If you think performing Christmas music and church music – those hit hymns and classic carols – is easy, Brian Fallon will tell you otherwise. Fallon is best known for his solo career as a vivid storyteller, singer-songwriter, and fronting the criminally underappreciated rock band the Gaslight Anthem. Before he got into singing about outcasts, covering Dire Straits in concert, and sharing the stage with Bruce Springsteen, Fallon’s first musical exposure was singing many of the songs that appear on his new album Night Divine, a collection of some of those hits of the worship and holiday songbook. But singing them as a member of a church congregation or around the house with his mom, and performing them professionally, were vastly different tasks.
Fallon first tackled this kind of music in 2018 for a special Sunday worship program at his church – Calvary Lighthouse, an Assemblies of God Pentecostal church in Lakewood, New Jersey – and it was a significant challenge and a wake-up call to even a seasoned rock ‘n’ roll professional like him. The vocal precision required for the performance in the group setting, the archaic chord inversion, and the wide range of the keys meant that even during the performance Fallon looked and sounded like he was barely making it through.
However, the act of devoting so much time to working out and then performing songs like “O Holy Night” and “Silent Night” inspired him to use that “musical face-slap” to work harder to develop the artistic muscles he needed. Over the last three years, between solo tours, solo live streams during the pandemic, and hours in the practice shed, Fallon developed those musical muscles. He used this newfound ability to deconstruct, re-arrange, and simplify his own material to such a degree that he felt that he could better understand and tackle “Silent Night” again.
And he does on Night Divine, as well as carols like “The First Noel”, and hymns like “Nearer, My God, to Thee” along with newer Christian music like “Virgin Mary Had One Son”. The arrangements here are much more relaxed than your usual Christmas album fair, sounding like a group of musicians set up around a living room fire or front porch concert: intimate, warm, and familiar in an almost familial way.
PopMatters spoke with Fallon from his home in Point Pleasant, New Jersey two days before the release of Night Divine. He talked with us about the album, his musical and personal relationships with the sacred and Divine, and performing.
You’ve spoken about how a lot of your early musical taste was influenced by your mother – Bob Dylan, folk music, Bruce Springsteen, etc. – but where do these hymns and carols on Night Divine come into your life?
I think they’re probably the first musical memories that I had. Everybody has their school memories of “Row Row Row Your Boat” and nursery rhymes, but the first music I heard in person – live music not on a record – was my mom singing these hymns. She would sing them all the time around the house. She had a guitar she would play them on as well but mainly she was just singing them.
We would sing together in the car. She reminded me of that pretty recently. It wasn’t really planned but, I think in my young mind, I knew that the radio was sort of a gamble as to what you would hear, and so if there was something I wanted to hear I would just ask my mom to sing it. I think a lot of the melodies that I enjoyed later on with Tom Waits or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen really probably came from here and the soul music came from here.
What kind of musical and faith tradition did you grow up in alongside these songs?
Man [Pauses.] That old church was probably Pentecostal. Everything was wood, it kind of looked like an AA meeting, to be honest. It had the sort of “Jesus Saves” sign where the light flickers on the outside of the building. It used to be a firehouse or maybe a union hall. Church was a lot of standing up and clapping your hands – no snakes though, no tents – but it was that level of fervor.
In 2018 you did a special program with your church called “A Classic Christmas with Brian Fallon”, where you led a small group through some of these very songs. Is there a link between that performance and this record?
I’d say learning those songs When I was asked to do it, I thought I was just going to play guitar, no big deal, and someone else was going to sing. Then they said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. We want you to sing it.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean me sing it? I can’t sing these songs. They’re difficult.’ I had a really hard time doing that, finding the key and everything.
That gave me a really musical slap in the face, because I thought, ‘Alright, I didn’t really expect to sing but sure, I guess I can do this, right? This is what I do for a living.’ Then I learned the songs and how to play them and I thought, ‘Man, I don’t even know some of these chord inversions. I’ve never heard of this.’ The musicians I was playing with were singing on-key with no reference, no notes, and I’m thinking, ‘You’re almost throwing me off because you’re singing so perfect and I’m singing like a rock ‘n’ roll singer. I do not know what to do here.’
So, there was a lot of adjusting made and a lot of dumbing down for me, when I did that performance. It really scared me. I thought, ‘Okay, I am never gonna do this again’. But I felt moved by playing those songs that I knew when I was young. [Performing the music] I don’t think it inspired me, but it definitely opened my mind to the idea that maybe I need to get better a little bit, and then try to tackle these again. It was eye-opening. A really humbling experience.
I was watching the footage of that performance again yesterday. I was struck by how nervous you were.
That is accurate as could be; that is exactly how I felt. I was really, really out of my element and I thought to myself, ‘Hang on.’ I didn’t even try to sing as best as I could because I was afraid to go out of the range, whatever that range was. I was in a lower range and I wasn’t getting out of it. I felt like I was in a car that was too small for me to drive.
Is there an increased level of vulnerability when performing songs like these that have so much historical meaning to you?
Perhaps. I’ve always felt it when singing songs I didn’t write. Sometimes even cover songs are difficult because they mean so much to you and – Craig Finn [of the Hold Steady] said this to me one time and I think it really accurately describes it, so I’ll use it. He said [that] ‘The songs that I write don’t feel like real songs. Real songs feel like real songs.’ That makes sense because when I write a song it’s something that I’ve written and I can do it.
Everybody laughs at me because I really like Mariah Carey. When she does “O Holy Night” or something like it, there’s nothing funny about it. It’s incredible. It’s really one of those moments in life when you say, ‘I cannot believe a human being is making this sound. It’s incredible and it feels divine.’ I think, ‘I can’t do that. What’s gonna happen?’ Maybe that’s where it feels like you’re going into a territory where maybe you shouldn’t be.
I get what you’re saying. Songs you write are part of your career. But Mariah Carey songs or Black Flag – Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski songs – those are songs.
Yeah, those are real songs. Even now I can compare a Bruce [Springsteen] song like “Backstreets” with “Miles Davis and the Cool” – which I sort based off of that and a Constantines’ songs and put them together – and my version is not even close. To me, it seems like I’m playing minor league baseball.
How much do you see certain Gaslight Anthem’s or your songs, like “The ’59 Sound” or “Great Expectations” as hymns in their own way? They’re sacred in that they consider these big questions of life and death and sin.
Definitely, 100%. I don’t really believe in the theory that ‘The songs always existed and you pull them out of the air.’ I think they come from hard work and sitting there and writing terribly awful lines and then making them better.
Those songs in particular, those two, I would say definitely feel like that. I feel like that about a few of them like “Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts” and “Here’s Looking at You Kid” for sure. Those kinds of songs feel like they were better than my ability. I don’t want to say they were better than me or weren’t mine – because they were mine – but they were better than my ability, for sure.
Following up on your performance at church, you tweeted in 2019 inviting anyone who wanted to come to your church for Easter was welcome to. You’ve been usually a very private individual, especially since the birth of your children, so this felt like something huge for you.
It was huge and a big deal! Especially growing up, I never fit in with the whole youth camp; summer camp; Jesus camp thing. It really bummed me out. There’s a large group of kids who could come up to you in your supermarket while you’re walking down your aisle thinking ‘Potatoes, tomatoes,’ and they come up with “Hey do you know where you’re gonna go when you die?” That was not my vibe. I don’t feel like I need to be God’s salesman. I don’t think He needs a salesman.
My whole view on God is if you need Him, then you need Him and it’s because you don’t know what else you can do. If you don’t, you don’t and I don’t know what to tell you. I got no answers for either one! I felt like that [tweet] was my way of saying, ‘This helped me’/.
Another thing, you’ve posted in the last year about picking up The Real Book as part of your practice regime. I have questions about it and Night Divine, but first, please talk about how you’ve been engaging with it.
I mess with a lot of the standards that are in there and mainly the one that I started with was “I Wish I Knew It Would Feel To Be Free”. So, the version I was focused on was the Nina Simone version, which I really like. It’s awesome! The version she does on record, but also ones on YouTube where they’re more up-tempo or downtempo and also a lot of jam-y versions where she plays at the end and takes the melody to these different places. So, I was learning these different voicings and all these things – and this came from my experience playing the hymns and being completely out of my element.
I found a teacher, Blair Krivanek, and I was having him dissect these things in the book. He would ask me to go through The Real Book, find the chord voicings, and then say ‘Okay, figure this out. Figure out what scale is it from. Find me three other inversions of the same chord.’ I learned “I Wish I Knew It Would Feel To Be Free” in four different keys. It was really helpful. No capo! It was eye-opening.
Did The Real Book play a role in shaping Night Divine? The whole thing with the book is learning these songs that a million people have played and figuring out how to play them in a way that feels natural to you. Did working with The Real Book help you shape your approach and arrangement?
The thing is something I took from the John Frusciante school of thought, which comes from the punk school of thought, which is ‘Know more than you do.’ I learned enough to where I could now dissect what was happening in very complex things, which I think is a [Charles] Mingus quote. He said what’s really difficult is not making things complex, he said what’s difficult is to make the complex simple. [The attributed quote is “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity”]. That is true!
When I took these hymns apart, I thought if I do them the traditional way it’s just going to sound the same as everybody else. I had to think about how I could make them my own sound. I like about four or five chords. If I start throwing a flat seventh in there, maybe that’s not a Gaslight Anthem chord.
I had to find my way through these songs. Daniel Lanois’ solo records helped me as well as his work with Emmylou Harris. The helped me pick apart things and think about how I was going to present them in my album.
You mentioned when preparing for the event, “A Classic Christmas with Brian Fallon”, that you had difficulty finding the keys for the hymns and carols. Can you break down that process?
What I discovered was that the key it’s sung in is the difference. Sometimes what you choose is like the difference between you owning the song and you not owning the song. If you get a song that might sound crazy difficult to sing, but you get it in the right key, anybody can sing it if it’s in their key. Sometimes that’s the magic.
Was it difficult finding a key that made sense?
Yes, because those songs start low and then they go really high. They span a few octaves sometimes and I don’t have that kind of voice. Mariah Carey has something like an eight-octave range, so I probably have a two-octave range.
When artists usually record these songs – and make a “Christmas record” – there seem to be two regular tracks: croonings like Johnny Cash or Bing Crosby or huge pop production like Carrie Underwood or Mariah Carey. Yours’ feels like people sitting around a living room, or in the Pentecostal church you grew up in, or on a front porch and sharing these songs.
Tom Petty said “This is music for losers”, and that is kind of what that church was like. There was this sense of ‘We’re not accepted.’ I don’t mean that church people are not accepted, I mean these were the people that the church people don’t want. They were really broken with real bad problems, not ‘kind-of’ problems: real bad problems. They were going there because it was the last step before jail or non-existing.
I can relate. That brought a humanity and a vulnerability to the songs. I felt that the triumphant crooning or the big pop production didn’t really serve the songs from where I’m coming.
“Virgin Mary Had One Son” sounds like an acoustic arrangement you’ve been doing for your Horrible Crowes song. “Mary Ann” and “Amazing Grace” is reminiscent of how you’ve played “The ’59 Sound” or “Handwritten” in some solo incarnations over the last few years. How much did playing through the solo live streams over the pandemic shutdown influence how you thought about the arrangements on this record?
I think it goes both ways. The version of “Mary Ann” that I did – I recorded it and thought, ‘Okay, I can do this. I can do this record.’ That informed “Mary Ann” but playing “The ’59 Sound” live on piano informed “Amazing Grace” and everything else. It was inspiration born of necessity because there was no one to play with.
Did Night Divine feel more personal than your other projects?
It wasn’t like it was more personal in that it was more part of me, but every record that I do is for me and also for the audience. I put this out because I wanted to do it. It’s for me. If people like it, cool. If they don’t, then it was worth doing anyway because. And my mom will be proud.
Your faith has always been on the periphery of your work, talking about religious themes like life and death, sin and forgiveness, but never before in a very ‘Christian music’ sort of way. So, with your background as a person of faith, the background of these songs on Night Divine, why was now the right moment to release this work? What was the catalyst for you making this record?
The answer that comes to my mind first is because I had the time; but I don’t want to say that’s the answer because it sounds flippant. It was something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I think the ability to tackle it had become available to me, because I had done some studying. I felt a little more comfortable and I had the time to experiment at home with the recording process and take my time when no one was expecting a record. I won’t lie, it kept me busy and kept my anxiety at bay.
As for faith it’s a strange thing for me. It’s always been strange. Most people who are not involved in some church, I imagine, often feel pretty confronted in a very odd way by religious people, like there’s a sales pitch. I don’t think there should be a sales pitch. If you go back to breaking it down to The Bible and Jesus, you see him doing things right. He did kind things, treated people well, and did simple things like feeding people! That’s your sales pitch!
I’m not criticizing, I’m just making a joke here, but that’s really how I always took [religion]. There are people who are interested in faith and God and there are people who are not and you just gotta respect that!
The track that closes Night Divine, “The Blessing”, is the newest song here.
I only heard that randomly a couple of months before I did it. I was watching my mother’s church online and they were singing it in the choir and I thought it was some U2 song.
Apparently, it’s a big hit in the Christian circles.
There’s a video of Selena Gomez singing it on Instagram.
Get out of here! But I thought it also sounded like it could have been 400 years old and writtenby someone in Ireland.
When you write, as you said, you’re writing with the audience, but this is may be your first song where it sounds like you are singing directly to the listener. When you sing “May His favor be upon you / And a thousand generations”, that sounds like you are saying you really want us to have it.
Yeah, I was. When I was singing that song, I meant that, exactly what you just said. That’s why I picked it and that’s why I put it last. All these other hymns are sort of ancient and they’re bigger than us. I mean, how many times is someone going to hear “Amazing Grace?” You can’t take that personally. With this song, I thought: ‘This is my song for whoever’s listening to this.’ I had that in mind when I was singing it.
That’s what I wish I could say to people. I may never see them again, or maybe I will but it will be a while. It certainly has been a while. Too long, too long.