An exclusive chat with the fast rising Nashville cat
It’d be one hell of an understatement to say that John Salaway stays busy.
The Nashville-based multi-instrumentalist and producer has shared stages with a veritable king’s ransom of musical luminaries, from Peter Frampton to Ben Folds to Denny Laine, all while holding down a prized weekly residency at B.B. King’s Blues Club. Still, it seems none of this frenetic immersion in just about every aspect of the music world has taken a toll on the man’s expansive and big-hearted songs, which have garnered raves from the likes of No Depression, American Songwriter, PopMatters, Glide, and more.
As Rolling Stone enthused, “Salaway’s music nods to the past while still pushing forward”. His newest full-length, Americana Dreams, is a deft, affecting marriage of sun-soaked 60’s pop influences with the gritty tang of hard-luck soul, blues, and country/folk touchstones both familiar, intimate and singularly Nashville. Rock And Roll Globe recently had the chance to speak with Salaway about the nature of creative collaboration, the need for uplifting music in an often bleak world, and where Nashville stands as 2020 looms.
You’ve said that Americana Dreams is an intentionally uplifting album, meant to inspire joy and a leaving behind of regret and negativity. Considering the political and social upheaval of the last few years, was there any sense when crafting these songs that you were intending them to be a balm for those perhaps exhausted and discouraged by recent events, local or otherwise?
Very insightful question! All of this has definitely been on my mind for a while and that was exactly part of my intention. In general, I always want to try to help people and uplift them when they’re feeling down but in recent years we’ve seen a lot of division and turmoil due to political differences. Social media can be wonderful but it also brought the debates and negativity into our homes and people have lost friendships over a difference of opinion, which is petty, superficial and sad when you think of it. A difference of opinion should not be so divisive but it is when it comes to politics. We all need to offer a lot more forgiveness and grace to each other.
We have to remember to focus on what’s important like “The Beauty That Surrounds Us.” That song is exactly what we are talking about here. When people get so emotional over politics, stress, arguments, and difference of opinions, they forget to see the beauty that surrounds us. It’s a reminder to me as well, to be thankful for all the good things we have in life and cherish the beauty.
You’re known for your capability on a number of instruments, often performing and recording entirely on your own. This new record seems much more communal and collaborative in spirit. Was that a deliberate choice, or did it happen organically somewhere in the process?
Thank you! It happened very organically. Last year I set up a lot of co-writes with friends to see what happens and we ended up creating wonderful songs. When I wrote with India Ramey and Bri Murphy, I knew that I had to have them perform on those recordings. They really brought the songs to a whole new level.
I decided to continue that spirit and reached out to more talented friends to play or sing on the album. One of the best things about Music City is that we are surrounded by talented and creative people. I’m so thankful to have such talented friends who I enjoy hanging out and working with.
As a multi-instrumentalist, do you find you personally gravitate to one specific instrument more than others? When writing songs, are there certain instruments that feel naturally suited to your process?
I write mostly from the acoustic guitar but I am first and foremost, a drummer. I started playing drums when I was 10. My dad is a great drummer so I learned a lot from him and got to study on his old 1974 Ludwig kit so drumming is in my DNA and it influences all the instruments that I play. Although I write from the acoustic guitar, I’m always thinking about the rhythms and grooves.
As someone accustomed to having total control of the recording and production of his work, was it difficult at any point to cede input to any of these new collaborators?
Not at all. The best thing a producer can do is to set the vibe in the studio and set the tone of what you’re going for then let the musicians and artists do their thing. Next, get some different takes and flavors to work with, then decide what sounds best. I’m so grateful for the artists on my album; India Ramey, Bri Murphy, Kelsey Steel, Kyshona Armstrong, Stuart Montez, Joey Fletcher, Dan Hagen, Sammy Baker, Amber Den Exter, Matt Elrod Erickson, Mike Cap & Josh Horne.
On the album, I played the drums, bass, rhythm guitars, percussion, and some lead guitar and had these amazing people put the icing on the cake with their parts. They did an amazing job.
You’re a native of Florida, a state with an interesting cultural legacy to say the least. Did growing up in one of the notably stranger corners of the U.S. have any influence on your musical development? Is it something you find yourself still touching on in your music?
It’s funny; when you look at Florida on the news, there is some strange stuff that happens, but the place where I grew up was incredibly peaceful and positive. It’s a small beach town south of Sarasota and it has such a laid back vibe and emphasis on community. I was definitely appreciated there and got to play all the festivals, events and touristy places on the water, which gave me a lot of good performance experience. I have returned to play there a few times and always get the most love, appreciation, and support I could ever imagine. That hometown love is amazing, plus, the ocean is grounding, therapeutic and always inspires me and makes me feel more peaceful.
You’ve lived in Nashville since the early 2000s. Was it the culture and mythos of music in Nashville that brought you there? How has Nashville and its scene changed since your arrival, and has that change affected, or been reflected in, your music?
Good question! My move to TN was for college and work. I got accepted into the Recording Industry program at Middle Tennessee State University and got my bachelor’s degree there then worked my way into the music biz. Nashville has changed tremendously since I’ve been here. It’s probably at least doubled in size. The skyline is completely different. Many people, venues and studios have come and gone. I hear a lot of complaints about us being overpopulated. The traffic can be terrible but it’s a thriving metropolis and business is so good for so many. It’s great for the music biz because there are so many people attending shows and supporting the arts. And since it’s overflowing with creative people, it inspires collaborations. The main thing about Nashville that is reflected in my music is the vibe. I think you can feel the Nashville vibe in my music which is a range of feelings. On my debut solo album “The Song in the Air”, I sang a lot about the beautiful nature that’s all around Tennessee too.
It seems folks as deeply immersed in the music world as you come from a musical background. Were you raised in a musical family, and supported in these aims? If not, what first appealed to you about creating your own sounds?
I’m so grateful for my folks and musical family! As I mentioned earlier, my dad is a great drummer. Also, my uncle is a music teacher and my great grandfather was an opera singer and it felt like music was in my DNA. My two brothers and I picked up multiple instruments very organically and we grew up around very loud Rock n Roll at home and in the car.
My folks are so supportive and used to go to nearly all my shows when I was coming up in Florida. My grandparents were not fans of loud rockin music but even they’d come out and sit in the front row. My folks also took me to so many great concerts as I was growing up; Paul McCartney, Rolling Stones, The Who, Crosby Still Nash & Young, etc… seeing all those shows inspired me and taught me so much! My family and upbringing is a huge part of who I am as a person and musician. They also taught me how important respect, kindness, and manners are.
The new album covers a great deal of sonic territory, from the autumnal folk of “It’s All In Your Mind” to the bluesy midnight throb of “You Better Believe”. Has there always been a conscious effort on your part to tackle such a great number of musical themes and ideas?
Yes! Definitely! I love so much diverse music from nearly all genres and have always written things in multiple styles. I’m thankful that I have the creative ability to do that and it’s so much fun! This is also a blessing and a curse because most people want artists to fit in one box musically and stylistically. Ironically, there have been a few times where being musically diverse has affected me negatively in the music biz, but it’s who I am. I love playing all those styles and love learning new things.
Lastly, what’s next? What does the new decade have in store for John Salaway?
I’m just moving forward on the path I created! Besides being an artist, I also write and pitch things to film and tv opportunities. I produce other artists, play sessions, and book shows for multiple artists. I do a little touring but have a weekly residency at BB King’s club, one of the best clubs in Nashville, where I get to perform for tourists from all over the world each week. People can also see me performing around the south with ‘Forever Abbey Road’ which is my high energy Beatles experience. I’m so thankful to get to do what I love for a living.
The only thing that I hope to start doing more of is pitching to other artists. I have co-written songs that could be successful for other artists so I hope to get them heard and cut soon. I’m also thinking about releasing a straight blues album and another Americana album in the next year or two.
AUDIO: John Salaway Americana Dreams (full album)