john fullbright

A Man with a Simple Song
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK / LOOKatOKC

As I walk into the coffee shop where John Fullbright and I have agreed to meet, I feel an intent stare coming from the minivan next to me. He beat me here, and when I look over to source the gaze, he breaks into a smile and waves hello.

I’m nervous.

For those of you in the back, Fullbright is something of an Okie wunderkind, a songwriter who, for some of us, seemed to leap overnight from membership in the Turnpike Troubadours and solo gigs at Libby’s Cafe in Goldsby to international recognition and, eventually, a much-talked-about Grammy nomination for 2012’s “From the Ground Up,” his first studio album.

Those accolades aren’t the source of my nerves, though. Fullbright has a bit of a reputation, particularly locally, for being reluctant to talk — not about his music, but about himself. While I’ve seen his professionalism in full effect in all sorts of places, including the Folk Alliance International Conference, South By Southwest and his own shows at the Blue Door, this is the first time I’ve put the spotlight on him.

Often, when talking to Oklahoma musicians, I tread the line between interested friend and biographer, reading articles from around the world written about people I know and asking questions I may already know the answers to. I am nervous, and I tell him as much.

He is patently aware of this. When I press record, he says, simply, “I’m going to use my interview voice.”

I inquire whether or not this reluctance is in the forefront of his mind when talking to media folks like me or, more often, of a higher ilk.

“Absolutely, but I don’t not tell the truth. I’ll tell a truth. A one-dimensional question gets a one-dimensional answer,” Fullbright says. “I give people all I got, all that I want to give ’em, but if one person from a local paper asks you a question, next thing you know, someone on NPR is taking that question to the next level. You have to be aware of what you’re saying now; someone’s going to bring it up later.”

And for those who prod further, past the songs, past the facts, past what he wants to give?

“I go, ‘I’m not going to go into my family history. We’re talking about music,’” Fullbright says. “Or when people ask, ‘Are you a Christian?’ and all that stuff. ‘We’re talking about these songs.’”

This is a conundrum for Fullbright, whose songs — including those on his upcoming album “Songs” — are clear enough and seemingly personal enough to be subjected to an autobiographical reading. I wonder aloud about the struggle to play close to the chest when your art and profession demand otherwise.

There’s a common theme around here about truth in songwriting. Canadian artist Scott Nolan sings the plight of the Oklahoma songwriter in his “Bad Liver/Broken Heart” with the plaintive line: “Doesn’t anybody care about truth anymore?/Maybe that’s what songs are for.” Okie John Moreland, in a nod to Nolan, echoes that plight in “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” saying, simply, “I guess truth is what songs are for.”

Fullbright, who notes that for him, songwriting has generally been a lonely task, decries this limitation in a different way on “Songs.” “Every time I try to write a song/I can’t seem to get a word in edgewise,” he sings on album opener “Happy.”

Fullbright puts forth that songs, “when they’re well-written, are about the listener,” but notes the obvious problem with that.

“Write a song that everyone can connect with, and suddenly everyone will start assuming that you know what you’re talking about. Ask me what ‘Jericho’ is about, and I can go line for line, and you’ll fall asleep. It’s the most boring story on Earth. But when you internalize it and make it about you, then it’s epic and exciting. That’s what songs are for.”

He explains further by paraphrasing a Shel Silverstein interview: “He said that when you write a song, you have to say everything that you mean, and it has to be interpreted exactly like you want it to be interpreted, and if it’s not, then you’re not doing it right, because you can’t chase someone down the street and say, ‘Now let me tell you what I really meant to say.’”

He’s lauded as a songwriter first, musician second. I’d categorize him as a sharp observer above all else, and keenly funny, despite an early NPR review of “From the Ground Up” that said he could “use more humor.”

If anything, he’s victim of the aforementioned local papers pigeonholing him with a swath of “Aw, shucks!” folk cliches: Yes, he’s from the same coupling of small towns that produced Woody Guthrie, and yes, he still lives there. Yes, he has an acoustic guitar, though for those who’ve seen him live, it’s inarguable that his piano playing is more impressive. One SXSW reviewer even called him milquetoast.

There’s a palpable absence of a cultivated image in Fullbright — and he is of course aware of this and of the limited perception that keeps that projected version of him alive. “If there’s a preconceived notion that I have to be some kind of Woody-head, then they’ll keep that about as long as it takes for them to come see a show and see that that is not the case,” Fullbright says.

The dark, racy video for his 2013 single “Gawd Above,” featuring Fullbright singing solo in a peep show confessional booth, may have been an answer to that as well.

“I just wanna be known for writing a clear, concise song,” Fullbright says. He goes on to say that experience is teaching him to whittle his songs down precisely to nothing more and nothing less than they should be.

“At the end of the day, I’m two years better than I was when that first record came out. In every way. Better singer, better writer, better guitar player, better piano player, better whistler,” Fullbright says. “I’m better at all kinds of stuff, and if the record doesn’t reflect that, then I’m not doing it right. That’s where the whole thing about stripping it down came from. This has to look like I’m better at this than I was before.”

And it does, I think. “Songs” is powerful in its simplicity, and it’s (theoretically) difficult to interpret his intent. But don’t get too attached. Apologies for using another folk cliche here, but he is an old soul. It’s difficult to remember he’s only in his mid-20s, only on his second studio record.

“Maybe once or twice a year, I’ll take a little stroll down memory lane because there are (older songs) I want to hear again,” Fullbright says. “But I’m looking ahead. I’ve got stuff to write and new experiences, and I’m not the same person I used to be. This new person’s gotta write all that down.”

Continue Reading

wye oak

The complex grain of Baltimore duo Wye Oak doesn’t run straight; it swirls rings of dreamy heartache
for Oklahoma Gazette

There isn’t really a correct way to interpret Wye Oak. The Baltimore rock band, comprised of singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboard player Andy Stack, doesn’t mean to give the wrong impression, but there’s no reconciling the sonic inconsistencies between its albums, nor the divergence between the sound of the record and the setup of the live show.

It’s also nearly impossible to believe that Wasner, who in person is disarmingly friendly and animated, owns the heartbreaking voice behind the majority of Wye Oak’s catalog ” a depressing array of songs that touch on everything from family turmoil and religious doubt to the trials of a failing relationship.

“The Knot,” released on Merge Records last year, is heavy-handed compared to the band’s latest EP, “My Neighbor / My Creator.” The former relies a great deal on distortion; the vocals are quiet and the drums loud, for the most part. The latter is comparatively triumphant and clear, although tackling many of the same issues.

Perhaps most interesting about Wye Oak is that the heavy layering and complex tempos are handled onstage by the same two people who recorded layer after layer in studio.

“We always think, ‘Oh, God, how are we going to do this?’ But we don’t ever let that stop us from doing some-thing on a recording” Wasner said. “We definitely have moments where we think, ‘This is the way we want it, and it’s going to be difficult to duplicate this.’ It was tough for me to get over that, but I realize now that it’s OK if the songs are different live.

“We get a big kick out of re-imagining them … stretching their boundaries and making them work in our live setup. It can be really frustrating for certain songs, where we’ve gone at it again and again and never hit upon something that works live. That’s definitely a bummer, but for the most part, our two-person setup is something we’ve stopped considering as a limitation and realized it’s just part of who we are.”

Among Wye Oak’s other defining characteristics are its deep ties to Baltimore. Stack and Wasner are natives who moved away for college, returned home and, shortly thereafter, formed the group.

“I’m definitely one of those born-and-raised folks. Our families are there,” Wasner said. “I never realized how exciting a city it really is musically, artistically, creatively and culturally until I tried to move away. We got lucky; we grew up at a time when Baltimore was blossoming in a lot of ways, and it’s an inspiring place to be, but I will say this: If I didn’t travel a good chunk of the year, I don’t know where I’d be. By the end of a tour, I’m so excited just to be home, but by the end of my time at home, I’m like, ‘Get me the fuck out of here. I need to go on tour.’ I don’t know how long I can necessarily keep that up, but as of now, it seems to be a pretty good balance. Baltimore’s an important part of the kind of people we are.”

Indeed, themes of family and home weigh heavily into Wye Oak’s songwriting. The group’s lyrics are at once vague and strikingly personal, and many of its songs find Wasner openly questioning her belief in God; the tray liner of “The Knot” disc reads, “There is no great eye on the sparrow?,” taken from the album’s “Mary Is Mary.”

Wasner attributed the biblical reference to another source: the recently deceased Mark Linkous of alternative rock band Sparklehorse, whose “Hundreds of Sparrows” is a favorite of Wasner’s.

“It’s one of those songs I just really, really love. When I heard the news (of Linkous’s suicide), it hit me really hard,” he said. “I didn’t realize until now how much that song had influenced me lyrically. That line, ‘You are worth hundreds of sparrows,’ just stuck with me. It’s about how I’m going to handle religion, or the lack thereof, in my life and how I’m going to handle that with my family. His lines have been in my head the whole time, and it came full circle: I put that reference back in my own songs and, yes, there is a question mark on the end. I do not have that shit figured out.”

And rightfully so. The gravity of Wye Oak’s music makes it easy to forget that Stack and Wasner are young, both in their 20s ” and semipublicly dealing with the very same issues that plague everyone else their age. Case in point: A couple linked since the act’s 2006 inception, Stack and Wasner recently parted ways, romantically, while their friendship and working relationship has remained intact.

“We’re still on tour, and we’re still playing the same music, and we’re still the same kind of friends we’ve always been. We’re not making a press release about our personal lives. We’re not egotistical enough to think anyone would really care,” she said. “We’re also not trying to hide anything. It’s not a huge part of who we are musically, but when you’re a duo, people are curious. … I think it’s important to keep the line drawn between the important stuff ” the really personal stuff ” and a public persona, but shit, we’re just people. I’m not going to lie to anybody.”

Currently on tour with Texas act Shearwater, Wye Oak performs Friday at the Opolis in Norman, and recently completed a stint at Austin’s South by Southwest festival.

“We’re getting along great on tour. We’re both happy and content with the state of our band partnership and our friendship. Things are good,” Wasner said. “We get to travel around in a van and have good times, and you can’t really ask for much more than that.”

During “I Hope You Die,” from “My Neighbor / My Creator,” Wasner sings, “Was it deafeningly loud, or was it peace ” sweet peace?”

With Wye Oak, it’s always at least one or the other, and most of the time, it’s both.

Continue Reading

phantom planet

Making Sweet Metaphors
for Boyd Street Magazine

Alex Greenwald loves a good metaphor. And a bad one. Indeed, Phantom Planet’s new album, Raise the Dead, is conceptual, an exploration of the metaphorical cult of band fandom. Single “Leader” portrays a cult experience (“He explained so easily/We are all the missing pieces/Maybe you’ll fit right in, too”), with Greenwald first joining and then recruiting to the Phantom Planet family.

Creepy, yes, but in reality Raise the Dead finds Greenwald (guitar/vox), Darren Robinson (guitar), Sam Farrar (bass) and Jeff Conrad (drums) settling into a medium, melding their early surf-pop with the garage rock of Phantom Planet’s eponymous third record — an album that, at its release, left diehards and neophytes alike scratching their heads. Despite the shift, Greenwald speculates about the loyalty of the Phantom Planet…ahem…cult.

“Changing stylistically is wearing our experiences and influences from the time it takes to [make] a record. If the style of the record is like your fashion, you’re still the same person underneath your clothes. We’ve made really close friends that stick with us, even though now we might be dressed like…derobed…um…circus clowns.”

Robinson offered a simpler explanation. “We’re very personable. We always go out and mingle with fans.”

This forging of relationships is of greater importance lately, as the band finds itself in a number of unlikely pairings, supporting Panic at the Disco, The Rocket Summer and Paramore this year alone. Greenwald has — you guessed it — a couple of metaphors to explain.

“Headlining shows are like dessert. I could almost rot my teeth on how sweet it is,” Greenwald said, “but I do like playing for new people. It’s like going on a first date: cold sweats, nervousness and, if it works, extreme elation.”

That elation is a long time coming, as Phantom Planet rounds out its 14 th year. Overcoming an unfavorable Hollywood stigma — Greenwald is a former Gap model and actor (see: Donnie Darko) and actor Jason Schwartzman is the original drummer — and leaving Epic Records in favor of the much-smaller Fueled By Ramen, Phantom Planet has abandoned anonymity for success. Greenwald analogized (of course) the band’s turbulent climb out of the L.A. pop scene.

“By no means did I grow up wealthy, but I wasn’t poor. When I couldn’t afford a toy, like a Jabba the Hutt, my mom made it. It’s the same thing as Jabba, you know. (At this point, the rest of Phantom Planet looked quizzically at each other, snickering.) Wait, guys, this analogy is going to work. I played with it and [eventually] loved it even more. You kind of hate where you come from, but you still love it. We started early, so everything felt like the way it was supposed to be. It was hard work but not crazy. I was 15 when we signed to Geffen. We kind of disliked the experience of being on a major label, but that was what was supposed to happen, and now we’re adults, and we want to move forward.”

Phantom Planet has few regrets, even concerning the elephant in the room. “California” from 2002’s The Guest found smash success as the theme to Fox’s The O.C. and led countless drunks to shout the request at every performance.

“I had the fear before that I’d regret the choice to put ‘California’ on the show,” Greenwald said. “The potential negative is people might judge you before hearing other songs, but if anything, it’s done the opposite and given our band the opportunity to reach a lot of people. From Radiohead to NOFX, there’s always someone in the audience yelling. At least it’s not, ‘You guys suck!’ That’s something.”

Continue Reading