Released May 8 on Blue Dirt / Thirty Tigers, Fullbright’s fan-financed album, From The Ground Up, is a testament to a rising talent and is packed with well-crafted songs guaranteed to echo in your mind long after the final track plays. Performing solo or with his band, Fullbright comes across as a long-time pro and his debut album is a must-have for every music lover’s collection.
Learning to play piano when he was only 5 years old, Fullbright later picked up the guitar, taking his first steps on a trek that would lead to playing festivals before graduating high school and drawing accolades from well-established artists even before releasing his first album. Praise like what fellow Oklahoman Jimmy Webb heaped upon him, proclaiming that “in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music.”
Of course, every journey begins with a single step. For Fullbright, it was going to Oklahoma City’s Blue Door nightclub where he honed his craft, impressed virtually everyone who heard him, and recorded a live album appropriately titled Live At The Blue Door.
Chatting with Pollstar from his Okemah home, Fullbright talked about his Blue Door experiences, his own creative process and the songwriters that have influenced him.
How does Oklahoma City’s Blue Door nightclub fit into your career?
The Blue Door was the first listening room I had ever been in, or heard of. The idea of somebody getting on stage with a guitar and singing a song to an audience that was, for the most part, silent and listening intently, was pretty new to me, pretty terrifying.
I was playing with a guy named Mike McClure. We went to the Blue Door for Bob Childers wake (April 2008). That’s when I met [Blue Door manager] Greg Johnson. I think I ran into him later at a state fair. He liked my songs and asked me if I wanted to play my own show at the Blue Door.
I think maybe two or three shows later, we ended up recording that live album out of pure necessity because we didn’t have the money or time to get into the studio. That was the easiest way out. I still like that record. I’m still proud of it.
What do you have planned for your upcoming shows?
I’m still kind of making a set list. The show will be like the record. There will be quite a few band songs. I’ll try to put as much energy as we can. Then I’ll just get up there by myself and play some of these solo songs and mix it up.
A lot of people were surprised when I put out a studio record with a band, a great big band sound. A lot of people were expecting another solo record, like a cleaner solo album.
There’s been a lot of advance praise for From The Ground Up. Do you feel kind of nervous to have to live up to all those favorable critiques?
The bottom line is it’s my job to write songs and stand by them. I tend not to dwell on what people are saying or reviews. I just write songs.
What is the creative process like for you? Does a song start with words, a riff or a melody?
Lots of times it starts from the long drive home. I’ll start rhyming silly stuff about billboards and whatnot. It always seems to end at home. That’s where the title of the album came from. Every song on that record was at least finished in this house where I am now … I always wrote in this house. I grew up in this house. The creative process is a lot of pacing around in silence without playing a note.
Do you keep a notebook?
No, I’m terrible about that. I have a big stack of yellow papers that sits on my piano. I have to make sure they don’t blow off out the window. It’s very unorganized.
Are there moments where you wake up in the middle of the night with a phrase or something and by the end of the week you have lots of little papers lying around?
I did that for a while. I’m not great at that. I tend to want to start from scratch. I can admit that the iPhone has changed a lot of what I do. Ninety percent of the songs I write start out as voice memos … By the end of it you have five different rough drafts of a song, none of them the same. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to put out a CD … [saying] “this is how you got to this song. Here are the five different ways, from start-to-finish, this song was created.”
Many songwriters are known to be voracious readers. Do you read a lot?
Try to be. That’s one thing I really try to work at. That’s something Jimmy Webb said, “If you’re going to be a songwriter, you’re going to have to read.”
And I’ve always read. I read a lot of these rock biographies and books about other musicians and that does not help songwriting in the least. But I try to read.
What are you reading these days?
Next to my bed I have a Shel Silverstein book of children’s poems, Charles Bukowski and “Bob Dylan Chronicles [Vol.1]”
You live and grew up in the same town as Woody Guthrie. Do you feel a connection with Woody?
Yes and no. Woody is kind of a neighbor. A lot of people have neighbors that they know nothing about. That’s kind of how Woody has been [to me].
I knew about Woody [while] growing up because his name is on the water tower and he wrote “This Land is Your Land.” But nobody talked about him because they didn’t want to get into the politics. And I don’t blame them, really. I can understand why they didn’t talk about him. But at the same time, as an adult, I am fascinated with everything he did. I really like his writing more than his songs.
I didn’t know about all of this. Being from Okemah and writing songs. Then all of a sudden I go out there and they say, “Oh, you’re from Okemah and you write songs. That’s amazing.” I’ve been to Europe and they’re really fascinated with the fact that there’s someone from Okemah that writes songs. And I’m still trying to put it together.
Do you consider yourself more of a singer/songwriter or are you a rocker, say, in the same vein as Bob Seger, John Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen are considered rockers?
I do whatever I feel like doing. Sometimes it’s rock. The term “singer/songwriter” I think is really funny. When people ask the question, “What do you do?” I seem to answer, “Just a songwriter.” Because that covers all the basics. You can’t do anything unless you have a song.
The recording of From The Ground Up was fan-supported. How did that work out?
The Kickstarter campaign, what a swell idea that is. You pre-order the record that hasn’t been made yet. People who want to hear it, they give you money. If they don’t [want to hear it], they don’t give you money.
Were there tiers of donations with donors receiving the album plus extras depending on how much they donated?
Yeah. There are signed copies. If you donate $1,000, you get a private concert. It was kind of hard for me to do that. I wasn’t sure what to give. I just looked at what everyone else is doing.
Most of the time people aren’t expecting anything. Some, a little gift or trinket. They just want the record and they want to know that they’ve helped. And that’s the best part of the whole thing for me.
You recently signed with a major booking agency, Paradigm, with Jonathan Levine representing you. How did that come about?
I’m with 30 Tigers over at Nashville, which is run by a guy named David Macius. I believe Macius was talking with Jonathan about a few of his artists and said, “You need to check out John Fullbright,” and he put on “Satan and St. Paul” on YouTube or something.
Jonathan said after that one song he decided he was going to search me out. And I’m very glad he did. He’s a really great guy.
You’ve been distributing songs via SoundCloud. How has that worked out for you?
As a writer you sometimes just write without wanting it to go anywhere. SongCloud has been kind of a funny tool for me. Whenever I write something I think, “I’ll never record that but I want somebody to hear it,” and I’ll throw it on there. Sometimes it’s just like a joke, little joke songs or something like that. I guess I forgot that it’s actually a professional tool.
What’s next for you?
A lot of touring. As much as I can be on the road, I’ll be on the road. Get this album out there into as many people’s hands I can get it to.
What are you listening to these days?
I got The Beach Boys’ Smile album for my birthday a few days ago. I listened to one side of one record and decided this was not something to be taken lightly. I have to actually sit down and sink my teeth into it.
Who are some of the songwriters you’ve listened to over the years?
Townes Van Zandt was the first real light bulb. This is something to be taken very seriously, this songwriting thing. This is not just something you hear on the radio. It’s very important. From Townes it just kind of started bouncing into Mickey Newbury and Shel Silverstein, Bobby Bare, guys like that. Literary country guys have always been my heroes. I’m a country boy. I’ve got a thing for piano players. I like Jimmy Webb, Tom Waits, Leon Russell, those guys.
I like songwriters who take chances and get away with it. [Songwriting] takes some serious hours of work. It’s not like you sit down and write that song. You have to write a really shitty version of that song several times before you get it.
It’s like Leonard Cohen talking about he’s just a working stiff. He writes 60 pages worth of one song whenever he writes a song and I’ve always admired that. He’s treating this like any other job in the world … Some people will treat this as if it’s something better than going to work every day. And it’s not. It’s just as important as a guy who paints houses for a living. But not any more important.
You just turned 24. What advice can you give a fledgling songwriter?
The only thing that comes to mind is just tell the truth. Don’t try to be anybody but you. Study songs. Songwriting is an apprenticeship. If somebody says they don’t listen to other songwriters and that they’re a songwriter, I automatically assume they’re not very good. It’s just like any other job in the world. It’s no different than the guy that lays bricks. You have to learn how to do it.