The Gaslight Anthem frontman talks about his hesitation to venture out on his own for his new album, 'A Wonderful Life.'
In the summer of 2014, when Noisey met up with Brian Fallon, the Gaslight Anthem singer was at the tail-end of an intense period of self-doubt. Just shy of the release of his band’s divisive fifth album, Get Hurt, Fallon was at last beginning to feel self-assured, confident even, in his artistic output. As he explained to us, the album was an undertaking he needed to endure so as to self-cleanse. Recently divorced and feeling as if he perhaps had become a one-trick pony, Fallon had been searching for meaning. On the album, he felt he had perhaps found it. “You have to go through it to get to the other side, man,” he said at the time of his personal demons. “You really do. I had to prove to myself that I was capable of more than just this one thing.”
Just shy of 18 months later, Fallon is once again at a crossroads: Gaslight Anthem is on hiatus following the critically-panned Get Hurt; and, more notably, Fallon is a few weeks shy of releasing his debut solo album. Painkillers, due on March 11 and produced by Butch Walker (Weezer, Taylor Swift), finds the New Jersey native reconciling his lifelong love of tried-and-true singer-songwriters and stripped-down, acoustic guitar-anchored folk music—something hardcore Gaslight fans might not be accustomed to. While he’s previously spread his wings with side projects including the more brooding Horrible Crowes (with guitarist Ian Perkins) and the Americana outfit, Molly and the Zombies, Fallon initially felt a strong hesitation to embark on a solo endeavor. “I was always dreading the concept in my mind,” he says, comparing a solo musician to a circus act flailing his arms in a desperate plea for attention. “So I had to convince myself.”
Once in the studio, though, Fallon says he felt a weight lifted off his shoulders. Namely, he had only himself to please. “That’s the awesome part,” he says. “At the end of the day, you can look at a record and say, “I like this and I would listen to it.” And if no one else does, at least you have that.” Such a need to live a life sans restrictions is explicitly referenced in the album’s opener and first single, “ A Wonderful Life”: “I want a life on fire, gone mad with desire/ I don’t want to survive, I want a wonderful life.” Later, on the fingerpicked “Nobody Wins,” Fallon moans, “I lost most of myself pleasing everyone/ I had to learn how to begin again.”
Despite what may appear to be a rough-and-tumble few years for Fallon, when Noisey rang up the singer on a recent morning, he was cheery, self-deprecating, and brutally honest in assessing his new album and career as a whole, how the critical reception to Get Hurt freed him to write Painkillers, and how he’s recently learned to better understand Bob Dylan’s perceptive on songwriting.
Noisey: You’ve been writing songs outside Gaslight Anthem for some time now, but when did this solo project become a reality?
Brian Fallon: I had the idea maybe two years ago to do it. I started writing songs and just had this extra batch of songs that didn’t quite feel like they fit with Gaslight. So I just put them to the side for a minute. I did that Molly and the Zombies project and we got invited to do this Home for the Holidays show that the Bouncing Souls do. They asked me to just do it myself and I was like, “Well, I don’t really have anything.” I had those couple songs so I thought, “Let me just put together a band and see what people think of it.”
And then some time passed by and some of those songs still hadn’t been recorded?
When Gaslight picked up again, I kind of put everything to the side. Fast forward another year and a half and Gaslight were going to go on a break. I thought, “Better pull out those songs and see what’s going on with them!”
Has the idea of releasing a solo album always been in the back of your mind?
It was something that I always had mixed feelings about. The word “solo” record has always been cringeworthy to me. You know what I’m saying? ‘Cause in a way, you don’t want to be the guy at the circus like, “Look what I can do! I know this trick that I didn’t show you before.” It never ends up being a good trick. It’s always the same trick just with different stuff. Once I knew there was going to be time off from Gaslight, I knew I couldn’t sit still. I had to do something. I thought, “Well, what about having another band or continuing Molly and the Zombies or maybe continuing the Horrible Crowes?” And then a friend of mine said to me, “You have all these other bands but then they’re gone when you go back to Gaslight. Why don’t you just do it under your name because then you can just do whatever you want?” I told her my reservations but then she brought up Nick Cave and the Birthday Party and how it can be OK. I had to warm up to it by looking at other people who had done that I didn’t feel were doing themselves a disservice.
Who else comes to mind as an honorable band leader gone solo?
I always felt Conor Oberst was a good example because he had a bunch of projects but they all sounded different. You always could tell it was Conor because of his writing, but it was different. As for me, I was thinking my excuse was: There’s this singer-songwriter thing that I always really wanted to get to and then there’s the band thing that’s the singer-songwriter mixed with punk and whatever else. I wondered whether that purified singer-songwriter-type record was worth me going out on my own. And after I weighed it out, I thought it was.
You mentioned both Molly and the Zombies and Horrible Crowes. Is it important in your mind to compartmentalize each of your projects and keep them completely separate from each other?
Well, not all of them. I think it’s Gaslight and then everything else. That’s important for me. When the Horrible Crowes was going on, it was something I felt like I needed to do. But since I had a partner, I didn’t really feel like it was a solo record. Maybe that was just me excusing it. [Laughs] I can’t kid myself, though: I went and did a solo record so I can’t sit here and say that’s not cool. I do think it’s cool. But then there’s still the other side of me that wants to be like, no, that’s not cool! It’s just that thing that everybody has, that back and forth. Any time as a musician you have any borderline musical moral ground, you struggle internally. You see it with some of the biggest acts: Nirvana were on MTV yet they were constantly making fun of MTV. You can’t call anybody out on it though because we all do the same exact thing.
I think it gets back to the simple fact that even though musicians want to keep their audience in mind, they have to follow their intuition.
I think you always write for yourself and then you dress it up for your audience a little bit. Everybody thinks about it. If anyone says they don’t think about their audience when they’re writing, either they’re totally on another plane, a higher plane then I know of, or they’re lying. [Laughs] Because they do! You don’t step out a stage to be like, “Well, I hope this just bombs! I hope everything goes horribly wrong and I end up in the poorhouse and bankrupt.”
You were working with several other musicians when recording this album but at the end of the day, particularly when it came to decisions regarding the direction of the album, everything fell on your shoulders. Was that an exciting prospect? Or perhaps a frightening one?
I did think it was weird at first. Gaslight is more democratic than you would think. We have this rule where we don’t do anything that someone hates. So if someone really hates something, we just don’t do it. The card is not pulled often but when it is, it’s like, OK, we’re not doing that. With this album everything was down to me essentially: “What do you want the guitars to sound like?” “How do you want to layer everything?” Even [producer] Butch [Walker] was asking me questions and a lot of time I would be like, “Well, what do you think, man? You’re the guy that’s doing it. You’ve got the good sound. What does so-and-so use?” I never had that decision-making process before and the freedom to choose exactly how I wanted something to sound. It was nice. I’m not gonna lie… I liked it. It was cool.
There’s no one else to please.
Yeah. That’s the awesome part. It really helps when there’s no compromise at the end of the day and you can go “I’m happy with this.” And then when you put it out, even if somebody says something weird about it you can go “Well, it’s what I like.”
The album definitely takes you in new musical directions. There are elements of American folk music, early rock ’n’ roll, and a heavy helping of acoustic guitar.
I think this has always been on the plate. Even since [Gaslight Anthem’s 2007 debut album] Sink or Swim, there’s always been an acoustic song or something like that on the records. Inside my head, it would be always there: This is the music you really, really like. When you’re alone, you don’t really listen to other stuff. You listen to this kind of stuff.
It was one of those artistic things where you just have to do it at some point. I saw the opportunity and thought it might as well be now because I don’t have anything else going on. It was pretty natural to sit down and go: “Never mind anything except for the song.” If something could stand on its own with just an acoustic guitar, if I could strip it back and play it by myself, then it’s going to be good. And then we’ll dress it up however it needs to be later. That was always something that’s always been a little bit dear to me. You have to learn, I think, to do that. And I don’t even know if I’ve learned enough to really get it right quite yet.
Does playing a song that bare make an artist more vulnerable?
I think some people really get it right and some people are just woodshedding. They’re in the shop but they’re not really building anything. There’s a fine line there and it’s hard to judge yourself as to when you’re truly ready. My favorite song in the world is “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” by Bob Dylan. I read an interview one time where he said, “I don’t think I’m old enough to sing that song.” It struck me that he had already recorded that song when he said that. I thought, well, then why did you say that? But as I grew older, I began to get it. He wrote a song that was beyond his capability but he still tried it anyway.
That reminds me of a song on your album, “Honey Magnolia,” one with heavy country folk influences and pedal steel. I imagine you couldn’t—or perhaps wouldn’t—have written that as a younger musician.
I don’t think I would have been able to orchestrate that together with the harmonies and everything. The funny thing with a song like “Honey Magnolia” is the demo sounds pretty much the same way the record sounds. From start to finish, it was already conceptualized from the beginning. That’s something I learned over time. The song is from a personal place but it’s sung from a woman’s point of view. It’s an odd thing. That’s something they did in folk music. They were always singing from other people’s voices and seeing things from other people’s perspective. You have to delicately do that. You have to create the world and drop little hints. I had to work at that to get it to sound simple but make sure the meaning came across.
In terms of pushing your boundaries on Painkillers, I’m curious how Gaslight’s most recent album, the sonically adventurous Get Hurt impacted you? Did it encourage you to continue to throw caution to the wind?
It’s weird. I felt the complete opposite. Some people were so cool about Get Hurt and I found a lot of kids at shows that really embraced it. But I feel like in another way, I got completely torn to shreds on that one. For the first time there was some things I definitely got skewered on. I was like “Whoa!” Somebody would send me something and I would be like “Why would you send that to me? That’s awful! Why did I read that?” I had to put down the computer for a second. So this was more of a reaction in the opposite way. I didn’t feel like Get Hurt freed me to do anything. Matter of fact, I felt like Get Hurt bound me a little bit. I almost felt like I got smacked for doing it.
The negative reviews stung?
It set me back a bit. I didn’t know what to do next. I thought, “I better really consider what I’m doing here and consider my options.” I had to do something that I believed in 100 percent. Because if I didn’t believe in it, and I got spanked again, it would have crushed me. It felt like a lot of the criticism wasn’t necessarily about the record, but about my sincerity as a person, which I found extremely weird. Why are these strangers criticizing me as a person when I’ve never met them?
People tend to assume musicians are immune to criticism. But at the end of the day, creative are some of the most sensitive people.
Exactly! Or else we wouldn’t be doing what we do. Artists, writers, musicians, any people that are in the arts, as soon as you walk into that world, they should hand you two cards: “Welcome to the Hypocrite Club” and “Welcome to the Baby Club.” Because emotionally, we’re all babies. Really, I’m a little bit shy, which is totally stupid because then why do I put myself out there on a stage? I don’t know.
It seems though that fans have been reacting positively to your new solo material when you’ve been out playing it live in recent weeks.
I’m impressed with most crowds with their patience level. You’re playing ten or 12 new songs that they haven’t heard before and then you’re mixing them in with songs they do know from Horrible Crowes and Molly and the Zombies. But essentially, they’re coming out as true music fans and just listening. It’s been really good. I expected every night for people to be like, “Play that one song!” It made me realize that, aside from the internet, people are cool.
Dan Hyman also wants a wonderful life. Follow him on Twitter.