Lyle Lovett on Songwriting

by Derk Richardson

For more than a quarter century, Texas songwriter Lyle Lovett has charted a successful and idiosyncratic career marked by remarkably consistent output of expertly crafted songs. Influenced by Guy Clark and Townes van Zandt, Lovett came to songwriting due to a simple problem: as a young guitar player, he was having trouble figuring how to play songs from his parents’ record collection—so he started writing his own songs. Here’s what he told Acoustic Guitar in the summer of 2012.

When you started writing your own songs, did you have to consciously study the craft?
LOVETT: I did it really from listening to my favorite singer-songwriters. It was Guy Clark’s songs from Old No. 1 that made me think, this is literature, this is like the stuff we’re reading in English class in high school. This is narrative and it’s imagery, and Guy’s songs were different from the songs you would hear on the radio, the pop songs or the Top 40 country songs. His songs were about something. You were able to live inside of one of Guy’s songs, the same way you were able to live inside a novel. Guy Clark showed me what a song could be; it didn’t have to be just a jingle. Townes’s songs were the same way. If Guy Clark songs are prose, Townes’s songs are poetry.

So they set the standards for you as a songwriter?
LOVETT: I didn’t have an objective, really, beyond just wanting to write something that would hold up to playing. When I was 16 and 17, and starting to make up songs, I didn’t think, oh, I’m gonna write a hit here. I just wanted something that I could play from start to finish.

Where do you do most of your songwriting?
LOVETT: Anywhere, really. I think one of the prerequisites for being able to write—or to do anything creative—is just to sort of spend some time alone, by yourself. This may sound sort of silly, but more often than not I make stuff up when I’m driving, and then hope I remember enough of it when I pick up my guitar and actually try to play it and figure it out. I hope it’s still there.

When you do get a song started, will you work a long time on it?
LOVETT: Sometimes songs present themselves almost completely. Other times they don’t. Gosh, my old song “Here I Am,” with all those non sequitur verses? I didn’t even think of that right away as being a song, but I made those verses up over probably a year and a half, just sort of when they would occur to me. So that’s one of the longer writing experiences. A song from my second album called “Give Back My Heart” is a song I made up when I was 17, when my guitar teacher was teaching me an alternating thumb pattern on the six, five, and four strings, and that song almost presented itself from start to finish, all based around a guitar technique I was learning.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar July 2012

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