Interview: Salim Nourallah, Dallas Musician and Producer

I am honored to interview Dallas-based singer, musician, songwriter, producer, husband, and father of Gavin and Miette, Salim Nourallah. Salim was born in Illinois in the late 60’s and his family moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1970. The family later moved to Denton, Texas, and he now lives and work in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex. He has made 5 solo CDs and at the present time headlines the band Salim Nourallah and the Travoltas. His latest CD (also available in vinyl) is called Hit Parade. Please enjoy learning about Salim.
–Salim Nourallah

MDC: How old were you when you first wrote some music or lyrics? Do you remember the first ones you wrote of either?
SN: I started making up songs in my head when I was 11 or 12. At least that’s my first memory of it – for all I know they might’ve come sooner. I got myself a handheld tape recorder and started trying to sing my song ideas into it even before I could play the guitar. Those tapes are pretty hilarious to listen to now and this question reminds me that I’d been meaning to put the earliest on a CD for my son so he could make fun of me! Some of the earliest were “She’s Mine,” “I Hate Rock’n’Roll,” “Everything About Her,” and “Only When I Dream.”
MDC: That is a great idea, Salim. I’m sure those would be fun to hear. Speaking of family, you are of Syrian heritage—do you have relatives in Syria now? Do you know them?
SN: I do have relatives there but don’t know any of them. Recently a couple have written me on Facebook, which is cool. My Dad was only 2 of 13 siblings who got out of Syria and I’ve only been there once – when I was 3. My only memory of it is screaming while my head was stuck between the wall and metal frame of this bed draped in a giant, canopy mosquito net.
MDC: I know your brother is musically inclined, but were your parents? How did your musical talent develop?
SN: My Mom had a degree in art and played piano as well. My Dad was/is an accountant. My interest in music sprang forth as a result of my environment I suppose. It felt comforting to me because the world was scary and isolating to me as a child. Being the son of an Arabic immigrant, with this name of mine, was what made me feel isolated. I never felt like I really fit in with the others because it was always brought up and I was picked on a lot. It was scary to be bullied.
MDC: Wow, one right brain parent and one left brain parent. What did you want to be as you were growing up? What made you realize you wanted to be a musician as your career?
SN: At about 14 I realized I wanted to be a musician. At 18 I figured I’d be a musician who recorded others, too. It took me until my 30’s to get the “recording others” part going.

–Salim and his brother, Faris

MDC: How did you meet your equally creative wife, Jayme, who is a photographer?

SN: I met her after coming home from a gig one night. There’s was a costume party in the courtyard of the apartment complex we were living in and she was dressed as Gwyn Stefani. We were madly in love 3 days later.

MDC: Is it hard to balance family life with that of a musician due to late nights at gigs, alcohol, etc.? Do you have a fitness plan or follow some sort of regimen to keep healthy?
SN: The late nights are hard, but I mainly stick to weekend gigs now so it’s not too bad. I’ve never actually been a big drinker so that doesn’t really plague me. I got it in my head early on, as a kid, that many a musician’s downfall was drugs and booze. So as an overly earnest young man, intent on not repeating the mistakes of my heroes, I never allowed myself to start those kinds of bad habits. As far as keeping healthy…well, I’d like to slap my former self for the sedentary life I lived before 30. What a fool I was! Now I enjoy running. I never thought I would say it because I absolutely hated it when I was younger. I’d say I’m almost addicted to how good it makes me feel.
MDC: What instruments do you play? What was your first instrument?
SN: Guitar, bass guitar – I peck around on keyboards, but by no means do I consider myself a “keyboard player.” My first instrument was guitar. I learned how to play it in order to put the songs I was hearing in my head in to a tangible form others could hear. Bass is the instrument I’m best at though. I love slappin’ da bass!
MDC: How would you describe your music in a few words?
SN: “Hopeful melancholy” was a term my friend Doug Rucker coined that I quite like. I don’t know though…I’d say everything I do is probably somehow related to the Beatles’ White Album. As far as I’m concerned, everything good about rock’ n’ roll music can basically be found in the grooves of that record.

MDC: I would say your friend came up with a great term. I like how your songs are prose poems or story songs more than the typical chorus and verse structure. Can you talk about that?
SN: Well, when my plans to go to school to be a recording engineer were dashed, I tried to find a major that I could somehow relate to music. The only thing I could come up with that wasn’t an actual music degree was English. I was especially interested in modern poetry. So I guess I’ve somehow applied this to my writing. I also have always liked songs that had a tangible emotion you could almost grab hold of that was certainly put across by the words. Words have always been really important to me.
MDC: Well, no wonder! When do you know you are finished with a song? Is it ever finished?
SN: Yes and no. An example of the no is how I’ll tweak words even after the song has been recorded…you might notice, if you pay close attention, that when I perform certain songs – like “Saint Georges” or “Stranger In My Own Skin” the words I sing are very subtly different than what they are on the record.

–“It’s Not Enough” by Salim Nourallah
MDC: What is entailed in being the producer of a CD? I notice you are also a prolific producer for others.
SN: I love helping others make records and feel incredibly grateful and lucky that I’ve gotten to work with so many outstanding musicians over the years. I guess what it entails is helping them sculpt a record from the ground up.

MDC: Do you like working individually more or do better enjoy collaborating with another songwriter/composer?

SN: I like both actually. The Beatles taught me 4 heads are better than one so this is what we’re trying to do in the Travoltas.
MDC: How was your Rock Camp (from your site)?
SN: Great and absolutely exhausting…I loved working with the kids, especially my son Gavin. I’d never done anything like it before and I was happy that they seemed to enjoy it so much. We’ll probably do it again next summer but maybe shorter sessions because I’m too old to keep up!
MDC: Since you have been very good friends with Bob Schneider for a very long time, do you have something you can share that is very interesting about Bob?
SN: Bob drove a yellow mail truck when I first met him that eventually fell apart and was abandoned somewhere near Mesa Street in El Paso. He also went by Bobby…
MDC: Bobby in the mail truck! Funny… Hey, what do you think about the music scene in Dallas and its outlook?
SN: Dallas is full of many mega-talented, hard-working musicians that will continue to generate scores and scores of brilliant records most likely overlooked by many Dallasites and never heard by anyone outside our city limits. I know scores of musicians here that should be well-known and simply aren’t. As far as the outlook, this amazing underground music scene will probably continue to stay underground, whether more people here recognize it or not, we’ll continue to keep at it, regardless.  
MDC: Well, all I know is that I have been enjoying all kinds of live music in Dallas for many years. How did Salim Nourallah and the Travoltas get started as a band? How often do you guys practice?
SN: We got started about a year ago after Paul Slavens and I played a song swap at Barley House together with my good friend Dave Little (another brilliant, under recognized songwriter). Around that time I’d been thinking of actually forming a “band.” Not a backing band for my solo music – as I’d previously done for about 8 years. I’d kind of sworn off the whole band thing though after the Happiness Factor broke up in 2003. Anyway, I had fun hearing Paul re-interpret some of my back-catalogue and then there were these 3 outrageously talented musicians that I’d thought would be great to play music with – Nick Earl, Emsy Robinson, and Mike Hodges. So when everyone said they were up for it we started playing. We just made our first recordings and they are killer – I’m very excited!
 –Salim Nourallah and the Travoltas

MDC: Do you like playing in smaller venues or larger venues?
SN: I definitely like smaller venues because there is an emotional connection that can be easily established that is often never established in large venues. I’ve never been much for grand or exaggerated gestures and in larger venues it seems like that’s what performers are often reduced to doing in order to try to “connect.”

MDC: What can be a distraction for you while are performing? Do you mind if people take your picture or record or socialize?
SN: I don’t mind much at all other than gruff men shouting “Shut up and play!” in between songs. Loud talking during quiet acoustic shows can certainly be distracting, as well as massive TV’s blasting sporting events. The pictures or recordings are nice and certainly flattering.

MDC: What is the most bizarre thing that has happened to you while you were performing on stage?
SN: Hmmm…that’s a tough one to answer. Good question! I think the worst thing – not necessarily bizarre – was at an outdoor gig in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I pulled my 100-pound all tube bass head off a five foot high Ampeg SVT bass cabinet. I remembered it clear as day in extra slow-motion. The tubes spilling out of the head and the band coming to a screeching halt. It was a terrible feeling…
MDC: What are some of your upcoming projects?
SN: My newish band, the Travoltas, goes on a Midwest/East coast tour with the Old 97’s in October. Then I hope to come home and work on a record with l Love Math. The Travoltas proper debut to follow…

–“Unstoppable” by Salim Nourallah and the Treefort 5

MDC: I can’t wait. Where would you like to go if you could go somewhere in the world that you have never been?
SN: Spain…and the bummer is, I had a show booked in Spain this past July that I was supposed to play. I had to cancel that and the rest of the tour due to a multitude of reasons. I hope someday I get another chance to go back.
MDC: Oh, that is disappointing. Sorry you didn’t get there. Do you read a lot? What is one of the books that you know you want to re-read again someday?
SN: I have only been able to really see out of my right eye ever since I was a kid and within the last two years damaged that eye as well. That being said, I used to read more but now it makes me uncomfortable because it’s such a struggle. I would someday like Jayme to re-read Hawthorne’s “House of the Seven Gables” to me!
MDC: What is an interview question that you wish someone would ask you (and what is the answer, too)?
SN: I like them to ask me what I think the meaning of life is…the answer: I HAVE NO IDEA, but I think experiencing love and compassion for others and trying to be in the moment of each day figure in to it somehow. Oh, that and the obvious – making piles of money, becoming mega-powerful, and dominating others at all costs.
MDC: Well, I know that last part of the answer is so not you! Thank you very much for taking the time to answer all of my questions–I think people will enjoy this interview because you are so personable. I can’t wait to go to a next gig and also can’t wait for that Travoltas CD. Dallas is lucky to have you and your creativity in our midst!
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