Tributes to the late Michael Jackson have come from far and wide corners of the music world. One of the most interesting comes from Chicago's own Robbie Fulks. He's not a soul singer, though he is soulful. He's definitely not R&B. He's alt-country, roots music, No Depression all the way -- and over the course of the last eight years he's tinkered with a set of MJ covers, which he's now finally released as an official album.
"Happy: Robbie Fulks Plays the Music of Michael Jackson" (Boondoggle) features Fulks' earthy, country-fried takes on Jackson hits ("Black or White," "Man in the Mirror," "Billie Jean," etc.) and misses ("Ben," "Farewell My Summer Love," "Privacy"). There also are now two different takes on Fulks' rambling "Goin' Back to Indiana."
On the occasion of Jackson's death one year ago today, we caught up with Fulks to chat about this set, which has been rumored and bootlegged and possibly stolen by Chris Cornell ...
Q. This is a new release, but you've been toying with this bunch of songs for a while now, right?
A. I finished most of it in 2003, I guess -- whenever it was right before the litigious boy came forward and [Jackson] moved to Bahrain or wherever. I put it on the back burner then. It seemed like the right thing to do. Then, after he died last year, I recorded four new ones to bring it more up to date.
Q. What were the four songs added?
A. The remix of "Goin' Back to Indiana," "The Way You make Me Feel," "The Girl Is Mine" and "Farewell My Summer Love."
Q. Yeah, "Farewell My Summer Love." Interesting choice.
A. Well, you know, I didn't know tons about his music. I wasn't his biggest fan. I didn't do archival research; I just combed through iTunes and bought a couple of his records. There's definitely some cool stuff. There's a weird period before the Jackson 5 disbanded, between 1973 and -- I don't know -- maybe 1978, these dark, weird years, where he's leaving pubescence and casting about for a new direction. I found that interesting. "Farewell" comes from that period. You get this vibe of a lot of established L.A. songwriters churning stuff out for him, like he doesn't have a lot of control over what he's putting out. Nonetheless, his singing is of course strong, and some of the repertiore is really good. Maybe 60 percent of it. That made it more tempting to cover. I felt I could maybe improve it in some certain small ways.
Q. Like what -- what did you think you could add to it?
A. Well, I changed some of the chords in "Farewell," kind of simplified them a little bit. They're all over the place. The arrangement and the instrumentation, too, I tried to keep in a sharper focus. They're simple pop songs at heart, and to give them this Stephen Sondheim kind of production didn't seem right to me. These are songs that are morally ambiguous, too. He's falling in love in the fifth grade and stuff. Some simplicity was called for.
Q. Wasn't there some question a while back about Chris Cornell's cover of Billie Jean -- that it sounded oddly similar to yours?
A. I thought it was strikingly close when I heard it. But, I mean, it's not such a brilliant take that two people on different continents can't come up with it and give it that same lilt, that slight David Lynch quality. It's not that offbeat an idea. But his was close enough to mine to make me think maybe he'd heard it.
Q. Because some of these recordings have been bootlegged, right?
A. Actually, I've been amazed at how tamped down it was. I didn't see any copies in circulation.
Q. So why did you stick with this so long? Eight years is a long time to tinker with one project.
A. I can't make as big a deal out of it as that question implies because it was something originally intended to be done over a couple of years, then put out and done with. Only the fact that I put it aside lends weight to it that it probably doesn't have. It probably would have done me more good not to release it, keep it mysterious and something for people to talk about.
Q. What was the original germ of the idea for this project?
A. I started doing the songs live because I was asked to for a show at the [Chicago] Cultural Center. People liked it, so I started doing the songs in my regular performances, and people responded to them pretty strongly. I was mainly just going where the audience told me to go.
Q. He's an interesting choice for a Robbie Fulks cover record, that's for sure.
A. Well, it just started as a riff on the covers record, of taking songs that are alien to you and bringing them around to something you can get behind. But also it was this idea of taking this junky, mass-market guy and addressing him earnestly as a musician and a performer of merit. It seems crazy to say something like that, because he was so popular, but pointy-heads like you or me or a lot of the people we know usually just sneer at him. ... This was just another way to think, hey, the guy was weird but he had some great songs.
Q. Were any of the songs especially difficult to Robbie-ize?
A. In some cases, the songs were very much like country music, really, but some were music and a world view and a style so far form mine that it was a bit of a trick to think of how to do it. "Privacy" or "Man in the Mirror" or some of the pulsating disco things -- those took a little effort to fit into my voice.
Q. So who will you tackle next?
A. Cher, I guess.
Fulks plays another Monday night show next week at the Hideout, then moves around the region a bit. He says he hopes to schedule a Lincoln Hall show this fall for a specific Michael Jackson-themed show.