Robbie Fulks has been making his way through the world as a singer-songwriter for about two decades now. He's dipped his twang in everything from alt-country to a Michael Jackson tribute, and beyond. But, his new album, Gone Away Backward, reaches into more topical territory.
Sure, there's nothing explicitly socio-political about this album, just as there isn't anything explicitly socio-political about the daily lives of the communities about whom Fulks has written these songs. Like the people whose stories he sings on Gone Away Backward, you have to look closely at the dirt beneath the fingernails and the wrinkles on the faces to understand the reality of the American struggle in the 21st Century, the disparity between rich and poor, the fact that working class people, never swayed by a hard day's work, must just work longer and harder if and when they can find the work. As he sings in "Where I Fell":
Some guy in Bombay is running that press I used to hate
Now I sling hash for what all spills off the interstate
We sold the family store, left the building standing
You can see the outline where I fell
It might look like hell from a jet airplane or the top of some big hotel
I'd have chose a place more fine but the choice was never mine
When I called Robbie one day a week or two ago, it was unclear whether this interview would fuel a story for folks here at ND or a quasi-political print magazine. The other publication ultimately passed, but the interview wound up being a nice balance between political ideas and ruminations on the making of the music itself. At one point, jumping from a benign musical question to one about topical issues, Robbie laughed and noted it felt a bit like a skit Dan Aykroyd did for SNL, switching back and forth from AM to FM radio. Personally, I think the jump from socio-political issues to the aim of the music itself comes across in this transcription a little more seamlessly than it perhaps seemed at the time.
After all, this is a guy who doesn't just make any kind of music to be relevant or hip. There's no question, listening to Gone Away Backward, these songs came from a place of great truth. (In "That's Where I'm From", he sings: "Can't tell I'm country? / Just you look closer / it's deep in my blood.") The topical nature is incidental, but no less integral to the reason this album is so stirring.
Kim Ruehl: Let’s start with the title – ‘Gone Away Backward’. What is that about for you?
Robbie Fulks: I called it Gone Away Backward because it’s a phrase from the Bible… I stumbled on the phrase later in the evolution of the record when I was looking around for a title. I think it’s a nice piquant phrase that has three good, strong, mellifluous words in it. As far as the backwardness of the record, I think it goes backward in terms of nostalgia for the past – bittersweet nostalgia for the past – as well as the recession having knocked everything backwards for people. In that sense, it’s not an album about the past, it’s an album about now.
Why did you decide to go more topical this time?
Well, topical in the sense of the way people live now. I’ve always tried to write about now. I’ve always tried to do the Dick Van Dyke Show model of not referring to current events too much in the artwork so that it doesn’t look strange, like a time capsule work, in five years. As far as the interest in [our] present … painful economic conditions, I think it comes from leaving my bubble pretty constantly. I get out of my neck of the woods and go travel, playing music in little towns, and I think I’m usually pondering what happens when we stop making things in America. The only business in town is the hotel…
It seems to me that “That’s Where I’m From” is a big focal point on the record. Was that the central song or theme to you?
I wouldn’t say that more than the others. I think it emerges that way partly because there’s a lot of space in it that forces attention on the vocal. I think it has some of the most autobiographical details, so there’s that too.
You seem to strike a good balance between topical – what’s happening now – and timeless issues people have been dealing with a long time. Was that what you were aiming for?
I guess so. I can’t honestly say I ever aim for anything. It’s so haphazard, the process of writing songs. It’s a lot of sitting in the dark and waiting for something to come, seeing what it is, and chipping away at it. There’s not a whole lot of intentionality in the process. I guess there’s more intentionality in putting together a record. When you have what looks like a thematically coherent, or at least somewhat related group of songs, you start thinking about where poles A and B are in the spectrum and how to put together a record that sounds like something other than a clothesline for original songs.
How do you feel people are responding? I was reading your blog about it…
I think the response has been…I think the guys at Bloodshot are happy with it and I’m happy with it. It’s nice not to get bad reviews. The B+ [review mentioned in his blog] was kind of academically interesting to me because I wondered what was the point of view of the person writing – where’s the fix? How could I have made that person 100% happy, and I think my wife had it nailed with that comment about [it being either] too far to the experimental edge, or it’s too far toward Nashville-style country for the sensibilities of whoever’s writing.
What were you listening to, what music was inspiring you while you made this record?
I was inspired by the people I was playing with, I think, more than anything. I started doing duets with people more and found myself enjoying that more than the format I’d been doing for the previous 12 years, which was with a quartet with drumkit and bass guitar, electric guitar. I still do that and enjoy it, but it’s something I’d done a lot of and I was ready for a change. The duet format, I did duets with Danny Barnes in 2007 and 2008. I’ve been working in various configurations with… a bunch of different people. I was turned on to the idea of playing straight into microphones rather than plugging in, and excited by the [fact that] when you’re playing in a quartet and on up, you have to give a fair amount of thought to how the pieces fit together. Whereas, when you’re with one or two other people, you have more freedom to do whatever comes into your head. Whether that freedom is musically rewarding for people in general is for somebody else to say, probably. That was rejuvenating my enthusiasm, though. [It] introduced me to new thoughts and elements of musical language, and records as well, by people I hadn’t heard before.
It’s always nice to hear from someone who has been inspired by actually making music with other people, as opposed to, where the industry is these days…
Yeah, you can get into the red with that, especially when you’re an older fellow like me. When you’re on the road year after year and playing a lot of the same rooms year after year, it gets to be sort of like ‘Groundhog Day,’ where you have to resort to different tricks to keep up your spirits and enthusiasm. In this case, I didn’t feel like it was a trick. I felt like I’d fortuitously tapped into something that had helped me move two more steps along in my musical journey, to use a pretentious phrase.
What’s changed about the way you make music in the last 20 years?
There’s more of a difference in the audience, I’d say, is one thing. These days when I play I have more of a point of view of, I’m going to do what I do and you can listen or not. I think it’s cool to see a young band come out and grab the audience by the throat and play like there’s no tomorrow. But, as an older guy, I think it’s better to come out and be like a tree. You become something and you stand there and be that thing that you’ve become, rather than the throat-grabbing technique. It sounds a little like laziness, and maybe it is. I’ve become a little bit conscious of my age. I don’t sing love songs anymore, at least not lusty falling-in-love songs. I don’t crowd-surf or hang from the ceiling anymore. I tend to just stand there and play, and disappear into the song. I think it’s a much different way of doing music than I did when I was 25 or 30.
What do you think songs can do for people?
I think they can transcend the purity of words, to sound totally pretentious again. I think so much of our communicating with each other is filtered through whatever language we’re brought up in and it’s a factor to take us away from more basic forms of consciousness and communication. I think it’s mysterious. What is it about music that draws a baby to the sound of a fiddle, or what draws people of any age? I’m pretty sure when I’m writing, the lyrics are constantly getting in the way. The lyrics are difficult, are something to be worked around. I think there’s this idea that the primary factor is the sound, not the words. Music - not songs, but music in general - is the deliverance form strident meaningfulness.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about this record?
Well, I think the sound of this record is different and I hope valuable to people. We recorded it pretty fast, in a couple of days. People are always bragging that they did it without overdubs, but that’s the way we did it. We sat and played together and didn’t do overdubs. So, it’s a snapshot of a performance, of a particular time and a particular group of people. I think the success of the record – by which I mean how closely people can relate to it – hangs on whether they can work themselves into that little documentary picture. I hope it breathes for people. I thing the engineer did a great job setting up and cementing a vibe on the record.