“Wildflowers” may be the most aggressively beloved of Tom Petty’s albums among his most serious fans, and no one has been more passionate about it than Adria Petty, the elder of the late musician’s two daughters. (Her sister is Annakim Violette Petty.) Even as the career-encompassing “American Treasure” boxed set was coming out in 2018, Adria would readily admit that she had designs on devoting just as serious a job of archival love to “Wildflowers,” the 1994 Rick Rubin-produced album whose voluminous outtakes Tom himself had been planning to revisit and release before his death three years ago.
While her father had compiled an album of unreleased tracks, titled “All the Rest,” before his death, Petty’s estate and the Heartbreakers have gone the extra mile in folding that “Part 2” of an album into an extensive boxed set of never-before-released material from two years’ worth of demos, band sessions and subsequent live gigs. Variety is marking the release of “Wildflowers & All the Rest” with in-depth Q&As with Adria, Benmont Tench, the Heartbreakers’ keyboardist for 45 years, and Ryan Ulyate, the engineer/producer who is the keeper of the still-packed Petty vaults, all three of whom have significant insights into what the unearthed material says about the star. Following is an edited version of our conversation with Adria.
VARIETY: Is this something you would consider your favorite of your father’s albums? There are a lot of choices, so it’s okay if the answer is something else…
ADRIA PETTY: It’s so hard. It’s an outlier in his canon of work. I think it has a warm, special place in his musical journey, And in that sense, it’s my favorite because it feels the closest to who he really was.
It sounds like you did a lot of detective work to find any original sequences he did for what was planned as a “Wildflowers” double album. But in the end, you surely wanted to stay true to the intention he had in the mid-2000s to release “All the Rest” as a separate song sequence apart from the original album.
Yeah. And it became such an arm wrestle for us, because everybody was sort of bored with the double-album search. But I did find some more paperwork on it and some more notes. It gets to the point where it’s like, do you do what he wanted to do (in the mid-2000s)? Or do you do the double-album without him — not knowing exactly what the sequencing was? I think Benmont’s words were, “You know, I just don’t feel like I’m sure enough that this is the sequence he would be good with.” We never found a good enough double-album to release it. But we may release it as a playlist or something — some of the notes that we found. But it’s a tough one; I just didn’t find that definitive list from him.
He took some time with Ryan on “All the Rest” and loved the way that it was laid out. The sequencing does really speak to you. I think you come in through “It feels like something could happen” and this trepidatious version of “Climb That Hill.” And then after “Somewhere Under Heaven,” it’s like, he’s going to get it done. He was bold because he was willing to put two versions of the same song [following with a different version of “Climb That Hill”]. I think he was playing with some stuff that was interesting to him later in life in how “All the Rest” is sequenced; it’s very specific to his voice.
You said recently that back in the ‘90s, when he was still looking at making “Wildflowers” a double album, you had a song sequence burned onto disc that had “Girl on LSD” as the final track. If that was ever really his intent, it’s probably not one he stuck with for long, since that song is so goofy it didn’t end up on either the original album or “All the Rest.”
[Laughs.] I know. It was a good ending, though! [That comic track, which came out as a B-side, does appear in both live and studio versions in the most expansive version of the boxed set.]
When there was a lot of legal stuff happening last year, the status of this “Wildflowers” actually came up in the court papers. It was clear you had a real passion about it and ideas for it. Was it always important to you that this come out as a multiple-disc boxed set and not just the “All the Rest” album on its own?
I think that it just required going into the archive and really being able to sift through all the material that they made in two years and know what was there and be able to preserve it. For me, the real delay was about how this record is so important, it shouldn’t be done at a time of grief or strife. Everyone had waited 25 years. Why not do it when it’s fun to do it, and we can do it right? But I mean, at the same time, there is an urgency for me with this. Half of this record has never been released and it’s frontline, perfectly produced, top material that my dad had in his vault for decades. … You’re kind of like, “Well, who’s going to do this 10 years from now? We should probably do this now!” In terms of the five-disc (version), to me, that’s the gold we sifted down, and that we felt he would have been really happy represented that period of time and that body of work.
Do you have favorite tracks from the set?
Let me open my hot-off-the-presses new nine-LP. Let’s see… From “All the Rest,” I love “Hope You Never,” because it’s so intense and so specific. And there’s like no other song like “Hung Up and Overdue” in all of the Heartbreakers’ canon. It’s like an homage to the Beach Boys’ “Holland” or something like that — this big, lush, Big Sur sound, and to me, that’s a super incredible vibe to live in.If you had come over to listen to (the unreleased material), “Something Could Happen” would have been the song I would be excited to play for you, because that was so completely unreleased and unknown to all of us for so long, it was really special to us.
“Something Could Happen” opens with the lines: “I’m not easy to know. My mind can change, my moods come and go.” Somehow, in him having chosen that for the opening song of “All the Rest,” you could take that as him being autobiographical, a little bit.
He’s an untrustworthy narrator, right? Right off the beginning. [Laughs.]
A statement-of-purpose song about being uncertain of purpose.
Rick (Rubin) was saying something to me about how it’s a very qualified lyric, because the song is basically saying “I feel like something could happen.” It’s not like, “I’ll meet you for lunch.” It’s like, maybe… somewhere… something! [Laughs.] But it’s such a special song to me, because it really does feel like him.
David Fricke in his liner notes called “Wildflowers” his most acutely confessional record. Maybe that’s sort of relative for your dad, because he could be sort of elliptical even when he’s being autobiographical. But there is that sense that people have around the record, generally. And you’ve said that it feels to you like a “divorce album,” in some ways. Even though the Heartbreakers have said they had no idea what was going on with him, emotionally, and didn’t really think about any of the lyrical content until years later.
I mean, it didn’t happen until years after this record. I almost feel like it’s the ramp-up album more than it’s the divorce album. It’s sort of the ramp-up to independence, you know? And y dad was a really principled human being. He was a bohemian; he was undisciplined in certain things. But he had a lot of principles. And I think a lot of the things that he’s contemplating in this record sort of reflect on being the householder or the breadwinner or being in certain constructive relationships in life and trying to figure out how to navigate them. And I think it really resonates with a lot of people who have that same sort of feeling. They’re principled, and they want to do the right thing, but they need to be wild and free, too. So how do you do that?
He had talked late in his life about doing a theater tour celebrating “Wildflowers.” Having a full disc of concert material in the boxed set does show that he could’ve done a completely satisfying tour using nothing but the material right from this period, even if he probably wouldn’t have taken it that far. Was having the live disc important for you?
I think it’s really important to have a live album on this, because this is when (Steve) Ferrone joined the band. That’s significant because it’s kicking off what the Heartbreakers were going to be for the next two decades. And I think in terms of my favorite songs from (the live disc) I would say that “Walls” from 2017 is a really cool version that we kind of slipped in there, because (the song is from) that era covered by “She’s the One” and “All the Rest.” And I really love the version of “Drivin’ Down to Georgia” that Ryan put in there, too.
What do you think changed when Ferrone joined the band after playing on “Wildflowers”?
I think Ferrone changed the band because instead of the person on the drum riser being someone with a really strong opinion that they all respected and wrestled with for years and grew up with (Stan Lynch), there was someone who they had a lot of respect for musically who had beat out pretty much everyone else in the world coming in to drum on “Wildflowers”… There was such a foundation of musical respect between Ferrone and the band. You know, he still lovingly calls himself “the new guy,” because they (the other Heartbreakers) were so damn close before he got in the band that you could never have that relationship with them. You’d have to develop your own. But it’s a different sound. They’re both so accomplished as drummers, Stan and Ferrone. I think Steve is just a presence of sanity and reliability and what my dad would call the locomotive — this thing that was driving everything with a lot of power, but very subtle and very crafted and practiced.
Do you have any thoughts about future projects and where you go from here with the archives? “American Treasure” was great, and a lot of people will consider the “Wildflowers” box the jewel of the crown of what you could ever put out. But in talking to Benmont, he’ll always say there are different versions of albums like “Echo” or “Mojo” that would be fascinating to hear — and then he’ll add the caveat that he hasn’t actually talked with you or Mike or anyone about these; it’s just the stuff that’s in the back of his mind as a “what if.”
Yeah, there are things that people say about recording sessions having a lot of other material… You know, I’m curious to see if there’s another version of “Let Me Up, I’ve Had Enough.” That to me is interesting, because that was not the strongest album. It might have other cool stuff, because at the time everything was synth-pop, and they were trying to aim for something that was more like the sound that was on the radio at that time. But I don’t know. I’ve got to go through the archives.
To me, it’s just one thing at a time and do it as thoroughly and dutifully as possible, and right now, it’s “Wildflowers.” I know that Mike and Ben are pretty burnt out, too, from all these (projects). It’s only been three years, but we have put three boxed sets out, and they’ve had to consult on them. And I want everyone to enjoy doing this. That’s the most important thing. Because my dad loved his job, and he never felt like he was working a day in his life. And for everybody to enjoy doing this, I think we kind of have to find something that inspires us and has a big body of work underneath it, and then sort of go through that discovery process in the archive. We definitely have lots of cool stuff to put out in the future, so this is not the end of the road. But it is the jewel, because it’s “Wildflowers.”
With it having been three years now, is that time enough that you can listen to all the archival material with some distance and not get as emotional as you might have in a more immediate aftermath?
Definitely, it’s easier than the immediate aftermath. But “Wildflowers” is a pretty uplifting, soulful album. Doing something like “American Treasure,” that just is such download of our entire life with him. And I think that for me and Ben Mike to do that while that was really fresh, and while we were feeling all those feelings, yielded a really unique record. I don’t know if we could have made that record any other way but under that duress with Ryan. Because we were all just so raw, we were able to see really clearly like, “Yes, this one; no, not that one. Hey, this one has to make it in there.” Now, I think we would be deliberating more, with more rationales.
It’s a pretty big embarrassment of riches he left us. It’s very difficult sometimes to make these choices, there is so much good work. They pretty much only did good work, and that includes Mike and Ben. I’m just so proud of them and so proud of him. I’m so grateful to be an ambassador to this work because I really do care about it. And I care about fans having really cool stuff. I have one of these things right in front of me and it’s just beautiful and cool and full of rad stuff — I can’t wait to have everybody have one in front of them and be able to hear what they think about it.
(For Variety‘s review of “Wildflowers & All the Rest,” read here.)