Surrender Hill released their latest album A Whole Lot of Freedom at the start of April, when everyone was already cooped up in their homes. But home played an important part in the new record from the Americana duo.
The husband and wife team of Robin Dean Salmon and Afton Seekers recorded their latest release in their home studio, so it’s coming from their home to yours. And it’s more than a little bit personal for them, too. They connected with me recently to talk about how they put the record together, and share what didn’t make it onto the final track list.
You can listen to A Whole Lot of Freedom now on iTunes and Apple Music, and follow the duo on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify for more as they continue to spread the word about their new album.
Brittany Frederick: It’s not uncommon for artists to have home studios, but what does it actually take to build one?
Robin Dean Salmon: I am lucky to have been in the recording biz side of things in the ’90s with a studio I had in Atlanta called FMG Music Studio. (Fat Muddy George was my big, fat, lazy chocolate lab at the time. He co-produced every session. He loved mud.) With that recording background, I knew how to get things rolling. What was a bit challenging for me was the gear. My studio in the ’90s was an analog studio, and what we have put together here at the house is a Pro Tools setup. I had to go through a pretty steep period of learning to get to where I needed to be. I have worked on, and am familiar with Pro Tools, but I haven’t put a system together before from scratch, and I really wanted a sort of hybrid analog/digital setup. We are still working out the kinks in a big way, but it works.
The studio is one where I feel completely comfortable producing our own material, but to have a paying artist step in would be interesting. They would have to understand there is a bit of madness that comes along with the production experience. The language coming out of the engineer’s mouth is, of course, very impressive at times. I use different rooms of the house for basic tracking. Drummer in the dining room, guitar amps in closets, a singer in the bathroom. All the usual stuff that goes into making a good and memorable album.
BF: How much does it help you to have something that’s specifically tailored to your needs and wants as artists?
RDS: Being able to record at our own pace was incredible. I am by no means a perfectionist, but I know when the track is right or not right. I can feel it when a performance is genuine. That sometimes takes time, and, as an indie artist, paying for studio time can get tricky. I would say the one downer is having to engineer myself when I’m tracking my parts. Afton has become a decent engineer and knows her way around the studio, but our son Wren decides when she can or cannot work. Afton has a great ear for when my vocal parts are on-point or are just complete s–t. It’s a family affair, for sure.
Afton Seekins: Yeah, there is no way we could have made this album anywhere else.
BF: Are there songs that particularly resonated with you when recording A Whole Lot of Freedom? Which ones should listeners start with?
RDS: For sure, there are certain songs that popped out. “Turn This Train Around” definitely broke loose when we added the drum track. I recorded the guitars and vocals on this tune to a click track before adding the drums. Kind of ass-backwards, but circumstances led to it going that way.
When Matthew Crouse laid down the drum track, there was a strange distortion that was coming through the console on the snare track. At first, when we listened back to the track, the sound was awful, and, of course, we were about to jump back in and redo it. But then we realized when mixed into the rest of the instruments, the distortion on the snare drum was actually adding to the sound of a train.
It hit us all at the same time. There were quite a few folks around when we put that drum track down. We were all in the control room, listening back, and everybody gasped at the same time at how awful the snare sounded then everyone lit up when we heard it in the mix. It was a fun moment. We kept the awfulness on the snare drum and that song has turned into a definite favorite. The dobro on the song was also a last-minute addition, and I can’t imagine that tune without it.
AS: “Winter’s End” is a song that really makes me happy. It’s very rare for me to have a song come out on the recording sounding and feeling the way I imagine it in my head. I think it’s more of an emotional translation. I really wanted to preserve an open, almost hollow feeling to the song but emphasize the movement of it. I think we captured that, and the fiddle part really keeps it haunting. We also recorded this song very early on in the sessions, so it took a while for it to come back around. I think the time away from it really helped keep things in perspective.
BF: A Whole Lot of Freedom is the fourth Surrender Hill album. How would you say your sound and/or lyrical content has evolved since you began collaborating?
RDS: I think our sound has become just that over the past few years: our sound. We are super proud of our first three albums, and they all kind of have their own vibe and sound. However, this album belongs to us completely. Working in our own studio really forced us to “produce.”
A Whole Lot of Freedom has borrowed from all of the previous albums. The key elements from each album that stuck over time have all pooled into one sound. I am proud of that. I think it’s important to have “a sound.” I don’t mean this in a bad way at all, but I owe that to the fact that Afton and I are not trained singers or musicians. We can’t just zip out any tune; we have to work hard at our craft.
There are musicians who are so incredibly talented and can play anything you put in front of them or sing any note but are so uninspired that they leave me feeling flat. I think about my favorite singers, and they are all people who, on some level, can’t sing but sound damn good. The content has evolved as our life together has. Our love and connection for one another is deeper and more profound, and amplified now by Wren coming into our lives. Sometimes it feels like there is so much more to say but fewer words to say it with.
AS: When we first started out together, it was interesting to see how a song would progress. There were three different points of view regarding the sound – Robin’s, mine, and Surrender Hill’s. Now, all of that has melted together into Surrender Hill’s sound.
BF: Music fans looking for something to watch can also stream your episode of Amazon’s “Undiscovered.” How was that experience for you?
RDS: I think this series is fantastic and necessary. We owe our involvement in this show to one of the owners of the venue, Madlife Stage and Studios in Woodstock, Georgia. Keri heard Afton and me perform once and started calling us for certain shows. Then she introduced me to Kris Wheeler, who created and directs the show.
Kris liked my backstory. I have been so lucky to have worked with many fantastic people over the years, and I’ve been on the fringe of “real success,” whatever that means, many times and have somehow managed to piss someone off and not just burn a bridge but the whole damn town it leads to. Those days are over now. I am very comfortable in my own skin now and don’t have anything to prove. S–t, I may even be happy!
AS: How about we get back to the question? (laughs) The experience we had doing the show was really wonderful. Wren was only about four weeks old, so we had different sets of friends who came down for the day of filming to take turns birdwatching. There was also a wonderful, candid moment when we were backstage trying to soothe Wren, and we sang him a song and the cameraman caught it. These are the makings of our life. We are so grateful for these moments and the people who enable them.
BF: There are 18 songs on the album, but you had double that ready. How do you decide what makes the cut of an album and what doesn’t?
RDS: [It] was a brutal time. As any songwriter knows, your songs are like your children. It can get very hard to be objective about a song. Sometimes a song may feel like it is the best thing we have ever done, simply because it is the newest [and] freshest. The best one may actually be the one that we are sick of playing. I think because we took our time making the album, we were able to let things simmer a bit and gain some insight.
To help with this, we did a house concert for 26 people whom we know and trust. We played all the contenders and everyone anonymously chose their top 12 songs. This didn’t help at all. All the songs we played, one way or another, made it to someone’s top 12.
AS: I have to say this was maybe a little easier for me than for Robin. He got so close and involved with each song because he played most of the instruments. There were times he got really attached to a song because of a guitar line or the amount of time he put into trying to get the line right. Then I would step in to listen and have a different perspective. Those weren’t my favorite parts of making the album, but they were necessary.
BF: So is there any chance the remaining songs surface somewhere else, like on another release or maybe your YouTube channel?
AS: I think, one way or another, they will all see some light.
RDS: Yeah. It’s funny, at recent live shows before this whole crazy virus shut us down, we were performing a number of those songs. I really like a few of them a lot. Especially “The Guitar Lines.”
BF: Do you have a favorite album that you would say everyone should listen to, and why?
RDS: That’s easy – The River by Bruce Springsteen. The passion in the songwriting and the delivery of the songs on that album are amazing. The production is really raw.
AS: I would really like for people to listen to A Whole Lot of Freedom. We are proud of this album, and we worked really, really hard on it.