Robbie Fulks is a prolific artist that continues to be praised and respected by indie-classic-country fans with each new release he drops. His discography, although rooted in sharp-tongued wit and infectious classic country tendencies, almost always transcends expectations by even his most devoted fans, never mind the neat and tidy genre-classifiable record bins.
For his latest album, Gone Away Backward, Robbie Fulks put together a simplified lineup to help him cut through any excess to efficiently and effectively convey the folkie (not folky) feel of the new songs. I am very excited to be dusting this feature off (that was originally set to post earlier this year) and be able to share it with you now. Better late than never, right!
What were your goals going into the writing process for the "next studio recording"?
Robbie Fulks: I wanted to put together a small group of acoustic players and do some spacey, semi-unsettling songs, playing into microphones in a semi-circle, and non-overdub any of the arrangements.
Can you discuss some of what you were up to between releasing your last recording and beginning work on the new record?
Robbie: I worked in duos a lot between 2008-2011 and I found myself liking it better than what I had been doing, with drums and so on. I still love drums of course, but I felt like I played out that particular format that I had traveled around with for 12 years.
When I gigged with Jenny Scheinman, Robbie Gjersoe, Danny Barnes, Nora O'Connor, and a couple others, it was extra-satisfying, both communication-wise and hearing-wise.
What was your plan for the new album?
Robbie: I put out an online collection called 50-VC. Doberman in 2009, and I scanned the 50 tunes on it for promising or likely directions. The 8 or 10 folkie songs on it stood out to me as a good direction to go in. I took 4 of them and used them as the starter stock for this record.
Can you share why you went with this set of instrumentation?
Robbie: I honestly have no interest in hearing a record of myself playing alone. I mean, I think I could do something of value in a solo setting, but I wouldn't personally be interested in listening to it 100 times, like the way you do when you're tracking and mixing.
I wanted to have a good deal of breathing room on this record, and I wanted the core of the group to be me, Jenny, and Robbie. I had done 100 dates with Jenny and probably 1,000 with Robbie, and I felt like we could all get behind my songs with one mind and with no big discussions necessary.
Can you tell us about your band for this album? How collaborative was the writing/ recording process together?
Robbie: I took a little while to round up the two other guys. With the bass particularly, I just couldn't decide who. Then Tim O'Brien said those two little words: "Mike Bub". I thought 'Natch!" Ron I knew from his tenure with Special Consensus (I played with them awhile before he joined us), and I was totally smitten by his tenor singing chops.
I don't write with overdubs, hardly ever, but my feeling is that in the studio a strong collaborative sprit is crucial. I see myself at the beginning of the chain with the planning, which I do rather anally, and at the end also, with veto authority. In between those two ends it is all about the hive-mind and open communication.
Can you describe your writing process for the new album (musically and lyrically)?
Robbie: I try to receive the songs first, and not to insert my editorial mind into them. After that, I'm really interested in rhyme quality, verse-to-verse momentum, and development. I also question who the narrator is, while keeping some casual feeling in the lines. I am often trying to do something I haven't done before, and preferably that no one else has either, while striking a compromise between strict melodic shape and a spontaneous feeling.
I've been influenced by too many writers to name. Okay, let me try: Lennon/McCartney, Bob Dylan, John Hartford, Nick Lowe, The Bryants, The Louvins, Carson Robison, Norman Blake, and on and on… But these days, I try hard to get away from direct influence and be myself.
What connects these songs together most for you?
Robbie: This record is about how America appears to me now, outside of the placid suburbs and the happily thriving areas of big cities. It is also about being my particular age and having a little more behind you tugging at your mind, than in front of you pushing you on and inspiring an implausible faith in yourself and the future.
What were some of your sources of non-musical inspiration and how do they translate to your songs together?
Robbie: The biggest non-musical person was Flannery O'Connor. I had been working independent of this record on musicalizing some of her stories and that mood. The nastiness, the lost characters, the hot weather, and the menacing sky all bled into Gone Away Backward.
Can you talk about the cover art/ artwork? How would you say it relates to the content of the album and vice-versa?
Robbie: It was a long time getting to it, but I thought a tornado would work if it wasn't too cable-newsy and pushy. Markus Greiner found a good cheap image. I suppose it represents disturbance, upheaval, and divinity.
You were on Bloodshot for a number of releases, then left the label, and you are now returning with Gone Away Backward. Why did you decide to return to Bloodhot? What is about the label that drew you back and what does it mean to you to have joined the roster?
Robbie: They liked the record and wanted to put it out, at which point I decided not to play it for other labels. I'm a little labeled out, having been with three, plus my own, these last 17 years. There are advantages to putting out your own stuff these days, but I'm very happy to be working with Nan and Rob again. They're close by and easy to talk with, and a communal sense of purpose is the nicest thing about working with others on a record release.
What have you been listening to lately?
Robbie: Annette Peacock, Nick Lowe's latest (which I am reviewing for Talkhouse), Pistol Annies, The Texas Phonecall, Comic called Mincemeat, Charles Mingus, PJ Harvey, Delia Bell, Liz Carroll, Doc Watson, Pharmakon, Bruce Molsky, Naked City, Justin Roberts, Weather Report, Jody Stecher, and The Mighty Sparrow, to name a few.
What are your turing plans and what's coming up next for you?
Robbie: I'll be out now until the year's end (and likely beyond) with Jenny, Robbie, Ron, Mike, Chris Scruggs, Shad Cobb, and others, in various combinations. I'll be playing old stuff, the new record, material newer than that, and surely a couple of covers. It'll all go together because it's me leading and them playing. If it doesn't, who really gives a rat's ass? At a 90-minute show, you should be more worried about boring someone than tying it all neatly together.