[2 April 2008]
I’d like to start by telling you that Dallas’s Salim Nourallah is a pop songwriter in the tradition of Ray Davies or Paul McCartney, but you’d probably assume you’ve heard it before. I could also try to get right to the fact that Nourallah takes on some of the weightiest personal issues someone can face, but then you might jump to the conclusion that it sounds ponderous and heavy and you’d turn away. So I’m stuck trying to convince you that you should listen to one of the best artists you haven’t heard (even though he’s been performing for most of this decade) without hitting the two most salient points.
Well, then, let’s just forget the music for a minute. As passionate as Nourallah is when he speaks about his art, you get the sense that it’s the life informing the music that really drives Nourallah. And that life seems to start and end with family—not just his current nuclear family, but also the one that he rarely connects with anymore.
Early on, it seemed like it was the Nourallah Brothers who were going to team up for a great musical career. Brother Faris shares Salim’s knack for great songcraft, and the duo’s 2001 self-titled debut album set them up for success with a pop-rock style not too distanced from the Kinks and full of affecting, straightforward lyrics that won’t relinquish a tentative optimism. After the album came out, though, the brothers had trouble producing a follow-up. The reissue of their lone release contains a second disc of thirteen songs originally intended for a second album, the quality of which suggests that the pair was getting even better and were on the verge of something great.
Nourallah says, “After we did the first one, we tried to fire things up a couple times ... they were all very short-lived.” He adds, “It’s really tragic that we haven’t been able to work with each other since the first record, and at this point it’s looking really likely that we’re never going to make another record ... I don’t like to say ‘never’, but right now it seems like it would take, not a small miracle, but a very large miracle for us to end up making a record again.”
It wasn’t that the brothers hit an artistic disagreement, so much as that deep-seated personal issues made collaboration impossible. Salim confides, “If you want to know why ... my brother hasn’t left his house or functioned like a normal individual now in almost 10 years, so there are definite emotional and social problems that he has. It’s really sad.” Faris’s problems weighed too heavily on their interactions, and they chose to work on separate projects. On his solo work, Faris places beautiful pop melodies in songs with titles like “Into the Void”, “Life’s a Bitch”, and “Someone Who Doesn’t Love You”. In short, he suffers from a social anxiety problem—“the word agoraphobia has been thrown around,” Salim says—that has become untenable.
Salim explains, “I think when you take an individual ... or an individual takes himself, for whatever reason, whether it’s depression or whatever happens to them that they remove themselves from society, the longer that you go that you’ve isolated yourself from the give and take of every day life, also normal communciation with people ... it’s like just putting someone out on a little raft and pushing them out into the middle of the ocean. I feel like my brother’s in the middle of the ocean now. I’ve spent the last ten years hoping that he’d come back in ... that he’d be back to being the person that ... he was when were close as children and young adults, but he’s just getting further and further out to sea.”
The oceanic difference has become insurmountable, “I haven’t spoken to him in ... maybe seven or eight months. I think it’s best that way for me, too. I have a family and it’s just sort of chaos involved in his world that, maybe when I was 20, it might be tolerable, even thought it’s still not really my scene. Now it just isn’t tolerable for me, and it’s not something that I think it’s responsible for me to be around.”
It’s easy to sense that Salim has grappled with this problem persistently, and it’s been a burden. While he took on a harder, more uptempo approach to rock with the Happiness Factor in the first part of this decade (think early Elvis Costello), Nourallah’s meditative side began to win out, and by the time he released his first solo album, Polaroid, in 2004, Nourallah had an artistry in place to match his mood. The album proved to be an understated masterpiece of unity, playing the past and the present off each other while developing a vision of how we use the two periods to develop an understanding of each.
While he’s playful at times (especially on the earworming “1978”), he never loses site of the dangers in the world. Those perils can come from within, as in “A Family Disease”, which touches on the genetic and familial roots of personal conditions. Speaking about that song and the “social anxiety that ended up taking over my brother,” Nourallah explains, “I’ve even recognized it in myself every now and then. If I’m in a bar, I become very quiet and I’m just watching people and I want to go. I’ve worked really hard on controlling it, and it’s not something that affects me now like when I was younger. My dad very much had it, and it’s something that we ended up with.”
Those sorts of familial health concerns take on a greater concern when a new generation arrives, and the birth of Nourallah’s son Gavin influenced his songwriting an incredible amount. “My first record was made while we were expecting the birth of our first son, Gavin,” he says, “and the first track on it, ‘Everybody Wants to Be Loved’, is directly a message to him about what I was already picturing—him growing up in this world—and I was thinking about how isolated and alone I felt as a child. That song was a message to him.”
If Nourallah, whose strange name and mixed heritage “instantly set me on the outskirts,” was worried about the normal pains of growing up, his fears would dramatically increase a short time later when Gavin was diagnosed with craniosynostosis (an early closing of sutures in the skull) at six months old. Nourallah was recording 2005’s Beautiful Noise at the time, and the medical worries with Gavin meant that “that record was absolutely all these thoughts that had been caged in my head for so many years: where we’re going when we die, what this is all about. Things that my son was going through, and my worst nightmare, not quite there but on the horizon. Any parent contemplating the loss of their child—I don’t think there’s anything that can touch it as far as sheer terror. Everything about that record… if my son had never been born, had never come into this world and had to go through what he did, I don’t know if any of those songs would have been written.”
The resulting album could have turned into a gloomy mess, but instead Nourallah made an inescapable piece of beauty, what he calls “a snapshot of something unique.” (His straightforward nature undercuts his own artistry: if I tell you how haunting this record is, you’ll make more note of my cliché than of Nourallah’s expansive emotions.) The disc never escapes the concerns of mortality, but romantic loss, regret, and peace make their way in. Nourallah warns his son about what’s to come on “The World Is Full of People Who Want to Hurt You”, and tries to find meaning in all this hurt. Somehow, he manages to stay level-headed through it all, considering that as life flashes past, “Even when you’re down you can have a laugh or heart attack”, and decides that “at the end it can still be saved, rewound, re-played / Don’t be afraid / We’ll soon be safe”.
This focus on the big issues of life without the taint of melodrama allows Nourallah’s writing to develop an emotional force without bogging down. He carries plenty of baggage into his songs, but with lovely hooks and smooth turns of phrase, keeps an equilibrium that’s essential, even as he unleashes the fullness of what he’s feeling. It’s a marvelous artistic and human statement. (For the record, Gavin, after undergoing a “serious operation,” has recovered and is doing well.)
Last year’s Snowing in My Heart both thematically and artistically caps off what functions as a trilogy of sorts. Nourallah opens with “Hang On”, a track that assumes we’re starting off stuck someplace difficult, and goes on to explain that “It’s Okay to Be Sad” while pondering loneliness, depression, and “The Terror” that we see “closing in” on those dark nights. The difference now is that there’s a peace (but not compliance) in the knowledge that life has disaster in store. Nourallah now seems to be working out the fears and problems that plagued him on Beautiful Noise
He says that that album and Snowing “are actually very linked that way. That’s why I feel like Snowing in My Heart is the end of something for me. It was like putting a period on the end of a sentence. It’s very much tied in to what’s happened in my life in the last five years, and those have been my first years as a father, and there has been a struggle that we’re all in, too, at various levels and points in our lives ... The best times of my life, and also some of the scariest ... It’s learning that the more love we have in our lives and the more things we have that are worth holding onto, the harder it is to let go, and the scarier it is to face things like our own mortality and also that of the people around us.”
Despite the serious themes, it’s a lighter record, varied in sound and still holding on to hope. “Snowing in My Heart was crawling out from under the emotional weight of Beautiful Noise ... It felt like a big, giant musical rock that I had to crawl out from under. I know that I’m never going to make another record like that again.”
But it still hasn’t been easy. Nourallah says, “This year there’s been a lot of loss surrounding us ... I lost one of my best friends, Carter Albrecht, and he was murdered in Dallas, and then we were expecting to have another child. Jayme had a miscarriage. That was a loss that we never felt before—the loss of a life that could have been that we’ll never know. And then we just a few weeks ago lost another grandparent. So it’s been one of the most exceptional years that I ever had, and then right there saying goodbye and losing people, and it just amplifies—I’m glad that I made Snowing in My Heart, because I need some of the messages that are on that record on a daily basis, songs like “Don’t Be Afraid” to remind us that we need the lows to appreciate the highs and how precious the time that we have here is.”
Even with all this trouble surrounding Nourallah, his aesthetic has been developing. While previous sonic connections to Wilco still exist, Nourallah’s been building a bigger sound, starting to break open more. He explains that Dallas has a close-knit musical community, and he’s got a number of friends who are “world-class musicians.” On Polaroid, he enlisted “just a few of them,” but says, “I really got into all these people coming over to my studio and playing on the record.” Comparing it to playing with “musical baseball cards,” Nourallah says he would trade people in and out on various tracks, and adds that “on Snowing ... I went as far with it as I could ... that’s the big reason for the change in sound on this new record ... I’ve been playing more shows with my band ... I wanted a few songs that would translate to that.”
It’s a final statement for this era of Nourallah’s life, both musically and personally, and there’s going to be change from here. “The next record, I like the thought of just me and one other guy sitting in a room and making a record,” he says, “cutting out this small army of musicians.” Even with two records in the vault (including a covers album done with Shibboleth), Nourallah’s feeling creative and needs to move on: “I’m already thinking about recording my next record, so I’m pretty sure those two projects will just get shoved to the back ... I’m kind of in a cycle right now of creating things, so things sometimes get left behind.”
When he notes, “I’m at an interesting point in my career ... It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when I get to number four,” it’s easy to get caught up in his enthusiasm.
Of course, some of the old concerns are inescapable. Nourallah says, “I actually wanted to make my next one with my brother Faris. I thought it was time for me to really shake things up.” But, he adds, “For about a year [after recording this disc], my brother and I were talking to each other and we gradually ended up coming around to the idea of making a Nourallah Brothers record. I was very excited about it. We had a meeting about it ... had actually mapped out a plan. It just fell apart right away again, so for me that was kind of the final disappointment. I realized that I had been caught up still thinking and fantasizing about what kind of record we could make and what it would be like, and I had to let go of it once and for all. It wasn’t something that was doing me any good.”
Nourallah also may not have left the topic of depression completely behind him. It’s a central theme of Snowing, and Nourallah explains, “Depression is a huge part of our society. So many people that we know—I was depressed and struggled with it for many years, every now and then it will rear its ugly head—so many people that I’ve known in my life have struggled with it, too, and I’ve lost plenty of friends to it, that ended up just taking their own lives. So that’s actually something that I’ve always written about.
“Depression is so sinister because we can’t put our finger on it. We’re dishing out all these drugs for people; some of them are miraculous and really save people. Some of them, people are taking the drugs and they’re still depressed—it’s just something to me that’s insidious, really. Yeah, I’ve started thinking about it almost like a fog (at least fog you can kind of see) that you can’t see…
“We also live in a society that we’re all aware of that on a daily basis is trying to distract us and give us all these other things to think about ... One of the biggest problems we have right now as a society is how many of us are plagued with it; we’re surrounded by all the opportunity in the world and all these things at the touch of our fingers, yet we probably still have more depressed people in America than anywhere in the world. It makes me question why, what’s going on, what’s wrong. Part of it, though, is also our society’s inability to process death. I think there are a lot of issues.”
Some of this thinking came from his experiences playing Beautiful Noise for European audiences. He says, “There seems to be this emotional openness [overseas] that I don’t feel here. I feel this sense of certain people in the audience getting uncomfortable when I play ‘Slowly Gently Softly’, which is about my own eventual death. But there, it just feels like there’s an openness that we don’t have; a lot who are like, ‘Shut up and sing something happier ... we’re here so we don’t have to think about that.’ I respect it, but I’m just thinking of how I processed it as a performer.”
That awareness of our culture’s relationship to depression suggests that Nourallah might continue to address the heavy matters he’s focused on. Nourallah says, “These things are all such huge subjects and sometimes I feel like it’s ridiculous to try to tackle them in pop songs. Ultimately I think music should be melodic and enjoyable, but they’re all things that, at least since I’ve been making solo records, are the things that I want to write about.”
Whatever topics he takes on, he’ll do so with his controlled aesthetic, saying, “The difficult thing to me though was doing it not a ham-fisted way, or all the emo kids get out their lighters. I think it’s like walking a tightrope. The songs that got left off of Snowing, for me, were the songs that fell over—I’d have a flash of a bunch of people waving lighters in an arena.”
With a sound that matches his thoughtfulness, his music relies more on coming to resolutions than on find anthemic rallying cries. “I’ve always despised arena rock and grand gestures and I’ve never been like a big fan of that,” he says. “I’m maybe painfully aware with a song like ‘Hang On’ that I didn’t want it to be like this driving-down-the-road-cranking-it-out-of-your-stereo. I want people to find some sort of hope in the message, but I don’t believe in blind faith, that everything’s going to be hunky-dory. We’re all on this trip and we don’t know where we’re going, and I don’t believe in anything that says that they know. That’s part of the beauty and mystery of this life and us being here. We’ve been given this gift that we have, and you’re going to go somewhere and it’s scary as hell, but I don’t think I can sing about those things with this blind confidence. I think that’s where things become ham-fisted and over-the-top and ridiculous.”
By resisting the heavy-handed approach, Nourallah manages to balance a realist’s approach to the trials of life with hope that there’s meaning in the mess. He doesn’t point to a religious path or a general organizing theory as his means to this outlook, though.
“I think the one big thing in my life that’s happened is I’ve had the good fortune of having a happy childhood, but a messed-up childhood,” he says. “I was kind of a social outcast. That’s what getting into music really pulled me through my teenage years. I got off on a really rocky start, and then also had many rough and frustrating years playing music with my brother and bands and stuff. And there were plenty of times when I thought about quitting, or I could have become a drug addict or an alcoholic or whatever and just given up on life. For whatever reason, I ended up having the most amazing, wonderful things happen to me a little later on than I think most people experience them. Maybe some people do. It wasn’t until I hit 30, really, that my life started turning around, and it’s been incredible. The last ten years of my life, although there have been things like my son and real hardships… if you can just hold on and stay the course, each day work on yourself, you have the possibility of ending up happier than you could have ever expected, or of having a really good life.”
It’s this faith that a “really good life” is possible that seems to sustain him, and Nourallah explains, “It’s not really so much of a belief system—it’s just the way that my life has happened to play out. I also recognize that I’ve been really lucky. My friend Carter who’s dead now, he didn’t end up with that chance to go on and do whatever he would have done with his life. I’ve just been fortunate. I believe with a little bit of luck and perseverance, we can all end up having good things happen to us.”
Taken at face value, that idea feels too simplistic, but considered against the context of what Nourallah has been through, it seems like a very reasonable thing to hold onto, and it’s the thought of that friend, Carter Albrecht, that seems to be buffeting Nourallah right now. He talks about the loss that Albrecht’s shooting has brought, and the work that he’s doing now to finish up Albrecht’s work in a challenging field:
“Carter was working on his first solo album before he died. He did half the record with me and the other half with a guy named Steven Collins—he’s a producer, he has a studio somewhere between here and Austin.
“Carter played with Edie Brickell. He also played with Charlie Sexton, so he had some famous friends that he played for. I think Edie and Paul [Simon] are going to be releasing the record. Carter’s record is phenomenal. It represents… There’s so much talent here in Dallas that’s been overshadowed by that city to the south of us—Dallas has as much or more talent (and it’s going to piss a lot of people off in Austin)—we’ve never had a supportive music press, we’ve never had all the things that they’ve done beautifully and wonderfully to put that city on the map. Dallas is a shambles compared to them. There are so many people that I know here that if they had lived anywhere else, and Carter’s one of them, that would have been famous, or could have been famous. At least people would have known about them instead of them dying in obscurity.
“I’m hoping that some people will get to hear [the Albrecht album] in other parts of the world. You don’t realize how great he was.”
Nourallah’s probably too humble to put himself in this category, but he knows his time as an artist could be limited. “I’m at this interesting point in my career. I’m on my third record. I think usually people are out after two if they don’t sell enough. ... Frankly, I haven’t made anyone a whole lot of money yet, and I’m beginning to wonder how many records I can keep putting out on this level without anyone singing and dancing their way to the bank. Tapeta [his current label, based in Germany] is surviving off their booking right now. I don’t even know what the situation’s going to be when I make my next record.”
He was set up with Tapeta up through his connection with Secretly Canadian, and Snowing has been “strictly funded by the German record label.” He adds, “Right now, I don’t have an American record label. I try not to think too much about those things. It’s definitely something that’s hanging out there somewhere in the back of my mind.”
Yet Nourallah seems greatly at ease these days. Maybe because of the sense of community in Dallas’s music scene, or maybe because of the challenge of being heard, Nourallah’s as satisfied with his production work as he is with his own music. He’s recently been working on recording the new Old 97’s albums (he’s played with Rhett Miller before). Nourallah explains, “Me doing this record represents the side of my life that’s been incredible and almost dreamlike, the momentum that my recording studio has right now, and also the work that I’ve been getting as a producer. I just started doing this right around the birth of our son. Now I’m working on a record by… not only are they friends of mine, but they also happen to be one of the most successful bands that have ever come from the state of Texas, so it’s really been exciting and great. That’s very symbolic for me, actually, of what’s been happening in my life. The years of being a young man and dreaming about being someone else, I woke up one day and I accidentally ended up being the person I dreamt about being. That, to me, is a good feeling.”
To hear Nourallah so energetically talk about reaching that personal peak is a reward in itself, and also an encouragement. With just a simple approach to his career and his family, Nourallah has gained a personal satisfaction that’s rare to see in the midst of such turmoil. Considering that his art so often reflects on hardships and challenges, it’s a little surprising to hear Nourallah sounding so comfortable, and maybe that explains the confidence and breadth of his last album. Even if sales and recognition for that disc aren’t there, he’s doing okay, and you have the sense that he’s found a deep contentment.
He says, “With my records, I make the records I want to make. I’m far from being a household name, but I’m pleased with all the benefits that come with being an indie artist and not being part of the machinery and doing things on my own terms ... I don’t want to get on the carousel and go play in every city in America trying to become a pop star. I never wanted to do that. I want to be around my family and have a life. That’s the thing that so many musicians end up sacrificing.”
Justin Cober-Lake lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, kids, and dog. His writing has appeared in a number of places, including Stylus, Paste, Chord, and Trouser Press. His work made its first appearance on CD with the release of Todd Goodman's first symphony, Fields of Crimson. He's recently co-founded the literary fly-fishing journal Rise Forms.