The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon Is Just Getting Comfortable
The emotive songwriter talks about how he expanded towards new horizons on his recent and second solo album, 'Sleepwalkers.'
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Brian Fallon is puffing on a cigarette while hunched on a window ledge like a furtive teenager, blowing smoke out onto the north London street below. “I don’t normally sit in the Batman position,” he tells me, swivelling to shake my hand. Since he and his particular brand of shimmering, often rose-tinted Americana clambered to fame in the late 2000s with The Gaslight Anthem, Brian Fallon’s lyrics have created a specific mythology. His ability to create poetry out of the New Jersey landscape of his upbringing has been the source of much admiration, and challenges listeners to look for what is beautiful and odd in their own. He retains a capacity for awe while maintaining an authoritative, recognisable lyrical voice. He is, put simply, probably one of the most distinctive rock songwriters of his generation. And then, just like that, there he is – that writer whose words and melodies have meant so much in so many small worlds – having a fag out the window in Camden. I stifle a laugh thinking about how strange life is.
This particular window is upstairs room at Koko, the venue he’ll play to a sold-out crowd later that night – when I pass the entrance on my way to our interview (that is, at 4.30PM) a steady line of denim, leather, and back patch-clad diehards already wait outside, clamouring for a front row view. The show will promote Fallon’s second solo record, Sleepwalkers. His first, Painkillers, was released two years ago, and in turn came after Get Hurt, the last full-length by The Gaslight Anthem. Get Hurt symbolised a difficult period for Fallon in his personal life – talking about it now, he calls it “disaster on tape,” likening it to a film of a car crash that gives no let-up from the horror. Its tepid reception complicated his relationship both with criticism, and with his own creativity.
So when the time came, despite having embarked on a number of side-projects, Fallon approached a solo career with mixed feelings – upon Painkillers’ release in 2016, when asked about going out on his own he told Noisey, “I was always dreading the concept in my mind.” But now, both on Sleepwalkers, and sat in front of me wrapped in a Canada Goose jacket and drinking a Coke, he seems more comfortable than he’s been since Gaslight’s robust, Cadillac-cruising, Maria-lauding heyday.
Sleepwalkers opens with what Fallon carefully calls “a personal affirmation to myself,” after thinking on it for a second. The first track, “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven,” was written before he’d even considered making another solo album, and as a result it finds him in a place of flux. Lyrically, it’s full of motion (“I’m packing up, I’ve gotta move,” he urges himself on its first line), and it represents progression in his songwriting, too. “When I wrote that song, I was kinda kicking around ideas,” he says. “I was not sure anyone was gonna hear it yet, because it was the first time I had done that kind of thing. For me, I was just talking to myself, which was real private.”
This privacy, evidently, was important as Fallon took the first steps towards making Sleepwalkers. He was conscious, he seems keen to say, of the expectation that weighs on an artist making their second album: “When you do a second record, you have to sort of firm up what you’re gonna do. You’ve gotta be like, 'Am I doing this kind of music? Or am I doing this kind of music?'” He explains further: “The first record that people do, you get a little leeway. You get like, 'Oh! He tried some weird stuff, that’s cool.' But then with the next one they’ve expected you to figure it out.”
For most listeners, that’s what Sleepwalkers has done, but you might say it’s been a long time coming. Back in 2014, Noisey’s Dan Ozzi wrote about an encounter he’d had with Fallon while The Gaslight Anthem were making Get Hurt: “He half-jokingly told me that he had a board in the studio with all the words he’d retired from Gaslight’s lexicon written on it: 'No more ‘Maria,’ no more songs about radios,' he laughed.”
It seems that for a time – as any lyricist five albums in might be – Fallon felt as though he was trapped in a cage of his own making, built from rich images of New Jersey, and blue-collar boys, and raven-haired women. He thought that if he stuck to this familiar (though ultimately precious and personal) subject matter he’d be met with a chorus of critics rolling their eyes. So for a while, he shied away from it – but that wasn’t right either. From this point of view then, Sleepwalkers is a heartening listen: it’s full of Fallon’s wistful hallmarks, and sees him shaking off doubts brought on by outsiders, instead writing what felt good.
“I made the decision that I wasn’t going to write this record for the world, I was going to write it about my life and my kids and my wife and my immediate thoughts, and I was not going to change anything,” he says, before pausing as if he’s about to admit something. “Because for a couple of years I did – I would take out stuff in songs. I’d be like, 'Oh, am I talking about the radio or movies or something I may have touched on before?' I didn’t wanna get criticised for that. But what I realised is that I’ve created a style of my own. And I’ve worked really hard for that.” It’s with a well-earned sense of relief – but excitement, too, sitting forward in his chair – that he speaks about his embrace of what he calls “my little cut of the world.”
And though by now listeners are pretty accustomed to the modes of expression Fallon uses – sun-dappled narratives, every lyric a metaphor for hope – his world has certainly expanded somewhat on Sleepwalkers in a number of ways. Listening to it, I’m struck by how many of its themes I’ve spotted before, on records where he seemed similarly comfortable in the sphere he’s constructed for himself (say, Gaslight’s American Slang or Handwritten). On Sleepwalkers, they’re revisited with new maturity, and enhanced points of view. The song “Proof of Life,” I suggest, reminds me of Handwritten’s “Too Much Blood,” with their shared lyrics about what we leave behind when we die – only the stakes on “Proof of Life” are much higher, because parenthood has become a factor. Fallon agrees.
“My whole thing is, 'Did I do a good job?' Whether it’s work, or whether it’s being a friend, or being a husband, or being a father, it matters to me a lot that the people that I love think I did a good job.” He continues, “'Proof of Life' is a military expression – they’re like, 'We can’t send the planes in without some kind of proof of life.' I feel like your kids and your family and your immediate friends, and people you love, that’s your proof of life for everyone.”
In this way, his music looks further inward than perhaps it ever has before, but elsewhere on Sleepwalkers, Fallon is gazing out onto new, uncharted vistas, which have funny-sounding names like “the River Thames,” “Tower Bridge,” and “Angel station.” All of which is to say, much of Sleepwalkers is firmly rooted in the UK – convenient since that’s where we’re having this conversation.
Fallon’s love for our shitty, grey island goes back to his formative music tastes (“All the music I listened to growing up is English music,” he says, and references his well-documented love of The Clash, The Jam, and The Rolling Stones), and the early days of The Gaslight Anthem. Britain was one of the first places where the band received real acclaim. As he remembers, “Nobody was giving us a break, nobody. And it was the people of England and the people of Germany who said, 'They won’t have you? We’ll take you as our own.' And eternally I will be grateful for that.” Qualifying his statement, he adds, “It’s not a diss against the States, it’s just that it trickled out later. But the places that embrace you when you’re broken and desperate, you’ll never forget that, because they helped you when you needed it.”
Having “married an English girl,” Fallon has found himself spending much more time in London, and drawing inspiration from the new environment. I explain to him how funny I find hearing the humdrum of the place I live described in his whirring cadence on songs like “Her Majesty’s Service” and “Watson,” considering the technicolour elsewhere that his depictions of his own hometown offered me during my grey teen years in the Midlands. We’re both struck by the reversal that seems to be at play, and he tells me about his new appreciation for quintessentially British landmarks. “I remember being on the boat and going down the Thames and looking at Trader’s Gate. That was a big hit for me, I’d never seen anything like that. It stayed with me for a long time. Just those things that you see, you know Tower Bridge, just all these regular things, even like, Angel station. Because that was my stop, the stop that I knew. I knew that if I got there I could figure out where I was going. For me, that gives me the sense of wonder.”
If you asked me to name the two most crucial elements in Fallon’s songwriting, I’d probably say ‘wonder,’ and ‘place’: his music has strong sonic foundations in his hometown (those Bruce Springsteen comparisons don’t come out of nowhere, after all), and often involves him teasing out what’s exceptional about something (somewhere) that seems ordinary. That’s why he’s adamant that he had to look past Jersey: to maintain the wonder. “I’ve written a lot about New Jersey,” he says, “and I don’t need to write about New Jersey anymore. Yes, it’s magic and it’s special to me, of course it is, but it’s mine, I already know it. Do you expect me to watch this for the rest of my life? My life has moved on and I need to write what’s current or else I’d be lying.”
And though New Jersey certainly rears its head a couple of times throughout (for example, though they were recorded by New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the horns on the title track, sound a lot like the warm, enveloping tones of New Jersey’s most beloved, the E Street Band), Sleepwalkers is defined by movement. Ironically, right now, this is where Fallon feels most secure – as he wisely notes, “When you’re running very fast, it’s very hard for things to stick to you.” He’s made peace with his style, and in extending it to new sounds and scenarios, he seems content. Talking to him, tucked away upstairs in that top room, I got the distinct sense that having lived, having travelled, having settled into his own art and the world he has crafted, carefully and with love, for himself, Brian Fallon has finally found whatever he sought. And honestly? He’s just getting comfortable.
Brian Fallon is on a North American spring tour until early May – scroll through to see if he'll hit a city near you.
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