As he talks about his new album, John Fullbright is staring out a window at the landscape that inspired it.
“All I can see right now is rusted farm equipment and fresh-cut hay,” Fullbright says. “Every song I wrote was written in this house, even more specifically it was written in the room that has the piano in it. It’s the house I grew up in, from the time I was born till I was 9. It’s a museum of my own DNA.”
Fullbright, a rising singer-songwriter who’s 24 going on 40, is on the phone from Oklahoma. He’s back home briefly before heading out on the road again, including a stop at Brighton Music Hall on Thursday opening for Aoife O’Donovan.
Fullbright’s hometown is small enough that he simplifies by saying he grew up on the outskirts of Okemah, which happens to be Woody Guthrie’s birthplace. Location turns out to be pivotal to “From the Ground Up,” which is Fullbright’s proper studio debut after releasing a live album a few years ago.
Americana is a broad enough genre to describe his new album’s organic approach to contemplative country, bare-bones folk, and hard-charging rock. A gospel fervor informs some of the songs, and on “Gawd Above,” Fullbright writes from the perspective of a higher power.
Part of the record’s naturalness stems from the way Fullbright made it. He had planned to record just a demo to shop around to labels. Once Fullbright was in the studio with his backing musicians, he was struck by what they were capturing.
“We got lost in it in those three hours we were recording. We all looked at each other and thought, ‘No, this is the record. It’s not going to get any better than this anywhere else,’” he says. “You can keep throwing money at it and expect it to get better, but this is as good as it’s going to get.’”
To that end, Fullbright was committed to not overproducing and cluttering “From the Ground Up.” It’s as unvarnished and plainspoken as Fullbright’s voice, with an after-hours intimacy shot through with piano, acoustic guitar, organ, and harmonica. The heartfelt and honest lyrics are in line with Fullbright’s taste in songwriters, guys like Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, and Randy Newman.
“I like Townes and Mickey because they’re such craftsmen to the point that it bores a lot of people who don’t focus very much when they listen,” he says. “There’s such an elegance to the way they put a song together. You listen to those guys and you get moved somehow – emotionally or intellectually.”
“Instead of just letting it go and saying that was a beautiful song,” he adds, “I consider it my job to say, ‘How did he do that? Exactly what did he do and how can I do that?’ It drives you up a wall, but if it was easy, nobody would do it.”
Jess Klein, a singer-songwriter who lived in Boston before uprooting to Austin, met Fullbright when they both started gigging around that Texas town a few years ago. Their chemistry was such that Klein sings harmony vocals on Fullbright’s new album.
“The reason I sing and write songs is because I get a power surge out of using every ounce of my soul to say something,” says Klein. “As soon as I heard John’s songs, I thought, there’s a kindred spirit. You can tell by the way he forms the words that he really means what he’s saying.”
Klein was initially smitten with Fullbright’s first album, “Live at the Blue Door.” His latest, however, made her appreciate Fullbright’s true potential.
“The live album is like someone telling you a secret,” she says, “and then the studio album is a big artistic statement. You think, how can he be this talented already?”
Fullbright is upfront that he’s new to all of this and still figuring things out.
“The hardest part is getting up there,” he says of performing live. “You’re letting the audience in on a little secret, but you don’t have to tell them what it is. That’s the part I’m concerned with right now – how much should you let the listener know and how much should you let them put it together themselves.”
Given that Fullbright grew up in the same hometown, Woody Guthrie looms large in his back story, which he admits has gotten maybe too much attention.
“It’s absolutely blown out of proportion, but it doesn’t mean there’s not a little bit of truth in it,” he says. “I didn’t know who Woody Guthrie was until I was 16 and looked for him. It wasn’t a romantic thing where I saw a statue of Woody in Okemah and went and got a guitar and learned ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ That’s far from it, but Woody is my copilot and I’m a big fan of his writing.”
Guthrie, like Van Zandt and Newbury, embodied the chief tenet of why Fullbright makes music.
“Every time I put pen to paper,” Fullbright says, “I try to write something that’s going to last a little longer than me.”James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.