“It’s a weird thing in the Information Age. There are people that know more about what you’ve done than you do,” says a chuckling Kevin Salem. “Like, I had forgotten that I had ever done anything with the Silos.”
You can forgive Salem for overlooking a few items on his lengthy resume, which could be broken up into several sections: band member (Dumptruck), session/touring guitarist (Yo La Tengo, Freedy Johnston, Chris Harford, and apparently the Silos), producer (Giant Sand, Chocolate Genius, Madder Rose), and solo artist.
But before Salem was any of those things, he was a budding guitarist growing up in a small Pennsylvania town dominated by cover bands. “I don’t know where I thought songs came from,” recalls Salem, who now splits his time between New York City and Woodstock. “The idea of writing a song wasn’t the first thing that sprang to mind when I thought ‘I want to be a musician.’ The first thing that sprang to mind was just be a really cool guitar player.”
It took frequent trips to the music clubs of Boston to open up a whole new world of raw, fresh music for Salem. “You remember that Del Fuegos beer commercial?” he asks. “‘Folk music, you know, because it’s for folks.’ That’s what I thought I saw when I went to the Rat and saw Hüsker Dü and Tommy Keene and the Replacements. Yeah, this is folk music for my kind of folks.”
Finding some kindred spirits who’d take him in, Salem joined the rugged, dB’s-ish Dumptruck, replacing Kirk Swan in time for 1987′s melancholy For The Country. He then started the ’90s as a guitar guy for hire, playing with Johnston, Harford, and a host of others.
“I never sang my own songs until 1993 or 1994, whenever that first record came out,” Salem says, referring to 1994′s Soma City. “It wasn’t something I planned on doing. I did play with a lot of people, and I was very happy. And it always seemed like a complete form of expression to me, to be playing guitar.”
Soma City was a confident and involving debut, its guitar-centered rock and rough-hewn pop backing memorable lyrical musings (“Measure me by all I have not got/Make a list of everything I’m not/And never will be/Poster boy for those who’d kill me,” requests the hooky “Falter”). His second disc, 1996′s Glimmer, relied on a similar blueprint.
Five years and a number of production jobs later, Salem is back with the stunningly accomplished Ecstatic. An undercurrent of soul and R&B carries much of the new album, somewhat of a shift from Soma City and Glimmer, which found Salem getting filed in the overcrowded “Recommended If You Like Paul Westerberg” drawer. Instead, Ecstatic brings to mind recent genre-blurring efforts such as Joe Henry’s Fuse and Chuck Prophet’s The Hurting Business.
“I think the shift might be more in my ability to express that influence,” Salem says. “I love soul music; it’s just not part of my particular talent. I think ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’ is one of the saddest songs of all time. It’s as depressing as any Nick Drake song.” For Ecstatic, Salem enlisted some musicians who clearly helped him expand his “particular talent,” including keyboardist Rob Arthur and drummer Rich Mercurio, the latter a member of Ben E. King’s band.
At the heart of Ecstatic, both musically and sequentially, is the trio of “It’s Only Life”, the half-strutting, half-limping “Gold Diggers” (blessed with spectacular backing vocals from Alice Temple) and a self-described “infected lullaby” called “End Of The Addiction”. The first of those provides the album’s most unexpected moment. Salem’s friend Malcolm Burn borrowed the basic tracks for “It’s Only Life” after Salem had played the song for him. When the recording was returned, it featured a New Orleans rapper named Michael Jackson guesting on the song, which already sported backing vocals from Continental Drifter Vicki Peterson and distinguished vet Barry Reynolds and some writing contributions from Walter Salas-Humara.
“I was like — a rapper? I mean, I’m not that old. That’s like a 45-year-old guy buying a convertible,” laughs Salem. “But then I listened to it. I may not have done the best job in that song of saying what I wanted to say, but that guy really knew what I was trying to say.”
Salem relies more on snapshots and mood than on actual narrative to tell his stories. Phrases tend to be what stick, not scenes. “I always loved those songwriters like Gram Parsons,” Salem says. “Although once in a while there’s a story, sometimes there are songs that are intentionally just collections of phrases that evoke something.”
Case in point is the term “dyin’ shoes,” which leaps out of the first verse in “Gold Diggers”. “There was a point where I thought every song on the album should make a reference to another song,” says Salem. “And Dyin’ Shoes is a Townes Van Zandt album, maybe. Or, is it?”
Um, Flyin’ Shoes, actually, Salem is gently corrected. “Oh, I fucked up the lyric,” says Salem with another laugh. “I have to go back and redo the record.”