From the January/February 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By James Volpe Rotondi
“They’re all scenes from a movie,” says Jakob Dylan, describing the nine tracks on Exit Wounds, his first album with his band the Wallflowers since 2012’s Glad All Over. The album is a slow burn of bold folk-rock songs, filled with ringing Martins and lyrical images that linger long after the final F major chord has faded. Given the 51-year-old singer-songwriter and guitarist’s penchant for the open-ended phrase in his songs, it’s apparent that Dylan is applying his film analogy to albums in general, too.
“It’s not even an especially lofty thing to say,” he qualifies. “It’s true, especially if you write them like that, with that idea of a whole work in mind.” For Dylan, each song on an album has the job of not only moving the listener but of setting the stage for the next one. “That’s the reason why waltzes can work on an LP, or even instrumentals. You’re trying to hit the key points that shape the record; how you close out the first ‘side’; how you start the second side. I’m always conscious of those things when I make a record,” he says.
And how does Dylan generate the songs toward a broader work in the first place? With the help of his longest-serving songwriting partner, a mid-1960s Gibson J-45. “I was probably 17 or so when I bought my J-45,” he says, “and it couldn’t have been more than a few hundred dollars back then. Now, I’ve picked up lots of great guitars since then, expensive ones even, but a lot of them just come and go. I don’t quite know why that one’s always stuck around, but I’ve written the majority of all my records on that guitar.
“Certain guitars just have life to them, and you don’t always know why,” he continues. “Meanwhile, you can spend way too much money on a vintage guitar that is just dead. I keep going back to my J-45, without any real expectations, and it has never let me down.”
While the J-45 may be home base, Dylan is an omnivore when it comes to guitars, having toured and recorded with a wide variety of great instruments over the years, including his very recognizable 2003 Martin D-42, a gaggle of prewar Martin 000s, and vintage electric axes like his Gibson ES-330, Gibson SG Custom, and Gretsch Falcon.
“I tend to gravitate to the guitars that you can really dig into, the ones that are kind of screwed-up in some way, that sound kind of dirty,” he says. “The pristine guitars that are really smooth-sounding regardless of what you throw at them I use mainly for touring, because that’s mostly going to be me strumming a lot to project and maintain rhythm. But if I really want to dig in and pull out some more gritty sounds, I’ll lean on the ones that have a lot more character.”
While Dylan generally either plays with a medium pick or bounces back and forth between two main fingerpicking patterns, there’s one accessory that nearly always comes between him and his strings when he’s writing tunes: the capo. “They’re crucial to the way I write,” he says. “It’s just so productive for giving a song life; to be able to move the capo around and find out where your voice and the guitar are sitting together best, and where it all just feels good.”
But the capo doesn’t always translate to performing the songs live. Dylan’s current Wallflowers lineup features Dutch bassist Whynot Jansveld (Gavin DeGraw, Sara Bareilles, Jonatha Brooke), whom he leaned on as a kind of bridge to translate the songs from the J-45 launch pad to the wider band arrangements. “Songwriting and playing with the band are two very different environments,” Dylan says. “What I often find is that once the band kicks in onstage, those higher capo positions just don’t sound so great. So the process before a tour is to relearn how to play all of the songs in regular open position—which is a lot of work! But it beats having to remember and to change capo position on every song, not to mention having the guitar sound thinner and smaller.”
It took Dylan some time to make the transition; in many early shows with the Wallflowers he played a Fender Telecaster with a capo, a feat he’s not keen to reproduce anytime soon. But he admires certain troubadours who have a knack for it. “I saw [country legend] George Jones play about 25 years ago,” Dylan recounts, “and he played most of the way through a song with a capo on. When the key suddenly modulated, George managed to move the capo to a different fret—while he was singing—and barely even looking at the neck. He kept on strumming the exact same chord shapes without a stop. It was incredible.”
Navigating the Mystery
Dylan, whose father, Bob Dylan, arguably invented the modern acoustic songwriter, tends to be far less topical lyrically, and often more symbolic, even cryptic, than his legendary namesake. But he shares a similar mastery of turning conventional phrases on their heads, waxing metaphysical, and telling a story with haunting efficiency, even a nonlinear one, as he does so well on the Wallflowers’ 1990s classic “One Headlight.” (“So long ago I don’t remember when/ That’s when they say I lost my only friend.”)
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The songs on Exit Wounds echo that same cinematic narrative style and occupy a similarly wistful emotional space. This verse from Exit Wounds’ “I Hear the Ocean When I Wanna See Trains” captures Dylan’s smoky, sepia-toned lens well: In the morning, a fool is quick to pretend/ This night too does not begin. Now with a shot glass coming up again/ Elbows down to the bitter end/ You’re in the bar light with your smoke rings/ And a stranger who’s leaning in/ And I’m hoping to black out and land/ Long before you’re more than friends.
“Always be suspicious of the songwriter who can tell you exactly what a song is about,” Dylan cautions. “That may mean they’ve had too much time to think about it. We’ve all had the experience of learning what they’re really about long after we’ve written them.” Instead, he suggests, carve out those moments in your day when you can put aside all your busy work and mind chatter, and just slow down and feel every amount of feeling you’ve got.
And, Dylan advises, don’t wait for inspiration to necessarily pop up and strike first. “If you wait to be inspired, you may wait for years,” he stresses. “You’ve got to just get writing and accept that there will be bad stuff as well as good stuff. You’ve got to be unafraid of that. Just write, and trust the process of elimination as you get toward a whole album. Sure, the best stuff often just falls on your head, but if you don’t go to work at this because you’re waiting for that, it could be a long, cold winter.
“It may sound clichéd at this point,” he continues, “but try to stay out of your own way. If you write songs and you analyze them too closely you’re in danger of sabotaging yourself. Even those phrases and lines that I’m not 100-percent sure what they mean? Well, I’ve learned to appreciate that those lines only came to me that day and didn’t come to anybody else. You’ve got to appreciate those gifts and grab them when they come. So trust yourself—your instincts are just as valuable as anything you’ve had to learn.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.