Sex and the single songwriter

An interview with Lyle Lovett.

By Jennie Yabroff

Published May 22, 1998 6:54PM (EDT)

Lyle Lovett has the kind of voice that makes the most banal sentence ("The
coffee here is really good") sound strangely, thrillingly intimate. It is
different than the voice you hear on his albums (educated Texan laced with
sarcastic swagger), and it is different from the voice you hear in his films
(mumbled monotone to complement deadpan delivery). In person, Lovett's voice
is deep, confident, confiding, convincing. If Lovett decides to turn his back
on music and film, he could have an excellent second career as an all-night
disc jockey, spinning obscure Texas singer-songwriters and whispering into the
microphone until the early hours of the morning about the fine cup of Kona he's brewed himself.

Lovett grew up in a tiny community settled by his grandparents just outside of Houston, Texas. The only child of two Exxon employees, he got his start in the music business as a teenager, playing guitar and singing the songs of his country-western idols on the local club circuit. At Texas A&M University, he majored first in history, then graduated with a double major in German and journalism. He continued singing and writing country songs and gained a small but loyal group of fans with his witty, cerebral lyrics, skilled musicianship and, of course, that lonesome voice. As his star rose, Lovett was frequently compared to k.d. lang; like lang, Lovett tempered his passion for country music with an intelligence about the craft, and his fans tended more toward the "appreciate country, love a sardonic take on it" crowd than the true-blue, Hank Williams by way of Billy Ray Cyrus camp.

If Lovett's songs reveal a self-effacing, quietly knowing character -- the kind of guy who gets the joke, even when (maybe especially when) he is the joke -- his brief but memorable film performances (particularly in Robert Altman's "The Player" and "Short Cuts") suggest that an extremely sturdy, if quirky, character lies beneath his shy exterior.

But what's not so apparent about Lovett is just how comfortable he is in his own skin. He is a man who may seem to reveal himself completely in his songs, to offer himself entirely to the listener, yet he's highly skilled in the art of self-protection. To be sure, this instinct was partly born of necessity: In 1993, Lovett married Julia Roberts and found himself the subject of intense and not entirely flattering media attention. Throughout the brief marriage and subsequent divorce, Lovett handled himself with aplomb, gamely answering questions about Roberts' bathroom habits and other trivia, yet successfully dodging inquiries about what brought the couple together in the first place -- as well as what drove them apart a year later. After the divorce, Lovett released an album of songs titled "I Love Everybody," all of which he claims were written prior to his marriage. His most recent album, "The Road to Ensenada" has a similar flavor: intensely confessional, yet revealing little concrete information other than the size of his hat (he wears a 7).

Currently, Lovett can be seen playing a drug dealer in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and a sheriff in "The Opposite of Sex." The latter film stars Christina Ricci as an oversexed, underloved burgeoning femme fatale. Lovett reluctantly busts her gay half-brother (Martin Donovan) on a child-molestation charge. If it sounds preposterous and implausible, it is; the good news is that Lovett, as the soft-spoken widower with an affinity for cheap beer and head massages, steals every scene he's in.

Recently, Lovett was in San Francisco promoting "The Opposite of Sex" at the San Francisco International Film Festival. He spoke to Salon about his upcoming film and music projects, and why he hopes he'll someday lose his creative spark.

Do you still live in Texas?

Yes, I still live in what's left of the family farm, in a house that my grandfather built in 1911. I feel really proud to have been able to hold on to part of my grandpa's land, and live in his house. And, as much as I'm gone, I couldn't imagine living someplace else.

How much time do you spend there now?

All of my time, when I'm not working somewhere else. I spent most of this year in Los Angeles recording my new album, which will be out in September. It's called "Step Inside This House," after a song on the album written by a Texas songwriter named Guy Clark. This is an album of songs by people I know from Texas. I didn't write any of the songs. These are songs I've played for years, like the first music I played back in clubs when I was 18. Guy Clark, Walter Hiatt, Eric Taylor, Michael Murphy ... there are 10 different songwriters represented, and there are 21 songs, all by people I know.

Sounds like a fun project.

Really fun. Really fun. Some of the songs are previously unrecorded -- the guys that wrote them never recorded them. The Guy Clark song, "Step Inside This House," was the first song he ever wrote. He was a big help to me when I was starting out. He was someone whose music I really admired.

When I first went to Nashville in 1984 with a demo tape, I was just trying to get other people interested in my songs, because I thought that was a realistic way to pursue the business. I didn't go to Nashville trying to get a record deal. I felt like I had some songs that other people could record. I played my own songs in clubs at home, and I was interested in being a songwriter and performer, but it never occurred to me that I could get a record deal myself. It just seemed like too much to hope for. But it seemed like I might be able to get other people interested in my songs. So I went to Nashville with a demo tape, and I had a meeting with this guy at the publishing company that represented Guy Clark. I was surprised at how open people were to taking a meeting and listening to my music. They were all, in the most positive way, really discouraging.

But I had reached a point -- playing the same six or eight clubs, making the rounds -- and it was time for me to either learn how the business worked and take a step forward, or get a real job. So I went to Nashville to investigate. I mentioned to this guy at CBS that I was a fan of Guy Clark's, and he gave my tape to Guy. And as I started going into Nashville every month or so, to take meetings and try and generate interest, I kept running into people who said, "Guy Clark played me your song." Guy listened to my tape, liked it and started playing it for everyone, so he was really instrumental to my getting a record deal. And all of this happened before I even met him. It was an unsolicited show of support from one of my musical heroes. So I was very excited to record the first song he ever wrote.

So is this album a sort of tribute to him?

It's really a thank you. I've always admired his songwriting, and I've played the song many times. All of these songs for me acknowledge how these writers and songs have been a part of my life.

How did you get involved with "The Opposite of Sex"?

My agent called and told me about the script. I have no idea how my name came up for the role, but I really liked the script, really liked the writing. It's the biggest role I've had, and I spent more time in front of the camera than I have before, which was actually sort of comforting.
I got to actually get into a bit of a groove with the work, and figure things out a bit.

When I play music, it's sort of my responsibility -- the whole deal of doing the record, that's my job. To get to be a part of somebody else's job is a lot of fun. Don [Roos, the director] is so smart, such a great writer, and working with smart people who are passionate about what they're doing is a great job. It's like getting to be a guy in the band.

Tell me about your character in the film.

Carl is one of the most clear-in-his-own-mind characters in the film. He knows what he's about. He's not unflawed, but he knows what he's done in his own life and deals with it in a very straightforward way -- doesn't make excuses for himself, knows what he wants. He's the only character in the film who pursues his desire for sex in a straightforward, unself-conscious way. He's very consistent. I'd like to come off like Carl.

Looking at the characters you've played in films -- the baker in "Short Cuts," the sheriff in "The Player," Carl in "The Opposite of Sex" -- there seems to be an essential decency about all of them.

If that's the reason I get selected for certain roles, or if that's the quality that comes through, I would be happy about that.

Robert Altman once said that you represent art without irony.

Huh! Altman's cool. He's so insightful about people. He gets right to the heart of the matter, whatever it is, and just strips away any pretense, any bullshit. He just gets right to it.

Are you going to work with him again?

This summer, in a film called "Cookie's Fortune." It's sort of a murder mystery, set in the South. I play Manny, who runs the catfish place where one of the main characters, played by Liv Tyler, is employed. And Manny sort of has a crush on her, it's a sort of flirtatious relationship. But Manny's an old guy like me, and he's married. And essentially decent.

How was working with Christina Ricci?

Great. She's great. We didn't have many scenes together, but she was around, hanging out. I just think she was perfect. Christina is so straightforward herself, and that straightforward, unself-conscious quality that she brought to the role of DeDee, I think she did that role in a way nobody else could. When you listen to the narration, you can almost hear Don saying the lines himself, but she delivered it in a way nobody else could have. She's heavy.

So what is the opposite of sex?

The opposite of sex is ... sex. The opposite of sex is everything that comes with sex that you think of as not being part of sex. Like all of the feelings -- the actual responsibility, the actual caring for someone, the potential to lose someone. The opposite of sex is everything besides the physical, and it all sort of underscores that sex is very important. It's all the same, you can't have one without the other. The true opposite of sex is nonexistence.

What do you think about what Ricci's character DeDee says at the end of the film, that sex is too much trouble?

She doesn't mean it.

But a lot of people would agree with her.

Sure. Oh, sure. But that's life. Life is experiencing all the joy, and the pain, and the loss. Ultimately we all die, and the struggle of life is to keep that in perspective, and not let the ultimate outcome discount any of what lies between.

Do you think you're able to do that?

It's something I strive to be ever mindful of. And not always with as great success as I'd like. You have ups and downs. But what's the alternative? How do you protect yourself? Get cable and watch a lot of TV?

Do you ever see a film because it features an actor you really love?

An actor I really admire for the choices he makes, and his unconventional approach, is Johnny Depp, because I think Johnny could be so mainstream, he could be knocking them over the center-field fence all day long if he wanted to. But he makes such interesting choices, and he's so talented as an actor. I know that if Johnny Depp decides to do something, then there's really something to it.

The characters you play in your movies, and also some of the characters you create in your songs, seem to be coming out of a place of pain.

Well, it's easier to write about painful things, things that you're trying to work through.

Do you think you'll ever stop writing music?

I don't know. Writing is so difficult, every time I write a song I like, I'm not sure if I can ever do it again.

What was the last song you wrote you felt that way about?

I feel that almost every time. Making up stuff is hard. Having a good idea is hard. Saying something in a way that hasn't been done, it's hard.

Do you see yourself ever getting married again?

Sure, I'm not opposed to the idea. The goal of marriage is not ... marriage and children is not the goal, the goal is to love someone.

But are you worried that being too happy would cause you to lose your creative spark?

I'd love to be too happy and lose my creativity. I would.

A lot of articles have been written about Linda McCartney suggesting that Paul was too happy with her -- that he just wrote silly love songs about her, and never developed as an artist because he was too content. Do you think that pain is necessary to the creative process?

That's really horrible. Great art is not what we should aspire to in life. We should aspire to lead a good life. Art is not life. It can be life support, it can be a byproduct of life. A person's art should reflect his life, but first you need to live your life. If Paul McCartney never wrote a song after he met Linda, so what? He wrote a lot of great songs before that. It's poetic, in a way, the whole idea that James Dean will live forever; when an artist just stops, it has a similar quality -- there's a mystery to it. I find it very intriguing.

Jennie Yabroff

Jennie Yabroff is a regular contributor to Salon.

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