And his new album Local Honey is all the better for it.
Brian Fallon, the former frontman of Gaslight Anthem, has stripped away all the glowing melodies and sing-your-heart-out choruses that skyrocketed the group to the heights of superstardom and New Jersey legend. If Gaslight Anthem put Fallon in the front seat of a fully-loaded Thunderbird, Local Honey has him selling fresh fruit by the side of the road out of a pickup truck. Acoustic arrangements surrounded by an eerie yet comforting sadness underscore eight tracks of Fallon’s most honest and simple lyricism yet. Opening track “When You’re Ready” is a heartache-filled, beautiful letter to Fallon’s daughter as he watches her grow up. Lead single “You Have Stolen My Heart” masterfully breaks a love song down to its bare essentials with rustic percussion and vocal ranges that we’ve never heard from Fallon as a singer. I spoke to Fallon about the new album and his ongoing relationship with his audience.
HARD NOISE: Listening to Local Honey, I couldn’t help but think about seeing you on your acoustic tour with Craig Finn a couple years back. Did rearranging your songs for an acoustic setting inform this record at all?
BRIAN FALLON: I think subconsciously for sure. Consciously, not so much. I didn’t know when I got home from that tour that I would make this kind of record. I kind of thought I would make a louder record but once I started working on it, I felt not into it. And so I had to rethink everything, which took a while. But in hindsight, I would say sure, absolutely because I figured out how I could actually do that.
HN: How has your perspective changed from Sleepwalkers to this new album?
BR: It’s not changed drastically, but I did turn 40, so that does come with its own set of thoughts. It definitely makes you take stock of what’s around you and how far you’ve come. I think it does that to everybody; that’s probably the biggest difference, is that milestone.
HN: What elements take center stage when you’re writing or performing a song that’s more stripped-down?
BF: Definitely the words take bigger precedence, but you think about it even more when you don’t have anything to distract [you] from it. Tempo is a big thing with that, I find. The faster a song is, the faster the words go by and the less time people have to hang on each one. But with this [album] there aren’t even that many words. The songs aren’t filled to the brim with words, so the ones that are there, I needed to make them count as much as I could.
HN: Was that challenging?
BF: Sure, it’s always challenging. I know that people will listen to it and they’ll either like it or they won’t, and analyze it a little bit. You feel a little bit exposed, sort of like if you were writing down your thoughts and then you had to pass it around the class for kids to read. I used to hate those assignments! That’s the feeling. You’re done with it, you go, “I feel good about this, I’ve got it,” and then it goes around the room.
HN: How do you want people to feel after listening to this album?
BF: Don’t see it as something that’s just gonna hand itself over to you. I don’t think it’s like a pop record where after your first listen, you’re gravitated toward it and pulled in the sweeping flow of whatever the song is. It’s not that kind of record. You sort of have to give something to it in order for it to mean something to you. You have to sit down and say, “I have to let these songs become part of my thoughts and my experiences in my life.” And then I think that you’ll find a richer meaning because they’ll take your stories on rather than being my stories. But that takes a little bit of devotion to it.
HN: Even when the lyrics are a little more optimistic, the songs here have an atmosphere of sadness around them. How did you create that?
BF: Well, the good thing is that for me creating something like this is my natural default. I listen to songs that are sad all the time. Even if I’m feeling happy, there’s always this air of sadness in my personality. I don’t know if it’s anxiety or depression or whatever. I don’t actually feel sad, but I just like that feeling and I don’t know why. Working with Peter Katis, the producer of this record, he said, “Don’t take the sad out of it, stop doing that.” He understood that and liked it without even really talking about it.
HN: A lot of this record is expressing where you’re at in life right now. How do you stay focused on the present?
BF: I’ll be real honest with you. A couple years ago, I realized that I’m definitely gonna die. And that really did not feel good because I have kids and that scares me. We’re not gonna be permanent. And that realization hits people at different times, but for me it was recently and it made me understand that there are not an infinite number of days — you have to number all of them. You have to take them all instead of, “Dude I can’t wait till Thursday.” I think that dawned on me during this process and made me more present. Also, I kept seeing people on their phones with their kids. And I’m not judging them, maybe it’s important, but their kids would be talking to them and they would be on their phone, not really looking at their kids. I kind of felt a little bell ring in my head. Don’t do that to your kids. Make sure you look at them, show them you’re really paying attention to them. That helped me be a little more present, too.
HN: Does that feeling of impermanence ever get overwhelming?
BF: Yeah, totally. I think in its nature it’s overwhelming. I don’t think that’s a feeling you can say “Yeah, I’ve completely come to terms with that.” If someone said that to you, I think they’re totally lying.
HN: You’re a very studious musician. What kind of things were you drawing from while recording this album?
BF: I take piano lessons and guitar lessons. I take guitar lessons continuously, so I’m always learning something. As far as songwriting goes, I take everything in. I’ve talked about them 100 times, anything from punk rock to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and all that stuff. But I was also taking in all the new records coming out. I really got into Lana Del Rey’s new record. I would let all of these songs swish around. I saw The Weeknd on Saturday Night Live and I thought it sounded like Michael Jackson, it was cool. The songs get in there and I think, “What about this makes it feel good?” I was listening to a ton of Daniel Lanois records, I was listening to his production and how he does things. It made me think about how songs take on these lives and why they do that.
HN: You flex your storytelling muscles quite a bit on the track “Vincent” where you sing as a character named Jolene. What was it like inhabiting a new point of view?
BF: That song took forever! Over a month! I must’ve written 30 or 40 different verses with different outcomes to the story. I was reading a book Stephen King wrote about how he writes called On Writing. I was trying to figure out how to listen to the characters and figure out what they do. That first line (“My name is Jolene but I hate that song”), I was driving and I wondered if people hate the songs they’re named after. It was just a passing thought, and then the first line of the song came to my mind and I thought, “That’s interesting, I wonder who that character is, what’s their story.” And then I started thinking and writing, I was making sketches like you would for a short story. It was weird, I never did that before but I really enjoyed doing it because when I was done, this song felt like a complete thought. I feel like I didn’t leave anything out.
HN: Did you learn anything about yourself writing more introspective songs?
BF: Well, yeah. I learned what I thought about things. [Laughs] I don’t really stop to think, “What do you think about this thought that you had?” When I was reading it back, it revealed a lot that you don’t see in the day to day, especially when you’re busy. If you take time to journal, which I was doing during this, it [gives] somewhere to look and [see] “I’m obviously thinking about this.” Do that freewriting. You know what I’m talking about?
HN: Yeah. You’ve got me thinking I need to re-read On Writing. Do you have any other favorite Stephen King books?
BF: My favorite is Pet Semetary because there’s a cool Ramones song named after it. I like The Shining a lot because it’s about a writer who’s going insane. You feel that. I didn’t cut anybody up with an axe when I was writing the record, but you’re faced with this infinite question of how do I create something that’s gonna matter to other people out of literally my own thoughts?
HN: What other non-musical art are you into right now?
BF: I like to go see plays, I’ll go see a Broadway play, not very often cuz it’s super expensive. I go to the local plays around here. There’s a theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, they do really cool plays. We’ll just go watch them, I really enjoy that, I like the story mixed with the song. I think plays are how I always saw songs. When I hear [songs] I sort of envision the character, so there’s scenery in my head. A play manifests that in a nice way.
HN: As someone who started out doing punk-inspired music and wound up going the singer/songwriter route, what do you think those genres have to offer each other?
BF: When I was very young, I heard The Clash and Minor Threat, everybody, awesome. I did not see the difference between them and Bob Dylan, the difference between the things my mom was influencing me with and the things I was discovering on my own. They’re all colliding. There’s definitely no difference between Elvis Presley and the Ramones, that’s very close. Even the Misfits, they just brought in horror. I saw it as Americana storytelling. People don’t separate movies like that, when they talk about old movies, they include Casablanca, and then John Wayne and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. And they’re all three different genres, but they’re all the same classic America. That’s how I saw music.
The Internet wasn’t invented yet, so I didn’t have any message boards to shame me for listening to all this stuff. So I just let it in. I grew up in such a small town that there wasn’t exposure to any of this stuff. I was just finding cassettes that looked cool to me, like, “What’s that Misfits skull?” So there wasn’t any preconceived notion about what these things were, to me it was all just one. Now I’m following my tastes as a person and evolve as you go.
HN: Do you ever miss doing louder material?
BF: It’s a really odd answer. No. A lot of that stuff at the end, it caused me such great anxiety, the position that we were in, it was so big. We were right on the cusp of playing 10,000 seats. I thought I wanted to get there and when I got there I was like, “Whoa this is bizarre, I don’t know what I’m doing.” Now I feel like I’m doing something I’ve found a little bit of peace in. This is gonna sound stupid but at my age, I don’t feel old, but I do feel stupid acting like a 20-year-old. I don’t want to jump around a stage and be all, “Come on! Sing with me!” That’s just not me, I can’t do that. And I think that goes hand in hand with loud rock shows.
HN: What effect has that had on your audience?
BF: Some people kind of hang up the phone, and that’s cool, I get it. I knew that would happen. The position that I’m in now, that allows me freedom. I always hope that the people that are there now, with every new record, hang on. It would be great to get more people that have never heard of me before. I’m not trying to play [in] the cafeteria, but the places that I’ve got, they feel manageable to me. At the end of the show, I feel like I’ve communicated with this audience.
Before, I had no idea if you felt anything cuz I felt so disconnected. When you get up to these 7, 8,000 seat venues, it’s hard. I feel like I’m so transparent that if I’m not believing in something, I feel like people can see right through me. I’m not good at pretending, my wife will tell you that. If I’m in a good mood or a bad mood you can see it all over my face.
Interview edited for length and clarity. Local Honey available here.