Photo: Michael Wilson
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It was 10 years ago that Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and bandleader Lyle Lovett put out his last album, Release Me, his eleventh studio recording. The record wrapped up his contract with Curb Records—one that had been in place since 1985—and after that, he felt a sense of musical freedom he hadn’t experienced in a while. “For the first time in my career,” he says, “I was not tied to a label. Over the years, the record label had been really supportive, but it was nice to feel like my own boss.” Rather than immediately set to work on a new album, however, he felt it was time to take a bit of a break. Part of that involved starting a family—which came in 2017 with the birth of twins—and part of it was about doing things in what he considered the right way. “I just wanted to take my time and find the best situation,” he says.
Several years ago, Lovett found that situation—an offer from Verve Records. And this past May, he released 12th of June, his first album in a decade. The record places his 15-piece Large Band at the forefront for the first time since 1989’s Lyle Lovett & His Large Band, but that gap in time has only existed on releases, as Lovett has consistently toured with the band over the years.
The album features 11 tracks that alternate between genres and styles. He says some songs come to him all at once, and that the title track, a fingerpicked ballad inspired by his twins’ birthday, was that kind of song for him: “Those are my favorite kind of songs to write. The ones that keep tapping you on the shoulder.” The opening track, “Cookin’ at the Continental,” is an instrumental that shows off the full band, with horns, piano, and a rhythm section; less than a minute in, it kicks off solos that bounce from the trumpet to the trombone to the electric guitar to the violin, and more. Many have assumed that the second song on the record, “Pants Is Overrated,” was written during the pandemic; in fact, Lovett says, it predated the pajamas-all-day era.
I spoke to the celebrated and versatile musician over the phone from his Houston-area home, and he gregariously walked me through the making of 12th of June and shared his thoughts on guitars, from his relationship with Collings to his preferred electronics setup.
What was the timeline for the making of this record?
The record would have come out in 2020. That was the plan; we recorded these tracks in November 2019. The idea was to get together with my co-producer and engineer, Chuck Ainlay, and mix the record in March of 2020, and then, of course, everything stopped. We didn’t start working on the record again until September of 2021, and then it was in a piecemeal, virtual kind of way. Finally, at the end of January this year, it felt safe enough to get together with Chuck. We sat in his mixing room for a couple of days and went through everything to make sure we were both happy. It was a protracted recording process and a delayed release. But you know, it’s a great feeling to have a new record out, and I’m excited to be able to go out and tour.
What was your inspiration to release something with the Large Band again?
I hadn’t released a record since 2012, so I wanted to reintroduce and reinforce the Large Band. What I’m doing on this record is what I’ve been doing all along. It really is just a matter of taking a snapshot of my reality. I tour with the band every summer. I wanted to represent the great players that I work with along with doing some of the quieter more acoustic-based songs that I do, as well. When I play with the Large Band, the arrangements aren’t all the same; not everybody is on stage for every song in the show. I just wanted this record to really represent what we do live in the Large Band show.
I like I how the record opens with an instrumental.
Just about 100 percent of the time, I start the Large Band shows with an instrumental like that. “Cookin’ at the Continental” is something we’ve been playing since the ’80s that we just had never recorded in the studio. As I do live, we play the instrumental so that the audience gets an idea of what the band is like. It’s an overture in a way.
Is there a song on the album that you’re most proud of?
I’m proud of each one in a different way. They each represent a different facet of my point of view. And even the arrangements and the standards represent different facets of the band. It’s all by design—who’s featured in a solo, who stands out in one particular song compared to another. The feeling I want the audience to have at the end of my shows is that they’ve gotten the chance to get to know everyone on stage at one point or another.
Let’s talk about your guitars. What did you start on?
I had a little cheap little acoustic guitar that my parents bought for me in second grade so that I could start taking guitar lessons. A family friend in our community gave guitar lessons, Chuck Wunsche. His wife was my second grade teacher. They bought me a little classical guitar that I could not even tell you the name of. My mom still has that guitar. My first sort of real guitar was a Gibson classical—a model C-2 that had to be from the mid-’60s. I played that for years, and then my first flattop steel-string acoustic guitar was my graduation present for high school. It was a 1975 Martin D-35 from H&H Music in Houston.
You were friends with Bill Collings [who passed away in 2017]. Can you tell me about your first Collings guitar?
My first Collings was the 29th guitar Bill ever made. It was a dreadnought with Indian rosewood back and sides and a German spruce top, an abalone inlay around the soundhole, and herringbone purfling around the top. It’s a wonderful guitar. I remember in the early days something that was important to Collings was an evenness of tone. And that guitar is really even. One of the recordings that’s really distinctive to that guitar is on my second album, Pontiac, the song “If I Had a Boat.” When I play that guitar on that song, it sounds like the record.
And you’ve stuck with Collings ever since?
Because I like his guitars and continue to like them, and because of my relationship with Bill. Even though I’m a fan of Martins and Gibsons and all guitars really, I decided kind of early in my career, Bill’s my friend; I’m gonna play his guitars. And they work great. They sound good and they’re mechanically sound. When you’re traveling around with a guitar and you’re in different environments, it’s not ideal for wooden instruments. I could play a tour from coast to coast and Bill’s guitars make it through without having to have a lot of maintenance in between.
What guitars do you play on tour or in the studio?
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I play my favorite guitars. I take them on the road with me. We’ve released a couple of in-studio performance clips of a couple of the singles, and in those clips the guitar I’m playing is a 1996 Brazilian rosewood Collings dreadnought. That’s my main stage instrument. Bill made me two guitars in 1992 that were from a matched set of Brazilian rosewood, one dreadnought and the other an advanced jumbo. The advanced jumbo I use as my second guitar on stage for either dropped D or an open tuning, just because it has kind of a darker, different tone.
What electronics setup do you use when you play live?
I did a tour with Leo Kottke. It was about three months in the winter and spring of 1989, and Leo rode the bus with me and I got to be friends with him. He was playing Taylors in those days—of course Leo could play a broom and it would sound wonderful; you’d go out and buy that kind of broom. But I asked him what his rig was, and he was using a pickup made by Jim Kaufman in Los Angeles, a Sunrise magnetic pickup through a James Demeter tube direct box. And I And I figured if it was good enough for Leo, it would be great for me. So I bought a couple of Sunrise pickups and a couple of Jim Demeter direct boxes, and I’ve played with them ever since. But there’s nothing that sounds better to me than an acoustic guitar played into a microphone or into the air in a room.
It can be hard to find an amplified setup that really does justice to the acoustic sound.
Pickups are a necessary evil, and they’re not something that I am crazy about, but you have to use them. The thing that it hurts me to do is to take a great guitar and drill a hole in it. I’m happy enough with the way the Sunrise pickup rig sounds and works in a practical way—through a PA and in an onstage situation—but one of the things that I love about it is that I don’t install the pickups in the guitar. I don’t drill out the endpin hole to make it bigger to accommodate a jack. And this used to drive Bill crazy because it does mess up the finish just a little bit, but I simply take the cord of the pickup around the bottom of the sides of the guitar and then just plug into that. So, when a tour’s over, I can take the pickup out of the guitar and I have my original guitar, no alterations. A little tape residue on the bottom. But that’s it. I’m a little skittish about altering the guitar.
How do you go about recording in the studio?
Capturing playing and singing with an acoustic guitar is a challenge for any kind of recording engineer, both sonically and in terms of editing. It’s always something to deal with. On the records I’ve done with Chuck Ainlay and Nathaniel Kunkel, they don’t impose any technique on me that interferes with my playing and singing. And to work with engineers who are capable of that, who don’t insist on putting a piece of plexiglass between your guitar and your voice or have you stand on your head when you’re trying to perform, or try to convince you, “Let’s just play this and sing it later”… Working with engineers who have allowed me that kind of technical freedom is important to me. We recorded mainly just playing live. I think if you put a bunch of talented people in a room together and allow them to react to one another in a live situation, you get good things that you don’t expect, or that you couldn’t think of or arrange on a piece of paper.