Behind The Song: “Driving To Hawaii” by Summer Salt

“It started as just some fun line we had made up,” Matt Terry of the Texas-based, lo-fi indie band, Summer Salt, tells American Songwriter. “Like, ‘Driving to Hawaii/ surfing down the street.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, no one can drive to Hawaii.”

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After that last line, Terry let out a warm, easy laugh, alluding to the earnest humor and sentimentality behind their modern-classic, “Driving To Hawaii.” First dropping in 2014, the song’s stripped-backed arrangement and blissful, honey-smooth melodies established the signature style of Summer Salt.

On a Zoom call with American Songwriter—along with the other half of Summer Salt, Eugene Chung—Terry was doing a lot of reflecting on the early days of forging that seminal, doo-wop-meets-tropical-indie sound. Since “Driving To Hawaii” took off, the band’s continued to carry their inimitable approach to song-craft through several albums, tours and eras of indie-rock. Now, this past June, they unveiled their newest full-length, Sequoia Moon, which saw them team up with legendary producer Phil Ek to record in a proper studio for the first time. An evolution of their sound—both sonically and compositionally—the record still holds true to the initial magic they discovered back in the early days of “Driving To Hawaii.”

“I think that song is a reminder of where we came from,” Terry said. “Sometimes, we’ll step away from that sound, but it’s really the core of who we are as a band.”

Between the gentle lull of its 6/8 rhythm, the dreamy, flowing quality of its guitar-led harmony and the raw, emotive expression of Terry’s vocals, “Driving To Hawaii” really does strike something authentic, potent and beautiful. To that end, it’s indicative of Summer Salt’s typical approach to writing—down-to-Earth guys and intuitive songwriters, once they solidified that initial lyrical idea, they began exploring ways to naturally bring the song to life.

“We were listening to the Surfer Girl album a lot at that time,” Terry explained. “So, I kinda wanted it to have a ballad feel. We were writing a lot of songs in ¾ and 6/8, with a waltz-y, ballad vibe. So, we were thinking about Surfer Girl and all of that stuff and we just started coming up with some simple melodies to match those first few lines. But, when we were thinking about the context, it hit me that, like… well, okay, we were 23 or 24 at the time. We didn’t have jobs that were making too much money. We were poor, just out of college, working service jobs.”

Far removed from any type of glamor or luxury in their lives, the notion of taking a sunset cruise down a hypothetical trans-Pacific highway felt like a hazy, truly absurd dream… which led Terry and Chung to uncovering the deeper message of the song. 

“It was like, ‘Okay, here’s this illusion’—I could ‘drive to Hawaii’ and create this fantasy world because nothing else matters when I have someone I love,” Terry said. “So, it’s all about that relationship—we don’t need all of those beautiful places as long as we have each other. It’s a textbook ‘I love you’ song. It might be longing for a dream that’ll never come into sight, but it doesn’t matter because you have each other.” 

Perhaps it’s that underlying message of pure, youthful love that endows “Driving To Hawaii” with so much staying power. With a simple-yet-profound sentiment, truly honest delivery and a perfectly-paired arrangement to boot, the song is a bonafide romantic standard in the young, indiehead lexicon. For their part, Terry and Chung are honored that the song has resonated so strongly with so many.

“A lot of people are like, ‘That’s your best song, it’s the Holy Grail,’ you know?” Terry said. “We could never, ever recreate it. It’s, like, the first thing we ever did, so we can’t recapture that energy… it was so organic. But, it’s a good reminder of where we came from and what we loved when we were younger—it helps us stay true to that.”

Listen to Summer Salt’s signature tune, “Driving To Hawaii,” below:

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