He may be Inside and Terrified, but he remains one of San Francisco’s most prolific songwriters
Bob Hillman prides himself on being prolific.
“I know what it takes to write a lot of songs,” he said from his home in San Francisco. “I need a deadline. When I started as a songwriter in New York in the 90s, I latched onto a group of people that met every Monday at Jack Hardy’s Houston Street apartment. (Hardy was a folk artist famous for editing and publishing Fast Folk Musical magazine.) We agreed to write a song a week, and that model still appeals to me. I’ve been involved with a group of songwriters ever since. In San Francisco, I’m in a monthly group. Since Covid, it’s been a weekly group on Zoom, so I’ve been writing a song or two week.”
The results of Hillman’s efforts can be heard on two new EPs that cover the entire spectrum of acoustic music. Bob Hillman & Spooky Ghost is a “noise folk” collaboration with Gerry Leonard, best known for his work with David Bowie and Suzanne Vega. The second, Inside and Terrified, is a more traditional collection of acoustic songs, composed and recorded during the pandemic lockdown.
“I call the Spooky Ghost album noise folk, because I’m drawn to the textured sounds that bands like The National make – folk played on acoustic instruments with some commotion in the background. There are some ambient folk albums out there, so we just turned up the volume a bit. I was imagining a juxtaposition of the soft, quiet approach of Bert Jansch and Nick Drake, with loud, electronic soundscapes.
VIDEO: Bob Hillman “Somebody’s Watching You”
“I met Gerry (Leonard) about 20 years ago, when he was working with Suzanne Vega. He has a strikingly original approach to the guitar, producing an incredible tone and an unimaginable array of sounds. I discussed the idea of a noise folk project with him but, before we got started, he was hired by Bowie to become his musical director. I dropped out of the music biz for a bit, but a few years ago, we reconnected and we made this five song EP together. I hope I can narrow the timeline a bit going forward.”
The songs on Bob Hillman & Spooky Ghost stretch both the sonic and compositional conventions of pop and folk music. “Somebody’s Watching You” has no chorus and other songs feature surrealistic lyrics and twists and turns that stretch melodies almost to the breaking point.
“I’ve been at this for more than 30 years, always trying to write more songs and better songs. Part of that is writing different songs. So far, I’ve written 62 songs this year, trying to do different things. I was obsessed with Joni Mitchell’s Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira. She’d write six or seven long verses, where nothing repeats. I never wrote a song without a chorus or tag line, so how do you do that and make it interesting?
“I’ve been writing for this project for four years. I sent Gerry a batch of songs, just guitar and vocals to a click track. He chose ‘We May Be Getting Better (When We’re Not Getting Worse)’ and put it together with all the noise and effects he had. He sent me a [sonic] sketch he had, a squiggly sounding loop and said can you write a song to this? It became ‘Somebody’s Watching You.’ It’s spare, but all the sounds were in the tracks he sent me. It forced me to do something I’ve never done before – starting a song from somewhere rather than nowhere.”
The songs on Inside and Terrified were written in a more conventional manner. After going a bit stir crazy during the lockdown, he sat down with a guitar and a computer and began recording. “I didn’t write any songs right after the pandemic started, but then I did. I couldn’t get to a studio. Then I realized if I wanted to make music, I’d have to make it myself. I called my friend, producer Jonny Flaugher, who produced Some of Us Are Free. I sent him demos with guitar and vocals. He hired musicians to fill out the sound. He’s in LA and he put together different groups for various songs. He’s good at taking my visions and making them come alive. He doesn’t just hire people; he gets them to play what we want them to play. The one ‘good’ thing about Covid, if you will, is that all these great musicians were home, unable to tour. There was time to work and it was necessary to work, so people were ready to play and record. What’s bad is, you don’t get to meet them beyond texting back and forth. When you make a record with someone, you usually become friends. I missed that opportunity this time. Jonny added his bass line, then he’d send it to someone else, and a random symbiosis happened as they slowly buir÷lt up. We added all sorts of clarinets, strings, horns and piano.”
Inside and Terrified deals with various aspects of life during the pandemic. “I Often Dream of Candlelight (Maria)” is a delicate ballad describing the longing one feels for a lover during a long separation. The title track suggests the British folk pop of he early 70s, with subtle washes of cello and a Latin lilt to the rhythm. “Now, I’m in Favor of a Wall” turns the rhetoric of our current President inside out. It’s a slow rock tune that makes ironic comments about the folks who can’t bring themselves to wear masks, or avoid bars and restaurants, despite the danger their behavior poses to others.
“I’ve had a lot of trouble with my ironic lyrics over the years,” Hillman said. “Some people really get it and some really do not. I’m sick of being misunderstood by the anti-irony faction. I keep a straight face when I’m on stage, but if people don’t get it, I’ll try to help them understand. I have a dry approach to my humor, on stage and in my real life. It’s always caused me problems.”