By Kara Wilbeck
Photos by Alexander Maso, except where noted
Asher Fulero is a really nice guy. On our first meeting, he greeted me with a glass of homemade juice, eventually leaving me with a hug, some bumper stickers, and a handful of CDs. His easygoing and natural friendliness makes him easy to like — and it’s obvious I’m not the only one who feels this way. The pianist’s many friendships and connections (not to mention his talent!)have twisted and turned his musical career in a number of directions. He’s been a part of Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra, the Floydian Slips, and Scott Law Reunion Band, and it’s not surprising to find him behind the keys at many other Portland area shows. Anyone that’s into music in the Northwest has probably seen or heard him at one point or another, whether they know it or not.
Fulero’s world is a little bit wider than most of the rest of ours. Musically, he refuses to be boxed in. This is apparent during his many tributes to other musicians: during his recent residency at Al’s Den, Fulero featured the music of Genesis, Elliott Smith, Phish and Pink Floyd. Last year’s residency featured a tribute to Ani DiFranco. Fulero’s piano work is pendulous. One night he may be playing his solo piano work, closer to classical than anything else, or another he may be part of a fusion-esque jazz trio. He might be filling the keyboardist spot in a jam or rock band, or maybe he’s a session pianist recording with a singer/songwriter.
Researching Fulero’s background before our first interview was a bit muddling. I couldn’t pin the guy down. I already knew of him from appearances with all kinds of bands around Portland, but the recordings I found sounded nothing like his live work. I first stumbled upon Fulero’s 2010 solo piano release, “The Green Piano.” Beautiful and hushed, the album’s sound was mature and contemplative. The very next find, however, was the direct opposite: dirty, whompy, glitchy electronic music released under the moniker Halo Refuser (an anagram of Asher Fulero).
How did Fulero’s work become so oxymoronic? It’s not entirely unintentional. “I’m constantly finding myself embodying that definition of being pulled to opposing extremes,” Fulero explains. “Whatever it is I’m doing, I also want to do the opposite.”
Fulero’s latest release is a full-length piano opus called “Liminal Rites.” Recorded at his home in a series of late night (read: early morning) sessions over the course of many months, the album is brooding, reflective, and at times, intense.
“It’s not funky. It’s not dancy, or boogie, or fun,” says Fulero of the album. “Its dramatic and serious and emotional, and it’s a very different side of my music. It also shows off what I can do on the piano, so I’m embracing that.”
The album’s title itself is thought-provoking: a liminal rite is a ritual transition, liminality being an “in-between” period during which a person has left their previous state but has not yet fully realized their new self. “It’s the time in between when you were what you were and when you are what you become,” Fulero explains. “It can be anything for anyone, depending on the rite of passage.”
Each song title on “Liminal Rites” is named for a step in a transition, or a feeling that might be felt during the tumultuous period. The song titles seem to befit the music: “At the Threshold,” contains mixed feelings of hope and uncertainty, while “Accepting Closure” has the peacefulness and beauty that come with maturity.
It seems like a concept album. The music perfectly conveys this idea of a liminal rite. But the reality is quite a bit more serendipitous.
When Fulero recorded these songs, there was no album title, no song titles, no sense of order or direction. Each piece is a pure improvisation — none of the tracks were edited, and none can be (easily) reproduced. They were labeled only by date and the order in which they were recorded.
“As far as song titles and the flow of the album, none of that was thought of when I was making the improvisations,” says Fulero. “I would do them in the middle of the night. I’d turn all the lights out, light some candles, hit record, and then free-form improvise five or six pieces. Then I wouldn’t even listen to it! I’d just turn if off and go to bed.”
Enter artist Flora Bowley. Bowley, a painter local to the Portland area, works by focusing her energy on select words and concepts. Meditating on these words, she creates a piece that, in a way, reflects the concepts the words represent. In most of her paintings, the words can be found hidden among the designs.
As a friend of Fulero’s, Bowley was chosen to create the album artwork for his latest release. While painting, she listened to some of the music that was to be included on the album, and the word she found herself focusing on was “liminal.” This focus sparked an idea for Fulero, giving his project a clear direction, and helping shape the finished product of the album.
The idea of liminality stretches beyond the reaches of Fulero’s album — it also applies to the current state of his life and career.
“The liminal space concept really described several things,” Fulero says. “The first is how I make the music. I sort of get into this liminal state and channel the music. I’m not playing songs that are arranged, and I never play it the same way twice. I also think it described where I am with my career right now — between being a sideman and a frontman. I’m doing both, and I haven’t really landed on either one of them yet. I’m still trying things out right now.”
Asher Fulero is truly an artist in transition. While he has mastered the piano, his talents reach far beyond the technical skills required to pound the keys. With his plentitude of roles as a musician, Fulero’s craft is still very much in its developmental stage. His already exciting career promises an exceptional musical future, and Fulero’s sense of personal direction is only growing stronger. I can’t wait to see where he goes as his “liminal rite” draws to an end.
Liminal Rites can be purchased at Asher Fulero’s website, www.asherfulero.com.
For more information on the paintings of Flora Bowley, visit her website at www.braveintuitiveyou.com.