Interview

Bob Hillman's Return

Bob Hillman at Kerrville (June 2016)

San Francisco-based songwriter Bob Hillman enlisted his friend, mentor, and master of song Peter Case to produce 2016’s Lost Soul, a 12-song collection that marks Hillman’s return to music after a decade away from stage and studio. Invigorated by Case’s production, Hillman's ever-incisive writing, and the vote of confidence he received from the many friends and fans who enthusiastically backed his Kickstarter campaign, Lost Soul is an assured, sonically expansive album.

I recently caught up with Hillman to talk about his musical comeback.

Deborah Crooks: While you never stopped writing, did you make a conscious decision to stop being an active musician a decade ago?  What finally sealed the deal on your return to recording and performing more fully?

Bob Hillman: I pulled the ripcord in 2003, when things were actually going pretty well. I’d released two albums, toured the U.S. and Europe with Suzanne Vega on her Songs in Red and Gray tour, played the Newport Folk Festival — in 2002, when Bob Dylan made his triumphant return wearing a wig and fake beard — and opened for lots of great artists on the singer-songwriter circuit. Audiences seemed to like me, but they weren’t multiplying, and I wasn’t gaining traction with “the industry.” In short, I wasn’t getting the right signal, and 33 wasn’t too late to change direction. The change, by the way, was dramatic: onstage at the Fillmore Auditorium one week, discussing a business-school case the next. Eventually, I worked in marketing for consumer brands like Formula 409, Glad, and QuickBooks, which wasn’t rock and roll but didn’t totally suck.

I’m proud that I was able to make the transition from music to marketing, but after ten years I had a lot of new material and a strong desire to hang out with songwriters and other musician-types more often. I was laid off by Intuit, which opened up psychic space to hatch plans and time to have coffee with Peter Case, who’d moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco. After a long conversation — we’re talking almost a year — he agreed to work with me on the recording project that became Lost Soul.

How did (or didn’t) your writing process and musical interests change between making Lost Soul and 2006's If You’d Be Here You’d Be Home? Does living in San Francisco, rather than Los Angeles or New York, change your approach?

My approach hasn’t changed — I still try to write vividly about things that matter to me, irony and humor play a role, my melodic sensibility leans towards power pop, etc. — but I’ve mellowed with age. My songs aren’t as angry as they once were; some may even exhibit empathy. Speaking of age, my friends [and I] now have middle-aged issues, so it’s only natural that I would explore that in my songs. For example, people are unsatisfied in their long-term relationships, or frustrated by the career paths they spent so much time and energy negotiating. On the musical end of things, I’ve been experimenting with one or two different tunings; the chord voicings available in those tunings must have had an impact on the rhythms and melodies, and the way the music comes across overall

I wrote most of Lost Soul in San Francisco, but it’s not a San Francisco album the way If You Lived Here is an Iowa album and Welcome To My Century is a New York album. There’s a sense of place in many of the songs, but—with the exception of "Big Sur" and "Saint Catherine Street" — they’re not as dependent on their settings as old songs like "Anywhere," "Bolted Down," "Celebrating Nothing," and "The Red Light District of Iowa City." Actually, now that I think about it, there were a bunch of “place” songs in the mix — e.g. "Holly Park," "Mission Creek," and "Ensenada" — and Peter briefly considered building the project around them, but luckily we went a different direction.

Tell me about working with Peter Case, his influence on you, and how it was to work on this record with him.

Peter Case has had a huge influence on me, as I tell anyone who will listen. The show I saw at McCabe’s in 1990 was revelatory: you can play acoustic music, but put out rock energy. I stalked him a bit after that, and sent my first-ever demos to an address on the back of Torn Again. He called me on the phone — this was the mid-1990s — and has been a generous friend/mentor ever since.

Peter is a full-service producer. He waded through 20-something songs, selected a batch that would support our vision, and massaged them during long weekly pre-production meetings. He was hard on the material during this period, but in the studio transformed into a cheerleader: he seems to know when to push and when to pull.

With a couple of assists from engineer Sheldon Gomberg, Peter assembled a great band and brought out their best. I have no idea what he told them — maybe nothing? — but they went straight for the Lost Soul vibe. Although he didn’t tell anyone what to play, he certainly knew what he wanted, which kept us headed in the right direction. And, because he knew what he wanted, he could be flexible as needed. He was open to loops, for example, and moved our primary electric guitarist to piano on "Saint Catherine Street" and acoustic slide on "Lost Soul."

Finally, Peter stayed interested until the bitter end. For example, he weighed in on the artwork, and even influenced me to reconsider the cover image and design from my original conception.

Not all artists will respond to such a hands-on approach. For me, however, it was just what the doctor ordered. I’d already made three albums that reflected the sound in my head and — frankly — exhausted the possibilities; it seemed like a good idea to lean on someone else’s vision. And, who better than one of the songwriters who inspired me to become a songwriter? I was more than happy to hand over the reins, and never complained when no one asked for or listened to my opinion in the studio. I needed to concentrate on my performances anyway!

You recently wrote “I’ve done what I set out to do and more?” What’s been the "more," or the surprising, the different or the ‘oh yeah,’ and the most gratifying about re-entering the recording and performing sphere after a decade? 

I set out to make a “different” record: at least different from what I’ve done before, and maybe even distinctive in the context of singer-songwriter records in general. The end result is certainly a step away from the straightforward folk-rock of my first three albums — check! — and in some ways it’s an atypical singer-songwriter effort. The best part is, it wasn’t hard to get there: Peter just hired great musicians and turned them loose. I can’t think of anything Joseph Arthur (guitar) or Danny McGough (keyboards) played that I would have thought of myself. For example, we didn’t plan to use loops, but Joseph brought that to the table, and those textures turned out to be the backbone of the project. It’s that kind of unexpected touch that gets me going.

Have you kept writing through this recording and release cycle? Are you continuing to confer with Case and how might his influence be informing your next steps? What do you see yourself setting out to do next?

I’ve been writing the whole time, with a few short gaps when I was distracted. I’m not myself when I’m not writing. Or, should I say, I don’t feel great about myself when I’m not working on a song. It’s a hang-up! Since Lost Soul I’ve come up with, maybe, 12 new ones, three or four of which have merit, though even those three or four could benefit from re-writing.

So, I’ll be working on songs, but it’s hard to imagine undertaking another recording project in the foreseeable future. In particular, the fundraising aspect is daunting: I can’t really go back to my friends for money when I’ve asked so much of them over the last year. That said, I want to keep the ball rolling, and I’m not at a loss for ideas. I like sharing new songs in “real time,” especially if they’re relevant to a moment like "Ted Cruz" or "The Quick Release of Stephen Curry." I like making videos—which is convenient, because they’re the coin of the realm—and I like performing; it would be nice if I could get out there from time to time without abdicating my various responsibilities at home. Finally, I will continue to be active on social media and writing longer pieces about things that interest me at my blog.

I hope I can continue to work with Peter Case in some capacity. We confer regularly on a variety of topics, but haven’t discussed the future of our record-making juggernaut. I’m waiting until the time is right!

For more information about Lost Soul and Hillman's upcoming shows go to http://bobhillmanmusic.com/.