See Shells: Michigan music MVP Shelley Salant on her new solo LP
Between all the various ways she's involved in southeast Michigan's music scene, it's almost surprising that Shelley Salant has any time to make music of her own. By our count, Salant is a member of at least four different bands at the moment: Tyvek, Bonny Doon, Chain and the Gang, and The Vitas. She DJs regularly, hosts the Local Music Show on WCBN, and books and promotes numerous shows.
Somewhere in the midst of this maelstrom of creative activity, the Detroit resident (and Ann Arbor expat) recently released Shells 2, her second full-length solo record.
And what a record it is.
Salant's solo instrumental guitar work is vibrant and layered, with reverb-soaked melodies washing over one another. Salant has a terrific grasp of how to build a song's momentum and emotional power, and the distinct moods that come through on each track feel deeply revealing. Salant's music certainly seems to be the purest personal outlet for a woman who comes off as quiet and unassuming in person. On the new record, her sound is rounded out just a tad by synths and production work from another local music titan, Fred Thomas -- but the sound is still wholly Salant's.
We chatted with Salant about her writing style, the recording process for Shells 2, and a frightening and inspiring trip she took to Big Sur. If the end of the interview seems abrupt, it's because she was running out the door to tour Europe with Chain and the Gang.
Just another day in the life of Shelley Salant.
Q: You've got such a distinct way of developing these really hypnotic solo guitar instrumentals. When did you start developing that style?
A: That's a great question. I've played guitar for a long time. I started playing guitar when I was 12. I'm 28 now. But when I started playing in bands, I'd always play bass or drums or keyboards. I would mostly just play guitar by myself. I put out a tape of some psychedelic guitar stuff that I'd recorded and I gave that tape to a bunch of people and some of them liked it. I gave it to Warren Defever from the band His Name Is Alive, and he asked me to play a solo guitar set at an annual event he was involved with called Noise Camp. That was in 2011, probably. Then he just put "Shells" on the flyer. That was the first Shells show.
I'd played guitar for a long time, and I always just really loved playing guitar. It's just one of my favorite things to do. I just think it's really fun. But I slowly developed my own style, and I think him asking me to play that show made me realize that I can just play guitar. I'd been playing in a bunch of bands and I kind of wanted to do a solo thing, but I didn't know what I should do. Sometimes you see people play by themselves and they're playing a bunch of different instruments and layering them, and that just isn't my style.
Q: How did the experience of writing and making this record differ from your previous Shells records?
A: There were a few tapes, but the first record that's really a record to me was the first one released as an LP. It's called In a Cloud. Everything before this I just recorded myself. For this kind of stuff, it's hard to record with another person because it's just kind of time-consuming and I don't have it all mapped out. The songs are kind of like root ideas that I've been playing off of for a long time. It's a lot different from recording a band that has songs. I recorded the first one all by myself in a practice space, and then I brought it to Fred Thomas and he helped me edit it and do a little post-production. We actually recorded this second one together, and he's my most trusted collaborator. I've played in a bunch of bands with him and he really gets what I'm trying to do. So that was fun, but even with him being my most trusted collaborator, it's just a change. We did a lot more multi-tracking on this record. The first one is mostly one track. A couple tracks have one overdub. This one has a couple with drums and there's just a lot more guitars. I'd play guitar, but we'd have the same guitar track going through three amps or something.
But just on the more personal level, I just went through a lot of personal changes between the first and second records, like one does in their life. I traveled a lot and did a lot of traveling that wasn't touring. I was influenced by doing a lot of nature stuff. I basically fell in love, had my heart broken, all that kind of stuff. It's kind of hard to talk about because it's instrumental music.
Q: One of the best tracks on this new record is called "Nacimiento Road," and you mentioned traveling. Were you out at Big Sur when you wrote that?
A: The thing about that is that I actually went to Big Sur after the writing and recording of that song. It's really hard for me to give titles to the songs because it's kind of like trying to put words to your emotions. But I had a really crazy experience on Nacimiento Road in Big Sur, and the vibe of that song just fit the vibe of what going there was like. So that's why I used it as the title.
Q: What was the really crazy experience?
A: I was with my friend Alex. We were driving from L.A. to the Bay area and we decided we were going to camp in Big Sur. We stopped and got like a $30 tent and we drove it to Big Sur and we stopped at a campground. They said it cost $45 or something, and we were like, "Oh, that's too expensive." The person at the campground was like, "Well, a lot of people just drive up Nacimiento Road and camp up there."
So we started driving up this road and it was already getting dark and it became quickly very apparent that this was an extremely winding road up a mountain and it was already getting dark. I was like, "I'm not driving down this in the dark, so I hope we find somewhere to camp." And there were just a bunch of people who had their tents set up on the side of a cliff. It was pretty scary to be driving up this crazy road when it was basically dark. And right at the last second, I think 12 miles up the road, right before it totally got dark, we pulled into a campground. It's next to a brook and it's really nice and there's only two other parties there. So we camped there and that was really crazy. And then driving down the mountain the next day was just really psychedelic in a drug-free way. It's hard to describe.
Q: There are so many nature-related song titles on the album. You mentioned that nature inspires you a lot. Are there specific nature experiences you had that then inspired songs, or do you often write a song and then go back and name it after an experience you have later?
A: Honestly, I usually bring a small guitar when I travel. I haven't been doing it lately, but I did it a lot when I was writing the stuff that's on the record. So some of the songs are written while traveling and some are inspired by just thinking back on that. There's another song called "North Shore." Just in thinking about what to name the songs, I think about what seems to fit with the vibe of the song. And I just remembered camping on the North Shore of Lake Superior, on the coast of Minnesota. If you're in Duluth and you go north, that's the North Shore. And it just looks crazy.
Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
Shelly Salant, Michael G. Nastos & Ken Kozora play Ziggy's, 206 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti, on Thursday, March 15, at 7 pm. Donations accepted and go to the musicians. Visit the Facebook event page for more details. Salant will also be playing with Tyvek on March 29 at Marble Bar in Detroit; check out the Facebook event page for more info.