Bob Hillman

Bob HillmanBob Hillman, a San Francisco singer/songwriter, is well into the second act of a career that began in the late 1990s, flourished in the early 00s, survived ten years of “real jobs,” and resumed in 2016 with the Peter Case-produced Lost Soul. His new album – Some of Us Are Free, Some of Us Are Lost – will be released on April 5th, 2019. Some of Us Are Free, Some of Us Are Lost was conceived by Bob and bassist/producer Jonny Flaugher in May 2018 at the Fillmore Auditorium, where Jonny was playing with The Weepies and Bob was opening the show. The kernel of an idea – attempting to capture the visceral spirit of certain folk and folk-rock masterpieces of the 60s and 70s without specifically referring to their sounds or instrumentation – resonated, and they started talking about making a record together.
In August 2018, Bob went to Los Angeles, where Jonny had booked Rilo Kiley bassist Pierre de Reeder’s 64 Sound and a group of sympathetic musicians: Rich Hinman, Philip Krohnengold, and Tamir Barzilay. Laura Mace, Jordan Katz, and Paul Cartwright added harmony, horns, and strings. When the first eight tracks had been recorded and mixed by Daniel Lanois-prote´ge´ Ethan Allen, Bob and Jonny got greedy: it was so much fun, and the first eight tracks felt so right, that they decided to cut three more at Clay Blair’s Boulevard Recording. For this session, Griffin Goldsmith of Dawes joined on drums and Sarah Dugas sang harmony. Some of Us Are Free, Some of Us Are Lost, which consists of ten songs and eleven tracks, tookBob Hillman about ten days to record and mix.
The pace reflected the available window, but also a desire to keep the material and ideas fresh. The band came up with their parts quickly and didn’t look back; no song had the benefit of more than five takes, and most were limited to three or four. The album title reflects its themes: self-examination, exploration, searching and not always finding. The title track, for example, scrutinizes the life of an aimless traveler with an eye toward understanding our decisions and their implications. Hypnotized takes an allegorical look at someone who realizes he may be living an inauthentic life. Song for Sarah and The Surfing Life examine the push/pull between professional obligations and artistic ambition and other personal inclinations.
Adrift, which is not autobiographical but derives from a real situation, attempts to capture one person’s mindset in the wake of a mortal diagnosis. Of course, it’s not all super-serious! I’m in Love With You – which appears on the album in two different versions – is a bouncy narrative about the night Bob met his wife. The record evolved significantly from the initial concept. The first group of songs – which included Hypnotized, Song for Sarah, Carveresque, and Adrift – were longish, heavily syncopated, and short on traditional structural elements like choruses. Right before the recording, however, Bob wrote Shiny Silver, a more straightforward folk-rock tune whose inclusion seemed to open the door for others along those lines including the title track, which hadn’t even been under consideration Bob Hillmanup to that point.
Eventually, they decided to cut an older song called Cocaine Ruins Everything and a brand new one called You’re Off the Rails, which was written during the first mixing session. While you’d never think of tying the finished product back to Hejira, Astral Weeks, or any other organic-sounding classic, Some of Us Are Free, Some of Us Are Lost does preserve some of their hallmarks: sophisticated lyrics, varied rhythms, subtle musical interplay, etc. The strings on Adrift may hearken back to those days, but the only real connection is David Crosby’s re- tweet of an early demo of Cocaine Ruins Everything: “Great song…very very good…well done.” Some of Us Are Free, Some of Us Are Lost is the second album of Bob’s “comeback” period, which began in 2016 with the release of Lost Soul.
Lost Soul is notable for having been produced by songwriting legend Peter Case, who also happens to be one of Bob’s primary inspirations. “I was blown away by Peter’s Blue Guitar album and stalked him after shows starting in the late 80s. He gave me lots of good advice over the years, and eventually agreed to help me make a record.” Songwriter/musician Joseph Arthur also put his stamp on Lost Soul, playing lead guitar and creating the loops that formed the backbone of the record. Between Lost Soul (2016) and If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home (2003), Bob worked in marketing for consumer packaged goods and internet companies, including Clorox and Intuit. At Clorox, he was in charge of Formula 409 and also helped turn around the plastic container portion of the Glad business.
Clorox – where Bob’s non-traditional background ensured that he would be perceived as an eccentric – was a change of pace from the music industry, where he was regarded as straight-laced. In the late 90s and early 00s, Bob released three albums and toured extensively in the United States and Europe at the opening act level. Most notably, he was featured on Suzanne Vega’s entire Songs in Red & Gray Tour – playing famous venues like the Fillmore Auditorium (San Francisco), The Bottom Line and the Bowery Ballroom (New York), Paradiso (Amsterdam), and Le Bataclan (Paris) – and landed a slot at the 2002 Newport Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan was also on the bill. During that period, he opened for many prominent artists on the singer/songwriter circuit – including Dan Bern, Todd Snider, Tom Paxton, Dave Alvin, Mary Gauthier, Janis Ian, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Steve Forbert – and participated in songwriting contests at summer festivals including the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Bob’s early songs came to the attention of Tommy West, who was Jim Croce’s best friend and producer, and worked out of his barn/studio Somewhere in New Jersey. Tommy was Bob’s first musical mentor, financing and producing his first two albums – Playing God (1999) and Welcome to My Century (2001) – teaching him about the music business, and generally playing the role of father figure. Welcome to My Century has probably been Bob’s most successful album, featuring three of his most popular early songs – Valentine’s Day, Bolted Down, and Tolstoy – about the last of which Susan Stamberg once said on NPR: “I’ve never heard of this Mr. Bob Hillman, but that song about War & Peace is enough to make you want to pick up War & Peace and start reading it.”
Bob got his start in mid-1990s New York City, where he fell in with Jack Hardy’s long-running songwriting group, which met every Monday night in Greenwich Village to eat pasta and share new songs. Bob still relies on arbitrary deadlines and thoughtful feedback to help him write more and better songs: in addition to participating in monthly San Francisco and East Bay meetings, he helps the songwriter Peter Himmelman run an online workshop.

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