Track By Track: Brian Fallon ‘Night Divine’
“This is something that’s been in the back of my mind for a while. I’d been thinking about making this album for 10-15 years, although it also goes all the way back to when I was a kid,” Brian Fallon says of Night Divine, the collection of hymns and spirituals that he recorded at home last year during quarantine. Fallon, who reunited with The Gaslight Anthem in 2018 and will be touring with his current band, the Howling Weather in 2022, performed and produced all of the music on Night Divine.
“I had grown up with these songs and now I finally had the time to record them. That’s what sparked the idea for the album,” he explains. “These were songs that my mom would sit down on the couch and play on her little nylon-string acoustic guitar. She was in a folk band in the late sixties and early seventies, so she was able to sing and play. Around the house, she would sing a lot of hymns and folk songs, but mostly hymns. These were some of the first sounds I remember hearing and the melodies have informed a lot of my writing taste ever since. So this is something I wanted to do for myself and also for my mom. But I really hope that people can take something away from these songs as well.”
Virgin Mary Had One Son
I heard Odetta do a live version of this song and it was really moving to me. It’s just her and a piano. I hadn’t previously heard the song and then I heard Joan Baez do it as well. I liked the melody, which is very close to some of the things that I write. It really captured me, so I sort of mixed both versions together.
This was the first one I recorded and I had to work through some technical challenges but I felt really good about how it came out. I was experimenting at the time with learning how to mic things. I’d never recorded anything professionally, so I was speaking to people that I know who are recording engineers and producers. I was also watching a lot of YouTube. There were a lot of retakes and redoing songs after thinking I had them.
I was recording in my house, which is not a huge house. A lot of the work needed to be done quickly while the kids were at school because any kind of noise would be picked up. I would finish one, play it back and then hear somebody in the background talking about dinner. So it wasn’t always fun but in the end it was rewarding.
When you’re dealing with one of these traditional songs that have been done millions of times, you just have to ask yourself, “Do I have anything to add to this?” In this case, it had always been sung triumphantly but I didn’t hear it that way.
I tried to research where a lot of these songs came from to get a little bit more insight into them, especially the ones that I was very familiar with, like this one. I learned that a few of them came out of some pretty horrible events.
If you consider the lyrics, I don’t think someone who is having a good time is in need of grace. That leads me to believe that there may have been some great hurt or tribulation prior to writing this song. I don’t think that’s typically put to the forefront, which is how I approached it.
O Holy Night
The versions of this song that typically come to mind were done by great singers, like Mariah Carey or Nat King Cole. It’s not a song I would necessarily assume I could do. However, I really enjoy it, so I decided to try this one with no other audience in mind other than myself.
I gave it some thought and began to mess around with it a little. I started listening to a lot of the Daniel Lanois records—the ones he did with Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan as well as a couple of soundtracks. That’s when I began to think that maybe there was a way to keep things moving and feeling grand without the singer being the focal point. Once I figured out that approach, it encouraged me and I was able to create something that I really liked.
Nearer, My God, To Thee
This is another one where if you take the time to think about the lyrics, it can feel like a really lonely song. It can be difficult to grasp the sentiment that runs through it—the notion that even if I have to die, whatever brings me closer to God is acceptable. That comes from a pillar of faith kind of mentality but again, there’s also that sense of despair. However, there’s also comfort from the idea that as we move the world and experience all these difficult moments, there’s a God that’s worth drawing closer to.
Leaning On The Everlasting Arms
“Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” is one of the songs I remember from when I was very small. Iris Dement did a really good version that’s the best one I’ve heard. I guess I modeled mine after hers. She has an unusual voice that I like a lot. Maybe traditional folks would find it a jarring, but I like it and think it’s really appropriate. This was one of the songs that I just had to do because it’s been in my life since my first memories.
The First Noel
“The First Noel” gave me a lot of trouble and I almost stopped doing it. It’s really difficult to sing if you’re not a great singer. I also don’t have a character voice, like Tom Waits where I can put it on and then that becomes its own thing. So I was worried that that this one was just not gonna happen for me, which would have been disappointing.
I stuck with it, though, and I ended up finding a way to do it where I had some fun. I put a bunch of instruments on it and then just played. It came together quickly and felt pretty natural. I decided it would be weird to leave it off because I like the song so much.
Sweet Hour Of Prayer
I think I could have done that one from memory because my mom’s been singing it forever. It’s sort of like “Nearer, My God, To Thee,”where it’s not a song that comes out of a joyous moment. That’s okay, though. In fact, it’s what I like about these hymns—people are being honest with themselves at a time where they feel that things are not going to be okay.
These songs are special in a lot of ways to me. They’re part of my family and my relationship with my mom and growing up. It’s also a big point for me dealing with depression and anxiety and stuff like that through my life—these are real good touchstones for me to come back to. So with these songs I felt it was something that I needed. If someone else don’t need it, that’s fine.
Angels We Have Heard On High
I really like this song. When I was very close to the end of recording, I thought about what else could be missing and I remembered this one. I don’t even know why I remembered it but I’ve always liked it. It was maybe the second to last song I recorded and it came together really easily. I just sort of sat down, played and that was it.
By this point in the recording process, I was pleased with how it was all coming together. When I got about halfway through recording these songs, my hard drive miraculously erased itself. Everyone told me not to worry—“Just call up Apple and they can help you save it.” But that wasn’t true in this case, so I had to start over. By the time I recorded “Angels We Have Heard On High” it seemed that everything was flowing and I liked the results.
That’s another one where I took it as an experiment in thinking about what I wanted to do with this. I eventually decided to make it something that just felt good to me. So I put on a slide guitar and said “I’m going to make it sound how I want to feel.” I love the meter of it and the tempo of the beat and how it just goes. It suits me just great whenever I’m looking for that mood, which is often.
I first heard the choir in my mom’s church sing this song. I didn’t know the song and it sounded like it was a hundred years old. I thought it was beautiful and I figured it was maybe an old Irish folk song that they had updated. Then I looked it up and I realized, “Oh, I guess it’s a new song, that’s strange.” But that was neither here nor there to me, I just liked it.
So I looked up the words and I didn’t get too busy with the music. I just made sure that the melody was still there. It was fun for me, although I still think maybe that song previously existed in some other plane.
The reason I picked it as the closing song was I wanted to send people off with a blessing. I thought how cool would that be? Whoever’s listening to it, whatever faith or no faith they may claim, I’m wishing them well.
I hope that this somehow helps you, even if it just makes you feel better for a second before you go on with your day