In the first part of our interview with John, we naturally enough concentrated on his new album, Songs. The stripped down rationale suggested by the title naturally led to a discussion about his songwriting. In part two he opens up and is prepared to talk about his home, his own musical growth and the things that have inspired him.
I ask John about the religious themes that appear notably on his debut, I suggest that the new one seems more fateful and open to luck and chance, he replies, “Well I’m still forming a philosophy. I mean, for god’s sake, I was only 23 when From The Ground Up came out.” He pauses, “I have some standards, some core beliefs, but we’re all of us, just trying to find our way. I try to turn that journey into some songs. I can’t say that the first was my religious record and this one isn’t, but there are those big questions and the things that matter to me, so I’m going to write them down. I can’t just keep writing, she’s gone and I’m sad unless she really is gone and I really am sad. I have to write about the things that matter, but my ideas about what all of that is might well change along the way.” John is thoughtful for a brief moment and then admits, “It’s hard to even talk about and that’s why it gets turned into songs. Then it’s also hard to write about, or at least to write about correctly, but I’m going to keep doing it because it means the most to me and I think it means a lot to everyone else too, or at least the people who really connect with the music and listens to it.” He grins, “Otherwise I’m just as well writing she’s gone and I’m sad songs.” We laugh.
I ask John whether he feels he’s working in isolation, the song High Road that nods to the tradition suggests a connection. Immediately he replies, “Well as I said before, ‘I’m a music fan first,’ (see part one of the interview) and a writer second. I live and breath it, eat it for breakfast, it’s my favourite form of art. You have to be a fan or else some kind of super genius that just comes up with all of this stuff on the spot and you’re not. My favourite thing is to turn people onto the music that I’m listening to, even if it’s old, dead guys.”
[pullquote]Leon Russell was a pivotal artist for me…I’m actually related to him by marriage[/pullquote]I push John for his A list and he’s quickly back at me, “Leon Russell was a pivotal artist for me. Right about the time as a teenager that I was about to give up on the piano because I thought it wasn’t cool, that’s when someone handed me a Leon Russell record.” He confides, “I’m actually related to him by marriage,” before adding with a sly laugh, “We’re form Oklahoma, so we’re all related.” He tries to work out the connection, but it all gets a bit vague, still he remembers, “No one ever played me that stuff, because it was counter culture, but when I heard that record I just had to ask, ‘Why would you hold this back because this is just the coolest thing ever?’ We even have the same kind of voice and I get accused of copying him but it’s just that we both have that kind of goofy scream when we get out of our comfort zone.”
He leans back and offers, “Are we going to get into this? This could be a long list, or I can whittle it down.” I suggest we go with the flow, he nods and continues straight away, “Townes was the reason I started studying songcraft. It was a toss up and to start with literature won. As a moody kid with not much to do, at first I was really drawn to the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, I liked his subject matter for sure, but damn was he strict. You could count the syllables on your fingers and it was just perfect. He even seemed to invent words to fit his strict meter, pages and pages and pages of it. I tried to do that, it was my first attempt at writing, coming up with couplets on the long bus ride to school, writing poems about trees and whatever.”
It translated into music when John Picked up a CD that someone had given his dad, which had various people covering Townes van Zandt songs. As he remembers, “My dad wasn’t much interested in it, so I took it off him and at first I just like the sound, I liked the production. But I think it was the song, St. John The Gambler. The way Townes wrote that story, it went A, B, C, D, E and then he turned it right around and it went E, D, C, B, A and the last line of the song was the same as the first. And I was just sat there saying, ‘Hold on! What just happened there?’ I’d never heard anyone do that, so I got my little magnifying glass out and I realised, there’s more of that going on in this song and this other song and his meter was just as strict as Edgar Allan Poe. His rhymes were just perfect too. Conceptually he’s talking about all this stuff that I can hardly even handle it’s so huge. It was the combination of his philosophy, his wording and the way he put it all together. Once I realised the work that Townes was doing I was hooked and I was on a crusade. I wanted to write songs like that. I wanted to be known as the guy who wrote great songs with perfect rhyme and meter and great concepts and melodies and that’s where I’ve been ever since.”
There’s a gentle laughter that seems to permeate much of what John says, talking about Townes, it’s the sheer pleasure he takes in his discovery, but there’s also a seriousness as he tells me, “You have to take pride in what you do. I come from a long line of hard working people. If you dig a ditch, you better be the best ditch digger. If you build a house, it had better last longer than you do. It had better not fall down. I took all of that and I finally had a vehicle to put all of that sense of pride into and that was songwriting.” I ask if that is the Oklahoma character and John agrees but also adds, “It’s funny to even talk about this stuff, because it’s not something I’ve really put that much thought into, but it was beaten into me as a child. If you’re going to do something, do it right. The hard part is working out, ‘What can I do that I can do right?’ Am I going to be a pilot, a prison guard? Am I going to be a doctor or a teacher? It was finding that thing and saying, ‘This is what I’m going to pour my heart and soul into.’ For me that was music.”
I wonder whether this Oklahoma identity extends as far as the states ‘red dirt’ music scene. He’s quick to say, “Yeas absolutely,” but then qualifies that, “There’s no scene as such, its not Nashville, LA or London, it’s just the state of Oklahoma. It’s hard to make a living playing music there. Hell, there are more people in Dallas and Fort Worth Texas than there are in the whole of the state of Oklahoma, but we are proud of what we do and we still kick out a high proportion of great songwriters. It was about the time that I’d decided that I could make a career out of music rather than going to college that someone came up with red dirt. But it was just all of us musicians looking around and saying well we are a community, the music we make is not rock, it’s not country, it’s a bit of both those things and more besides and kind of hard to define.” He continues, “I think it was our late friend Bob Childers, but I think he meant it as a joke. It’s always the hardest question to answer, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ Bob would say, ‘It’s just kind of Red Dirt,’ because of the clay soil in his area.”
[pullquote]We play earthy music, common music, it’s not all about big stars.[/pullquote]Again John seems amused by the thought of it all, “It became a joke between us all, if someone tells you they play red dirt music then you’re no closer to knowing what their music’s like than if you hadn’t asked the question.” I suggest it’s also quite a clever term by being so geographically specific, but John also suggests, “We play earthy music, common music, it’s not all about big stars. It’s another difficult thing to talk about, because it’s brand new, yet it’s also music that’s as old as the hills. I think we all find ourselves tongue tied in trying to define it. I can’t image what it’s like for an outsider looking in.” Probably as clear as red dirt mud is my overriding thought.
I remind John that he talked about the importance of getting home at the Islington show. He acknowledges, “Yes that’s really important. My brother and his family have just moved back there. Both my parents are still alive and they’re my neighbours, so getting back kills two birds with one stone. I get time off and get to hang out with just about all of my close family.” His smile takes a slightly rueful cast as I sense that mentally he’s there for a moment, but he continues, “My house is out in the woods and no bigger than this room, but late at night with a glass of whiskey in my hand, sat at the piano is where I write all of these songs.” He pauses, adding, “I don’t write them in a hotel room in Baltimore or in a car driving down the New Jersey Turnpike. I’m trying to get away from that, because my livelihood depends on me writing these songs and if I’ve got to break lose and run home every time I’ve got something to say, that just isn’t going to work. I just can’t get home as much as I want.” He finally admits with a smile, “I’m not trying to cut it lose all that hard though.”
[pullquote]I learnt some stuff and realised I wasn’t half bad at it, but then I found records and started trying to imitate those. The Rolling Stones, Roger Miller, those records were my religion.[/pullquote]It turns out John’s musical skills owe much to his home life, although his family isn’t musical, “The closest I’ve got is Leon and he’s several times removed,” he reminds me. It’s more to do with the rural setting as he explains, “I had very little around me to do when growing up. I didn’t want to work because I was kind of lazy and had my head in the clouds. I didn’t play football, because I’m not competitive or big enough. I did hunt a bit, but never really got into that. But I did have music and I had a piano, a banjo and a guitar. I had the resources and I had the time. I learnt some stuff and realised I wasn’t half bad at it, but then I found records and started trying to imitate those. The Rolling Stones, Roger Miller, those records were my religion.”
Again there’s a slightly misty look as he confesses, “I did that for years and years, totally on my own, with no one to teach me. All the time my parents left me to it and that was the best thing they could have done, because every new thing I learnt musically was all mine, but music was not a social thing for me. What it did mean is that when I eventually emerged from my room and started playing with other musicians, my knives were pretty sharp. I was a long way from the worst guitar player in the group. People told me, ‘You’re pretty good’ and I started to think, ‘Yes, I guess I am.’ It gave me the courage to commit to it and keep developing.”
We conclude with the Islington show and the proof of his labours in the impressive climax of following the piano melody with his harmonica. He smiles and says, “Yes that’s something new and very difficult to do, I never really know what I’m going to play. Of course no one’s seen all the times that that didn’t work. But music has to be fun for me and I can’t just play the same show over and over, so I have too keep trying new things and take risks. It’s like high wire without a safety net, it might all come crashing down.” On the evidence so far, it’s a strategy that pays off.
By John’s own admission, had we had the conversation at a similar point into the last record, it would have been a very different affair, as the pressures of a sustained period away from the sanctuary of home took their toll. This time he tells me, “I’ll stay out for a year and a half if that’s what it takes.” He’s mentally stronger, better prepared and delighted that progress is being made and hearts are being reached. Having found that thing he’s good at, it turns out John is very good indeed, exceptional in fact. His pride is well placed and he has that tenacious drive. In 18 months, who knows where he’ll have got to, but one thing is for sure, that red dirt will have gone nowhere and the cycle will eventually give him the chance to refresh and renew. Until then John, Keep walking the wires.
Interview by: Simon Holland
John Fullbright “Happy” — Live @ Heartbreaker Banquet
Upcoming Tour Dates
29 Aug – Tønder Festival, Tønder
05 Sep – King’s Place, London
06 Sep – Whelan’s, Dublin
08 Sep – St. Alban’s Church, Oxford
10 Sep – TivoliVredenburg, Cloud Nine, Utrecht
Song is out now
Order via Amazon
Photo Credits: Kate Burn / Vicki Farmer