I caught up with John Fullbright on his previous visit to these shores in the offices of his PR company, up in St. John’s Wood, a nice comfortably cool bolt-hole from the unusually good weather. I’d just seen John perform at Islington assembly Rooms the previous week and had written the gig up with some enthusiasm as well as having had time to get to know and love his new album Songs. Its stark title reflects the pared back production and compared to his debut, there is less of a band feel as the new record sits somewhere between that first outing and his one man show. He was relaxed, joking about the glorious sunshine and talkative to the point that our interview was eventually curtailed by an anxious PR person rather than John himself.
With so much interesting material, the interview has been split into two parts, the first part here concentrates on the writing and making of the new record Songs and the songs within songs. The second part to follow is more about John, his home and his musical development.
Naturally the new album is the focus, but we are almost immediately sidetracked as he quizzes me about my recording the interview on my phone, wanting to know if it’s the standard recorder, which it is. We hit a technology thread and he confesses, “My iPhone is my main songwriting tool these days. I record all sorts of ideas on it. I even co-wrote with someone and we just sent files back and forth via text.” We talk about how technology has impacted the creative side of music, but he cautions, “With my producer Wes, it’s got to the stage where I record demos on my phone or laptop and they sound really good. The trouble is that later in the studio we can’t recreate that, even with all of the expensive microphones and equipment that’s on hand. It’s almost got to the point where I don’t want to record demos anymore because of all of the heartbreak involved.”
I ask John whether it’s just the immediacy of the performance that gets lost, with the maxim that your first idea is best and he confirms, “It’s the same when you’re recording lead guitar or vocals, it’s usually the first take that that’s the most imaginative. After that it might start to clean itself up, but it’s never quite as interesting and as you do it over and over again, slowly that interest diminishes.” I mention the Steely Dan methodology and painstaking search for perfection. He laughs and admits, “It’s not to say we didn’t do some of that too. I’m used to doing things 100 times over and staying calm and patient, but that’s definitely the hardest part.”
With all of this digital technology, I wonder whether John has ever worked in analogue and whether such things matter. Again he laughs a little and says, “Analogue’s fun, but only if you’re really good at it. It’s really for people who rehearse and we don’t really rehearse. There’s no use turning up with half an idea and you can’t just turn up and try a few things without wasting a lot of time. Ideally you’re dead set to go, having played the songs through 100,000 times. It’s why all those old records sound good because the bands did that and really knew what they were doing. They had to because if anyone made a mistake you went all back to the beginning of the tape and had to start all over again.”
[pullquote]…suddenly realise I’ve got to come up with a title and that’s the hardest part, it might take days and days. Hell, I can’t even name a dog![/pullquote]We talk briefly about the Islington gig. It was a great night with a good sized audience filling out the ground floor. John is happy with the steady progress he’s making in the UK telling me, “The rooms are getting bigger, the crowds are getting bigger. It’s still kind of weird for me to come all the way over here and find that people know all of the words to my songs, but then I suppose this is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve been in the UK, I lose track.”
But there it is that word and the album title Songs. I enquire whether it’s reflected in the comparatively stripped back production and smaller scale arrangements. John grins and tells me, “It’s a little tongue in cheek. I’m notoriously bad at titles.” He chuckles and continues, “I labour and labour over a song doing everything I can to make it make sense. Then I get to end and think I’m done with it, but suddenly realise I’ve got to come up with a title and that’s the hardest part, it might take days and days. Hell, I can’t even name a dog!”
John changes tack and starts to explain, “It is a little tongue in cheek, you’ve got it. It is a lot more stripped back. I’m a lot more stripped back, there’s more blood being poured on this album than there was on the last one, there are less secrets and less vagueness.” I push John a little because some of the songs are about songs, about the creative process itself. “Well that was a bit of joke.” John tells me, wearing an earnest expression, “I get accused of being so serious, because the sentiment of what I sing is really serious. But those lines, ‘Write a song about the very song you sing, pen a line about a line within a line. That’s not serious at all.”
Again he smiles and laughs a little as he launches into the attack, “There a horrible trend in country music about writing songs about songs that you’re listening to on the radio. There’s one about Sweet Home Alabama and the whole thing is just about how good it is to listen to that song and party with your friends. That’s a cop out! I mean come on! Write your own goddamn song! I guess Write A Song was just my own take on all of that.”
I mean I’m no psychologist, but from an evolutionary standpoint, as humans, are we not preordained to be unhappy more of the time[/pullquote]I remind John about the comment that he made at the Islington show about not being anti happy songs, but definitely pro sad songs. There’s also a comment on his website about a writer needing to take advantage of the dark moods when they hit. He agrees, “Yeah, it’s how long can I stay here until it’s too long? That’s always the issue with unhappiness.” He picks up the idea and is off, “I mean I’m no psychologist, but from an evolutionary standpoint, as humans, are we not preordained to be unhappy more of the time.” He smiles as he says it but continues, “I guess that’s a common thread for all of us, but we don’t necessarily expect that from our songs.”
As if to emphasise the point he refers to a documentary about Bill Withers trying to make his way as a songwriter and rebelling against the chart-hit, formulaic, love song conveyer belt. Bill stuck to his ground claiming his songs were about life, which for most people was hard. Jon also recalls Townes talking about the inherent sadness of life. His passions rise as he asserts, “Don’t shove happiness down my throat with some half written pop song. That’s not life.” He lightens a little and reveals, “Happiness is much harder to write and make it believable. I try, but frankly I don’t have all of the skills yet.” With a self deprecating shrug and s chuckle John adds, “But I’ll keep on trying, I’m always working toward that goal” Even with that caveat and statement of intent, it seems a brave confession.
There’s something else in the songwriting process for John and again his website talks about his need to be constantly editing. I wonder whether this is a sign that he’s quietly prolific. “Not at all,” he replies, “I’m a music fan first and foremost, I am not a music writer first and foremost, that part des not come naturally to me.” John continues, “I always believed that you wrote when the muse hit you. I’d sit around and wait on the Muse and them write all the way up until the point where I hit a wall. Then I’d think, ‘That’s it, Another song I can’t finish.’ I didn’t have the confidence to think that I could go back to it later and get my head and my heart into exactly the same spot and get it finished. ” He reveals, “I’ve talked to other writers and I think it’s just something that you have to overcome.”
Suddenly he’s onto an upbeat tack as he explains, “I’ve got over that hump, at least for the time being and it’s the most empowering thing. I’m more confident in myself as a writer and artist, because I’ve realised I don’t have to sit around and wait on the muse all day. The muse will give you an idea, but I can come back and work on that anytime I want. If the line I wrote yesterday isn’t cutting it, then I’ll write a better one tomorrow. It’s a confidence thing and it feels really good. This new record is chock full of it. Take the song Never Cry Again, which had completely different lyrics for about four years. Other than the chorus, which stayed the same I rewrote every inch of that song. The song She Knows, I was still changing that in the shower on the morning that we went into the studio to start recording.”
I ask about the point at which he feels comfortable in letting things go, knowing they are complete. John replies, “I don’t have a problem with that,” but then is thoughtful and changes direction again. “With the recording it was difficult for me to have that much space around. I’d listen and think, ‘I should have filled that space up with something interesting.’ But talking to Wes the producer, I realised, I’ve played the piano since I was a toddler and have played every kind of piano there is. But I don’t know what a piano should sound like because I’m always sat on top of the instrument and they are designed to be heard from 30 feet away. If you asked me to mix one at a concert hall it would be wrong. In the same way I can listen to the record and all of the space sounds wrong, but it’s not for me, because I’m in the middle of it. It’s for the people 30 feet away, so I’ll never actually know what my records sound like.”
[pullquote]we can sit and talk about what this line means and this song means all day, but the really important thing is that someone else is connecting with it. That’s the real deal.[/pullquote]I add that it’s part of the deal with making records, that once they are released, it’s down to the audience to listen and hear what they hear. John replies, “You can follow that all the way down the philosophical rabbit hole of I don’t even know what my songs mean. Once someone else listens then they belong to that someone else.” He laughs again, but continues, “It sounds like a cop out. ‘What does this song mean?’ The writer can say, ‘Well I don’t know it’s up to you.’ Maybe it is a bit of a cop out, but it’s also true and we can sit and talk about what this line means and this song means all day, but the really important thing is that someone else is connecting with it. That’s the real deal.”
I ask John about those connections and about honesty, or at least sounding believable and the balance between autobiography and story. He admits, “I don’t like the idea of writing songs from a diary, it’s just burdening someone with personal problems and issues. Listening to a four minute song that you can’t connect with is so much worse than watching four minutes of a film you can’t connect with, because the standards are different. If you’re going to claim four whole minutes of someone’s life with a song, then you’d better be singing about something that they have felt or can feel.” Again he’s thoughtful as he continues, “That’s the biggest job and hardest thing, it takes the most skill, the most empathy, telling a white lie correctly, telling some truths while holding back others, that’s the part that takes the most energy.”
John laughs again as he says, “It’s almost silly to talk about, but I tend to start with something that stirs the most out of me. Is there a god? Why do we have to die? Is love real or just some evolutionary illusion? Then I take that big thought and try and whittle it down to a smaller thought.” He spreads his arms, “It starts out here and get smaller and smaller until it gets to something personal.”
Interview by: Simon Holland
Song is out now
Order via Amazon
Photo Credits: Kate Burn / Vicki Farmer