by Edward Norton
With even multiplatinum musicians complaining about the
music industry squeeze, this cinematic troubador – and
insider favorite – is making a name for himself by
working outside the system. Edward Norton finds out how.
artists resign themselves, on some level, to the suspicion
that the work they create is going to be appreciated best by
total strangers; that family and friends, even the most supportive,
will always be a little more aware of the effort behind it and
be able to pierce the veil of art because of their intimacy with
the source. Maybe this is especially true for actors or singers
or anyone who has to be the instrument of their own piece.
when an old friend drops something on you that really knocks
you out, it's a special kind of dual pleasure; pride, because
you've been through it all with them and there's a little part
of you in there too, and humility, because it reminds you that
you can’t take a friend for granted – that as well
as you may know someone, you don't really know the first thing
about their private depths, their longings or their dark places.
When you stand in the crowd with everyone else and think "Holy
shit, where'd that come from?" That's when friendship founded
in shared experience and good times is reforged with real respect.
These things are on my mind when I think of Peter Salett.
met Peter when we were eleven; two of the smallest kids in
the sixth grade. We were great friends for three years. We
did plays together, listened to The Who by Numbers (1975) and
The Wall (1979) and The Smiths (1984) endlessly, and played
epic games of one-on-one, my useless hook shot competing with
his flailing finger rolls. Then we went to different schools
and fell out of touch.
met him again in the fall of 1992 in Greenwich Village on the
night Bill Clinton was elected. He had been looking for himself
in Alaska for a year and I was kicking around in shit jobs
trying to get parts in downtown plays. I heard that he had
started playing songs in cafés and I went to see him. Somewhere about
halfway between then and now, I saw him do a show that was one
of those "Holy shit" moments for me and ever since
then I, along with a devoted crowd of New York fans, have waiting
impatiently for him to put out an album.
doesn't just write songs – they pour out of him.
Natural melodies, full of love and longing, sung in the kind
of deep, rich voice you don't hear on the radio much these days.
A Roy Orbison-Johnny Cash kind of voice. He's been playing his
songs for too few people for far too long; but now he's putting
out his first widespread release, After A While [Dusty Shoes/Ryko/petersalett.com],
so I can stop pestering him and get to the business of introducing
Peter to the rest of you.
Edward Norton: It's great to catch up with you. Where are you?
Peter Salett: I'm in Brooklyn, in the Gowanus section, I guess
you'd call it. Near Carroll Gardens. I just moved out here.
EN: Another of the newly coming-into-vogue Brooklyn neighborhoods,
which really just means rents in Williamsburg have gone too high.
PS: Yes, I hope that by naming it in this magazine I won't help
bring it into vogue. I might have to move.
EN: We could declare it here: 'Peter Salett is at the center
of the exploding new-music scene in Gowanus, Brooklyn. In fact,
he is the music scene in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
Eight years ago I came out here to record something, and this
seemed like the hinterlands – beyond the hinterlands.
It's funny how your perception of distance can change –
EN: – in
direct response to rental rates. [both laugh] I love it when
a neighborhood goes from a danger zone to a place you go for
cheap drinks to the only place that's still authentic to unaffordable.
Well, let me start by saying that I love this new record of
yours, After A While. I think that it has the essential quality
of all good albums, which is that even with it's diversity of
styles, it all feels cut from the same cloth. There's an emotional
thread running through it, a unity that makes it feel like it
all grew out of a true moment for you.
PS: It is more cohesive as a collection than anything I've put
out before, for sure. The other records I've put out on my own
were more or less assortments of songs I've done at different
moments, but this time I really wanted to make an album and not
just compile the songs I had on hand.
What muses drive your music? Is the initial impulse a melodic
one or a lyrical one – an impulse to tell a story?
PS: Basically, it comes from my emotions, from my emotional
experience. I play guitar and piano and I'll hear a melody before
the words usually, but the core inspiration comes from a need
to help myself handle emotions that I'm experiencing. I do it
to sort through my own feelings. I use songs to get myself through
life, I think.
And yet I notice that you seem to achieve an immediacy of emotion
that's also cut with perspective. The songs are more poignant
because you seem to be feeling the emotion while seeing it
from distance. That's the quality that I love about Dylan at
his best, like on "Blood on the Tracks,” where
the person in the song is also the wise narrator in some sense.
Songs like "Simple Twist of Fate" and "You’re
A Big Girl Now" or like that.
Well, that's too flattering a comparison, but thanks! (laughs)
I do think you can go through the emotion and at the same time
stand outside it and see it as part of the quilt of your life – even
though that's hard sometimes. I like having a slightly different
narrator in each song, and I love exploring style, too, trying
to hit an emotional honesty through different styles.
And you don't seem afraid of classic forms. You've written
country ballads, funny little dirges, protest songs, acoustic
ballads, and very hard-driving stuff with your band. In fact,
hard for me to describe about your music is that you're so
stylistically versatile. You remind me of Beck in that way,
although with a more traditionalist bent.
PS: Yeah, I love so much music, and I love to experiment. You
have to trust that, refracted through you, your idiosyncrasies
and vocal style are going to twist the genre and make it fresh.
I like to explore a style or a form of song and push right up
to the edge to see how far I can take it without it becoming
a different genre.
EN: I really admire that quality, that openness to influence.
I've always found it revealing that some of the most authentically
original filmmakers I've worked with are the ones who most openly
celebrate other films they've loved. Spike Lee is a good example.
Or David Fincher. It's the people who posture about not being
influenced by anyone else who usually seem the most derivative
to me. What musical experiences have had a big impact on you?
PS: Well, I certainly remember seeing many shows right there
in our old hometown, Columbia, Maryland.
EN: At Merriweather Post Pavillion. I saw the Police there.
PS: I saw Dylan there, and I remember being totally amazed by
Elton John. I was eleven, and his songs were so great; then he
spoke with an English accent and it shocked me. I was completely
EN: The other great music asset of our youth was that great
station WHFS [99.1, Lanham, Maryland]. Remember that?
PS: Of course. That was one of the few stations on the East
Coast you could hear a real alternative music selection. It's
gone now; they changed the format.
That's where I heard the Pixies and REM and all the great Brit-pop
stuff for the first time. It was such a haven from the metal-band
mania in central Maryland in the ‘80s. You might
remember Heavy Metal Parking Lot , that great pirate documentary
of kids being interviewed at a Judas Priest-Dokken concert.
PS: That was filmed half an hour from where we lived, in our
EN: What music do you like these days?
I like so much different stuff. I love watching an act like
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. It’s just two guitars
and her voice, yet they create such a deep pocket.
What's a “pocket” though?
It’s the space within the basic rhythm of the music.
The drums and the bass create that groove that make you bob your
head, and the song fills the space in between and around the
beat. If the music’s got a rhythm that makes you move your
body unconsciously, it's got a "deep pocket". Gillian
and David have no bass or drums, but they create a deep pocket,
as if they had a whole band. It's a mystery. I love the mystery
EN: Your record is called After A While. What does that speak
It's the name of one of the songs, but it felt right for the
album because it takes time to get perspective on things in
your life, to learn about yourself; you can't hurry or control
it. It's taken me a while to get where I am with the music
and the writing, and this record is the product of that – and
it's own reward, too.
I admire that perspective because a lot of people feel that
if they haven't created great work or found their voice by
the time they're 30, they never will, which is bullshit and
very much the result of pop-culture values. I always think
of that great line of the poet Reiner Maria Rilke's: "Ten
years is nothing to an artist. Gestation is everything."
Yes, definitely. It's not hard to feel that pressure at times,
especially in the business of popular music. There's a big
youth element in this business, understandably. I mean, I could
probably write some catchier tunes, but I'd rather work on
things that will be meaningful, even if they’re just
meaningful to me. And anyway, some of my heroes followed exactly
that path. Look at Willie Nelson.
True. He was a successful Nashville songwriter for a long time
before he asserted his own voice – and it is a truly
great voice. How do you feel about starting to tour?
PS: I'm very excited. I've played a lot of places but in one-off
ways. This time I'm going out with a record that I like, and
I'm taking out these great musicians I've been working with.
I guess that's the eternal challenge for any musician – to
go into unfamiliar territory and see if you can get people to
PS: It's actually more exciting for me to play outside New York
and LA these days. New towns and new crowds give me energy. In
fact, I like it so much that I don't even take it personally
if I'm having to fight to hook them in. I'm excited to play anywhere
EN: Well, I look forward to your first concert t-shirt, with
all the tour dates on it.
PS: Oh, God, wouldn't that be funny?
EN: I'm banking on it.
PS: Thanks, man.