Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Seattle-based singer/songwriter Lindsay Fuller, about her upcoming tour with Indigo Girl co-founder Amy Ray, why she's fascinated by death and her complex relationship with the South.
CP: How did you 2011 treat you? What were some of the highlights?
LF: Well, it was a good year. I made a new record and got signed to ATO Records. Yeah, it was a really good year. [Laughs.] I played some really great shows. My record hasn't come out yet, but I got to record it in 2011, and just the experience of recording it was spectacular.
CP: What was so special about the recording process?
LF: I went down to L.A. and recorded it with this producer named Paul Bryan. I enjoyed working with him so much. The musicians he chose for the project were amazing. It was a really fun experience. I feel like they really got what I was trying to do with my songs. They just made the songs better.
CP: Were those your intentions going into the year or just the result of happy accidents?
LF: My intention was definitely to make a new record. You just never what's going to happen. The signing thing is great, but there are just so many bands trying to get signed. It's such a rat race. You can't stress about that kind of thing. You just have to be thankful for it if it does happen.
CP: Do you think being signed will affect you, creatively?
LF: So far, they've given me complete free reign. I don't think it will affect anything other than that they have more resources than I've ever had to get the music out to people.
CP: Looking forward to 2012, what do you have planned?
LF: I'm hoping to tour more and promote the album as much as I possibly can and hopefully write some new songs in the process. Those are pretty much my goals right now. Playing lots of shows seems to be the best way to get more people interested in your music.
CP: You were raised in Birmingham, but under what circumstances did music enter your life?
LF: Well, I started playing guitar when I was eight, and that really changed everything because I enjoyed playing the guitar so much. Probably one of the biggest things that influenced me being interested in music was that I went to a camp not far from Chattanooga called Camp Desoto [in Mentone, Ala]. I went there for years. That's where I first heard The Indigo Girls and Bob Dylan for the first time. That just changed my life because it really struck a chord with me. After a couple years of going there, I started writing songs because I felt the need to write songs. I'm not sure what happened, but something hit me over the head in Mentone, Ala.
CP: When did you realize music was what you wanted to pursue for a living?
LF: I'm still trying to figure out how to make a living off of it because it's hard. [Laughs.] I guess when I started playing more shows and making a little money and also when I got interest from ATO Records. I thought, "Maybe, I can play just a little farther than just Seattle," because I live in Seattle now.
It's a really tough industry. There are just so many people trying to make a buck playing music. It's hard. With everything going digital, I think it's made it easier to get your music out there but harder to make money off your music. I'm still trying to figure out how to make money off music.
CP: Sounds like you would have done well during the Folk Revival.
LF: I wish. I don't think it was easy for the ladies back then, but I do wish that. Just to be around to go to some of the shows would have been incredible. There are just so many bands and musicians. It's hard to listen, because we're getting constantly inundated with different bands and musicians. I think back then, it was easier to listen because you didn't have so many to choose from.
CP: How old were you when you started writing songs?
LF: I was 12. I started going camping when I was 8. I was 12 when I started writing songs. Really, The Indigo Girls were one of the bands that influenced me the most, which is why it's so special to go on tour with Amy Ray. She was one musicians who influenced me the most when I was a kid to start writing songs and caring about my lyrics.
CP: A sentence in your bio reads that you "mak[e] your peace with the Christ-haunted South by writing songs about the one thing that makes us all equal and honest: Death." That makes it sound like you felt out of place growing up. Is that fair to say?
LF: Well, definitely, but at the same time, there's a part of the South that I'll never shake. Even though I moved away to Seattle, I needed to get out and to be free of some of the things that make the South a difficult place to live in sometimes, but there are also things about the South that I love. The South by far has the best storytellers. I don't know; there are just a lot of characters in the South.
But yeah, I definitely felt out of place growing up in the South, in a way. There is a lot of close-mindedness there. That's kind of where I diverged. But I'm glad I grew up there. I definitely enjoy coming back to visit. I'm so excited about touring the South. There's something special about the South. It's a special place.
CP: Did you see the positive side to living in the South when you were here or was that something that you realized only once you left?
LF: It was when I moved to Seattle. Then, I realized, "Wow, the South is really a special place." And I found myself really defending the South and explaining to people what is unique and special about the South.
CP: Do you think you'd ever consider moving back?
LF: Maybe some day. I mean, the South is evolving like everywhere else. Coming back to Birmingham, Birmingham is a lot more hip than it used to be. Now that I'm older, the things that bugged me when I was younger don't really bug me so much anymore. You just realize that not matter where you live, there will be something that bothers you about that place.
CP: How old are you now?
LF: I'm 31 now.
CP: Speaking to the mournfulness of your songs, both in content as well as in tone, I have to ask: Why so blue? Why fixate on death?
LF: Because I just feel like it's the one thing that makes us wake up to what's going on, even if just for a little bit. When we lose someone, we start to really think about what's going on and wake up for a bit.
I don't know. I just think that you can't think about life without thinking about death. It's just one of those things. Also, I've lost some people close to me, and that's made me think a lot about it. I'm just fascinated with what happens to us. We're here for such a short time, and then where do we go? Do we even go anywhere? Are we just like computers that shut down? It's just a great big mystery I've always been fascinated with.
CP: How did this fascination with death become such a part of your music?
LF: I think I've always thought about it, but when I was 23, I lost a really good friend of mine, and that really made me think about it a lot - not so much in a morbid sense, but a complete and utter reverence for the mystery of it and curiosity. Here we are making all these relationships and doing these things, and then we're gone and that's it.
I've just always been very hyper aware of that fact. I don't know why. It definitely had to do with things I went through as a child, but I also just feel like an awareness of that makes us better.
CP: So to cage it as an absolutely negative thing is incomplete.
LF: Oh yeah. In a way, it's tossed aside like a dirty little secret that, "We're going to die," but it really is one of the things that make us all equal. I feel like the people I've met who have seen death or come close to dying have a greater wisdom sometimes. I don't know if that's true of everybody, but an awareness of the fact that you're going to die makes you think more about what's important. That sounds like a silly statement, but it's true.
CP: As a well of inspiration, do you worry that you'll tap it out?
LF: Oh yeah. The statement in my bio is true, but not every one of my songs is about death. I have other records, too. That's really referring to this record coming out in March. But yeah, I definitely write about all kinds of things, for sure. I'm always on the darker side of things, but not every song is about death. [Laughs.]
CP: You said you've taken to defending the South to people who disparage it. It sounds like your music is doing the same thing for death.
LF: [Laughs.] Yeah, maybe so. That might be true.
CP: Moving beyond death, what is your philosophy as a songwriter? What do you want your songs to embody, literally in terms of lyrics as well as the impact they have on the listener?
LF: I guess I want people to hear them and be moved by them and maybe not be even able to explain why. If someone hears it, is moved by it and can't fully explain what it is that moves them, that's a good thing. I just think there are parts of us we don't tap into, and certain art forms can help us reach those parts.
The greatest compliment is for someone to come up to you and say that that song touched them in a place they weren't expecting. There's a lot of obvious, sentimental crap out there that touches people in the most-obvious of ways, but to help someone reach a part of themselves they don't normally reach through a song - that's what you want.
Sometimes, I write a story, and if someone enjoys the story, sometimes it's enough to enjoy a story. I want people just to listen, slow down and listen. That seems to be a hard thing to do these days. I have a hard time doing it myself because we're all so distracted.
These are all things you wish for, but you don't always get them. When you do get that, it keeps you going and thinking, "I'm not just singing to myself or doing this for no reason."
CP: What's the trick to reaching people in that way?
LF: I have no idea, no idea. If I tried to even talk about that, it would sound asinine. [Laughs.]
CP: What was the first song you wrote with which you still have a positive relationship? Put another way, your first "good" song?
LF: There are a couple of songs on my last album that I wrote when I was 19: "Sweet One" and "If You But Knew." I recorded "The Last Light at Sea," which is the last album, in 2010, and those songs were written in 1999.
I guess maybe that's the test of a decent song, if you can still tolerate it after all those years and it still means something. Those songs still very much mean something to me. Most of the stuff I wrote when I was younger makes me cringe. Sometimes, I write stuff now that makes me cringe. Sometimes, you've got to write the bad stuff to get to the good stuff.
CP: Your lyrics are incredibly poetic. Growing up, were you inclined towards poetry or have your lyrics always embodied a poetic sensibility?
LF: I think that's what I was always shooting favor. I always admired poets and I always read poetry. I always admired good lyricists like Bob Dylan and Amy Ray and Nick Cave, people like that. I think that's what I was hoping for. That's a great compliment that you say that.
I don't know that it just happened all the sudden. I think it just took writing a lot of bad songs before I got to one that was, maybe, poetic. I started writing when I was 12, and from the time I was 12 until the time I was 19, there aren't really any songs I would still want to sing from that era. But I had to write those songs to find my voice as a songwriter.
I love poetry. The two go hand in hand. The thing about poetry is that I think poetry is a lot harder because you can't get away with the things in poetry that you can get away with in music. In songs, you have music to help you along when things go south. In a poem, all you have is the written word. I really have respect for good poets because we have music to help us along.
CP: Specifically, your songs remind me a bit of Emily Dickinson's work. Is she someone you look to for inspiration? If not, who were some of your influences?
LF: I definitely have read a lot of her poetry. Not recently, but definitely, when I was younger. She is heavily taught in school, and she was an amazing poet.
CP: You and Amy Ray are about to embark on a tour of the Southeast. What are your hopes for this next slew of dates?
LF: I just hope that people enjoy it, obviously, and that I can maybe help get some more fans. I haven't really played much in the South at all. I've been out in the Pacific Northwest, hiding out, for the last eight years. I'm also excited about the drive, about seeing the countryside. I love driving around in the South. Just to play with Amy Ray is such an honor.
CP: How did that relationship take root?
LF: It all started when I recorded "The Last Light at Sea." I just sent her a copy with a note that said, "I wanted you to have this. You're one of the reasons I give a damn about my lyrics." She put it in her player, and the same night, a friend of hers in Seattle texted her and said, "I'm at this show right now with this girl named Lindsay Fuller. You should check her out." She [Amy] said that was pretty interesting.
She asked me to open some Indigo Girls shows for them I think in 2010. We kept in touch, and I asked her to sing on my album. I sang on a couple of tracks on her new record, which is coming out in February, too. We just became friends.
CP: That's got to be weird having that kind of close relationship with someone you idolized growing up.
LF: It is. It's bizarre. It's strange is what it is. It's strange and bizarre ... but awesome. She's so encouraging to me. I'm really grateful for her friendship.
CP: Ray performed with you on the title track of your newest album. Will she be joining you on stage for that song during these shows? Any others?
LF: Jeff Fielder, who plays guitar with me, is going to come and do the tour with us. It's going to be all three of us on stage. We're just going to trade off songs and do some collaboration. Jeff will play with Amy and me.
Yeah, it'll be a little songwriter in the round thing, I guess, which is even more of an honor to be doing that. It's an honor to open up for someone, but it's a double honor when you get to sit on stage with them for their set and back them up on some songs.