Bob Hillman’s Songs for the Pandemic

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INSIDE OUT The father of young children, Hillman is content sharing his music from home.

Like many artists, songwriter and guitarist Bob Hillman had to spend some time adjusting to the realities of the lockdown brought about by the current pandemic. He tries to write at least one new song a week, but California’s self-distancing protocols briefly interrupted his flow.

“At the beginning of lockdown, I didn’t write songs about the lockdown,” Hillman said from the San Francisco home he shares with his spouse and children. “I wrote some political songs, some of which had far-out titles like ‘You’re My Bitch, Mitch McConnell’ and ‘The Business of American Is Business.’

“Eventually, I gravitated toward writing about what I, as well as many others, was feeling. We were stuck inside, paralyzed with uncertainty. A batch of Covid songs emerged, and the time to record them was now.

“Since I couldn’t get into a recording studio, I’d have to do it myself, which meant an investment of time and money. You have to buy a bunch of equipment and learn how to use it. It seemed like a Herculean task, but then I got a grip. I could do it myself, just like I learned to build rudimentary websites and make decent videos. These days, nothing is impossible.”

Hillman called his friend Jonny Flaugher, the producer of his 2019 album, Some of Us Are Free, Some of Us Are Lost. “I was skeptical about remote recording—would it still be cool if the musicians were not in one room, playing together? Jonny had no reservations whatsoever. He told me it could be, and it was.

“I found a Scarlett 2i2 digital interface in my hall closet, borrowed a microphone from a friend and bought a shock mount [a device that allows you to adjust the angle of a mic for recording] and a pop filter [a screen that softens the sounds of hard consonants when you’re singing]. One hundred dollars and a few Garageband tutorials later, I was ready to record my parts.

“I did have to contend with some unusual factors—professional recording studios don’t have barking dogs, for example, or demanding kids—but I could move around the house depending on what was going on. We don’t live in a mansion, but there’s usually a way to manufacture some privacy.”

After recording his acoustic guitar and vocals, Hillman emailed them to Flaugher. “He added his bass parts, then sent the tracks to guitarist David Levita or drummer Jay Bellerose, depending on factors such as what would best establish the vibe and who was available that day,” Hillman said. “They’d return the tracks with their parts, and we’d plot next steps, which might be trumpets, clarinets or strings. I might re-record a guitar part, since it’s easier to lock in with the drums than a click track. Piece by piece, we’d build up the tracks.

“Jonny has an inspiring ‘can do’ attitude: it seemed like anything was possible. Not only that, but he’s a great musician with lots of great musician friends. In addition to playing bass and hiring world-class players like Jay and Dave, he has a keen intuition for arranging the tunes. He’s a thoughtful collaborator who has a strong point of view, but also listens.”

The result is Inside and Terrified, a five-song EP that explores the emotions that arise when a person knows they may be unable to interact with anyone outside of their own home for the foreseeable future. The backing tracks are subtle, with Hillman’s smooth vocals conveying a sense of fear, hope and resignation. “This Wild Land” is a gentle folk-rock tune that takes us on a journey down San Francisco’s deserted streets to the Great Highway, where the natural beauty of the ocean can soothe anxiety as traffic lights blink on empty roadways to the sound of a melodic violin. The title track is a mellow acoustic ballad that recalls ’60s British folk-pop. It confronts unmasked strangers, politicians spewing disinformation and the creeping anxiety generated by a year spent staring at the walls of one’s home. There’s also the satirical lullaby, “Now I’m in Favor of a Wall,” a song that addresses the xenophobia of Trump and his cronies. “I’m hoping that song will be obsolete very soon,” Hillman said. “Some folks don’t get the irony in it, which is troubling to me.”

“I’m an independent artist,” Hillman said. “I make music for its own sake, but I do like to connect with an audience. Touring isn’t practical for me, because I have young kids and have to pick them up from school and coach their sports teams. The great thing about technology—even social media—is that it somewhat levels the playing field for those of us who can’t tour. That said, I should probably be doing more to get the music out there.”.