Salim Nourallah Details the Songwriting Process Behind His New Single, “Assassins”

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In the summer of 2018, Texas singer-songwriter and producer Salim Nourallah and his friend / musical collaborator Bill Harvey began tracking a few arrangements together at a studio in Austin. A year later, the pair ended up with 25 songs that Nourallah ultimately decided to release over five EPs, with the first–Jesus of Sad–arriving in January.

Today Nourallah shares a new single–“Assassins”–off the second EP, Let’s Be Miserable Together, which is due in early May.

“I wanted it to be something that held weight, yet the listener could still bop along to it,” Nourallah told American Songwriter of the track in an exclusive interview featured below. “The groove was paramount. ‘Swampy’ was one of my descriptors when we were tracking it.”

In “Assassins’–premiering via American Songwriter–Nourallah fights back against negative self-talk, which he sees as a type of self-assassination (hence the song’s titular metaphor).

“Assassins come crashing in on you in the middle of the night / Assassins back stabbing, dressed in black, begging for a fight,” he drawls in the opening verse, savoring each syllable of the repeated first word. “Assassins all laughing, plant bad thoughts that fill you up with fright / Assassins hi-jacking, attacking mind loop parasites.”

Despite the song’s dark subject matter, it has a playful vibe that Nourallah attributes to its guitar and drum melodies and Harvey’s production choices.

“The tremolo baritone guitar in the left speaker really contributes to the swampy vibe we were shooting for,” he explains. “[Harvey] also put down some beefy, no-nonsense drums that really accentuated the groove. I might be singing about weighty things here, but the song still reads as ‘fun’ to me. That’s totally what we were going for.”

Nourallah recently spoke to American Songwriter about his experience writing and recording the track, as well as his creative relationship with Harvey. Check out the full interview and listen to “Assassins” below.

Let’s Be Miserable Together is out May 8 via Palo Santo Records.

What’s the story behind this song? Why did you write it? 

I was working on part two of an acoustic covers record I’d put out called A Break in the Battle. One of the songs I’d picked out was called “Glass Jar” by Tristen Gaspadarek. The word “assassins” is in the lyric. It jumped out at me as a potentially fun song title, but all I did was take note. I’ve always been interested in negative self-talk. I’ve dealt with a fair amount of it over the course of my lifetime. I think most people do, and the ones that don’t aren’t to be trusted! 

Anyway, the song was eventually inspired by a close friend. My friend had been experiencing a particularly brutal run of hateful, self-inflicted thoughts, and during a discussion, I said something to the effect of, “It’s like you’ve got these assassins in your brain, constantly trying to murder you!”

Tell us a bit about the songwriting process for “Assassins.”

I generally write on a 1972 Guild Mark III that sits by my bed. That being said, this song was started on another Guild acoustic I have over at my recording studio. I’d been kicking around the idea for these “mind assassins” but picked up a guitar only because I was waiting on somebody that day. My hand randomly went to a C7 chord. It’s not a chord I usually play; for some reason it always makes me think of The Beatles’ “Hard Days Night.” This time the chord triggered a vocal melody though, and I started singing the “Assassins” refrain. I made a quick voice memo recording of the idea then circled back to it later. I basically had the bones of the song and fleshed out the rest of the words later.  

How did becoming a producer of others’ music change your own music and your songwriting?

It’s made me much more aware of how difficult it is for many artists to see the forest for the trees, so to speak. It’s hard for the writer to not be too close to the song. They’re kind of like our little babies, and even when we’re trying to critically analyze them, it’s almost impossible to see the bigger picture. 

Learning how much help I was able to lend other artists made me realize that I could also probably use that same help with my own songs. That’s what led me to working with another songwriter I really admired who also did production work. Billy Harvey produced my fourth record, Constellation. Getting his input was so helpful and sometimes mind-blowing.

A few of the songs on that record were pretty radically transformed by his feedback, and the rush left me wanting to work with him again. So in July 2018, I called Billy up and asked if he’d help me with another pile of songs. “Assassins” ended up being one of 25 we tracked over the course of a year.

What kind of a vibe were you going for on this song when you recorded it?

I wanted it to be something that held weight, yet the listener could still bop along to it. The groove was paramount. “Swampy” was one of my descriptors when we were tracking it. That’s never been a word I’d associate in any way, shape, or form with my music. So it was fun to have a go at trying to sonically achieve that!

Did you end up with the song you initially expected?

Expectations are a slippery slope. I thankfully ended up with a song that sounds like I’d hoped it would sound. The tremolo baritone guitar in the left speaker really contributes to the swampy vibe we were shooting for. Billy also put down some beefy, no-nonsense drums that really accentuated the groove. I might be singing about weighty things here, but the song still reads as “fun” to me. That’s totally what we were going for.

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