Blame the pandemic, the dying planet, or our rapid transition into United States: Fury Road, but there’s a lot of soul searching going on these days. Some artists, especially in the Americana genre, are even looking to the heavens. Brent Cobb is releasing a gospel album in January, Hiss Golden Messenger sing hymns religious and secular on a new LP, and Katie Pruitt is dissecting her complicated religious upbringing in the must-listen podcast The Recovering Catholic.
Brian Fallon, meanwhile, is turning to the spirituals he heard in the pews as a kid. In November, the solo artist and leader of the New Jersey rock band Gaslight Anthem released the not-quite-a-holiday album Night Divine. It’s a collection of traditionals like “O Holy Night,” “Nearer, My God, To Thee” and “Amazing Grace” that Fallon recorded at his home during the darkest days of the pandemic.
Is it a way to cope with demonstrably trying times?
“I’m not going to say it’s not. Faith for me is a place to turn to,” Fallon tells Rolling Stone. “During something like this, a pandemic or whatever, I feel that’s the whole purpose. We search for something that can make the world seem less dangerous.”
Fallon has carved out a career by trying to make sense of the world. With Gaslight Anthem, he sang about the mysteries of life (and cars and girls) with more than a few religious allusions tossed in. In “The ’59 Sound,” one of the band’s signatures, Fallon nods to the “Everlasting Arms” of Deuteronomy; in “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together,” with his group the Horrible Crowes, he calls out Jesus by name; and in “Vincent,” off last year’s solo LP Local Honey, he writes of baptisms and the forgiveness of sin.
In the hymns of Night Divine, Fallon’s Christian roots are even more overt. His version of the late-1800s hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” is hushed and reverent, while his take on “Virgin Mary Had One Son” blends elements of both Odetta’s performance and Joan Baez’s. On “O Holy Night,” a notoriously difficult song to perform, he goes all in with strained notes and a cracking voice. Intentional or not, it’s a perfect representation of human frailty and mortal limitations.
“I love Mariah Carey’s version, but I’m not going to be able to do that,” he says. “I remember this story about Joe Strummer where he couldn’t sing and he was really embarrassed. At the end of the night, some kid was like, ‘We’re just happy that you showed up and you tried.’ I kept that in the back of my head and was like, well, if you can’t do them justice, do them the best you can.”
Fallon, who has been open about his struggles with severe anxiety and depression — “It’s not your average everyday supermarket depression,” he says — is equally as forthcoming about his faith. To say that’s surprising in a genre that isn’t traditional country music or contemporary Christian music (CCM) is an understatement. And the 41-year-old knows it.
“When I was a kid, my mom showed me that there was somebody looking out for us when we couldn’t or when things got too big. A lot of people would say that seems naive. And maybe so. But I need that. And if that makes me weak, that’s cool,” Fallon says. “At the end of the day, if I find out there was never a guy named Jesus, who never did anything and does not exist, I didn’t really lose anything.”
We talked to Fallon, who will kick off a U.S. tour in January, about Night Divine, touring in the pandemic, and how he maintains centuries-old beliefs in the 21st century.
You wrote on social media that you hope these songs bring listeners “peace or comfort.” Are they particularly suited for these times?
Yeah, I think that’s what they’re designed to do. I was going through them and some of the stories I would read about where they came from and who wrote them, most were born out of grotesque tragedy. People dying, losing their families — not moments where you would seem particularly grateful to God, you know? And the last couple of years, like, it’s a heady time. I don’t know how anybody else feels about it, but it’s not been easy to process.
Night Divine is made up of songs you heard in church. Are you a regular churchgoer?
Not during [the pandemic]. When I’m home, I would go to church on Sunday, but during this, I’ve been doing it online. I watch some type of service. And that’s what I did on the road as well. I’d always keep podcasts or something, and I would listen to various ones. But for me, it’s a personal thing. I’ve never been big into the salesman aspect of religion at all.
You’re not a missionary then.
No, no, no. Like the weekend missionaries at the grocery store where you’re shopping for food and they’re like, “Where are you going tonight if you die?” And you’re like, “I’m just trying to get to the parking lot.” That’s uncomfortable and maybe you should just leave me alone. But I’ve always had a very broad scope on my faith where I sort of say, “I’m trying to figure out what my place in the whole world is and how I reconcile my own thoughts” and it never really felt like I got to a place where I could tell someone else how they should do it.
But missionaries, when I was really little, “I’d be like, ‘Mom, you mean people go into the jungle and they try to hand out Bibles? Why do they do that? There’s TVs here!”… That’s fine as long as you’re not doing it in a way that’s, as we’ve seen in history, taking away people’s rights. When you’re going over there and shooting everybody and saying, “You’ve got to believe what I believe or I’m gonna kill you,” that’s not the way.
How do you maintain your faith in today’s world, as a person of intellect and science?
I base everything I can think of on what I would find in the teachings of Jesus, like, loving your neighbor and loving God. And if we’re going to say that he made everything, then you got to believe he probably believes in molecules, too.
And dinosaurs, right. That is a big one. Pretty certain dinosaurs were there. It’s tricky, because so many words have been put in so many mouths throughout the years about religion that I come with a natural hesitance to even being misunderstood. And my whole thing is that I don’t understand. I’m trying to figure this out. I know nothing, but I have faith — the belief in something you cannot prove. So the only thing I could say is I have faith that there is a God and that’s it.
You’ve included Christian signifiers in your lyrics for Gaslight Anthem. Would you say you were delivering a message there?
In Gaslight, you got to be a respecter of all faith. We got two guys who are Jewish. One guy that I believe subscribes to something like Buddhism, but I don’t want to speak for him. And then I subscribe to the Christian element. But I felt like I couldn’t be out there saying things about my faith because it’s not fair to those guys. I feel like this is what I believe in, but… I always felt like music is for the enjoyment of all people. And I never had anything burning on my on my soul that I felt like I needed to tell the world.
What songs off Night Divine might you include in your shows when you get back on the road in January?
I don’t know. I’ve been going back and forth. I’m not trying to bum anybody out. Like if there’s people in the audience and it’s their night out and they’re having a beer, and then I’m like, “Yo, check it out: ‘Amazing Grace’!” It’s not really a beer-up-in-the-air song, you know? I’m just trying to sell tickets, and it’s hard with Covid.
How do you feel about touring right now?
Positive but mixed. I’ve been encouraged by watching a lot of people go on tour. I was in touch with B.J. [Barham] from American Aquarium and he’s been doing a lot of shows. I talked to Jay Bentley, who’s out there with Bad Religion right now. And my friend Dave Hause. And I’m like, “How do you feel?”… [Covid is] real and it’s rough. But at the same time, I got to eat. Even when Gaslight signed [their record deal], we didn’t hit the big payday. But in my heart, I believe that it’s safe [to tour] if you’re vaccinated and you come to the venue and the staff is wearing masks and I’m wearing masks.
Are you going to ask fans to wear masks?
I’m going to where I can. I’ve been told that there’s some places that they don’t let you do that, but I will be doing it every place that I can. I’m not at a spot where like [Jason] Isbell is. I can’t just clamp down and be like, “Yo, you know what, I’m not playing there,” because honestly, if I’m on tour, I got to get from this place to this place and I can’t afford to do it without that show…. I respect people’s opinion on if they don’t want to wear a mask. But, listen, you can’t come to my show then. Do whatever you want, but don’t come to my show!
What do you think of religious exemptions for vaccines?
I’m not sure that I’ve come in contact with anybody who’s, like, said that. But I’ve heard about it. That’s one of those things where I’d have to say, if that’s what you believe, you got to stick to your beliefs. But then you also have to recognize that the rest of the world doesn’t believe that and maybe you can’t go some places then. It’s a trade-off.
From all you’ve said, I assume you’re vaccinated?
I am, and my wife is as well. But I have little kids and they’re not, because they’re too young. I know we’re talking about faith, but I’m a science guy. I like facts. There’s this old joke that I used to hear: A flood comes and a guy’s sitting on top of his roof [waiting for God’s help] and a boat comes, and a helicopter, and then a plane and the guy gets to heaven and he goes, “God, why did you let me drown?” And He says, “I sent all these things!” [Laughs] I didn’t want to be that guy!