Avoiding the machine: Salim Nourallah on the freedom of being indie
I’ve wondered over the years about the music biz “machine” and how the tour-record-tour cycle has affected songwriting. How the successful musician deals with the pressure to deliver material time and time again that will do well in the marketplace. How do they create something to please their audience or at least keep them interested long enough to give up their hard-earned cash; something the A&R guy can deem “single worthy;” something that will put gas in the Lamborghini; something to shift units, sell out stadiums, gain critical acclaim.
What if the artist just spent the last two years touring and hasn’t an ounce of creative energy left to write? The music biz says, “Go on the road, get off the road, make a record, get back on the road and do it all again!”
That’s the cycle. That’s the “wheel” Lennon was talking about watching when he quit the biz to bake bread and change diapers. For the ones that have made it, it’s relentless and only grinds to a halt once the general public has had enough and ceases to care. So the creative process might be somewhat different for a mega-successful, mega-star like Lady Gaga than, say, for little ole me, Salim Nourallah.
Right around the time I was 8 or 9, I began to notice these songs that were playing in my head. They ranged from majestic, sweeping and orchestral to simple little pop ditties. They would just show up, completely unannounced; I could never predict when. It seemed to happen more often when I was completely and blissfully unaware of my surroundings.
I figured at first that they must belong to someone else, probably something I’d heard on the radio or on TV that I was just regurgitating. I sung one of them to my mom one day and asked her if she knew what song it was. She said, “I don’t recognize it honey. Maybe it’s your own?”
That got me thinking … if it really was my own, how could I take the music out of my head and bring it into the real world so that others could hear it? Obviously, I’d have to learn how to play a musical instrument. My father, who was an accountant, had a cheap classical guitar lying around that he’d picked up one day in Juarez, Mexico, when he was clearly having a delusional mid-life crisis moment. My siblings and I had never seen him look at the thing much less touch it. So I asked Mom if it was ok if I commandeered the instrument as my own.
Months later I had learned three or four chords. I remember practicing, moving my fingers gingerly into the chord shapes as my mother ironed shirts and I watched TV. I did it for hours upon hours, days upon days. I could never completely straighten out my left index finger to make a proper bar chord. I still can’t to this day. Soon I was warbling melodies into a hand-held cassette recorder I kept in my desk. If you were to break into my current home, locate and steal these cassette tapes, then contact me later with a ransom note, I’m afraid they might fetch a princely sum because they are so deeply embarrassing that not even my wife has heard them.
One lesson I learned early on that has held true for the 25 years of writing songs that I have undertaken is this: You can never force it to happen. I’ve gone great lengths of time, just like many other writers, in which nothing was coming out — nothing, nada, zilch. No matter how badly I wanted it to. No matter how hard I tried.
I couldn’t break out of the drought. I can only imagine if I’d actually had a successful career demanding that I continue churning out the tunes, a manager beating on my door every morning demanding a new hit song and bandmates freaking out because there was no new material, no new record, no way for them to make money by touring. The reality of my life as an “indie” artist flying comfortably under the radar is that I could be as patient as I taught myself to be. The songs will all start flowing eventually. All I have to do is let go, relax and go about my day-to-day business. Sure enough, just as they did when I was a kid, they suddenly appear as if they’ve been zapped straight into my skull from another dimension, the kernel of a song — a title, a melody, a story.
Of course the rest of it is always up to me. No song writes itself now does it?
Editor’s note: Critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Salim Nourallah writes indie-pop gems with a Beatlesque bent. He has released five studio albums and his songs have been featured on HBO’s “The Wire,” ABC’s “Smallville” and the Academy-Award winning film “The Wrestler.” Based in Dallas, Texas, Nourallah has been named the Dallas Observer Music Award’s Best Producer for six consecutive years. He has produced albums by alt-country stalwarts Old 97’s, among others, and will be on tour with them through October. Visit his artist page to check out tracks from this talented artist. And follow him on Twitter: @salimnourallah