As he preps for a gig at Milwaukee's Shank Hall this weekend, we caught up with Chicago-based troubador Robbie Fulks – who's got his share of Cream City connections – to ask him about his new acoustic record, "Gone Away Backward."
The new disc is stripped down and rooted in bluegrass, but is laced, as always, with Fulks' great melodies, intelligent lyrics and biting humor. It's an interesting counterpoint to its predecessor, "Happy," an album of Michael Jackson covers. We began by talking about that...
OnMilwaukee.com: I promise we'll talk about the new record, but we never chatted when "Happy" came out, so I wanted to ask you about where that came from? What inspired you to do it?
Robbie Fulks: I did guitar-mando arrangements of MJ music for his birthday at a municipal Chicago thingamajig in 1999 and it took off from there. Listeners seemed to like it and I was also interested in it, a perfect combination.
OMC: It sounds like it would've been a pretty fun thing to make. Are you toying with the idea of doing something similar again in the future?
OMC: OK, let's talk about "Gone Away Backward." I've decided that the title is a reference to going back to the roots since the record has a really earthy, acoustic bluegrass sound. But that might not be anything like what you intended.
RF: The title is from Isaiah chapter 1 King James. God is fed up with the chosenry. Like a lot of the King James Bible, the phrase had a musical, imperishable sound.
OMC: Did the approach grow out of the sessions you've been doing for the past few years at the Hideout and out in New York City?
RF: Yes it did, the approach of sitting and picking the way I used to do when I was in my teens. I did it alone then most of the time but only for lack of friends. It's a lot more enjoyable with others to play off of, but not so many others that you can't hear everything going on, or have to worry about "parts" and all that jazz.
OMC: Speaking of New York City, the character is "Long I Ride" sounds eager to get out of town. Has his experience there been your experience there?
RF: No, I don't think I'm that guy in particular. Because of the loose, oral method of song dissemination in folk music that preceded the recording era, a lot of the songs have verses that don't fit together neatly. They don't progress linearly, for instance, or, sometimes, they don't even seem to have anything to do with one another.
I'm thinking of songs like the Carters' "Don't Forget This Song" or "Black-Eyed Susie" or a thousand others, I guess. This disconnectedness seems to line up, maybe coincidentally, with the outlook of troubadour, for whom scenes and characters are always in randomish motion.
OMC: What would that guy have found had he rode into Milwaukee with a six-string on his shoulder?
RF: Pretty old buildings, unpretentious people, bad roads!
OMC: You've had a long association with the city, thanks to guys like Robbie Gjersoe and Mike Fredrickson. Do you feel at home when you come up here for gigs?
RF: Yes, people are actually more welcoming there than in a lot of places, but I also think that's a Midwestern thing, which I think in turn is partly based on my being a neighborhood guy.
OMC: What can we expect at this next one? Are you playing solo?
RF: I'm really excited to get out and do some shows with Missy Raines, whose last record I liked and whose playing in "the old days" with Eddie Adcock is renowned. That weekend will be my inaugural weekend working with her.
Also Shad Cobb'll be fiddling and Robbie Gjersoe will be the tailgunner. I think that'll be a real hot band as far as the country and the hard grass go, and then there's my songs on top, so what is everyone waiting for? Get out there! I won't be alive forever!
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.