Roots rockers, Robin Dean Salmon and Afton Seekins Salmon have never shied away from who each of them was as individuals, before coming together as a couple and as a band, when they released their eponymous debut as Surrender Hill in 2015.
Time having progressed and the pair’s lives having grown only more intertwined since, one might presume an erosion of such individuality with the band’s music. Yet, the couple’s multi-cultural, multi-genre, fiercely unique histories only continue to fuel their songwriting. New LP, A Whole Lot of Freedom (due out April 3), picks up where 2018’s Tore Down Fences left off. However, having already ventured into the light and the dark of its ever-evolving relationship, Surrender Hill is now free to flesh out more of the nuance surrounding the questions of “where, how, and why,” – over simply exploring “what” – behind the moments, feelings, and memories that spark Surrender Hill’s newest batch of music.
Alongside today’s full-album premiere with American Songwriter. Robin and Afton Salmon go into detail discussing a handful songs from A Whole Lot of Freedom’s 18 tracks.
“Broken Down Car”
Robin: “This album is so special to both of us. We can almost pinpoint exact places, how we felt, the way the weather was, or the sounds in the air when each song was being written. We attribute this to our heightened senses because of the richness we felt while Afton was pregnant, and then, of course, how intense our lives became after Wren was born. All of the songs on this record were written during the time between Afton being pregnant and Wren’s 19-month birthday. All except “Broken Down Car.” I wrote “Broken Down Car” in early 2007. I was making a record called Come On Home in a studio in East Nashville. I was in a pretty good place in my life. Pretty happy. One day after leaving the studio, I decided to go to The Rose Pepper for a margarita and some chow (again), and there was this really busted-up car that drove past me while I was walking down the street to the restaurant. I don’t know how it was moving and not just falling apart. I started thinking of the life that car must have led, and I likened it to a person who was living hard and slowly coming to pieces. I recorded an acoustic version of the tune and threw it on the end of my album. Two years later, I became the person in the song. I self-destructed, and it was like the song was a prophecy. Since then, my life has taken an incredible turn for the good. I have always thought about that song, and one day I pulled it out and suggested Afton sing it, as a woman singing to a man about the fast life he is living. Something about it blew me away, and I thought, “Well, let’s put it on the album as a reminder for me to keep it in the road,” so to speak. Recording the tune was a lot of fun. Really easy – I think two takes tops. To capture a nice driving drum track, I played an acoustic while Afton sang and Matt Crouse slammed out the drums. There is a cowbell on the last half of the song. Just seems so appropriate somehow. Love it!!
Afton: This song is one of my favorite harmonies to sing. Lyrically we worked hard on this. We wanted every word to really speak about the journey the character (Robin) was going through. Robin has always tried to live up to his father’s presence. In a very good way. His father is a very patient, kind, and disciplined man. He has lived an incredibly full life but has somehow always been able to stay very grounded.
Robin: Yeah, I guess he has been my compass. I have a lot of darkness in my nature that I have battled with all my life. The old two wolf story. I have tried to always feed the good wolf, but it has been hard. What amazed me was that when I met Afton, I felt this ease come over me that I had never felt before. I just knew the good wolf would be well fed. There was no trying. It just was. For quite some time, I have been trying to put all of that into words. One day, I started playing some chords and the first words – “I’ve been out walking with my father, searching for his son” – came busting out. Afton heard the line and came into the studio, and we were on our way. She knew where we were heading. She of course is my lucky star. Corny huh? “My lucky star got her hand around my heart.” Probably one of my favorite lines in any song I’ve ever had a hand in writing. It means everything to me. Our friend Wyatt Espalin came to our house for a show rehearsal before we started recording this album. We played “Lucky Star” for him, and he came up with the beautiful fiddle line.
Afton: Yeah, when we had Wyatt over to record his fiddle part, Robin got seriously carried away and had him record about eight tracks all in different registers so it sounded like an orchestra popping into the song. It was huge and lush and kind of awesome for about five minutes, until we realized how overblown it sounded. It still has a wonderful lift in the music break which I just love. This is one of those songs that releases a lot of “stuff” when we sing it.
Robin: Boy I love this song! It was November 2017. We had just moved to this little five-acre ranch in North Georgia that October. Afton was pregnant with our little Wren. The snow came early, a pretty heavy snow. I went down to the barn to look after the horses and play in the muck, and, while I was out, Afton wrote this song. I came in while she was working through it, and the melody blew me away. I think I may have left the house so that I didn’t change the vibe.
Afton: Yeah, I don’t know where the melody came from. Robin
left to go and “mow the snow” as he likes to say, and I picked up a guitar. I
wanted something different, so I randomly threw a capo on the neck and sort of
forced myself to change chords at what felt like an abnormal time. I ended up
with the beginning chord progression, and, when I bounced onto the B chord,
words started to flow. I was feeling very safe and grounded, like I was finally
home. There was nothing more I could have wanted in my life at that moment. As
I was working on the song, I was thinking about my past and the struggles I
went through, about how completely lost and hopeless I had felt at times, and
somehow I have ended up in a really amazing place in life. When I write on my
own, if the song doesn’t come together right away, I tend to scrap it. I’ve
tried going back to an idea or a lyric, and it just never seems to come back.
Once I lose the initial feeling, I can’t seem to conjure it up again.
Fortunately, this song just fell out of the sky. When Robin and I write
together, although the best songs do tend to come quickly, we can revisit ideas
and work through them together.
Robin: Yeah, I’ve tried reworking some of Afton’s abandoned ideas but it usually doesn’t fly right. Her writing is so incredibly personal.
Afton: For the recording, I really wanted to
maintain a sort of hollow beauty. I wanted things to sound sort of drawn out,
yearning but filled with a sense of light. I think Robin got the production
just right. What really brings it together is the fiddle line. Wyatt Espalin
did a fantastic job with the feel of that.
“A Whole Lot of Freedom”
Robin: So, I wish I could remember the first chorus I had for this song. This song started out with a chorus that went something like, “I just came in here to drink / get out of the desert sun / blah blah blah.” It was kind of goofy, but fun. I kept slamming through it over and over. Sometimes when we write, we will bash through a part of the song that we have worked out and try to remain open to the words that are flying through the universe above our heads, and then dive into another chord or feel and see what comes spilling out. It’s fun and makes for a lot enjoyment and laughter – sometimes it’s ridiculous and other times something completely right and inspired comes out. In this case, it was, “I grew up in a simple way / Everyday my feet kicked up the dirt.” Right when those words came out, we knew where this was going. It took about 15 minutes to write the rest of the verses, taken directly from my life. A few of the poignant lines in the song would be, “I never stuck around long enough to make a name.” That line hits home. I wouldn’t change a thing, but I often wonder what would have happened if I never left New York City after 10 years of my life invested there? What would have happened if I stayed in Nashville and kept plugging away there? Texas? Arizona? Colorado? California? Georgia? Instead, I always had the urge to keep on moving and keep on experiencing other places and different lives. All of it led me to the Afton, Surrender Hill, and our baby boy, Wren. Nothing could be better. The other line I love is the last one of the final verse, where the woman says, “Cowboy you don’t have to choose.” Man, that sums up the wonderfulness of Afton.
Once we had the verses going right, the original chorus just didn’t fly. I kicked it around for several days, every now and then picking up the guitar, and one day the new chorus just came zipping out. Not sure who wrote it up in the sky and sent it our way, but we’ll take it! We had a bit of time recording this song. We play it, live, very stripped-down with acoustic guitar and Afton playing a keg drum as a kick and a snare. It is very dynamic that way, live, but it didn’t translate well to the recording. When Matt Crouse came in to record drum tracks with us, we came up with the idea of just blasting through the choruses pounding the floor tom and adding some dobro picked like a banjo and a nice dirty electric. We are very happy with the result and love the power of it, but I have to say, there are a few fans of the way we do it live that weren’t so pleased. Oh well!!
“Badge of a Punk Rock Band”
Robin: The original idea for this song came when Afton and I went to dinner at some folks’ house that we had just met at a show. They have since become very good friends of ours. Anyway, we showed up at their house and our friend, Dave, took us downstairs to his garage and showed us his life’s passion, which is restoring Corvettes. There was a time in his youth when he raced Corvettes. In his garage, he had a 1965 and a 1969 Corvette. Both restored to beyond perfection. I said something like, “Wow! So while I was into guitars, you were into muscle cars!” Well, the line “guitars and muscle cars” kept ringing through my head. I was thinking about how it felt when I got my fist guitar. How empowered I felt. Hell, I didn’t know the first thing about it, but man, it felt amazing slinging it on and turning it up and making loud, nasty noises. About the same feeling of “this is something special” as it felt when I got my first western saddle and horse, Butterfly, when my family moved to the Y.O Ranch in Texas when I was 12. The saddle I ended up trading for a knockoff Stratocaster years later. I regret the hell out of that. Anyway, the next morning, Afton and I sat down with a guitar and started exploring the idea of a song built around my high school years and what a guitar did to save me from the sheer hell and boredom I was going through at boarding school. I was in the 9th grade. I hated being off the ranch, and I hated school. I met this Japanese guy at school who could play guitar. He heard this abomination of sound coming out of my room and busted in and told me to at least tune the guitar. I said, “What’s that?” So he showed me how to tune a guitar and taught me how to play “Smoke On The Water.” Something I’m sure he came to regret! I played that song every day, all day, LOUD. By the next year, I had a band in school with three other “actual musicians” called The MT Minds. It saved my life. I knew with no doubt that I was going to spend the rest of my life working as a musician. Thirty-six years later, I’m writing this. I have to point out, because I draw reference to it in the song, that my brother was the jock of all jocks at the school. The Golden Boy. The writing went smoothly, and, when we recorded it, we weren’t going to put drums on it because it is so intense with the constant finger picking on the guitar. We fooled around with it for a while, and Matt ended up playing this funky little beat. It gave the song such a weird little vibe, and when the bridge part came along, I wanted to add more tension, and that’s where the repetitive mandolin comes in. Because it draws reference to my punk rock days, I threw a little overdriven piece in there for good measure. All in all we are pretty happy with the tune. I always like it when it comes around.