Talley Summerlin was born into a musical family, in that his brothers are part of Seal’s musical team. He joined with them in school choirs and musicals, and eventually a band, before embarking on a separate journey, which has culminated in his newly released EP, Shake The Gates. Talley also grew up in Austin, Texas, which has a rich musical history, before migrating to the Jersey Shore. I caught up with Talley to find out what’s happening with his latest musical endeavor.
How did you end up in NJ from your home state of Texas?
My wife studies the intersection between religion and ecological sustainability and she got a Ph.D. scholarship opportunity here at Drew University in Madison. It’s the kind of thing you don’t pass up, so here we are. I have lived all over the place in the U.S., but I am a native Texan and we love Austin, so it was hard to leave. Honestly, though, we’ve found this part of New Jersey to be quite beautiful and welcoming.
How would you describe your music?
I aim for the poetry and melody to transcend any particular historical moment. I hope to speak to both the political and personal levels at once, which have both deepened for me as I’ve gotten older. I have always tried to work in service of the song, which ultimately exists in a larger social context.
I’d love to write music that is considered communal, that brings people together for more than just a car ride or a concert. The jury is way out on whether or not I can accomplish that, but moving people to emotional resonance or positive, collective action starts with a head bob or a smile or harmonizing. I write for myself first, of course, but if the essence that’s captured is universal then I can start to find a tribe to sing along with, to get things done with.
The opening line of the EP is, “Here we are singing jingles to ourselves, we should be shouting hymns up to the angels.” I don’t mean religious hymns necessarily, but something substantial and meaningful. Not frivolous, thin, or distracting from real life.
Who are your musical influences?
In terms of my sound or genre, I am definitely grounded in Brit rock, non-American rock, though many American bands are among my favorites and have been extremely influential; their sound just doesn’t emerge obviously in what I do.
I’m a big fan of R.E.M., The Replacements, and Hüsker Dü, all American bands, but it is unlikely that you’ll hear them immediately in my songs. Whereas people always say they hear the influence of the Beatles, Crowded House and U2. It has to be all those years of choir practice and my Scottish roots!
As far as lyrics go, I have been very influenced by Peter Gabriel and Killing Joke. Brits again! Peter Gabriel’s songs are often veiled political or collective psyche narratives; sometimes he’s overt, like with “Biko,” which I play live sometimes.
But there’s nothing veiled about Killing Joke! In one way or another, every single song Jaz Coleman has written over the past 30 years is a blood-scrawled letter screaming truth to power. If you listen closely, though, he actually writes love songs to humanity and life in general, even as he is howling in its face. I appreciate his activism and fortitude.
I also have lots of poets and writers echoing around in my head. Shakespeare, Silverstein, Sendak, Sandburg, Stevens—any of the “S” poets I suppose! So they’re a big influence, too.
Overall, I’m a sucker for sticky melodies. That and lyrics that get beyond lust and all-night parties. Except I do need a regular fix of KISS, Van Halen and AC/DC—so I’m an equal opportunity listener!
How does the writing process work for you?
I was always surrounded and supported by my brothers, who happen to be these incredible musicians. Without them as a part of my daily songwriting life, I had to take a deep breath, pick up the guitar, just dig in and see what happened.
I’m also writing songs I can’t not write. In a way I’m actually writing about those very experiences that are “getting in the way” of writing. They come from some gut imperative and from a greater awareness of the world, both the joyful parts and the very broken parts.
My wife regularly tells me it’s sexist bullshit when men buy into the myth that “the mundane” and children don’t jibe with being an artist. Over time I’ve come to agree that family life has made me a better songwriter. Juggling the “real job” is tougher, but hopefully enables me to speak to more people who will resonate with this difficult balance most of us have to navigate each day.
What are your goals, musically and professionally?
First and foremost I want to uncover and capture my unique songs as best I can. It is a fascinating process that surprises me all the time, so I am not nearly done being drawn to it. I want to craft songs that move me, share them with others, and see what we can do together.
One of America’s great poets, Wallace Stevens, worked his entire life as a lawyer in the insurance industry. Many of his colleagues never even knew that he wrote and published poems and was a highly regarded writer. Arguably, there are more economic opportunities with songs than there are with poems, but Wallace Stevens is a hero of mine because he was steady and persistent and wrote, wrote, wrote. He did it without fanfare, without attention, and quietly left behind a body of work that will continue to resonate for years to come.
I can relate to the double life he lived. It can be a painful one, but not as painful as not heeding a call. Burial of purpose kills people every day. I don’t want that for myself or as an example for my children. This is an interesting second act for me. We’ll see what happens.
You can find out more information about Talley and the new release at talleysummerlin.com.