Gallagher's epiphany may not seem profound to anyone who has dabbled in both, but after years of moving and shaking in international politics and business, his hardest on-the-job lessons have concerned wrestling a musical muse.
"The real thing that cracked my head open was getting into the whole process of writing [music] and realizing how different it was from anything else," Gallagher says. "You can't pressure the process. With songwriting you have to wait for it to happen."
As we speak, 34-year-old Gallagher is waiting for "it" to happen. It's the day after Christmas, and instead of heading back east to spend the holidays with his folks in Boston, he's sequestered himself in his San Francisco apartment to hash out a batch of new songs. "The holidays have created this activity blackout through the city," he says. "It's just what I was looking for to get some work done."
A glance at his résumé shows evidence of getting high-pressure work done -- a wealth of achievements that belies his age. Before he hit the big 3-0, Gallagher had globe-trotted with Bill Clinton as a "legislative aide" ("One time he asked me if my daddy ever taught me how to eat a peach"), helped draft the outline of the AmeriCorps program, captained media relations for the Odwalla juice company during the memorable E. coli mess of the late '90s, and ping-ponged with Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry's) about environmental policy.
Add a chisel-cut Dudley Do-Right profile and quick-witted charm to his high-rolling career history and Gallagher could probably make every liberal-minded single mom in the Bay Area a little moist. At least until the fateful day 18 months ago when he woke up and decided to ditch the silk tie and remake himself as a full-time musician. The choice was probably a head-scratcher to many of his colleagues, but the way Gallagher tells it, it all makes sense.
"The same forces motivate me now as they did when I was policy-making," he says simply. "They're both matters of the heart and essentially about what it means to be human. Music for me is a far more pure manifestation of where I'm coming from in those respects."
It sounds a little like the silver-spoon postulating of a trust fund kid or a bored dot-com millionaire, but Gallagher is neither. And while his old lawyer friends may be scoffing all the way to the bank at the lofty boho sentiments that have redirected his life, Gallagher says his new job has been the hardest work he's ever done.
Born in Concord, Mass. -- which he claims is the true birthplace of soul -- Gallagher was merely a part-time musician for most of his life. And when he jumped with both feet into a music career, he didn't have the first clue how to survive.
"I literally started this with a hundred-dollar Casio, in my bedroom, just hitting chords," he admits. "That is what I knew, because that is what I came from. And everything that happened just happened in a vacuum. I didn't have much material; I had to write it. I didn't have a band; I had to build one. I wanted to have something that could help me get gigs and help me advance a step in this field, so I had to have a CD to get gigs and players to join me. But I didn't know how to make a CD."
If he didn't know what he was doing, you could never tell by listening to Will and Surrender, Gallagher's well-polished debut. It's a self-made collection of soulful pop that he accurately describes as "equal parts Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan."
The homage to Stevie leads off the record through two hard-hammered piano grooves, "Running Away" and "Wide Open." With layered harmonies, a midtempo strut, and clever lyrical turns, "Wide Open" presents the singer/songwriter at his best. The tune's hook -- Gallagher simply singing, "You've got me wide open," with ascending repetition -- is direct and catchy, and with it he delivers blue-eyed soul pop that's probably too clever for the John Mayer market and too smoothed-out for an indie niche. As the album spins on, "(Have You Ever Been) Tempted" offers a whip-smart R&B update to the old Squeeze hit, while syrupy downtempo tunes like "In Your Room" and "Down Low" are cozy without being corny. Gallagher's mélange of influences -- namely pop icons such as Hall & Oates; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Seals & Crofts ("Those guys were soul") -- is enlivened with dub bass lines, light hip hop, and R&B. For a debut record created over eight months in a vacuum, it's a pretty stunning effort.
But as he explains his work of the last year and a half, Gallagher admits the process has been backward. His musical vision had almost no practical basis. His brief forays into the nightclub circuit of D.C. were of little help. His business-school jargon of "advanc[ing] a step in this field" seems like some funny talk for a creative type.
"At some level, my life has always had a strange dichotomy," Gallagher says. "It was worst when I was running around the West Wing during the day and going to the city's hip hop clubs at night. There were times when both seemed like a pose. At a deep level, that was one of the struggles that led me to do music full time. It seemed off the path of where I was headed professionally, but true to what I needed for myself personally. I had to play something out all the way. I needed to prove that I had the courage and the clarity to see what was really moving me. It's always been there as this kind of important, friendly force in my life, but I'd never taken it that seriously."
Perhaps that dichotomy is finished though. Gallagher talks about his new demos and the adrenaline-soaked rush of performing live with an excitement that few people have for their day jobs.
"It's amazing the way that a room full of people who are all feeling the same thing, the same music, can change things," he says. It might be the kind of talk you hear from idealistic musicians, but by the tone of his voice, you can tell that Gallagher believes what he's saying, and his conviction is disarmingly convincing. It's almost as if he doesn't know that most folks are a little too cynical to think a former White House aide in his mid-30s can pick up a guitar and change the world.
Maybe he didn't get that memo.