It’s weird — or tragic, rather — to realize four years have passed since the death of Americana hero Tom Petty, a passage of time that perhaps doesn’t seem as long due to the thoughtful projects that have emerged in the aftermath. We’ve been blessed with a fascinating treasure trove of demos, box sets, and previously unreleased music since 2017. But this month, Petty’s estate released its most substantial legacy project yet: Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making of Wildflowers, a documentary that traces the recording process of his seminal solo album Wildflowers. What began as an outlet for Petty to free himself of the Heartbreakers’ democratic process turned into, well, essentially still a band album, with his sonic brothers-in-arms Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and Howie Epstein working in the finest studio environment with the best artists Petty could find. The documentary is poignant just as it is cheerful, and you’ll come away knowing a lot more about how Wildflowers reflected that specific time in Petty’s life. Also, hell, I had no idea that the Steve Miller Band smash “The Joker” served as inspiration for “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”
Three important women in Petty’s life are the current managers of his estate: his daughters, Adria and Annakim, and his widow, Dana Petty. Adria, an artist and director, executive-produced The Making of Wildflowers, and she possesses a strong vision for what the future of her father’s legacy looks like — for tenured and new fans alike. “As long as it’s contributing to humanity, and it’s something of quality, we would consider it,” she recently told me over breakfast near Central Park. “That’s the litmus test.” Does that mean a museum? Absolutely. A Broadway show? Well, that’s another story.
Your dad says in archival footage that Wildflowers was the best album he ever made. Do you also feel that way?
I think it’s probably his greatest album. But then somebody puts Full Moon Fever in front of you, or Damn the Torpedoes, or the first Heartbreakers album, and you’re like, This is the greatest album. But Wildflowers is the greatest album, I think, from a songwriting perspective. It’s not a pop album. It’s a confessional, novelistic, Americana masterpiece. It’s not writing the perfect rock song, or a guitar ballad, or a hot song. It’s his autobiography. It’s his beautiful autobiographical work. It’s my favorite album in terms of feeling the closest to my dad.
How does it make you feel closest to him?
Everything about that album makes you feel like he’s in the room. His humor is in it. Even a line like, “It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going.” There’s something very conversational about the way he’s turning phrases and talking about everything from being the boy in the corduroy pants to having the girl at the high-school dance — like his whole sort of idyllic upbringing.
I liked that Tom referred to himself as a “soul singer” in the documentary. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that characterization of his music before.
Yeah, it was interesting. I think it works because he’s saying it with humility. I didn’t want it to feel like it was appropriation, like he thought he was on par with Black soul singers, because I definitely don’t think he is saying that. I think he’s saying, I come from the same source, which is gospel and folk — that screaming source of emotion from the heart. He did come from that Baptist Christian background. He studied soul singers and sang songs like “Shout” and “Louie Louie” and would do covers in topless bars to develop his style and his phrasing. He loved all kinds of soul, R&B, and rock music. He was always compared to Bob Dylan as a singer, but my dad’s singing is achingly beautiful and unique, like Willie Nelson and Neil Young are achingly beautiful and unique. It’s an interesting insight, isn’t it? It’s the first time you would think of him in that way. I do think it’s accurate.
Around the time he was recording Wildflowers, you said that your dad found “the spirit” of himself in grunge artists such as Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. What was it about them that spoke to Tom so deeply?
I think he saw himself as a purist. He always felt like, with the guys, they would put on guy-liner and they’d wear leather jackets in their careers. But for the most part, they would roll onto stage in plaid shirts and jeans. They’re very pure with their rock and roll. Particularly in the beginning of my dad’s career, it was a lot more of that emotive, aggressive, and punkier spirit. That older generation was still very committed to rock, rhythm, and blues, but they had to keep innovating. I think that when Nevermind and Ten hit, my dad just thought, There’s a lot of value here. These guys are in the vein of what we’re doing, but they’re adding dynamite and a powder keg to it, and I really like that. That’s where you get “You Wreck Me” and some of the vibrato, or the way the organ sounds on “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” It has this sort of watery sound. You can hear that in bands like Soundgarden. My dad thought Nirvana and Pearl Jam were legitimate.
You mentioned your dad’s sense of humor. Can you tell me more?
I laugh just thinking about his jokes sometimes. I mean, my dad’s humor is in everything he does. Even on Damn the Torpedoes, you hear Marcie Campbell in one of the songs saying, “It’s just the normal noises in here!” He wanted to incorporate her talking in the recording booth for no reason besides it being amusing to him. He crops up with these little dad jokes all the time.
The documentary is the biggest project you and the estate have worked on since Tom died four years ago. What made you want to tell the full Wildflowers story?
It was a very natural evolution. We were in the archives getting ready to put out Wildflowers & All the Rest, which was my dad’s swan-song project. He worked really hard on sequencing that second disc before he died. He even pulled it back from the label to tinker with it one last time before he went on tour. In the archives, I was just like, I want to see every single thing they have from this era. Also, I happened to be there a lot while they were recording the album. I knew there were a lot of people with cameras and Rick Rubin had a camera. Can we see if we can find some of the energy and the mood from the studio? It was the type of magic that gives you goosebumps and that’s what I wanted people to feel when they heard this record — there was an alchemy in the room between these incredible musicians, writers, singers, and producers. It was like lightning in a bottle.
The film gives you this deeper ability to feel who Tom really was. For me, it’s just like, That’s my dad. That’s really my dad. That’s not capital T, capital P. I used to always joke, “When my dad was on the road, he was TOM PETTY. Then he’d come home and he’d be dad or Tommy.” He would calm down and stop yelling at everybody to get him stuff. He was sort of like two different people, but the guy in the studio was the normal guy. He wasn’t a rock star. He was very comfortable and very much like the same person he would be in a layman’s life. You really see him the way that I see him as a person.
There’s a lot of talk in the documentary about where your dad was, emotionally and mentally, while recording Wildflowers. He was starting therapy and on the cusp of a divorce with your mom, which was reflected in a lot of the songs. What do you remember about that time?
A lot of musicians … I don’t want to say this in a disparaging way, because I have so much respect for musicians and I do think that this is part of the art form, but a lot of them escape into the work instead of dealing with their problems. They put all of their problems into the art and don’t stop working to deal with the problems that are inspiring these songs. I think my dad was really trying to do the work, go to therapy, and figure out how to handle the depression and dissatisfaction he was feeling. My mom was also in therapy, but I think that they hit a point where they outgrew each other and where their lives were divergent. They had been fighting a lot. It was not a pleasant environment in the house. He was gone for two years making this record — drawing a love letter, a thank you, and a permission slip to move forward.
Where my dad is from, in the South, people get married and they stay married no matter what. No matter what goes on, no matter how dysfunctional, no matter if your needs are met or not. I think that for my dad, it was very difficult. He was very loyal to my mom. He credited her with a lot of his success. My mom cut my dad’s hair and went vintage shopping to find his clothes. There was no conscious uncoupling at that point. So it was a really heavy journey for him. He was going through it and he wasn’t talking to a lot of people about it. He was talking to me about it, he was talking to his therapist about it, and I think he was talking to Rick a little bit about it. But I don’t think he was talking to the band.
What did your mom think when she heard the album?
I’ve never asked her, actually. Maybe I should. She used to always say, “Change your love, change your wife, change your life. But it’s cheaper to keep her.” [Laughs.] She joked about getting divorced and it happened.
What did you learn most about your dad’s music while making the documentary?
He looked at albums cinematically, like a three-act structure. My dad overthought everything and was very protective of the presentation so that it seemed effortless. But actually, it was, like, perfect every time.
You’re now managing the estate and legacy of one of the most popular musicians in American history. What are your main goals, especially when you’re mixing a documentary like Wildflowers with a wardrobe collaboration with Rodarte?
We’re still in our infancy. With Wildflowers being such an important tentpole of Tom and the band’s legacy, we really wanted to make sure that it had a global reach. I even made sure that they subtitled the songs in several languages so you’re feeling the music. But the way we’ve been doing it has been pretty organic. It starts with the music and we take it to the band and all of the confidants, which we internally call the Council of Elders. [Laughs.] It’s the band members, roadies, engineers, and our favorite A&R guy at Warner Bros.
My sister is about ten years younger than me. It’s very important to her that the younger fans are recruited. We want younger people. We want people of color. We want queer people. We want people from other countries to understand that there’s a 40-year body of work that can uplift you and make you feel amazing. My dad was a person of integrity, decency, and depth. We wanted to broaden the scope of it. So with projects like Rodarte … our dad loved old movies, and their couture stuff has the feel of Greta Garbo with their dresses and jackets. Funny enough, that’s totally my dad’s shit. He loved that stuff. I can’t count how many times my dad made me watch Ninotchka or Grand Hotel. Sometimes the fans get a little uncomfortable when we do collaborations like Rodarte, and I knew they would. But a lot of money went to charity. We don’t exploit the music.
Are there any specific estate requests that get an immediate no?
Every Republican politician wants to use “I Won’t Back Down” while campaigning. That’s pretty much a definite no. All of them have tried. It’s funny, because there’s this really great interview with my dad when the record came out from an Australian television show. He says something like, “I wanted to write an anthem for people to be able to speak up for themselves. But, you know, sometimes you really should back down. You don’t want to be a dick and not back down when you really should.” He said it from much more of a mantra of self-awareness and strength.
My dad was very adamant that representations of his music be diverse and inclusive. It’s an honor to work in service to that gift, so we try to view it like that. We say no to commercials. We turn down many millions of dollars in commercial offers every year, although I don’t know if that will always be the case. Even at the end of his life, my dad was like, “Look, I actually think I messed up. Remember when Fleetwood Mac licensed ‘Go Your Own Way’? That’s actually kind of cool. This is how people are starting to hear about music now that there’s not really a radio culture anymore.” He had regrets about saying that he’ll never, ever put his music in a commercial. But at the same time, I don’t want somebody to think about Capital One when they hear “Free Fallin’.” I want people to feel like they’re alone in their car and that’s their song. I think there’s a sacredness to the work that the band did that we’re really protective of. But still, my dad was like, “Look, when I die, if you guys want to do commercials, please don’t think that I’ll be pissed. Do it.” It’s our job to be great students and gentle handlers, not egomaniacs.
What are your biggest ambitions for Tom’s estate now? Does, for instance, something like a museum or Broadway show appeal to you?
I look at what Bob Dylan has done with his enormous catalogue … although he’s still alive, of course. He’s done some really beautiful things on the stage with Girl From the North Country. He has incredible people working with him to canvass those offers and do things that are unique. I think there’s nothing off the table if it’s of quality and the band and the family are in agreement that it’s wonderful. Do I personally want a jukebox musical about Tom Petty on Broadway? Not really. But if somebody’s got an amazing take on it, if it gets the music to a lot of people, if it gets people rocking out to the music in a cool way, and if it’s done with quality? Absolutely.
I’d love to see a museum dedicated to my father. I think that’s an undertaking that will take a great deal of time and I would love to see that happen. We just want to make sure people can get together without getting each other sick, get into the archives, and actually see what we have. It’s an overwhelming amount of stuff to do even in my lifetime, but I really hope it gets done in my lifetime. My dad talked so much about his work, left so many clues behind, and left so much unreleased music behind that we really do have a job ahead of us — to be able to continue to give that contribution to the world and memorialize it.