Johnny Gallagher on Debut Solo Album 'Six Day Hurricane,' Dropping the 'Jr.' & Jamming With Jeff Daniels
Johnny Gallagher is all tousled brown hair and instrument cases as he tumbles out of a cab on Allen Street. Dishevelment has always gone hand in hand with delight for Gallagher, who nabbed a Tony Award in 2007 for his frenetic portrayal of Moritz in Duncan Sheik’s Broadway smash Spring Awakening. Gallagher would go on to rock the St. James, fronting Green Day’s Great White Way take on American Idiot. Google him, and “John Gallagher Jr.” sweeps the screen.
Tonight, Gallagher is set to play on a much smaller stage -- but this hardly makes his dimpled grin any less broad. “This album has been threatening to come out for a long time now,” he says as he enters the Rockwood Music Hall. Snug and bathed in red light, this is Gallagher’s true wheelhouse. Acclaimed for creating roles that got razzle-dazzle theater fans to head-bang in their bedrooms, Gallagher is more Springsteen than Sondheim, and the release of his debut album Six Day Hurricane is a long time coming for the folk rock music maven.
Gallagher has been gigging around the city since 2006 and is a frequenter of the Rockwood venue, which also produced his LP on their label. While music is a lifelong passion he has been meaning to tackle full force since his 20s, this is not to say he’s sifting out the script books. Gallagher will star in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the American Airlines Theatre in March and exudes nothing but gratitude when asked about his stint on The Newsroom -- and genuine guilt for not having caught the Spring Awakening revival just yet.
“Johnny Gallagher” is hardly a SAG-life snub. “Little do people know I’m the third brother from the Gallagher brothers in Oasis,” he jokes. “They disowned me years ago.”
Rather, Johnny Gallagher is the side of this artist that is a full-on music maker, barreling steadfastly into the process of producing (and completing) his first solo record.
“When I go back home to see my family, everybody calls me ‘Johnny,’" he says. “The music to me feels a little bit more personal.”
In a conversation with Billboard, Gallagher talks about Six Day Hurricane’s delightful melancholy, jamming with Jeff Daniels between takes on The Newsroom, and his musical influences, which are just as eclectic as his resume.
Why Six Day Hurricane?
We made the record really quickly without any idea of what it was gonna be called. I racked my brain and searched through all the lyrics to see if there was any kind of theme emerging or if there was a hook or a sound bite that sounded like it would make a good record title. Basically, Six Day Hurricane emerged because we made the record in six days. We actually recorded the whole thing in the fall of 2012. The day that we went into the studio was the day that Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, and it kind of shut down the city. We were very lucky in the sense that we were living in places that didn’t get affected too badly by it. The recording studio was in Greenpoint in Brooklyn and didn’t get any damage; the power stayed on. So it was this weird, kind of somber energy where the whole eastern seaboard was mourning and recuperating from this terrible force of nature. And while that thing was happening, we were holed up in the studio recording.
The way that we sequenced the record has a slightly metaphorical quality to feeling like a storm; it starts quiet with just me and then it gets louder. There’s this ebb and flow, and the center of the record is the eye of the storm. It just so happened that the very last track ended up being a love letter to the Jersey Shore and a love letter to the beach towns up and down New Jersey’s coast. Six Day Hurricane was the one that won when I pitched it to Thad DeBrock, my producer and collaborator. He loved it. And we just went for it.
You have a pretty extensive catalog from shows you have played to fans of all of your different kinds of work over the years. How did you narrow down the selections for your debut album?
I’ve been writing music -- some of it very very bad and some of it OK -- for about 15 years. I started writing songs when I was a teenager. I’ve wanted to record them professionally since my early twenties, but I just never really got around to it. By the time the moment arrived to record this one, I had like 50 some songs to choose from. We got a band together, played a concert and just learned a handful of songs and we decided -- “Well OK. Those are the songs that we’re gonna record.” We picked nine and went for it. It felt a little bit as if we threw some darts at the wall and recorded the songs that we hit. It has a pretty eclectic feel, and I think that’s why.
“Two Fists Full” was the first single off of this album. Why is that?
It certainly does beckon one’s attention. It begins with this big raucous, loud, full band and noise, and it says “This is going to be a dynamic affair.” It really showcases the band’s ability. I feel like it’s one of the more hybrid songs on the record. It has the rock ‘n’ roll spirit, but it also has a twang, and it lives in a slightly more country-based Americana place. That song to me always feels like the crossroads.
What musical influences inspired the making of this record?
Springsteen and Dylan -- I should get in line, I suppose -- but those are two huge influences on me and everyone else that’s ever picked up a guitar and written some songs. Bruce is my idol and my hero. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never seen him live. Good Lord, I don’t know many hours I’ve logged online watching YouTube videos of him perform. Right before the record got recorded, I was also listening to a lot of Wilco, who I’ve always loved. They have defied the categorization into one genre. They’re all over the place; that mix of folk, pop, Americana, rock ‘n’ roll. I was also listening to a lot of ‘70s and ‘80s power pop, like The Knack and Paul Collins and The Beat and Wreckless Eric and The Nerves, and so I feel like it has a little bit of all that.
Is there an album that you find yourself going back to for inspiration?
Springsteen’s The River is one of them. I just love that album. It refuses to sit still. Not only does he take you to the best party in town; he also takes you to the saddest early morning that happens the next day when the party people have fallen asleep.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I do actually! My mom recorded it on a Fisher-Price tape recorder when I was like six. It’s called “Waiting at the Bus Stop.” We had this toy guitar that didn’t actually even tune. It had strings -- if you could call them strings. And so I would just kind of strum that openly, and I wrote this song -- it was only a chorus that I wrote when I was like six years old. I don’t know where I came up with this. I think I was watching too many movies or something, but it was about a guy who breaks up with his girlfriend -- and this is long before online dating or Facebook or any kind of social media that we have now -- he’s desperate to meet a new woman and so he goes to the bus stop and just waits at the bus stop to see if he can find a new girlfriend. Twenty years later, no joke, when I was 26, I finished it. I wrote the whole song. So now it is an actual song that I sing in concert sometimes. Maybe it’ll be on the next record, hopefully, if I’m lucky. (Laughs)
In “Bessie I Don’t Blame You,” you say that you “fall in love 700 times in a day.” What or who have you fallen in love with today?
I had this really great cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant before I left my apartment this morning. (Laughs) I live by this coffee shop, and they have these amazing pastries out in Brooklyn where I live. That’s been the love of my life so far this morning. But the day is young.
Tell me about “Dead For A Year.”
That was one of the older songs on the record. By the time we recorded it, it was about six years old. I do remember writing it -- I did this show called Spring Awakening on Broadway about nine years ago, and we had just moved into the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in midtown. It was the first time I was an actor that I had been given my own dressing room, and so I took one of my guitars up there. We would have long breaks while we were rehearsing. I would just kind of start fooling around on songs. I started writing that then. I was going through a pretty slow motion bad breakup, and I was about 22 years old and really feeling it. It was one of those informative, traumatic experiences of the romantic persuasion. I really let that one pour out of me. It was the notion of going into hibernation and the fact that you can wake up one day and feel like you missed a lot. I remember having that feeling kind of like I woke up in a stranger’s skin.
Any advice for getting over heartbreak?
I can say for me, obviously time. It’s very hard to remember in a moment like that that time is going to come along and slowly start healing those wounds. But I do think it’s really good to surround yourself with things that do make you happy -- friends, people that have your back, family. Songwriting for me has been a very therapeutic and healthy way to channel some of those frustrations. (Laughs) Just get yourself a guitar. Learn a few chords. And just go for it!
Tell me about “Sarasota Somone.” Sonically, it seems to contrast “Dead for a Year.”
It’s masquerading as a pop song. If you have it on in a bar, you might just think “Hey, this is nice. I can’t wait to roll my windows down and cruise down the 101.” But then if you really listen to it, you’re like, “Woah. This guy’s having a rough time.” Despite the fact that it’s about getting bogged down by being lonely and isolated in the winter in New York City, I actually wrote it in the summertime, cause despite the fact that it was nice and warm outside I was going through a time in my life where it certainly felt like it was sub-zero temperature outside based of personal life stuff. It’s an escapist song, the idea that if you could only go someplace else, there you would find some people that care about you or the right girl that likes you for you, whatever it is. That’s what that song is about. I picked “Sarasota” because I had been talking to someone that was from Sarasota. I have never actually been to Sarasota, Florida. I’ve been to Pensacola. St. Augustine. Orlando. But I’ve never been to Sarasota. But I picked it cause I just really loved the word phonetically. It’s a beautiful word. I had the title before I had the song.
In “Dangerous Strangers,” you say that a best friend can be inanimate. Do you have an inanimate best friend?
My guitar, for sure. Or you listen to a record that you love. That thing in and of itself is not alive. It’s some code on a computer or a disc. But behind that is all this life, and it’s humans that created this thing. And so even though they’re not really there with you, they are in a sense. You can turn off all your lights and listen to your favorite record and feel a little bit less alone.
Are you playing harmonica on “Those Wild Woods”?
Oh man! What else do you play?
I play guitar. I played bass for a while in a side band just kind of for fun. I fake my way through some keyboards and piano playing. Actually, the first instrument that I learned was the drums. When I was in fifth grade, I took a little bit of drum lessons. But I couldn’t really read the music. By the time I was a teenager, I really just wanted to write songs, and that’s why I picked up the guitar.
Are you a David Bowie fan?
One of the first songs that I learned on guitar was “Space Oddity.” I remember how excited I was. I adored his music, and I adored what he did for art in general. The words “icon” and “pioneer” come to mind, but they still don’t -- in the wake of his passing -- they don’t really seem like they do it justice. The trail that he blazed -- it’s hard to just say that it was music or that it was art or that it was fashion or that it was cinema. He changed everything that he touched.
How do you feel about the current contemporary rock landscape?
I really like Dawes. I think they’re tremendous. They’re really bringing a sound that I think a lot of people felt expired circa 1980, 1981. And Titus Andronicus - - they’re one of my favorite bands. The stuff Patrick Stickles comes up with - - I don’t know how he does it. I think they’re one of the realest punk bands that we have out there.
I love The Avett Brothers. I’ve seen them about 15 times in concert over the years. My friend Aaron Lee Tasjan just put out a record a couple months ago that’s kind of in the country rock place. There’s a couple of these guys out right now -- despite the fact that they’re doing more country-based music, they’re kind of bringing rock back with it. Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton -- these guys are getting this amazing due right now for being these incredible songwriters and these really dynamic presences. And Alabama Shakes! They rock like there’s no tomorrow. It’s really refreshing. For a while, the rock ‘n’ roll acts would hit a ceiling kind of easy because there’s not as much room for them at the VMAs or what have you. I think that line is thankfully getting a little murkier now -- the idea of crossover acts. But now because a lot of that stuff’s becoming a little murkier and more ill-defined, I think it’s actually making more room for crossover acts like that, which is pretty exciting.
Tell me about playing guitar with Jeff Daniels when you two were on The Newsroom.
That was such a surprise. When you get cast in an HBO show written by Aaron Sorkin, you kind of think “Well this is about as cool as it’s gonna get.” And a few months into filming, they tell you that you’re gonna go to Sunset Sound where Tom Waits and The Doors recorded, and you’re gonna record a song with Jeff Daniels. I was like “Really?!” Jeff is so talented. We really saw each other as kindred spirits because he’s known predominantly as an actor, but his passion is music. A lot of people don’t know it, but he’s one of the only actors in years that has a signature Martin model that they made after his guitar. We would go into his trailer on set and play guitar when it was break time. And we got to go into the studio and record with Buddy Miller, who’s a country music legend and he recorded the session for us. That was a very surreal experience.
You’re doing Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway in March. Will that affect what’s up next for you musically?
What I’d love to do -- if I have any energy left over from this show -- it’s one of my favorite plays. It’s a dream role. I still can’t believe that it came my way. I haven’t done a play in about five years. But once the show’s up and running, I’d love to play some more concerts rather than just hang up the music now that it’s time to do something else. We’ll see how my adrenaline reserves -- we’ll see how I hold up after a week of doing four hours of O’Neill every night.
I’m doing a very modest little stretch here over the next week. I’m going to play in New Jersey. I’m going to play in Delaware, where I grew up. I’m going to play in North Carolina. For a while, I feel like I wasn’t making music a priority creatively. I was like “If I don’t start making records and putting them out there in the world, then no one’s going to do that for me.” As long as I can find a balance between all the things that I do creatively in my life to make sure that I’m carving out time to get out on the road and play some shows -- that’s really the dream. I would love to do a proper tour. Get out there and see some of the fans that I’ve made in other places that haven’t gotten a chance to see my concerts yet because I’ve been so predominantly based on the East Coast. Also, now that I made this one, I’d really love to get started on the next one.