Robbie Fulks: Thirty years of making music

by Hayden Eller

photo by Andy Goodwin

It’s commonplace for publications and fans to try and put bands/musicians within a specific genre tag. Though many would be hard pressed to define any of these genre tags (indie-pop, alt-country, etc.), Robbie Fulks makes the task near impossible because he truly defies any/all the genre tags you can muster together via Bandcamp. As his press release states, Robbie is “…widely regarded by those who monitor such things as one of the most gifted songwriters to ever ply the trade, he can sing the kids ditty ‘Eggs’ and Haggard’s ‘Sing a Sad Song’ back to back and mean ‘em both” – and it couldn’t be more true.

Born in York, Pennsylvania in 1963, and a longtime resident of Chicago (Illinois), Robby began his foray into music at the age of six when he started messing with his Aunt’s banjo. A few years later he transitioned to the acoustic guitar, and 30 years later Robby has developed into one of the most renowned songwriters in the United States.

Having spent a majority of his musical career in Chicago, it’s no surprise that Robbie has collaborated with many of the talented and influential individuals to come out of the Windy City. But the producer behind many of his records may surprise you – Steve Albini, possibly most known for his work with Nirvana on In Utero. Steve’s hands off approach to recording has made for a great working relationship with Fulks, who’s prolific song writing seems to require more of a guide as opposed to a captain.

“He’s not a coach, not an intrusive guy – he’s more of an engineer….Nirvana is definitely an exception in his catalogue, he definitely likes stuff that’s off to the margins and that’s where I live,” Fulks said, adding “he’s definitely had an influence on how I view mixing music and using your time judiciously during tracking.”

The length of Fulks’ career has allowed him to view the transition from analog gear to more computer/electronic-based recording, a transition that Albini and he view very differently. “Steve really loves tape, and I love it too (it sounds great), but I woudn’t care to go back to pre-computers – I like editing on the computer, and I like having the ability to record a bunch without having it cost a trillion dollars,” Fulks laughed.

Touring for the past three decades has left Fulks with many memories from his time on the road, but PNW locals can rejoice as he specifically notes the milestones he’s reached when playing in the area previously. “The one date in the last 30 years that I missed was a Portland show that I missed because I went out to Vashon Island and had too much fun the night before. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the Pacific Northwest – maybe too much,” Fulks chuckled.

Touring and the experience of meeting different communities are a large part of the longevity of Robbie’s musical career; he cites the shared experience between a performer and an audience as pivotal in his development as an individual and a musician. “I like having other people affect and change me – music is the perfect place to be if you’re like that because it’s fundamentally about communicating with other people and allowing them to alter you as you go,” he said, thoughtfully.

Catch Robby live at The Green Frog on Saturday, Nov. 5. Cover is $20 cover (advance tickets available via The Green Frog’s website). For more about him, see www.robbiefulks.com.

Published in the November 2016 issue of What’s Up!