John Fullbright is performing creekside at the Old Settler’s Music Festival when I sense a shift in the crowd’s mood on this particularly beautiful spring afternoon. Fullbright noodles on the piano, appearing almost hesitant as he explains to the crowd that with his next song he avoided “songwriting tactics”. “Very First Time” is from his new album, simply titled Songs. As the rest of the band sits out, I notice that the softer Fullbright speaks, the more the crowd pays attention. By the time he begins what he calls his “first truthful song” the people are fully committed to his performance, as is a young lady watching intently from backstage. Normally I would never intrude on an artist’s personal life, but the entire moment is so magical, so beautiful, that I have to ask him during a chat after his set about the song and its relation to the girl. We also discuss coyotes, tightroping and Cabaret.
Paste: In the new album, there’s definitely relationship stuff going on there, things you’re going through. Like on the song “Very First Time,” when you were performing it, I saw the rapt look on the face of your girlfriend. It was a beautiful thing.
John Fullbright: Yeah.
Paste: I take it that she is who you wrote about in the song? Or is that too personal?
Fullbright: That’s a little personal. But you’re not wrong. I’d tell you all about that song, but you don’t want to hear it.
Paste: [laughing] You don’t need to explain. It was just a beautiful moment.
Fullbright: Thanks. I’m still pretty attached to that song. Like, it means something to me when I play it to people. I feel like I’m not the only one that’s just hit that bottom and gone, “You know what? I’m going to drink a beer, I’m going to take a bath and feel alright for a second and I’m going to appreciate the way that feels, just this one little second.”
Paste: After listening to the album a couple of times, I could sense a theme in it, especially in the opener, “Happy.”
Fullbright: It was a joke. I started out doing the Townes Van Zandt thing, the reckless abandon style. Like, you can’t write about anything unless you go out and get drunk and fall down a hill. And then you write about falling down a hill in the most poetic way. Which is stupid. Not to say that I’m a self-destructive person. That’s a style. And it was really sexy to me when I was 17. That first record—that’s where that came from. But I’m older and wiser in some ways. I don’t need that anymore. I write songs when I write songs. I can watch a tree grow to write a song. I don’t have to go fall down a hill.
Paste: For your first album [From the Ground Up], I’m guessing you wrote a lot of the songs over a long period of time. But this second album seems like it came together more recently.
Fullbright: A couple of them are from a long time ago. “High Road” and “All That You Know” were both written probably when I was about 17 or 18. And the rest of them are new. Some of them are brand-new. I’ve evolved enough to edit myself, which is thrilling to me. It’s like I can write a line and not fall in love with it. And if it’s not up to snuff, I’ll just cut that shit right out of there and go back and start again and say, “What’s the point, what the concept, what’s the grand scheme?” I’ve never been able to do that. And it’s refreshing. Now I’m this guy who can actually edit lines. It’s beautiful. A lot of this record was editing on the fly. Like, “Never Cry Again,” I kept the chorus. The whole song got rewritten three days before I recorded it. And I’d had that song for four years, maybe. I said “I need better lyrics for this chorus because I love this chorus.” That song “She Knows”? It was two weeks old and it was getting edited in the shower the day that I was doing vocals in the studio. I’m back in love with writing songs. I’m not scared of it. You’ll think, “This guy did it this way, so as long as I do it like that then I’ll always have songs.” But that’s not the case. It’s just growing up and realizing that it’s not as scary as it looks. The chasm’s not as deep as it seems. And the sky’s not the limit.
Paste: The work you put into your music reminds me of some of the great songwriters who would take the time to get one line right—songwriters like Randy Newman, whom you have sometimes been compared to. You show respect to the craft of songwriting.
Fullbright: I can’t be Randy because I’m a little too sincere. I kind of have to believe a little more than him in order for it to be worth it to get on stage. To go up there and play a part—I mean, Randy is in my top three songwriters of all time. I find if I try to write like that, where every song’s a character and everything’s a satire, I’m not smart enough to do that. But I can write down things that I feel and things that I’ve experienced in a particular way. And certainly Randy has a lot to do with that. And the craft? I’ll grin like a possum if I hear good alliteration. I will physically react to good writing, even if I don’t care what it’s about. Like, I can listen to Cabaret and go like, “oh man, these guys are really good. I don’t really care what they’re talking about.” One of the lines in this record that I always want to peek out with one eye open, is on the song “The One That Lives Too Far”: “Some folks make something out of nothing. Some people have to cry too long. While others wait beside the window, wondering why the wind would blow so strong.” And I just go, that’s a lot of Ws! And I smile every time I sing it. I say, “did anybody else hear that?” And if it’s just me, that’s cool. I just love that aspect of the craft.
Paste: It’s funny that you mention Cabaret because musicals are always a good example of working hard on a lyric.
Fullbright: Yeah, and it’s like, I respect the Lou Reeds of the world. ‘Cause they’re not going to suffer through a rhyme to tell you what they mean. But, in my opinion, it takes a lot more courage to find a perfect rhyme than it does to just say what you mean. And you can’t get bogged down in it, and you’ll lose yourself in it. You’ll lose the whole point. You’re not watching somebody craft when you’re hearing a good song. You’re watching somebody who walked all the way across a tightrope and didn’t fall down. ‘Cause we can craft all day, but did you feel anything at the end of it? I can draw a picture in the sand with a stick, but another guy can sculpt something out of marble. Which one do you want to see? That’s the question right now, for me. I feel like people don’t really care anymore for craft.
Paste: When did it hit you that you had this kind of a voice?
Fullbright: It’s crazy. I never considered myself a singer until my late teens. I’ve been playing piano my whole life. I was the only musician in the family. It was a really lonely thing to do. I’d go disappear and play music. I never sang. Then, right at 16, I had this tape recorder of my dad’s. We used it to call coyotes, playing the sound of a dying rabbit. I figured out there was a record button there and a mic jack. And sure enough, my voice was being played back to me. So I’d sit in the bathroom or my bedroom and record myself playing whatever—“Wabash Cannonball” or something. And then I played it for someone else. Then, one by one, family members and friends would say “that’s really good.” I had the confidence to book a gig, and here we are. Really an organic kind of way to start.
Paste: I’ve seen you more playing solo than with a band. As you go on tour to promote the album, will it be with a full band?
Fullbright: It depends. It’s a mixed bag. I’m a mixed bag. I love touring with a band, and I love these guys to death. And they’re really great musicians. But eventually, I don’t want really great musicians. I want to sit down with just me and a piano and a guitar and see if I can hold everybody’s attention for an hour and a half. And then right about the time I get used to that, I’ll get tired of it and I’ll go back to the band.
Paste: So you feel, just like with your songwriting, you want to put yourself in those uncomfortable moments?
Fullbright: Constantly. That’s my whole deal. Listen to me. I barely have a voice right now. I try to give it 100 percent every time I get on stage. It’s a little bit masochistic. It’s a lot like swallowing a sword on stage. Like, yeah, you swallowed it, but can you pull it back out? Is this going to work or is it going to be an utter disaster? I realize that aspect of my shows. And I don’t care. It might be a little selfish. I don’t know. I just hate learning showbiz. I learned all these rules to write all these songs. I don’t want to have to learn these showbiz rules, too.
Paste: You opened with “God Above” today and really kicked ass with it.
Fullbright: You got to get people’s attention.
Paste: It worked.
Fullbright: I get lost sometimes. Today I didn’t have a setlist. I was just kind of playing it by ear. I got halfway through the set and realized I didn’t know where it was going. I didn’t know if it was going to get introspective and bittersweet. Or if it was just going to just turn into this balls-to-the-wall rock show. And I was confused. I didn’t know what to do.
Paste: That’s the tightrope.
Fullbright: Yes. That’s the tightrope!
Paste: It’s refreshing.
Fullbright: It is to me.
Paste: To an audience, too, it seems.
Fullbright: Good. If it’s not [laughing] I’ll probably change my ways. But as long as people are still interested, I think I’m just going to keep on doing what I’m doing like I’m doing it right now.