For nearly 30 years now, Robbie Fulks has made a brilliant career of skirting the cliches of country music.

Fulks will play Club Cafe on July 13.

Music has been a life-long passion for Fulks as he grew up in a family where each member played an instrument. He picked up the banjo at age 6, and by eleven he was playing the guitar.

It was after two years at Columbia University that Fulks decided to make music his career of choice. He taught at the Old Town School of Folk, worked as a songwriter for a Music Row publisher, all the while continuing to write his own compositions.

He released his first album “Country Love Songs” in 1996. He followed it with “South Mouth” (1997) and “Let’s Kill Saturday Night” (1998). In 2001, he released the distinctly not-country “Couples in Trouble.”

He would return to a country form with 2005’s “Georgia Hard.” While “Georgia Hard” was more a return to form, Fulks would continue to play with the banality of country music. He went against country convention and released 50 songs digitally in 2009. “50-vc Doberman” was released alphabetically via his website in a time when country was gun shy of the internet’s power to promote music.

In 2010, Fulks released “Happy: Robbie Fulks Plays the Music of Michael Jackson.” Once again, sidestepping expectations.

2013 saw the release of “Gone Away Backwards,” which is more a reflective piece of home and identity. Fulks continued that motif with last year’s “Upland Stories.”

Earlier this year, Fulks wrapped up a long-term residency at Chicago’s The Hideout. Fulks’ sets there have become near-legend as he would often dedicate a particular night or set to a musician of his choice. Shania Twain, Liz Phair and more, Fulks would cover, rarely playing his own material.

The Swerve Magazine recently interviewed Fulks about songwriting, his Grammy nominations and more.

The Swerve Magazine:
Would you consider "Upland Stories" more a continuation or more of a companion to "Gone Away Backwards?" And why?


Robbie Fulks: I think thematically both records reflect one guy and his concerns at a certain time of his life and the life of America. Sentence one and grandiose already. A lot of my themes are country-music perennials, like heartache and family life, but the concern with economic and spiritual hardships that some people endure in a rich country, that's a little out-there for the contemporary version of this genre, and really shows up in my stuff only on these two records.

SM: “Upland Stories" got your first Grammy nominations. With a 30-year maverick career, what does it mean to be acknowledged by the mainstream Grammys? Does it carry weight or is it just another road marker on your career track?

RF: You know how Louis CK says his doctor asked him to describe his eating plan, and Louis told him he crammed as much food as possible into his mouth and then pushed it all out of his anus, but wasn't sure whether that could be called a "plan"? I'm not sure my career can be called a "track." Anyway, I was thrilled to get the nominations. The idea is always to continue doing what I like doing, and in the process to keep my wife and kids pushing food into their mouths and out of their anuses. Continuing is hard at best and impossible at worst when what you're doing goes unrecognized.

SM: In an interview, you said, "To me, the music is primary, and the lyrics sometimes get in the way. So the trick is to make them an adequate, unobtrusive overlay on the music."
Yet with "Needed" on "Upland Stories," the lyrics are poignant and play a bit with the narrative structure. Do lyrics sometimes come first or is it always the music?

RF: I know that statement doesn't connect very clearly with the content of a lot of my records, and I likely have contradictory impressions on the subject because the process is so hazy and un-process-like. When you're stopped on, say, a chord or a point in a melody, there are half-a-dozen places to go that are logical and nice sounding. But with the next word in a line, 99% of the choices you can conjure will be shit. In that way, lyrics are more challenging. And because most non-musician, English-speaking listeners will focus on English words, and attend only half-consciously to the rest, you have to watch your step. In a way, the music is more important, but the words seem more important. For the words-and-music writer, it's like you're building a platform for a supermodel. Everyone is going to stare at the model but if the platform collapses the whole endeavor is moot.

Whether it's harder or easier, or better or worse, writing a poignant sensitive narrative or "Tutti Frutti," who knows, but since I've never been able to write something nearly as great as "Tutti Frutti" — in that particular way that "Tutti Frutti" is great — I do have my suspicions.

SM: Sticking with "Needed," as it is one of those songs that sticks with you well after the album is over. It is that type of song that gives one goosebumps as it plays out. Can you talk about how that song developed? Was it always in the narrative structure as it appeared or did it go through many changes?

RF: Thanks. I can't remember how it developed—if I knew where I was going in the beginning and that the person being addressed isn't the listener, but the narrator's kid. I seem to remember I wrote the story in sequence and kind of felt it out as I went.

SM:
There is a sense of longing/yearning for home that started on "Gone Away Backwards" and continues "Upland Stories," do you think that it is a feeling that is ever sated?

RF: Not from what I've seen. Look at all these old people, sitting around squinting at 80-year-old photographs and rehashing minor injustices done them by long-dead elders who briefly held sway over them in the dim long ago. The older you get, the more you're composed of past events, until finally, that's all you have.

SM: You have made a career of doing the unexpected like releasing the 50 digital singles with “50-vc Doberman" and "Happy: Robbie Fulks Plays the Music of Michael Jackson."  At what point did you realize that it was more important to do what you wanted to do and not worry about what others may think? Was it a specific moment? Or was it something that eventually came about?

RF: I’m still interested in what others think — "worry" is a little strong — because the others are the ones who pay my bills, release my records, etc. There was a shift in the arc of my self-determination, I think when I stopped involving labels in the creation of my recordings. I had to for the first three, to get them out at all, but I found the input to be tiresome and unproductive, and so I started thinking, "These things aren't that wildly expensive to make — more like buying a car than a house."


As a result, I've paid to make them, since record four, and I try to get wholly or partly reimbursed afterward if I want a label to put the music out there. All of that is risky and a little burdensome, but I definitely prefer it to the older more orthodox template of signing an 8-year contract, plan a record that costs x based on your most recent sales, create music that's influenced by the creative thoughts of the people paying. I haven't gotten richer over the years, but I've exercised somewhat increasing control over what I write and record, and how I sound live, and that's a very happy direction for me.

SM: Speaking of breaking expectations, your residency at the Hideout in Chicago have reached a musical mythos status. You have dedicated nights to covering catalogs of everyone from Liz Phair to Bob Dylan to Cheap Trick. What led to doing these sets and artists?

RF: With those three, “I like them,” was the motivation. Most of the theme nights came from my goofy thoughts, but a few were friends' suggestions. When I asked Robbie Gjersoe to do a night of Monk with me, he said, "How about Monk versus the Monkees?" and that became the theme, because how could it not. And song by song, I'm guessing most of the titles over the seven years were the suggestions of others, which was the great personal benefit of having the series, the exposure to new sounds and ideas. Eric Noden got me into Sonny Boy Williamson, Jenny Scheinman into Lionel Belasco and Matt Munistieri, Gerald Dowd into Arthur Russell, Kelly Hogan into Kenny Rankin...just on and on, two dozen more like that, each one a life-changer.

SM: This past March was the last show at the Hideout, what are your feelings on closing out the residency? Could it be resurrected?

RF: No, I've got plenty of other things to do, and I like doing things for a while and then pressing on.

SM: "Upland Stories" came out last year, what is next for Robbie Fulks?

RF: I’ve got a couple things in the pipeline, but I'm not sure which will be out next, possibly a duet record with my good friend Linda Gail Lewis.