It’s the comfort conveyed by Robbie Fulks that’s most striking. The highly regarded songwriter is comfortable right where he is — with his craftsmanship, with his age, with his influence, with his vocation. It’s a rare quality that permeates nearly every answer in our recent conversation to highlight his latest album, Upland Stories.
Stereo Subversion: First of all, happy birthday. Are you reflective at these sorts of moments?
Robbie Fulks: The landmarks, the birthdays don’t bug me but I try to keep perspective of my age in a broader picture. I know guys my age that don’t have much consciousness of that. One old college friend told me not long ago that it’s so odd when he thinks about how old that he knows he is because he still feels like the same person he was at 22. That’s a mental trap because to be out interacting with others in the world, we should try to see ourselves as they see us to some degree. I know when I’m talking to a 20-year-old person, they don’t see me as their equal. They see me as an ailing elder. [Laughs]
To put it more positively, it’s cool being this age because everything that comes out of your mouth is taken pretty seriously. I know that wasn’t the case when I was 20. People would laugh and move on when I would say something slightly cynical or offbeat. To say the same thing now, it’s like, ‘I gotta think about it now. This old person said it.’ [Laughs]
SSv: That’s interesting to me because I read this powerful book by this Benedictine monk about aging, of all things, who said that age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom, that it’s something you have to choose to develop.
Robbie: What was his name?
SSv: Richard Rohr.
Robbie: [Arthur] Schopenhauer wrote once that we don’t admire old people because they’re just old because, as you say, age doesn’t mean wisdom. We admire them for having avoided mistakes. If you meet a 70-year-old who has kept his physical frame in reasonable condition, where pain hasn’t taken his mental space and he’s reflected on his experience and has successfully raised a family and navigated some professional life, I think that compels respect and admiration there.
SSv: Do you consider that when you’re on the stage?
Robbie: When a guy in his fifties walks on stage and starts singing about, ‘I’ve done this or I’ve been there’, I always avoided that persona when I was younger because I didn’t think it was appropriate for a younger man. But also, I thought it was, in general, kind of suspect. I’ve changed my mind a little on that. I think it’s natural and pleasant in a stage performance when an older person speaks reflectively or comes from a point of view of lived experience that, again, compels you to sit up and pay attention.
SSv: You’ve got such a great history with Bloodshot and you’re with them now.
Robbie: Well, nobody else will work with me, so that’s part of it. [Laughs] No I’ve worked with a couple other labels, but they’re a short drive away and we know each other so well at this point. Those are two strong positives. No little factor also is they’ve paid me decent-sized checks in the past. When there’s ever any question of back end, non-advance money with any kind of a label, it’s always uncertain grounds, so they’ve proved themselves to be trustworthy in that area. So it’s a comfortable working relationship where you don’t have to devote a ton of brain to try to outwit them, keep up with them, look over your shoulder.
SSv: Would your younger self be surprised that you’re still making albums after a couple decades?
Robbie: Oh, not at all. From when I was 15 or 16, this is all that I’d wanted to do. Really at this point, as soon as I stop being able to lift a crate of records out of the back of the van or an amplifier or whatever it is, then I’ll have to think of something else to do. But I’ve outfoxed the system so far, so I’m sure I’ll be doing it into my seventies.
SSv: When you compare how the songwriting experience felt to you in those earliest days and how it feels now, is that a similar feeling?
Robbie: I think it’s essentially the same process. Really, it’s surprising no matter how many years you’ve done it or how many songs you write, you forget how difficult it is to write a song. Every new one is kind of like the first time all over again. I lose confidence in myself when that happens, when I’m stuck at the beginning of a song, to the point where I will sit and sing an old song I wrote a while ago that I like in order to remind myself that I can actually do it. There are a lot of points where it seems undoable. If you’re staring for an hour at a page and nothing is happening, you really feel moronic after a short while.
SSv: How do you know when you need to be stubborn and push through and when you need to let it go?
Robbie: Just stick to it. The thing that throws me sometimes is when you practice the guitar, there’s a pretty direct correlation of time spent to results gained. If you spend eight hours at it, you get eight hours better. But with songwriting, that happens too, but it’s over a bigger scale of time. I’ve often spent two weeks working for a few hours a day and end up throwing everything away and nothing comes of it. But if on a broader scale over the course of a year, I write 50 tunes, then two or three will probably be good. If I only write five, none of them will be good. You just have to be disciplined.
SSv: Is that typical for you to write 50 to get a few?
Robbie: Like this record, it has 12 songs on it. To get to 12 songs, I probably started 100, finished 40, picked 20 to record and, of those 20, 12 will make the record. In order not to spend scads of time on those 100, the efficient thing I’ve learned over the years is to throw it away right away. I’ll start two or three lines and then come back the next day. If I can’t remember what the tune was, I’ll throw it away and move on. A lot of those 50 or 60 throwaways I just mentioned involve a time of 20 minutes or something.
SSv: For Upland Stories, how do the emotions of the release of this feel when you’ve had the chance at several of these? Does it change over time?
Robbie: From my perspective, it’s enjoyable to get up every day and there’s a new review to see what someone thinks of it. I’m not someone who can resist reading reviews of my stuff. That’s usually enjoyable because I usually get good reviews. That’s what it comes down to. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be enjoyable. But there’s that. There’s a feeling of something being discussed in the world and that you’re having some kind of an effect. Any other part of it is just the physical labor. Looking at the calendar and thinking about the hotels and the players and looking forward to long drives is an effort. You take a deep breath and say, “Here we go again.” There’s that nose to the grindstone aspect of it, too.