LL: For me it’s always the lyric first. I have the idea and think about how to express it. Certain words suggest certain melodies and the whole style.
AS: The lines in “If You Were To Wake Up” are such short, expressive lines.
LL: Thanks. I made that up and thought maybe I was being a little to poetical. It was just a picture I got of a creek and trees covering up the whole creek.
AS: How do you apply the test to determine if it is too poetic?
LL: Well not genuinely poetic. There’s a difference between something poetic and something trying to be poetic. You know what I mean? I’m always aware of that. The real test is how comfortable am I singing this? How comfortable am I doing this on stage?
AS: That’s a good test. In a broader sense, songwriters might apply the same test when pitching songs to recording artists.
LL: It really does work because some songs I feel more comfortable singing than others. If there’s any doubt at all in your mind, try it and then see how stupid you feel.
AS: What are you hoping to achieve with your songs when you record them?
LL: What I’m after, I guess, really is this: I enjoy records from the standpoint of background music, a record that I don’t really have to listen to. But then if I stopped and really paid attention to it, there would be something to pay attention to. That’s really what I’m after.
AS: Have you ever looked back over something you’re working on and notice that it sounds like some other song?
LL: Yeah and I think I need to change that, or just go with it. Like “If I Were To Wake Up” is melodically close to “Farther Along” so I gave it credit on the album. I just couldn’t get away from it (melody). I think a lot of time ideas can be coincidental, but I wouldn’t intentionally write a song because another song gave me an idea.
AS: “If I Had A Boat,” now that tune is truly imaginative.
LL: It’s almost like somebody else wrote it. That’s the way songs sometimes feel to me. I don’t really think of myself as having a great imagination; I consider myself a pretty good liar. Writing is hard for me and it’s even tougher being out on the road and having so much to keep up with.
AS: Do you trust things to memory or do you write them down?
LL: I really do trust a lot of things to memory and then write it down when I’ve got it shaped up. I don’t make notes much. When I was a kid I saw an interview with Buck Owens and he said that if it was good enough, by golly, you’ll remember it. I’ve never forgotten that.
AS: Do songs spin out of songs?
LL: No, but I do go in patterns where I write songs that are similar. I’ll write the same song three different times. I mean, it’ll be a different song, but…
AS: Is that a way of refining an idea?
LL: Well the three new songs on the new album I wrote in the space of a couple of weeks and musically they’re all similar. “Good Intentions,” “I Know You Know,” and “What Do You Do.” It was the same on the Pontiac album with “M-O-N-E-Y,” “Pontiac,” and “L.A. County.”
AS: Has your background in journalism related in any way to songwriting?
LL: I feel like I am naturally curious person, curious about human nature, which a lot of times would have nothing to do with journalism. But I really try to represent things that are real, that in an emotional sense are things people really experience; things that are common experiences for people. I stick close to things that really happen as opposed to taking off on something imaginary. That’s what makes me country – the words.
AS: Have all the great song ideas been used up?
LL: Ideas are universal; it’s what you do with them.