Photo by Kelsey Hunter Ayres
Former Punk Frontman Brian Fallon Continues His Americana Metamorphosis On ‘Local Honey’
"I got my first Tom Waits record when I was about 17 and ever since then I’ve thought, 'I can’t wait to be an old man.' I’ve always wanted to just be a crazy old man musician, banging on pots and pans and playing whatever I want," laughs former Gaslight Anthem frontman and current Americana solo artist Brian Fallon as he reflects on hitting 40 earlier this year. After spending his 20s and most of his 30s interpreting his classic-rock hero influences through a frenetic punk filter, the gravel-throated howler started slowly swapping out his low-slung, amped-up electric guitars for rootsy acoustics on a pair of increasingly introspective solo albums: 2016’s Painkillers and 2018’s Sleepwalkers.
On Local Honey, Fallon’s newest solo record out March 27 (the debut release from his own Lesser Known Records imprint on Thirty Tigers), the 40-year-old father of two has fully completed his own version of the punk-to-folk pipeline with a musically stark and emotionally vibrant collection of some of the best songwriting of his career. Led by gorgeously spacious acoustic guitars, hauntingly bare pianos, and the pitch-perfect sprinkling of ornamental instrumentation that masterfully shades in the outer corners, Local Honey’s austere musical palette provides the ideal backdrop for Fallon’s elegantly plainspoken lyrics full of diary-close honesty, heart-stirring resonance and vividly cinematic storytelling.
Fallon recently chatted with the Recording Academy to discuss the shifts in his approaches to songwriting, how taking guitar and piano lessons two decades into his musical career has affected his playing and how his present-day moments—fatherhood, therapy, religion and relationships—shape and define his newest collection of songs.
Brian Fallon: During the recording of my last solo record in New Orleans, I got to play with a bunch of really great musicians like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and it caused something to click in my head. I decided I wanted to write and play music that directly gets to the point and is pure. To do that, I had to first analyze my own skillset to say, "I don’t know if you can do that right now with what you have." So I started taking piano lessons—I had never touched a piano before—and I went back into guitar lessons. I also took a course in lyric writing. I did my best to grab all the instructive information I could; not to get more fancy, but to get more direct and to the point. Honestly, I feel like I’ve just started scratching the surface of this new thing in my brain that I’m sure will continue to shape my songwriting from here on out.
To help achieve his new songwriting goals, Fallon set out to identify as many lyrical inspirations as he could find to dissect and analyze what made them work. He even compiled a playlist of over 40 songs that he felt conveyed the most direct and simplest statements to repetitively listen to in hopes of studying their inner-workings.
Brian Fallon: When I was writing for this record, I looked to the best lyricists that I could find for inspiration. Tom Waits is always kind of hanging over my head as someone that I aspire to write songs like. Jackson Browne’s The Pretender record has been a huge one for me, especially after I found out he wrote it after his wife had passed away. "You’re Bright Baby Blues" was the track I kept listening to over and over again. The playlist I made was full of songs where I felt the lyrical statement was just so pure: Nina Simone’s "I'm Feeling Good," Fleetwood Mac’s "Silver Springs," some Springsteen, old Rolling Stones songs like "Play With Fire." I would listen to these songs over and over to remind myself to not use metaphor alone and not rely on fancy language to convey the emotion. I wanted to boil everything down to just true, unembellished emotion.
As Fallon started writing the songs for what would eventually become Local Honey, he decided on two other important elements. First, after years of talking about it together, he knew he wanted production duties to be handled by Peter Katis (The National, Death Cab For Cutie, Frightened Rabbit). Second, he knew he didn’t want to make an album that felt like it had too many songs. In fact, instead of just being an amorphous target to keep in mind, Fallon went into the recording sessions knowingly exactly how many songs he wanted to walk out with.
Brian Fallon: Nailing the right song count was a conversation that Peter and I had a bunch of times. I told him that I only wanted it to be eight songs and thankfully he was all for it. I thought he might give me a bit of resistance, but he was into it because so many albums these days just feel too long. Even though I had written more songs, I knew these eight specific ones told the story I wanted to tell. I didn’t want to dilute that at all. Peter really helped me get where I wanted to go with these songs because I wanted them to be really bare and I wasn’t exactly sure how best to execute that in a way that would keep people interested. He responded very positively to the demos I sent him and to the direction I wanted to take them in. He basically just said, "You handle the songs and I’ll handle the sounds."
The first song Fallon and Katis ended up working on for the record was "Vincent," an arresting piano-scored murder ballad in the vein of country and blues standards like "Long Black Veil," "Delia’s Gone," "In the Pines/Where Did You Sleep Last Night?", Bob Dylan’s "Ballad Of Hollis Brown" and Nick Cave’s entire Murder Ballads album from 1996. The stirring narrative that unfolds in "Vincent" came to Fallon in a single night during a rush of inspiration that resulted in so many verses that it took him a month to whittle it down to a manageable song.
Brian Fallon: "Vincent" actually sprung up from a few different places. At the time, I was reading a Stephen King book called On Writing about his creative process. Then, I saw this documentary on Nick Cave where he was talking about how he creatively allows himself to write character stories. Then, I remembered hearing an interview where Bruce Springsteen talked about doing the same thing when he was writing songs for The Ghost Of Tom Joad. He had never been an immigrant living across the border, but he was able to write all these songs that actually felt like he had been arrested by a border patrolman and crazy stuff like that. All of these things were stirring around in my head and they all kind of oddly coalesced on this one night while I was sitting at the piano. I started playing a little bit and I felt like there was this character in my head speaking to me. I ended up writing something like 30 verses because I had never written in that way before and I really wanted to get it right. I’ve never written so much for one song, but it just wouldn’t stop. It was so weird how real the story felt to me.
Fallon notes that although he is really proud of the song, the opening line of "Vincent"—"My name is Jolene, but I hate that song"—has prompted a little cause for concern. His hope is that listeners will understand that he is singing in character and that he himself doesn’t actually hate the celebrated, GRAMMY-nominated Dolly Parton ballad from 1973.
Brian Fallon: I wrote that line because I think it’s funny when people are named after songs—my daughter is actually named after a song—and I often wonder if people hate that when they grow up. I love the song "Jolene" and I think Dolly Parton is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. I hope people get that I’m singing that line as a character. I think that with these types of character songs, maybe as long as the emotion is true, then the details can be more like a story or a novel and not be so dependent on what you actually think or believe yourself.
Back in December of 2019, Fallon announced Local Honey with the lead single, "You Have Stolen My Heart," a swaying, starry-eyed ballad that functions as the “always leave ‘em wanting more” album closer. Marked as “my most direct attempt at a love song” by Fallon, the song’s waltzy-strummed acoustic guitar and love-letter lyricism unfolds as intimately as an overheard conversation.
Brian Fallon: I had almost all of the songs finished up and I felt like I just needed one more that was kind of in this romantic vein. Surprisingly, this one came out pretty quickly. I was listening to The Smiths and that song “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” came on and I was struck by what a good, honest lyric it was. It was extremely direct in a way that could’ve gone so wrong. I think he really meant it though, and that was the trick. When I sat back down to write, I just tried to say exactly what I was feeling and “You Have Stolen My Heart” just came right out.
For his follow-up single, "21 Days," Fallon drew on his various experiences with therapy; finding inspiration in the targeted focus on process and progress. Casting addictions into a fractured relational context ("I miss you most in the morning, we used to talk over coffee, but now I’m going to have to find another friend"), Fallon’s "one day at a time" lyrics forego any mountaintop platitudes and instead place the listener in the thick of the struggle. "21 Days" also contains an interesting sonic touch that helps to drive the push-pull internal monologue of the song’s protagonist: Fallon double-tracked his vocal across distinct high and low registers and then blended them together into one ghostly reverberating amalgam.
Brian Fallon: I’ve been to therapists for a few different things and I've found that the really helpful thing they can do when you’re facing a hard situation is not to give you a solution but to offer you a goal to work towards. Oftentimes, that goal is a measure of time because people always want to know how long it’s going to take before they start to feel better. That’s where that throwaway idea that it takes 21 days to break a habit comes from. But the truth is, going in, you never really know how long it’s going to take and it’s different for every person. That’s what that song is about. I’ve read that it’s about me quitting smoking, but not really, because that’s too small for what the song is saying. It’s about just encouraging yourself and reminding yourself that you will eventually feel better. On the right songs, I really enjoyed doing the double-vocal thing. The first time I heard somebody do that really well was Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs; going really high or really low, like beyond his reach in both directions. Mark Lanegan is amazing at it too. I have to be careful with it because sometimes it just sounds like you’re trying to make fun of Barry White or something.
In what may be Fallon’s most personal song to date, Local Honey opens up with "When You’re Ready," a song Fallon wrote about his two young kids. The song rides along warmly delivered reassurances ("In this life there will be trouble, but you shall overcome") and there’s something soothing in its mid-tempo roots rock shuffle that evokes familiar echoes of halcyon classics like Don Henley’s "End Of The Innocence," Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, and the breezier moments of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers album.
Brian Fallon: This song actually started off really loud but I couldn’t get it to quite work that way. One day, when I was right at the end of the session and was a little frustrated, I sat down and just started typing some words in what I can only describe as a moment of divine intervention—and I don’t get those moments too often. The words were coming out faster than I could type them and when I finished up, I read back over them and could see they were about my kids. I didn’t even know that stuff was kicking around in me. I guess it was just the timing—I had been off tour for a bit and was getting to be home every day. It was just one of those songwriting moments where the lyrics came out of nowhere and I was just really glad somebody else didn’t get that one.
Being a parent has also affected Fallon’s songwriting in his poetic use of spiritual themes and religious imagery. Not only recalling fond memories of his mother singing hymns around the house when he was a kid, but he also points to navigating his own approach to parenting as a factor in his existential contemplation. Luckily for Fallon, some of his biggest songwriting heroes have also managed to parse out their own spirituality in ways he connects with; being kind, leaving room for mystery, and operating with more questions than answers.
Brian Fallon: I learned early on that when you’re in a rock band playing loud and fast, it’s not really the time to get ultra-contemplative about the hereafter. I guess I did try a few times though. Spirituality is something I’ve grown up with my whole life. The first music I ever heard was my mom singing hymns. It’s always been around me, but I will say that having kids can really put your head in a position of considering the hereafter, for sure. You wonder if you’re raising them right and you get filled with these sensations of love that you never knew you were capable of feeling for another human being. I think that any artist that digs into life will eventually have to face their decisions on how they feel about all that. I’ve been really drawn to Iris Dement’s hymns record because she has such a beautiful voice and it was all songs I knew from when I was a kid. I’m also influenced by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and of course, Tom Waits when it comes to that too. I’ve always come at it from a place of it being something to be discovered, not to be understood. I mean, I personally don’t understand it at least. Maybe one verse, "Love thy neighbor," I get that one.
With Local Honey, Fallon now has three solo records under his belt—meaning he’s only two away from equaling the five full-length studio albums he recorded with the Gaslight Anthem. Although, when comparing the two seemingly disparate chapters of his career, he doesn’t actually see that much of a difference between his past punk roots and his current Americana aesthetic. While some of his fans may not be ready to place the two collections right beside each other on their record shelves, Fallon sees his whole musical body of work on a singularly threaded continuum.
Brian Fallon: The punk and Americana communities are so similar in the way that they allow artistic freedom but the funny thing for me is that what I did then and what I do now are so closely married to each other. When I was in the punk scene, so much of what I did was by default. Even in just the first few practices with the Gaslight Anthem, I told the guys that I didn’t know if I could write punk songs. I wanted to write in a more country or folk vein and they were totally cool with that. I wrote acoustic songs liked I wanted and they turned them into loud, fast punk songs. Almost every single song I wrote with them can be stripped back to those acoustic roots. To this day, my approach has remained very similar. When you get older, I guess you just don’t have to make your point so loud. I’ve learned that sometimes it can hit harder when it's quieter.