He’s not really folk, he’s not really country, but John Fullbright is among America’s hottest young singer-songwriters. Tim Hughes finds out what he’s all about
John Fullbright says it like it is. Not one to deal in cliché, he overturns the notion that great music can only come through heartbreak or depression; that great art is only born from suffering.
“What’s so bad about happy?” he sings on the opening track of his new album, Songs.
“A normal person, if they find themselves in a position of turmoil or grief, they’ll say, ‘I need to get out of this as fast as I can. A writer will say, ‘How long can I stay in this until I get something good?’ And that’s a rubbish way to look at life,” he laughs.
Emerging from the same corner of Oklahoma that spawned folk legend Woody Guthrie, this understated blues-soaked young singer-songwriter has been spoken about in the same hushed tones as his ‘Okie’ predecessor — as well as Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb and his own personal hero, the Texan country singer Townes Van Zandt.
In the two years since the Americana artist released his debut studio album, From The Ground Up, he has received a wave of critical acclaim, feted as one of the best new singer-songwriters, greatest live artists, and a man whose tunes should be on everyone’s playlist. His debut was even nominated for Best Americana Album at the Grammy Awards, placing him alongside such greats as Bonnie Raitt.
“I never came into this with a whole lot of expectations,” he admits.
“I just wanted to write really good songs, and with that outlook, everything else is a perk. The fact that we went to LA and played Gawd Above in front of a star-studded audience (at the Grammy concert)... never in my life would I have imagined that.”
But, he insists, it isn’t the acclaim that means the most to him, but the chance to rub shoulders with songwriters he admires.
“When I started out, I was all by myself in a little town in Oklahoma where whatever you wanted, you just made it yourself,” he says.
“I didn’t grow up around musicians or like-minded songwriters, but I grew up around records. One of the most fulfilling things about the last two years is that now I’m surrounded by like-minded people in a community of peers. You don’t feel alone any more.”
And, like the greats he admires, it is his dedication to the act of writing itself which lends him integrity. “When I discovered Townes Van Zandt, that’s when I went, ‘You know, this is something to be taken pretty damn seriously,’” he says. “‘This is nothing to do with business; it has to do with art and identity’. You can write something that’s going to outlast you, and immortality though song is a big draw.
“I can write a first verse and chorus fairly easily, and it’s important just to document it at the time and come back to it later,” he explains. “That’s the labour, when you really get your tools out and figure out how to craft something that’s worthwhile.”
He goes on: “My songwriting is a lot more economical now. I like to say as much as I can in two minutes 50 seconds; that’s kind of a point of pride for me.”
On Monday he plays the intimate setting of St Alban’s Church, in East Oxford. The show gives listeners a chance to hear up-close a youthful artist with the care-worn voice of a man more than twice his age.
While his songs are rich in melody and harmony, and revel in strong characterisation and narrative, they remain pure, stripped-back and free of ornamentation. John’s piano and guitar are at the fore, with a minimalist rhythm section.
“I’m a better performer and writer and musician now, and I wanted a record that would reflect that,” he says.
“We tracked a lot of it live, just me and a bass player in a room with a few microphones. The basis is a live performance and everything else supports that. I think you just get as much energy and skill as you can into a take, and then start building from there. And what we found is that you don't have to add too much to that.”
He’s certainly come a long way for a boy from Bearden, OK. But, as he sings in his song Going Home, nothing beats the pleasure of going back to where it all started.
“When you’re gone for so long, once you know you’re headed in the right direction to your own bed and your own home, that’s one of the greatest feelings you can have,” he says.
St Alban’s Church, East Oxford
Tickets: £16.50 wegottickets.com