Acclaimed songwriter Robbie Fulks comes to Claremont

by Mick Rhodes |
It feels like blasphemy to hear Robbie Fulks say he doesn’t necessarily enjoy writing songs.

After all, the longtime Chicago- but now Los Angeles-based, Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and guitarist — who will be in Claremont for a Saturday, May 21 show at the Folk Music Center — is known for his vast, acclaimed catalog of wry, literate, sometimes humorous songs and blazing guitar work.

Was the guy who wrote “F&%k This Town,” and “She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)” cracking wise?
“No, I wasn’t kidding,” Fulks said. “I’m kind of lazy generally. I’ll just kind of put off anything that I don’t like to do, and that includes things like strenuous exercise. But songwriting, just making the words dovetail with the melody, and the harmonic substructure under that, and making it something other people would be interested in and want to sing, and making it kind of sail, is always challenging to me. It’s always like I’ve never done it before when I go to do it.”

Fulks has released 15 records since his 1996 debut, “Country Love Songs.” He’s operated primarily in the “roots” division of the music biz, but is a restless writer. Equally at home in country, bluegrass, folk and rockabilly, he’s also a wonderful pop songwriter, with dozens of tunes that land somewhere between John Hiatt and Nick Lowe. He followed 2016’s spare, mostly acoustic gothic masterpiece “Upland Stories” (no, not a reference to Claremont’s neighbor to the east, sorry), which earned him two Grammy nominations, with 2018’s rollicking “Wild! Wild! Wild!”, a tour de force rockabilly/boogie-woogie collaboration with Linda Gail Lewis, little sister of the killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s currently at work on a bluegrass album, which he hopes to release by the end summer.

And though he’s made his mark in older forms, he’s fascinated by all kinds of music.

“In the current era — not that I know a lot about it — but it seems like in the current era we’re saturated with really interesting sounds, gripping sounds or production if you want to call it that, and also rhythmic complexity, and rhyme ingenuity; not exact rhymes, but near-rhyme ingenuity,” Fulks said. “And so for those values it’s a golden era that we’re living in.”

At 59, he remains unusually curious about finding new sounds. He loves Spotify, which is also something you don’t hear that much from successful recording artists. His circle of musician friends are a resource as well, as are critics and writers, of which he singled out Ted Gioia as a particularly astute wellspring.

“And then I recently went to the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville [Tennessee], where there’s I don’t know how many acts, maybe 100, and I hadn’t heard of 80 of them before. And so I definitely got five or 10 new things to listen to from that,” including Celtic harpist Maeve Gilchrist and Columbus, Ohio-based avant garage quartet Dana.

Fulks is a brilliant bluegrass guitarist, an inventive, erudite lyricist, and can write a tearjerker country song as well as anyone working today. But he’s no traditionalist. You’ll not see him in a Nudie suit, and probably not in a cowboy hat either. He’s famously adventurous and perhaps even more well-known and liked for his lack of pretension and sometimes biting humor. He’s open to all kinds of new sounds in performance, but he’s less enthusiastic about the computer’s prominence in much of today’s mainstream recorded pop music.

“If it’s four or five people sitting in a room and communicating through wood and metal instruments, I’m in, right at the outset,” Fulks said. “I want to know what it sounds like, and what the traditions are that it draws from. There’s a couple exceptions to this, but if it’s laid out on a grid and done by one person in isolation, and just doesn’t bear those hallmarks of spontaneity and communication and at least a little improvisation, then I can’t relate to it very easily.”

Still, a recent conversation with Eyvind Kang, musician, composer, arranger and co-director of experimental pop specialization at Cal Arts, gave Fulks some hope. Kang told him about a student of his, a drummer, who does gigs with a pre-recorded drum track, over which he improvises, altering the seemingly immovable digital time signature. “Which kind of stretches my mind to think about how flexibility can be introduced when you’re playing with a metronomic track,” Fulks said. “You’re playing against a track and making it seem to bend more than it’s bending. It’s kind of interesting to contemplate for old farts like me that relate to flexible time in music, that it’s not a dead issue because computers are taking over.”

Computers aren’t going away, he acknowledged, but neither are violins. “We have to make it work somehow. If our values are going to live on, there needs to be a way to break the tyranny of the metronome, I think.”

Fulks also singled out pitch correction software Auto-Tune as another “improvement” to overcome in the quest for soulful, imperfect sounds. No doubt somewhere a young designer is writing code into virtual instrument and pitch correction software to reflect the imperfect quirks of human singers and musicians. In other words, someone’s drilling down into that time-honored dystopian fear of making the digital more human.

“It just seems like a really long way to go around reestablishing a human kind of imperfection in music when you can simply have humans play instruments and get the imperfection from the get-go,” Fulks said.

Though writing music, recording and touring has been his full-time job since 1996, one look at Fulks’ blog and at the pieces he’s penned for various magazines (GQ, the Journal of Country Music and Blender among them), and it’s clear he’s a formidable prose writer as well. He’d just never really had time to spend on any longer form prose project. But when the pandemic forced him out of the write/record/tour cycle for the first time in decades, and with his three kids now grown, a window appeared.

He began work on an as-of-yet untitled book, “basically to amuse myself,” about the birth of songwriting. “I wanted to understand better what songs are for, to put it bluntly, and how far back in time they went, as far as the record shows,” Fulks said. The earliest example he found was a song written by a Mesopotamian princess, a daughter of a king, from 3200 BC. He also found that music precedes speech by many years. “There are different theories about the evolutionary purpose, perhaps, of music, and whether it has one or doesn’t to begin with.”

He’s also been exploring what recording devices did to change the use and the purpose of songs.

“All of that was so unknown to me, and yet it bore so much on my occupation that it seemed just like it would help me to write better songs to understand better what I was really up to,” he said. “If I go ahead and finish this book, it’ll be a job of synthesis and translation more than anything else, if you know what I mean. Just diving into the specialist material, making connections, and then simplifying the presentation so that hopefully somebody stops in an airport and picks up a book about songs and can be immediately interested in and captivated by what I’m talking about.”

Fulks will be making his Claremont debut when he plays the Folk Music Center on May 21. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 and are available at the store, 220 Yale Ave., Claremont, or by calling (909) 624-2928.


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