"gone away" feedback, and other things

By Robbie on September 3, 2013

Gone Away Backward has been out a week now, and the reviews have been coming in at a steady trickle for closer to two. If you've happened across a couple of them, you know I don't have anything to complain about. I've learned from record-making that no matter how irreproachable I think my work is after the recording is done (and I try to make sure that the results please me, so I can face whatever happens after with fortitude), I must steel myself against feeling disappointed when others (mainly the reviewers but also general listeners) are immune to its charms, or are sharply critical of it. It's probably best to avoid reading reviews of your stuff altogether, on grounds both of spiritual contentedness and practical uselessness, but I for one can't resist.

I've been curious to see that I seem have disclosed more of myself than I thought I was disclosing. "Robbie Fulks has always been something of a square peg in a round hole. In Chicago he was a rural boy in the big city; in Nashville he was the traditionalist lost in the slick sea of new country." Change "Chicago" to "New York," where I moved to from the farm, and all that feels so spot-on that it fairly shocked me when first I read it. How did someone know that about me? I guess it's there to be inferred, from the bio and the scenarios of a couple of my songs, but as a writer who disdains confessions and autobiographical portraiture, I felt strangely looked-through in coming across that.

Then there is the noticeable tonnage of "8.3 out of 10" and "B+" reviews, which I reread, thinking, "B+? Really? After listing all those positives and saying nothing negative? Where did I go wrong? Where are the little fixes that need made? What do I have to do next time to merit an unalloyed affirmative?" I told my wife that my theory was that after all these prior records, I was too fixed a quantity; nothing I could come up with from here on out could catch people by happy surprise. Even the fact that any record I make sounds unlike the previous is an incorporated fact. "Here comes another Robbie Fulks record, a little boring in its being dependably different from his others, but overall a solid effort: B+!"

But my ever-percipient wife had a stronger hypothesis. Take note of the titles people are singling out for either reason, she said, (allegedly) exemplifying or violating the standard of songcraft on the record: "Imogene," "The Many Disguises of God," "That's Where I'm From." People with a decided taste for experiment, adventure, ambiguity, and unsettling atmosphere are favoring the first two titles and mildly objecting to the third; people who don't much care for those values and are amenable to naked country-song sentiment are going the other way. That's why you're often not getting the A, she argued: the tonal range is slightly too wide, just by a song or two. This would never have occurred to me previously, on a record written with coherence consciously in mind and recorded in one place, at one time, with one small group. But I think she's right, and, probably needless to say, I also think that I wouldn't do it any different if I'd foreseen the reaction. Nor will I take a need for further narrowing into account when I plot the next one. By my tastes, to tell the truth, much narrower than the range on this record would risk dullness. I'm a weirdo and an outlier, but I gotta be me -- in making records if in no other arenas -- and the fact is, I'm a guy that responds with more or less equal ardor to PJ Harvey and Jennifer Nettles, Charles Mingus and the Charles River Valley Boys...

By the way, the lavish and unmitigatedly positive reponses (Jim Fusilli's in WSJ, Peter Margasak's in the Reader, Holly Gleason's in Paste) haven't escaped my attention! Let's have more like that.

I've been trying to be interesting, well-spoken, and on point when talking to journalists on the phone. But it doesn't come natural to me, and it's an area I've been working on for a lot of years. A trap one easily falls into is talking to the person you're talking to, instead of beyond her and to the people who will be reading the piece. Usually, her voice in the conversation isn't included, just yours. If you get snagged into dilating on some strange topic you've never considered and on which you have nothing to offer, that's your mistake. You should have dismissed the question quickly and politely, and gone on to address a question you wanted her to ask. If you display irritation with the questioner, mistake two -- the questioner will be adept at hiding her irritating qualities in her printed persona!

This tradition of talking in newspapers and magazines about work you've just done -- I have to say I'm not sold on it. (I understand, let me quickly add, why I need to do it, and it's easy and even enjoyable labor, most of it.) What's the ideal tone for a musician to strike, so that the reader is impressed or in love, and rushes to the laptop to lose 13 dollars? Interesting, well-spoken, on point: those are traits I like in an interviewee, and when, for instance, I recently caught Russell Banks on the PBS Newshour being all those things I went right out and got his book, about a teen sex offender and a fat intellectual. However, I've read many, many musicians being interviewed in the press. None of them sounded at all like Russell Banks. (Possible exception: Paul Simon.) Personally, the day that I manage to be well-spoken and penetrating, and to cannily channel questions I don't like into answers I do -- that's a day that doesn't dawn all that often in my life. I'm doing above-averagely if I get off a handful of vaguely sage remarks and two jokes. And I think that's as good as most people get when they're improvising. I mean, If I bought music based on the off-the-cuff remarks made by musicians to journalists, I think I would own three records. And two of them would be awful records.

I think if you've made a good and interesting record, it has a chance to connect with listeners in a way more powerful than words lined up on the spur of the moment in rational sentences, in response to questions from people who've never made a record. If you've made good music, why should you then go about explaining it? Nothing good can come from this.

Even stranger to me is the idea of promoting recorded music you've just released by re-recording what is almost by definition a lesser variant of it, and making it available to potential customers via radio and websites. I do consume free music this way from time to time, notably via NPR's Tiny Desk. I can't remember punching in any unfamiliar act, though, only acts whose recorded music I already knew and already knew I liked -- Kelly Hogan, Michael Daves, Jakob Dylan, and the Decemberists, to name a few. People must do it, but it's hard for me to imagine seeing an act for the first time on a site like Tiny Desk and getting motivated to make a purchase, rather than seeking out artists that occupy a mystical place in your head operating on camera in constrained circumstances, which is fun. The videos give you the chance to experience music you like from records shorn of the glamor generated by remoteness and invisibility; if you have no previous relationship with the music, there's nothing to shear.

The other day Robbie Gjersoe and I were at Daytrotter, in Davenport, Iowa. If you've heard Gone Away Backward and liked it, you might like hearing what we did there, but I hope Daytrotter isn't your first impression. It may turn out perfectly well -- I don't know, because they continued working on the tracks after we left, and what I heard on playback wasn't quite the way I would have designed it. Daytrotter had a well-stocked studio, and as far as I remember we performed well, but...who knows? I worked on GAB for several years, from the writing of the first song to street date. Now a couple of its songs, tossed off in an hour among friendly strangers, exist in an alternate studio-recorded form, for the express delectation of one site's subscriber base. As I say, the new variant is almost bound to be lesser. (If it's not, I'll be headed to Davenport to make the next record!) This model of promotional recording -- all music, no explanatory talk, just like a mini-record -- has clear value to websites like Daytrotter, which has a library of thousands of performances and a base of tens of thousands of subscribers, and is turning, according to its founders, a nice profit. It may have some value to a musician trying to entice a listener to buy a product other than the one the site offers -- surely not comparable value though. 

Since musical performance started being reproduced and sold, there's been one and only one very good way of promoting it: radio broadcast. Not counting exceptional periods at the beginning of the medium and during the WWII vinyl shortage, radio uses the product itself in promoting the sale. The listener is allowed a direct and intimate acquaintance with a representative portion of the product, often in the magnificent, cinemalike isolation of his car, in the knowledge that millions of others, a secret society of the likeminded, are sharing the performance with him in the moment. The novelty of radio compression, as a component of the sound, is unobjectionable, or positively pleasing, but rarely if ever an irritating intrusion. Buying something you've heard and enjoyed on the radio is a natural and reasonable action, cementing your relationship with that invisible society of revellers and giving you the chance to revisit the virginal pleasure whenever and as often as you like. The rest of the ways to let people know your music is out there and what it sounds like -- websites, magazines, newpapers, in-store listening stations, TV -- are a poor man's alternative to radio. The power is in the music, and the quality is in the product that has been thought through, performed well, and produced and recorded with care. No one would choose to represent it by talking about it, or improvising an ad hoc simulation of it, rather than just present it, as is. That would be like choosing a plastic tarp over a tiled roof.

In response to you dear people who comprise my own sort of subscriber base here at arf-dot-com: I'll be in Milwaukee in January. I'll be in California in December. I'll be in South Africa never (best guess). U.K., dunno, no offers yet.



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  1. avatar Bill Waldron Posted 35 minutes later

    >>nothing I could come up with from here on out could catch people by happy surprise.<<

    After, for instance, Happy? Jeepers. Anyway, I vehemently disagree. Listening to Gone Away Backwards on my Sunday morning walk, all I could say was "wow."

    I think Donna's point about tonal range has merit -- but some of us love you for that (just like I've always loved, for instance, NRBQ).

    Well done, Robble -- and cohorts.

  2. avatar Nick Barber Posted about 2 hours later

    "U.K., dunno, no offers yet."

    (Rips remaining follicular stubble out in a frenzy at UK agents' lack of taste and good sense.)

  3. avatar John C Posted about 3 hours later

    So when are you coming to Minneapolis? The Cedar gave you a nice review - why not play there?

  4. avatar Jeremy Posted about 6 hours later

    Where in CA are you going to be? I'm hoping it's within driving distance of San Diego :-) Looking forward to hearing the new record, and as always I love reading your blog. Thanks for all that you do Robbie!

  5. avatar Mike Posted about 7 hours later

    Liked it a lot at first listen, 6-8 times more and it keeps getting better. Well done sir(s), and ma'am.

    I must say that, while I can't put my finger on it yet and subject to change, I am partial to the Doberman recordings of the relevant cuts. Would love to hear Robbie's perspective on the differences. For what it's worth, I am partial to Doberman in general, it is amazing and great fun.

    One more thing - Indianapolis beckons, c'mon down!

  6. avatar KB Posted about 7 hours later

    Hope this one gets you invited to MerleFest, Robbie. It's a fantastic piece of work.

  7. avatar Antoine Posted 1 day later

    I agree with Mike about Doberman -- absolutely loved it, and I'm interested to hear why/how RF decided on re-recording those particular tracks, why he made changes in the arrangements, how does he put up with such geeky questions, etc.

  8. avatar An Internet Scribe Posted 2 days later

    As a writer for a number of web publications it's worth noting that the editorial process will often involve revising the letter/numerical "score" suggested by the author without altering the language of the review. The publication (if that's even the right word) will often have a different sense of what constitutes an 8.3 (or whatever) than the writer. Not sayin', just sayin'.

  9. avatar Sean Posted 3 days later

    Really amazed with the new album, wow! I've always enjoyed your music but this is something new and really special.

  10. avatar Annette Posted 8 days later

    I think your interviewee style has to be better than Paul Simon's. i heard him on NPR years ago, pontificating on the 10th anniversary of Graceland, and he was truly insufferable.

    Oh, and there's this, about Los Lobos' Graceland experience, in case you've never read it: http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2008/04/rhymin-simon-no.html

    I'll be driving from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to see you 9/29. My fingers are crossed that you'll play That's Where I'm From.

  11. avatar Roscoe Posted 9 days later

    "Wow" is a little bit of an understatement if you ask me.
    Admittedly, I am already a fan of about 2 years having caught you, Robbie, live one afternoon in Felton (where the heck is that?) CA.
    I went to Amazon and have only played the 30 second samples of each song (there's no question-I'm buying it...) but that was enough to know.
    The variety of flavors was quite impressive but what was more arresting for me was the authenticity and command of each of those different american folk styles.
    !Well done Sir!

    I grew up in the sixties and had the opportunity to see some great musicians before they became established legends. (There are some I could kick myself now for missing when I had the chance back then.)

    My advice to anyone who likes any (or all) of the styles Robbie covers is - "Go see and hear a legend in the making while you can."

    Thanks Robbie

  12. avatar Patrick Posted 11 days later

    Heard your music first on Michael Shelley's WFMU show. Heard your interview on his show today and am glad I did, otherwise I would have missed your NYC show. But I bought my ticket and am looking forward to seeing you at The Mercury Lounge on Wednesday.

    p.s. On the live LP "Take No Prisoners," Lou Reed offers this insight on the musical ratings game:, "Imagine working a year and a half on an album and getting a B+ from some asshole at The Village Voice."

  13. avatar Joyce Miller Posted 16 days later

    I hope you'll consider doing a house concert in Grass Valley, California, when you're here in December. But I think you knew that.

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  15. avatar Jon C Posted 5 months later

    Saw you at IOTA (Arlington VA) a couple of months ago and at Gypsy Sally's (DC) last week.

    Two fantastic shows, and a beautiful album, thanks.. I've got a couple of extra copies I'm giving to people as gifts.

    Come on back soon, I hope.

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