Bob Hillman Music & Jason Walsmith (of The Nadas)
After over a decade away from the stage and studio, Bob Hillman returns with the full-length album Lost Soul. The album's title is ironic in the sense that, with his longtime musical mentor ex-Plimsoul Peter Case at the helm, the San Francisco-based singer/songwriter has found his way out of the creative wilderness. He taps back into literate, tuneful songwriting that defined earlier works like Playing God (1999), Welcome To My Century (2001), and If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home (2006). This time, however, he moves beyond the Americana-leaning folk-rock of his past to embrace a fresh, contemporary sonic landscape; the result is a less crafted, more visceral album.
Hillman and Case bring unique individual and collective histories into this project. The Plimsouls had a regional hit with "A Million Miles Away" in 1983, at a time when Hillman was learning guitar and starting to check out the Los Angeles music scene. In 1989, Hillman experienced a major shift when he saw Case perform a solo show at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. "Peter played solo acoustic-the classic 'folk' construct-but with rock energy," the singer says. "That was the kind of music I wanted to make." Cut to the mid-90s, when Hillman-now living in New York-on a whim sent Case, who had just released his album Torn Again, his first batch of demos. Case saw potential and invited him to L.A. to play with him at the Ash Grove on the Santa Monica Pier.
Hillman subsequently embarked on a path to a series of breakthroughs, including two albums produced by Tommy West, who had in the 70s with pop troubadour Jim Croce and many others. He also started picking up higher-profile gigs, including opening for Suzanne Vega at the House of Blues in L.A. and The Fillmore in San Francisco. After the Fillmore show, he was invited to join her on her Songs in Red and Gray tour of the U.S. and Europe.
For a variety of personal and financial reasons, Hillman eventually went the straight route. In an effort to become "more employable," he attended business school in the early 2000s and then worked in marketing for Frontier Natural Products, Clorox, and Intuit. He also became a family man, but never stopped writing. A 2014 layoff-which opened up extra time for meditating on new musical possibilities-roughly coincided with Case's relocating from L.A. to San Francisco. The two met for coffee regularly, and Case challenged Hillman to develop his craft further. After a couple of years of conversation, they headed into Sheldon Gomberg's Silver Lake studio to create Lost Soul.
"When Peter agreed to produce Lost Soul," says Hillman, "I saw it as an opportunity to work with someone who could take my songs to places I could never have thought of on my own. My third album If You Lived Here You'd Be Home (2006) was the ultimate distillation of the sound I had in my head, complete with George Harrison-esque guitar hooks, keyboard pads, and close harmonies. There's nothing wrong with those things-I love those things-but if I was going to record again, I wanted to do something different."
Hillman knew Case was a visionary character who had made a ton of recordings, but even he was surprised by how expansively Case could think. They started by discussing their vision in the context of albums like Vega's 99.9F and David Bowie's Low. Then, Case hired musicians who could bring that vision to life, including drummer Danny Frankel (Lou Reed, kd lang), keyboardist Danny McGough (Tom Waits, Social Distortion), and bassist Jonny Flaugher (Ryan Adams, Joshua Radin). A last-minute cancellation by the first guitarist Case had brought in left an opening for Joseph Arthur, whose electric guitar edge and loop textures took Lost Soul to a new level. Another important aspect was that-for the first time ever-Hillman recorded 100% live-playing guitar and singing along with the band, and doing only a few takes of each track. "Peter helped these great musicians find sounds and shape their parts; my only job was to deliver the most powerful performance possible."
Beyond the opportunity to work with the man Hillman calls "one of the songwriters who inspired me to become a songwriter," another motivating factor was a successful crowdfunding campaign. Hillman's Kickstarter reached its initial, possibly-too-modest goal in two days and eventually generated nearly $20,000. "Crowdfunding can work for the financing part," he says, "but it's also great for gauging interest among your friends and fans. After so many years off the scene, that was the vote of confidence I needed."
Hillman is on top of his game as a songwriter. Thematically and musically, the whimsical, ambient-acoustic title track lays the groundwork for the whole collection. "The album is about adults who are supposed to be squared away in their personal and professional lives, but are actually not as squared away as you think," he muses. "People have marriages and kids and careers, but all is not necessarily as it seems. Some grow apart from their spouses, are overwhelmed by parenthood, or wonder what their lives would be like if they'd written a novel instead of taking a job in advertising. They're restless and the cracks are starting to show."
The industrial-sounding rocker "Bad Business" and the hypnotic, explosive "Overnight Failure" address some of the issues that drive marriages apart. Hillman gets to the heart of the matter on the opener, the sarcastic anti-corporate romp "I Think I've Taken Enough Shit From You This Year," then mellows later on the folk rock influenced "Big Sur," a fantasy about stepping out of the grind of mainstream society. The electric rock/folk/blues flavored ballad "Saint Catherine Street" finds Hillman painting images of the teenage Leonard Cohen wandering around the docks in Montreal to illustrate the restlessness of humanity's artistic spirit. Other songs include the chamber music-tinged "Artificial Light"-which makes a keen observation about how different people look backstage after seeming to glow in the spotlight-and "Party Dress," a graceful ode to Hillman's wife and the intimate realities he knows that lie behind her self-consciousness.
During Hillman's initial run as a recording artist in the early 2000s, he earned praise from numerous musical tastemakers. Susan Stamberg of All Things Considered wrote: "Welcome To My Century is a storytelling pot of skilled musicianship and serious yet often comical compositions that are sure to pleasethat song about War and Peace is enough to make you want to pick up War and Peace and start reading it." Acoustic Live echoed: "Hillman sings in a deadpan vocal style and brings a dry sense of humor to the table; so dry that some listeners may not realize just how clever and insightful a lyricist he can be. But Hillman's lyrics have a lot of meat on their bones."
While Hillman is happy to be back where he belongs-making meaningful music with great musicians-his ambitions are a bit different from the old days, when conquering the world still held some appeal. "I just want as many people as possible to hear these songs," he says. But Lost Soul is about more than just the songs or sound. How many people are given the chance to return to their passion after so many years away? As one fan put it in a recent email:
"You know, I think seeing you 'back' could be the most inspiring thing I've come across in years. After sleeping on it, I'm rethinking all the things I thought I would never do again."