Bob Hillman’s incredible music provided the gateway to open for such renowned acts as Suzanne Vega, Peter Case, and The Weepies in both the US and Europe. With the release of Some of Us Are Free, Some of Us Are Lost, he is reminding us once again he is a talent in his own right.
ER: Your website describes you as a musician whose career, “began in the late 1990’s, flourished in the early ‘00s, survived ten years of ‘real jobs,’ and resumed in 2016 with the Peter Case-produced Lost Soul.” So, first things first – how’d you get your start?
BH: I moved to New York City in the mid-90s and fell in with a group of songwriters who met weekly at Jack Hardy’s apartment, the “Houston Street Hilton,” to present new work for feedback. I wrote my first songs in that context and eventually my first good songs. Somewhere along a steep learning curve, open mics at the Fast Folk and Sidewalk cafés turned into gigs, and I met Tommy West – Jim Croce’s producer – who wanted to record me. I made my first album (Playing God), started my second (Welcome To My Century), and worked my way into opening slots on the East Coast singer/songwriter circuit. In early 2001, Suzanne Vega – who I knew from the Jack Hardy community – invited me to open for her in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The SF gig was at the Fillmore; it sold out and there was a poster that’s still on the wall. I ended up opening for her throughout the U.S. and Europe for about a year, and also played the Newport Folk Festival in 2002, when Dylan headlined for the first time since 1965. The future seemed bright in the early 21st century.
ER: Then came ten years of real jobs – how’d that happen? How’d you survive?
BH: In 2003, I decided to become “employable.” I’d been successful as an opening act but wasn’t generating much interest from the kinds of people who could help me get to the next level. At the same time, some of my peers were taking off; it wasn’t clear that I had a sustainable future in music. I’d relocated from New York to San Francisco to Iowa City, IA with my future wife, so I enrolled in business school. Literally, I did one last California run with Suzanne at the end of August – including a second Fillmore show – and started studying finance and accounting in early September. Here’s how stark the contrast was: a guy in my class recognized me from a Todd Snider show I’d opened at his school in Ames, IA.
After business school, I landed a job in marketing with a natural products company in a cornfield outside of Cedar Rapids. After a few years, with one young kid and another on the way, my family relocated to the Bay Area, where I worked on big consumer brands like Formula 409 and Glad at Clorox and elsewhere. In all, I spent about ten years in corporate America. While it may not have been a 100% perfect fit for someone with my interests, I learned a ton and apply that knowledge constantly as I re-dedicate myself to music. Actually, it would have been nice if I’d had strategic thinking and other business-related skills – not to mention social media – when I tried music the first time.
ER: Your Hotel Utah show celebrates the release of your new album, Some of Us Are Free, Some of Us Are Lost. Can you tell us the concept behind this album?
BH: I made Some of Us Are Free, Some of Us Are Lost with producer Jonny Flaugher, who played bass on my 2016 album Lost Soul. By coincidence, Jonny also plays with my friends The Weepies, and we hung out at a Fillmore show I opened in May 2018. He expressed interest in my concept – which was to try to capture the spirit of Joni Mitchell’s mid-70s masterpieces, “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” and “Hejira” – and one thing led to another: I dropped my kids off at sleepaway camp in August, and drove to LA for a week of recording with a bunch of seriously great musicians. I doubt the Joni reference will occur to anyone, but I hope listeners will sense something organic and visceral in this collection.
I should add that I’m as proud of this batch of songs as any I’ve ever written. I tried to stretch in terms of structure (“Song for Sarah” and “Adrift”, for example, don’t have choruses or even any repeated lines), harmony (you won’t have to look far to find major and minor 7th chords), and emotional impact. There’s subtle humor and maybe one laugh line – in the first verse of “Cocaine Ruins Everything” – but this isn’t my funniest material. At the risk of sounding self-serious, Jonny and I tried to ramp up the sophistication, hopefully without sacrificing the uniqueness of my point of view.
ER: I saw you open for one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Peter Mulvey, and I heard you also toured with one of my favorite bands, The Weepies. What was it like opening for them? Any crazy stories form the road?
BH: I don’t think I’m shattering their mystique if I tell you that a Weepies tour is wild and crazy mainly because they have their three kids with them. Touring with Suzanne Vega was similar: she had a seven-year-old at the time and wasn’t exactly painting the town red. That said, opening shows for those and other artists, e.g. Dan Bern and Peter Case, has been a highlight of my musical career for the simple reason that we either were or became friends. I mean, how often do we get to spend quality time with the people we admire most? In my case, more often than I had a right to expect.
ER: What’s next for Bob Hillman?
BH: Some of Us Are Free, Some of Us Are Lost comes out on Friday, April 5th and I’ll support it to the extent that I can by soliciting publicity, playing occasional concerts, etc. I have a few more videos up my sleeve, and I’ve conducted some interviews about the songs and the recording process that I plan to release in podcast form. Beyond that, I’m writing new songs and working on a recording project with former David Bowie guitarist/musical director Gerry Leonard (aka Spooky Ghost). It’s taking forever – he’s always on the road with Suzanne Vega, Rufus Wainwright, and others – but we’ll get there and it’ll be different from anything I’ve done before.
Bob Hillman’s CD release party is this Thursday, April 4th, at 8 pm at Hotel Utah. Tickets are $15. Purchase tickets at www.hotelutah.com. Check out his music at www.bobhillmanmusic.com.
Emilie Rohrbach has taught music and theater to grades pre-school through 8th in San Francisco and Marin counties for the last 20 years. She has been a freelance writer for Divine Caroline for five years, and her writing has appeared in Narratively, Hippocampus, Common Ground, Travelers’ Tales, and Marin Magazine, among others. She is passionate about Room to Read, Shanti Bhavan, and Destiny Arts and serves on the board of Knighthorse Theatre Company.