“I’m not anti-happy,” John Fullbright states from the stage of London’s art deco gem the Islington Assembly Hall, “I’m pro-sad.” On a brief solo tour ahead of the UK release next month of his second album, the Oklahoma native is at pains to point out he is not a misery-guts.
With the starkly named Songs already available Stateside, Fullbright is aware that its downbeat, stripped-down feel has surprised fans of his well-received debut, From the Ground Up, a title that reflects the Midwestern singer/songwriter’s career to date. After a low-key release in 2012, the collection of swinging numbers heavy on biblical imagery was nominated last year for a Grammy in the Americana section alongside Mumford & Sons and eventual winner Bonnie Raitt. Stand-out track “Gawd Above” has since appeared on the soundtrack to the Meryl Streep-led August: Osage County, with the 26-year-old refreshingly unspoilt and still coming to terms with his growing profile. Earlier in the day I find him gazing wonderingly around his dressing room, taking in the fruit plate and craft beers his nurturing tour manager insisted upon in his rider. “I wouldn’t know what to ask for,” Fullbright shrugs.
The musician, born like Woody Guthrie in Okemah and raised on a nearby farm, gladly returned home after promoting Ground Up to record its follow-up. “A lot of my family’s moved back from the far reaches of the Earth and it’s been really nice to stay home and watch kids get bigger.” Fullbright’s soldiering brother served in Iraq and is now raising a family, for younger members of which Fullbright recorded the delicate “Song for a Child” on his first album.
While Fullbright’s upbringing was lonely for a budding musician, he was very much aware of his state’s rich musical heritage: fêted writer Jimmy Webb, Elton John-endorsed Leon Russell and the sorely missed JJ Cale. All, notably, individualist musicians. Is there a common thread there? “There’s a sensibility and I’d hate to put it into words,” he says, though suggests it goes back to his home state’s beginnings. What became Oklahoma was originally a reservation for native Americans from other regions, until this too became settled by white folk, “every entrepreneur, every crazy person from around the country that wanted to pack up their kids and start a new life in this desolate Indian territory. Some of that behaviour still trickles down today into the people that live there now.”
Promoting Ground Up took a year and a half, an unexpected slog that left Fullbright tender when he arrived home. “It was a little too much for me. All this stuff, I have no expectations and I don’t show up very prepared. I really focus on writing songs.” Rather than come up with a fresh batch of material, though, he has gone through his notebooks to pick out half-finished lyrics that could be used.
“I have never been able to edit anything and I know several songwriters that started like that, it’s a beginners’ thing, because it’s very precious at first. You’re waiting on the muse. If I couldn’t get it all down in one fell swoop, then I would think I could never finish it, because I couldn’t go back and get that moment.”
The result is an achingly personal set of songs that suggests a man picking over the bones of a failed relationship – something the musician hints is true (although his current girlfriend has accompanied him to London). “There’s some of that, sure. I poured a lot more of myself into this record, there’s a lot more unabashed honesty. There’s also some real joy. “Very First Time” might be the most honest song I’ve ever written. I hate vague songwriting – I’ve written very vague songs – but they don’t mean anything. It’s a cowardly thing to do. If you’re going to take someone’s time, you’d better damn well say what you mean. And if it’s not understood, you didn’t do it right. So I walk out on stage and I bleed all over the place.” Another development on Songs is that Fullbright has become a larger musical presence. Rather than rely on a backing band, he has made use of overdubs, though more striking are solo performances on guitar and organ, notably the sardonic “Keeping Hope Alive” and the vaguely hymnal “All That You Know”.
“That scared me to death. Is it too much to ask them to come to you? Not giving people something catchy or groovy? I thought I’d made a record that was too slow and people would come at me for not making a record as big as the last one, but it hasn’t happened yet.” It is only fair to point out that Fullbright does have a sense of humour, albeit a laconic one that is probably common among the agricultural community in which he was raised. “The sense of humour in Oklahoma is very dry, very dry,” he agrees. “My favourite guys are Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson – all they did in the studio the whole time was joke around.” You get a sense of this at unexpected moments during Songs, as in the fit of coughs on “Going Home”, a wry number about reaching the end of the road.
Later that day, Fullbright proves to be even more playful live than on record, especially when he moves from guitar to organ. At the end of “High Road” he adds a closing segment of the traditional Scottish air “Loch Lomond” that he based his own maudlin tale on, before closing with a feisty take on vaudeville blues standard “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, hammering the keys at the finale. Its a perfect encapsulation of where the artist has come from, though who can guess where he’s headed next – after home, of course?
John Fullbright’s ‘Songs’ is out July 21 on Blue Door/Thirty Tigers