“I think a lot of songwriters make the big mistake of thinking the newest songs are their best songs.”
Jakob Dylan has never been fixated on any time limits around a good song. Some songs come in a moment, and others are in a state of repose, sometimes for some years. “I remember Neil Young saying, or realizing, that he was recording songs he’d written 20 years earlier, and they sounded as new as anything else he was writing,” Dylan tells American Songwriter from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s important to have that perspective of not letting go of songs because you’re not as excited about them as you were when you first wrote them.”
In the nine years after The Wallflowers released their sixth album, Glad All Over, Dylan was still writing, but then found himself attached to the 10 songs of Exit Wounds, the seventh studio album from the project.
With a handful of older songs and those written in the rush of recording in 2019, Dylan still isn’t sure what it is about these songs, but they just clicked. “I still make messes,” shares Dylan. “I don’t really look at them as individual songs that exist on their own. I still prefer to think of them as a collection of work. That doesn’t mean that every song is necessarily your strongest song. Some songs are just stepping stones to get to a different song or elevate another song together. That’s the way I hear them.”
He adds, “A lot of times, it’s the language. If you write songs in a certain timeframe, a lot of the images and the feelings that you have are connected, and if you wrote songs five years ago or earlier, they may not be as connected with the language.”
Still working around the pandemic to finish Exit Wounds, there was no deadline to piece together the final touches of the album. Produced by longtime friend Butch Walker—who also picked up guitar, keys, and backing vocals—and mixed by Chris Dugan, Exit Wounds found Dylan enlisting a group of musicians he wanted to play with or had already worked with in the past. Guitarist Val McCallum, bassist Whynot Jensyeld, drummers Mark Stepro and Brian Griffin, Aaron Embry on keyboards, and singer-songwriter Shelby Lynn are featured on Exit Wounds tracks, including the opening “Maybe Your Heart’s Not In It No More,” “Move The River,” “Darlin’ Hold On,” “I’ll Let You Down (But Will Not Give You Up.)”
Always a revolving door of session and touring musicians since the group’s onset, while reflecting back on their 1992 self-titled debut, Dylan says The Wallflowers was an entirely different band and musical space.
“People put bands together when they’re young, not really knowing how far people can take things,” says Dylan. “By the time we got to ‘Bringing Down the Horse’ , I had felt that I was maybe being kept back a little by the original band. On the first record, I felt I was writing songs the band was not strong enough to play, or songs we couldn’t execute, so by the second record, I wasn’t really going to be slowed down by anybody.”
Then, writing records in hopes of having more songs to add to a set isn’t far off from The Wallflowers’ mindset.
“You don’t want these songs to live for a moment that you recorded them in an afternoon, and now they’re on a CD or record for the rest of your life,” says Dylan. “You want songs that you can hopefully perform live and that you’ll want to sing in 10 or 15 years. I try to keep my eye on that. You don’t want to be trapped with songs from records that you don’t want to play.”
Looking back on the nearly 30 years since first forming The Wallflowers, it remains Dylan’s “home base” for writing songs and working with like-minded people at any given time—those who are content to contribute to a sound that is mostly his own.
“I know that’s not for everybody,” says Dylan. “My strength and focal point is writing a song. That’s not always easy for other people, and for them to stick around when they have their own ideas. It just evolved over time and there was never a grand master plan on what the band was going to be, or what I wanted to do at any given time.”
Still organic to Dylan, The Wallflowers continue to remain that revolving door. “A lot of people are still asking what happened to some of the guys that were on TV when we were playing ‘Bringing Down the Horse,’ but some of those people weren’t even on the record,” says Dylan. “That’s just the evolution of who made the record.”
Part of the confusion, says Dylan, lies in the fact that there were five members when the band originally established itself—it was initially a roots band with Tobi Miller and Dylan in the late ’80s. At the time, some musicians were asked to join just before the tour started, then parted shortly afterward. “On ‘Bringing Down the Horse,’ I had Mike Campbell from [Tom Petty and] the Heartbreakers playing on the record,” says Dylan, “And he’s not going on tour with me.”
Working with Walker and his collection of musicians, Dylan says they initially went into the studio not knowing whether a song, several tracks or a full album would ever formulate. “I had songs that I wanted to explore, and it just kind of evolved into something,” says Dylan. “Then we’re sitting there, and it dawns on us that we’re making a record. The other thing that can occur to you at that moment is that this is not a record.”
Dylan is the same writer he’s always been but believes there’s no greater rush than going to record, enveloped in a flurry of songs that start coming out, which is typically what happens to Dylan in some pseudo-procrastinatory songwriting process.
“I know I was referencing [Young] having a song hang around for 20 years, but my habit is not to feel that way,” says Dylan. “If the song is five years old, then I’ve probably moved on from it. So I like to get writing when I know there’s a project that I’ll be doing, whether it’s a month or three months away. That’s usually when I really get going, so the bulk of this album is from that final stretch.”
There’s no filter when writing. Most of the time, Dylan doesn’t know if he’s writing for himself or The Wallflowers. In addition to The Wallflowers material, Dylan has released two solo albums, Seeing Things in 2008 and 2010 follow up Women + Country. “There really isn’t a difference,” he says regarding his solo music and Wallflowers music. “I don’t really know which hat I’m going to put on.”
In Wallflowers mode, this musical dynamic is different from the last Wallflowers lineup in 2012, one Dylan admits didn’t mix together well, due to a “lack of harmony.” “It just led to a bad taste in our mouth,” shares Dylan. “The last record we made, I had regrets about it, so I just went on tour for the next few years, and then I got caught up in the Echo in the Canyon project, which was a good distraction.”
Directing the 2018 documentary, Echo in the Canyon, and exploring the musical fixtures of Laurel Canyon in the 1960s—one that spurred The Beach Boys, The Mamas & The Papas, and magnetized The Doors, The Byrds, Carole King, and many others—was a welcome departure for Dylan.
“It was enough time for me to get back to realize that I enjoy my day job and what I do,” says Dylan. “You have to do different things, especially now more than ever. You should do anything to help distract you from what’s living inside your head for hours a day, and year after year. You need something that’s worthwhile, that doesn’t cause you to turn yourself inside out with all the pressures you might put upon yourself. In doing a movie like that and collaborating with all those people, it recharges your batteries.”
Returning to his “day job,” The Wallflowers’ Exit Wounds is an ode to everyone’s struggles through hardships and to the persistence required to overcome them. Timeless in its storytelling, the album is a recollection of heartaches, motioning through roots-rock of “I Hear the Ocean (When I Want to Hear Trains),” the nostalgia-ridden “The Dive Bar in My Heart,” an homage to Dylan’s other “home” of New York City, and the lovelorn balladry of “Hold On,” and picking up on the rumbling “Who’s That Man Walking ’Round My Garden” and soaring reflections of “The Daylight Between Us.”
“It can apply to times right now,” says Dylan. “Any transition that you’re going through, good or bad, whether it’s lateral or it’s up, forward, or down, you can’t take everybody with you. You can’t take things with you to get from here to there, and you’re going to take some exit wounds.”
Dylan adds, “Maybe you’re going to a much better place, and maybe you’re leaving something behind or maybe you’re getting left behind. It doesn’t really matter. In every transition, you’re going to take a spirit of something or somebody with you.”