It’s seven a.m. on a Tuesday morning in July. In New Jersey, lines of cars stream up and down the turnpike heading to work. People are waiting for their coffee and checking emails, and Brian Fallon, lead singer of the currently on-hiatus The Gaslight Anthem – and the man who some have crowned the successor to rock ‘n’ roll (and New Jersey) royalty Bruce Springsteen – is already awake and getting ready to start the day’s writing.
With The Gaslight Anthem on a break, Fallon decided to embark on a solo career and released his latest album, “Painkillers,” in March. “Painkillers” marks a departure from The Gaslight Anthem’s Jersey rock sound and incorporates elements of country, folk and singer-songwriter music aided by Nashville-based producer Butch Walker.
Fallon took some time out of his morning to talk to us about going solo, songwriting and why he’s sick of rock ‘n’ roll.
Mike Andrelczyk: You don’t really live that typical rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle – like staying out all night?
Brian Fallon: I never got into it. I had a show last night in Manhattan and I was out until about 1:30 a.m. because it took that long to get home, but then I got up at seven.
MA: You treat songwriting almost like clocking in to an office in the morning. You write every day from 9 a.m.-3p.m.?
BF: It works really well for me. I think that if you show up every day, you’ll at least learn something. You never know what’s going to come out, so I feel like if I’m not there to meet whatever’s going to happen, then it’s not going to happen.
MA: Did you decide to do the solo album because of the Gaslight Anthem hiatus or was it the other way around?
BF: Because of the hiatus. I just saw those guys last weekend. We talk all the time. We’re still friends. There was no fight or anything like that, it’s just like there’s nothing else to say right now, so let’s just keep our mouths shut. The hiatus came and I was sort of without a job. I thought about going back to construction.
BF: I find that stuff pleasing. It’s very fulfilling to me. I was like, “Maybe I’ll just get out of the music thing.” A couple of months later, I thought “Nah, I have a couple of other things I want to try.” I want to make a singer-songwriter record. I want to make a folk record. I might even want to make a kid’s record. I heard Sun Kil Moon do this lullaby song on “Yo Gabba Gabba” – I have kids so I watch “Yo Gabba Gabba” – and I thought “I want to do a record like that.”
MA: Did you feel any kind of pressure to come up with something different for the solo record?
BF: I felt like it was less pressure. The band is a big undertaking. It got to the point where I would start seeing billboards when we were going to put out a new record. People are driving in the car seeing an advertisement for our new record that they haven’t even heard yet. I would drive by and slink down in my seat. So for me this was a welcome relief.
MA: There are lots of literary references in your work. One of the songs from your Gaslight days is called “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” which is one of my favorite books by Tom Robbins.
BF: Reading for a songwriter is sort of like eating breakfast for a runner. It’s an essential thing. You learn the language in a way that you can grasp it and mold it. When I’m listening to, like, Bob Dylan, that doesn’t really help me write lyrics, because that would be Bob Dylan’s lyrics. It doesn’t help me form a style. When you pick up a novel, that helps you see language from a different perspective not applied to music. The rhythm isn’t affecting you. The vocal melody isn’t affecting you. You can really absorb it.
MA: Your song “Rosemary” from “Painkillers” was written from a woman’s perspective. Did that open up your songwriting in some unexpected way?
BF: That one and “Honey Magnolia” are both (written) from the female perspective. For me, writing from a woman’s perspective is like living in Japan – I can read about it, but I don’t actually know. So you have to guess. I went over those lyrics quite a few times and each time my goal was to strip away any phrases that seemed a little too masculine. I listen to a lot of female singers, so I think I must’ve picked some things up from them. Neko Case is a good one. She blurs the (gender) lines a lot. She’ll use phrases that you’d think a boy would say.
MA: What are three records that you think every singer-songwriter needs to hear?
BF: Any record by The Felice Brothers. They’re great. And I love the record “Digital Ash in the Digital Urn” from Bright Eyes. That’s a fantastically written songs. Then “Heartbreaker” from Ryan Adams. That’s a killer record. I think anyone who wants to be a singer-songwriter needs to own that record.
MA: You’ve been going at this for more than a decade, what you do think is the key to longevity?
BF: I would say the secret is don’t go for the quick goal. Sometimes people say, like, if you do this you’ll have a quick-selling album or you’ll gain a bunch of fans Any time somebody says that just run away. I would rather be in the position of, like, a Wilco than have my name up in lights for 10 minutes and then gone.
MA: Bruce Springsteen is obviously one of your idols. What was it like to meet and even befriend him? That must be totally surreal.
BF: You know that Rudyard Kipling poem “If”? I think he says something like if you can entertain kings, but still retain the common touch – whatever it is that he says, that’s kind of Bruce in a nutshell. That guy sits with the President and he can still talk to me and not get, like, all philosophical or weirdo on you. He could so easily not be cool. Like I hate when people are like, “Oh what? You don’t have a bowling alley in your kitchen?” It’s like, “No. I rent a townhouse and drive a Volkswagen. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I find the older I get, the less interested in rock music I become. Like rock people don’t even talk about politics anymore – they’re all afraid.
MA: You recently announced a fall tour with Ryan Bingham. Those should be some great shows.
BF: I’m excited about that. I’m hoping to learn a lot from Ryan Bingham and get a chance to talk to him and see if he can teach me a few things. He’s got a little bit of the country thing going on. I think that’s the most interesting music in the world right now, because it’s still developing in a way that’s new and unique. It still has a message. I find the older I get, the less interested in rock music I become. Like rock people don’t even talk about politics anymore – they’re all afraid. Right now you have these PC bands that are just so afraid to shake anything up, and it’s just so dull. They all have their tattoos and they play the same song over and over and I’m just sick of it. I’d rather listen to folk music or country music. I’d rather listen to Top 40 radio than rock music.