SCOTT SIMON, host:
Billy Bob Thornton moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s to take a stab at becoming a rock star. Until that worked out, he took a few acting jobs, and that really worked out. Mr. Thornton won an Oscar, now has a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The honor signifies his widely admired work in films including "Sling Blade" and "Monster's Ball" and other films that have made an awful lot of money like "Bad Santa" and the "Bad News Bears." But he's never turned away from music. And this week, Billy Bob Thornton releases "Beautiful Door." That is also the title track.
(Soundbite of song "Beautiful Door")
Mr. BILLY BOB THORNTON (Singer, Actor): (Singing) Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe I'm blind. 'Cause I can't understand the kind of man that kills for God or money or the land, it just seems odd to take that kind of stand. Some only say...
SIMON: A little bit country, a bit folk, a bit rock and roll. The singer, songwriter, drummer and actor Billy Bob Thornton joins us now from the studios of NPR West.
Mr. Thornton, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. THORNTON: Oh, thank you for having me.
SIMON: You've said it's very important to you that there be a sequence of songs on the album. How does that play out?
Mr. THORNTON: Well, it doesn't matter as much anymore to sequence an album because, you know, I grew up with vinyl records. And it was very important. You had two sides and, you know, both sonically and lyrically, you wanted to kind of have a, you know, story there. But these days, when you download a song at a time, you know, or whatever, it's not as crucial anymore to the people. But, you know, as the artist, it's still important to you to have your thing in one piece. I mean, we're not trying to make pop hit singles, in other words.
SIMON: Let me ask you about some of your songs. I guess you don't mind talking the song "Always Countin" a bit about your obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Mr. THORNTON: Yeah. "Always Countin" is a song - I'd always wanted to do a song about OCD and I ended up doing it in a slightly humorous way.
(Soundbite of song "Always Countin")
Mr. THORNTON: (Singing) Now, am I crazy? Am I mad? I ran out of fingers. They're all I have. I'm always countin'. I'm always countin'. Only trouble is I'm countin on me.
SIMON: Help us understand this, Mr. Thornton. I mean, for example, on your way to our studios today, that you count stoplights or something?
Mr. THORNTON: No. Mine is more geometrical than it is anything else. Sometimes abused children have OCD because it's a way of controlling your environment or gives you the sense of security or control.
SIMON: Are there ways that it gets in the way of everyday life?
Mr. THORNTON: Oh, sure. I was late for work one time. I was doing a movie with Coen brothers called "The Man Who Wasn't There." And I got it in my head that I had to go around the block a certain number of times before I could stop at The Coffee Bean and get myself a coffee. And I was late for work because of it. And when I explained it to them, you know, the Coen brothers are pretty cool guys. They were very amused.
SIMON: You're going to be on tour, I'm told, the entire month of August. Are there times when you're on tour, when you get up and there is somebody who spilled Cheetos and diet Coke all over the backseat, and you have a long day ahead of you and the show doesn't go so well, that you know, hmm, I could spend three weeks making a movie and walk away with real money.
Mr. THORNTON: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. THORNTON: There's - well, I mean, sometimes when you're on a movie, you're working 16 hours and you got a migraine headache. You're thinking, well, see, if I were on tour right now and the show lasts an hour and a half, and I could just be on the bus lying around. So it goes both ways.
SIMON: Let's listen to another song, if we could. This is "I Gotta Grow Up."
(Soundbite of song "I Gotta Grow Up")
Mr. THORNTON: (Singing) I was following a girl, a Canadian girl on a great American trip. She was funk(ph) in the base in a (unintelligible) group on their way to being hip.
SIMON: The inevitable question - is this autobiographical?
Mr. THORNTON: Yeah. It's really a song about a guy who lives his life depending on what girl he's with at the time. And I can just think back I had a girlfriend years ago who said that I was just going to stop wearing holey t-shirts and blue jeans and she went and bought me like khaki shorts and sandals and things like that and just things that aren't me. And I just remember standing in the park one day in these clothes, like a polo shirt on or something. And that was the day - it wasn't the day we broke up. It's the day I decided we were going to.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: There's still a little usual torture lever(ph).
Mr. THORNTON: Exactly. But it's really just a funny song about a guy who just goes around and not lives off of women but and, well, yeah, he does.
Mr. THORNTON: But, you know, I spent years of just, you know, misery out here and poverty and everything else.
SIMON: What are some of the jobs that you did or you're willing to make?
Mr. THORNTON: Well, when I was back home in Arkansas and Texas, I only worked physical labor jobs ever, you know, when I got out of high school. My first job, I had hauled hay already and worked at a grocery store when I was in school. But my first factory job, I worked in a machine shop around a drill press. And that was kind of like something out of Dickens. And it was pretty bad. And I worked at a storm door factory. You know, like an aluminum door factory. I worked at a sawmill, which is probably the hardest and most dangerous job I ever had. But, you know, when I came to L.A., I worked at Shakey's pizza parlor, actually. I also worked for a company that made balloon configurations.
SIMON: Yeah. Did you learn something from everything you do that you find maybe you can call on later?
Mr. THORNTON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, as a writer, an actor, songwriter, any of it. If you don't have life experience - I mean, it's really hard to be a good artist of any kind.
Mr. THORNTON: I'm not saying it's impossible but it's certainly, in my experience, the ones that I've ran across have been people who really lived a life.
SIMON: There's a story I've heard. Maybe we can get you to nail it once and for all. That you were a waiter at some Hollywood function and waited on Billy Wilder, who gave you career advice.
Mr. THORNTON: Yes, that's a true story. It was a Christmas Eve party at Stanley Donen's house.
SIMON: Stanley Donen, the classy British director.
Mr. THORNTON: Exactly. And here I was, this aspiring actor. And a friend of mine worked for catering companies. He was an actor too and made his living that way. And the guest list was pretty incredible. And I'll never forget Billy Wilder was there. He said, so you want to be an actor, huh? And in those days, I wasn't really clued in to the joke about all waiters in L.A. are actors. And I said, yeah, how did you know?
I was like I thought he had ESP or something. So he said, forget it. He said everybody wants to be an actor. You're not pretty enough to be a James Dean but you're not ugly enough to be a character actor. Then he goes, so you're screwed.
You've got crazy eyes. And he said, can you write at all? And I said, yeah, actually I've written some screenplays and that's what I want to do too. And he said that's what you need to do. He said create your own way. Don't wait around for people and - be an innovator and originator. It was great but years later he read that story in a paper.
Mr. THORNTON: And he called me and he said, look, I don't remember you. I don't remember anything about this. He goes, I know who you are now. I'm, you know, a big fan of yours.
SIMON: Is there a song on this album you'd like to call our attention to and take us out on?
Mr. THORNTON: Yeah. You know, there's a song out(ph) here called "Restin' Your Soul," which is a song about suicide. It's from the point of view of the person who is left behind and he's saying, I understand why you did it because I know what you're going through in your life. And I can't say that I haven't thought about it myself. But if you could see the mess you left behind here, you might not had done it.
(Soundbite of song "Restin' Your Soul")
Mr. THORNTON: (Singing) Why did you go?
SIMON: Mr. Thornton, it's been a delight talking to you. Thank you so much.
Mr. THORNTON: Well, thank you for having me.
SIMON: Billy Bob Thornton. His new, "Beautiful Door" is released on Tuesday. He joined us from the studios of NPR West.