In Conversation: Brian Fallon Wants to Recharge You with “Local Honey”
The ex-Gaslight Anthem frontman on leaving his label, therapy, and what Bruce Springsteen told him about writing political songs.
For a while, it looked like Brian Fallon was riding a wave to superstardom. The Gaslight Anthem, the New Jersey band he fronted, had graduated from playing dirty punk basement shows in New Brunswick to touring around the world in support of their breakthrough second record, 2008’s The ’59 Sound. By mixing their punk roots with driving, heartland rock influences, but also throwing in a little soul-searching tenderness along the way, The Gaslight Anthem tapped into a sound that was familiar—but which they also made very much their own. Even fellow New Jerseyian Bruce Springsteen wasn’t immune to their charms—not only was he a fan, he also shared the stage with the band numerous times, aiding their growing popularity.
And yet, despite—or partly because of—the success of his band, Fallon found himself struggling. He wasn’t happy. He didn’t like the amount of attention he was getting as a result of the group’s rising profile, and his personal life was falling apart. In 2015, just under a decade after the band was founded, they went on hiatus. And while the The Gaslight Anthem did reconvene for a brief tenth anniversary tour of The ’59 Sound, Fallon has been busy pursuing a solo career since the hiatus began.
While his first two solo records, 2016’s Painkillers and 2018’s Sleepwalkers, weren’t too distant musically from the emotionally charged, nostalgia-ridden heartland rock of his band, Local Honey is a more stripped-back and folky affair. With only eight tracks, it has the perspective and wisdom of someone who recently turned forty, who’s now a father, and whose rock ‘n’ roll dreams—dreams that were essentially forced upon him—no longer occupy the same space in his heart. It is, as he explains, a step in a different direction both musically and lyrically, but the new record also finds Fallon incredibly comfortable in his own skin as someone who is finally able to take stock of his life and what it means.
You just turned forty. Did that have any impact on the way you approached things, your attitude toward life, or your philosophies? Was there any kind of worry that you have to be a different kind of person?
Well, no. Because you have to remember that my thirties—my early thirties—were a disaster. I was married and then I was not married, and then I had a son, and all this stuff, and it was very, very hard. That’s when most people are chilling and kind of building their life, and mine exploded. Most of my friends were just starting their lives and being like “Yeah, we have kids and we have a house and we have everything” and I’m like “Yeah, I used to have that stuff.” Life got really real in my thirties. I think post-thirty-five is when I started to figure things out a little bit. I went to a ton of therapy. And I actually feel like now is the first year where things are back on track. And that helped me decide that if I’m going to do this at all, I am 100 percent doing it for me. I spent so many years doing so many things to get the approval of other people, and I’ve had it with that. I’m just not doing it.
How did you get through that turbulence? Not just in your personal life, but also in terms of Gaslight Anthem? Music was such an integral part of your life, but it was also responsible for so much anxiety and angst.
Yeah, that sucked. Because the thing you love the most ends up being the thing that you want nothing to do with. It’s so hard. There was so much expectation on us, like, “You guys are going to be the biggest band in the world” and we’re like, “Oh sure, maybe we will” and then we were like, “Oh, maybe we won’t.” There were so many different things I always felt I hadn’t gotten into this for. I remember sitting there on my first solo record with Butch [Walker] saying that to him, because he’d been in a very similar situation probably fifteen years prior, and he’s like, “It’s not the music that’s doing you wrong, it’s the way you’re going about it, because you’re doing things to try and please everybody else. You’ve got to do what you believe in, otherwise it’s not worth it—you might as well go build houses again.”
“A major label, they’ve got to keep the lights on, you’ve got to pay the bills, so they want radio songs. And that’s not their fault, they’re not doing anything wrong. It took a big jump to go to them and say, ‘Hey, everything’s been great for the last ten years, but I gotta go.’”
And the stakes were presumably higher for this record, because you left a major label to put it out on your own.
That was so difficult, but once I decided I was going to do this for me, I knew that I had to do it my way. I don’t care what my band sounded like or what people wanted from me. A major label, they’ve got to keep the lights on, you’ve got to pay the bills, so they want radio songs. And that’s not their fault, they’re not doing anything wrong, that’s just what they do. It took a big, big jump to go to them and say, “Hey, everything’s been great for the last ten years, but I gotta go. I don’t want to be here anymore.” They could have been like, “No way,” and not only “No way” but, “We’re going to lock you up in this contract and that’s it.” It could have gone so wrong—I have kids. I need to make money. I can’t just not make money, because the kids need to eat.
So making a big move like that can feel irresponsible at some points because I know if I stay on this major label I’m getting a check, but if I go to an independent label or—even worse—I’m just going to partner with somebody and go on my own…that’s insane! But at the same time, I own nothing. From all the years that I’ve been writing records, I own zero of them. And I was like, “Everything has to change.” And fortunately the label was super cool about it.
Your songs have always been rooted in wistful nostalgia, but less so here. Was it difficult to not look back as much at all that lost time?
Funnily enough no, because I didn’t know that that was happening. I wasn’t conscious of it. And even though it’s my third solo record, it sort of feels like my first. But that goes hand-in-hand with the songwriting being very present. I guess, in the past, I’d always be trying to grasp onto some former piece that had left me, and that’s what all that was about. I was so discontent with the now, and with the pressure of the oncoming future, that I was reaching back, even into childhood, to find where I was happy. And now I am happy. And that allowed me to be rooted in today, which has allowed me to improve my life very much.
But presumably writing these songs was still cathartic?
Yeah. I think the trick is to put it down on paper and then leave it there. And that’s the thing that I was never good at before, but now I’m better at it, where I can say the purpose of this song is to empty the tank. And then when the tank is empty, it’s no longer part of you—it’s part of the paper and part of the emotion that people will feel in whatever the existence of the song is. But I don’t have to carry that anymore. I’m learning to lay things down. But it’s tough. It’s not easy.
You’ve also quit smoking, which is a subject tackled in “21 Days.” Has that changed something in you?
I wouldn’t say the song is about it, but it’s part of it. I actually had to go seek therapy to get off of [cigarettes]. I went to hypnotists and I tried everything, and I couldn’t stop. So I joined this program that the American Lung Association has, but although the therapy was about smoking and addiction, I used it for part of my life. I learned so much about how to live from that. One of the things they say is you have to find a goal you can achieve. Like, if you can not do this thing for one minute then you can not do it for two minutes, and if you can not do it for two minutes you can not do it for an hour. All you have to get through is right now. It’s a very helpful thing. They teach you about being present, which is something I never understood before last year. It’s not about the past, because you can’t fix that, and it’s not about the future, because you’re not there yet. It’s only about the growth and experience you can achieve right now in this moment. And that gave me an achievable goal and I could handle that.
This is obviously more of a personal record than a political one. But do you feel your role as a songwriter shifting in the current landscape? It’s a very American album, but one that seems to be an escape from what’s happening here, rather than a reflection of it.
“The trick is to put it down on paper and then leave it there. When the tank is empty, it’s no longer part of you—it’s part of the paper and part of the emotion that people will feel in whatever the existence of the song is. But I don’t have to carry that anymore.”
I think both things are equal parts of the whole. You need to escape sometimes, and sometimes you need to confront. In any battle, you engage and you retract, you gain ground and you rest, because in the resting you find strength, and if you don’t rest you will not be strong enough. As humans, we need to eat and we need to rest—and we need to rest our minds. That’s one of the things I learned in therapy, too—you can’t be at war all the time, because then you will never be strong enough.
So the things I’m writing about are to recharge people. But there are definitely records that are very political and charged and full of conflict, which I think is equally good. I just read that Jason Isbell said you have to be political, and I agree—you’re forced to make decisions, especially in times like these, and it’s your responsibility to do that. However, I think there’s two sides to the coin. And whereas he’s making a political statement that I think is very inspiring and accurate, my thing is I can’t force that same side of the political thing out of myself if that’s not what’s coming. Because it would be disingenuous. So my side is the rest side, to charge people back up. In 2014, I had a phone call—I was talking to Bruce Springsteen, actually…
Just casually drop that in there, why don’t you?
I’m not boasting about it! [laughs]. But I asked him, “Hey, what do you think of Bob Dylan’s political songs? Do you think everybody’s responsibility is to write political songs?” And he’s like, “I think your responsibility is to do what’s in your heart.” And he goes, “Bob Dylan has great political songs, but I find the love songs changed my life more than the political songs. The worst thing you could do is fake anything, so don’t write political songs if that’s not what you’re feeling in your heart.” And I took that and was like, “Got it from the Boss—see you later!” So that’s how I feel about it: you’ve got to do what’s in your heart. The truth is, a song like “Masters of War” is just as impactful to me as a song that’s not about that, like “Girl from the North Country.” But they both have their place. I don’t think that everybody can do all things at all times… I really didn’t mean to drop the name, you know! FL