Robbie Fulks may have been born in Pennsylvania, raised mainly in North Carolina, and now makes his home in Chicago, but his time living in the Big Apple has certainly left him marked as a true New Yorker, or at the very least an honorary one.
For proof, just ask him what he expects from his return to the city for a Thursday gig at Brooklyn’s Union Hall.
“Really low opportunities for van parking and a really fast load out to go back to the hotel in Newark to spend the night,” he deadpans. “The logistics are always the pressing present tense concern in New York with a band.”
True, but there has to be a good part right, a little sentimental longing to be back?
“When I’m alone or with a duo, then I can spend the night in New York, I can concentrate on everything that’s there to enjoy, I can visit with friends, and I can hang out after the show. It’s so different. My connections go back to my college years and to a recent, short stay there in Park Slope. Everybody loves it. I love it too.”
Now that’s a New Yorker. No nonsense about the realities of the place, but also realizing that there’s nothing like it in the world. You can almost say the same thing for Fulks’ music – it’s to the point, no frills, but oh, how it feels like home every time you listen to it. And as the years go on, and especially judging the reaction to his latest album, 2013’s Gone Away Backward, there’s a sense that the rest of the world is getting on board as well. Have we reached the point where people just want to hear good music, regardless of genre?
“That’s an awfully broad, philosophical question that I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer, especially on the basis of my music being the standard bearer for everything that’s good,” Fulks laughs, but regardless of whether he’s the Flavor of the Month or not, his approach to music isn’t wavering, especially not now.
“I don’t know if it’s an idealistic basis or it’s just only the rules that I know how to play by, especially when you reach a certain age,” he explains. “But I think I’m the guy that’s sort of older and plays in his living room and has a tradition and a certain kind of background. I’m not a blank slate, and I’m not young and good looking and I’m not really connected to what’s buzzing and popular in the moment. I am what I am and that awareness kind of dawned on me probably 15 years ago, so it’s what I’m sticking with.”
You can’t argue with logic like that, but it does get easier to live by as you get older. At 51, the alt-country standout has reached the point where getting to the point is a lot easier and cathartic than beating around the bush for hours. It’s a lot more compelling for the listener too, and you could say compelling for the reader of Fulks’ words, which are liberally displayed on his website. It’s one of the rare artist websites in the music biz worth going to, simply because Fulks tells it like it is there. He doesn’t compare one (prose writing) to the other (songwriting) though, and in typical honesty, he admits that writing songs isn’t as easy as he makes it look.
“It’s not fun, and as far as songs, I do experience that negative connotation about wanting to be the thing without bothering to do the work,” he said. “Every time I sit down to write a song, I start thinking about other songs that I’ve written and I would rather just get to the end point somehow and have the thing written. (Laughs) You always forget how in the dark you are in the process of it, and how implausible it is to get from Point A to Point Z. And for me, writing the sentences without music is kind of an escape. A lot of times, it’s a way of putting down the guitar and thinking about something else and feeling like I’m accomplishing something when I really should be writing songs. It’s not easy to write sentences either, but I think it’s a good deal easier than writing words and music.”
Yet as they say, the juice is worth the squeeze.
“I don’t want to give too much away about my vices (Laughs), but if I finished a year where I think I’ve written half a dozen good songs that will still sound good to me in another five or six years, that’s a really pleasant feeling of accomplishment,” he said. “That’s the point I’m trying to get to and even that’s an exaggeration to say five or six. It seems like at any point in time, I feel like I’ve only written four good ones in my entire life, so you’re always re-evaluating and hopefully raising your standards.”
That’s one harsh critic, but to be as good as Fulks is, you have to shine the light brighter on yourself than anyone else would. That could be a rough existence to live, but with the exception of finding parking in NYC, Fulks isn’t complaining.
“Music is the greatest, and I would never care to stress my little pains and problems of it because I see what other guys do for a living,” he said. “They hate it and it’s terrible. It seems like 90 percent of the jobs available out there are clearly worse than music. The money’s not great and it’s hard work, but everything’s hard work. But to be listened to and applauded – how many guys go into work and get applause? Even if it’s only 50 hands clapping, I’ll take it.”
Robbie Fulks plays Union Hall in Brooklyn on Thursday, October 30. For tickets, click here