Market Value: A Q&A With Leftover Salmon
On May 22, beloved Colorado “slam-grass” band Leftover Salmon will spawn Aquatic Hitchhikers, their first studio album in eight years. We asked founding member Vince Herman about songwriting, his ecological concerns, the new album and more. Also, check out the live video of the album track “Walking Shoes” below.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
My songwriting heroes are varied. Jackson Browne’s writing really works for me, and his output has remained consistently high for a lot of years. Seattle songwriter Jim Page is a great living Woody Guthrie, writing hard hitting social commentary, that never comes of as a history lecture. Todd Snider has a great new record that is one the best pieces of work I’ve ever heard. The songs all reference each other, and the whole human situation is summarized by the end of the record. Then of course there’s the Texas guys, who’ve always set the writing bar real high. But my real hero is Bob Gabig in my hometown of Carnegie, Pennsylvania. He writes hysterical anthems that have inspired me for years.
Tell us about how you write songs.
I write songs from overheard conversations, divine revelations, romantic obsessions, socioeconomic insights and an urge to say something funny. Sometimes the lyrics come first, sometimes they’re married to a progression that sprouts on its own. I’m constantly battling the tendency to over think and have the lyric loose it’s conversational flow. At the same time I like to have each line move the narrative along efficiently. I’m just hoping to keep something interesting happening at all times to keep the listener involved.
What percentage of the songs you write are keepers?
I sure do have big piles of unfinished songs laying around, but sometimes they resurface in one form or other, in some other song. I don’t do much in the way of co-writing, but am thinking of doing some of that soon. I love to do the improv thing on stage, so I imagine that sitting in a room full of people with pens, that I could keep the process rolling along a bit.
Do you have any standards you try to adhere by when choosing songs for an album?
I generally try to pick the best ones and hopefully find some kind of thread weaving through them on a record.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
I’ve written a couple songs lately dealing with mountain top removal in Appalachia. I’m from there and it really eats me up to see what’s happening in the race to destroy in the name of coal. Having a chance to write , record and perform songs that let more people know about what’s going on has reinvigorated my belief in the power of songs to get things done. I had a chance to perform one of those songs, “Appalachian Soul,” for a mountain stage radio show audience in Morgantown, West Virginia, and could feel the crowd reacting to every word. Being able to deliver a song that relates to what the audience experiences in their lives is a powerful feeling thing.
Another of those songs , “Blair Mountain,” was my first attempt at relating a historic event to what’s happening today. Blair mountain was the site of the largest labor battle in American history, and it’s about to be blasted away for the coal below it, on land that should be a national monument for labor. Those are the kind of things that get me fired up to write. That song was recently used in a documentary about mountaintop removal. That’s success for me as a songwriter, when something I’ve created can be used for some good purpose. I hope to write a few more of those.
What’s a song on the new album you’re particularly proud of?
I’m really loving that the opening song on Aquatic Hitchhikers is about what’s happened to the Gulf Coast since the storm and spill changed things there. Songs about real things just seem to pull the listener in when it’s something they care about, and I care a lot about places all around this country that are seeing hard times. I really like Andy’s tune, “Light Behind The Rain” for its great images of hope in those hard times.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
I guess finding time to pay attention to the craft is really my biggest hurdle in songwriting. You juggle your calendar , delete emails, travel, play, eat, garden, love on your girl and your kids and somehow find the time to be a songwriter at the same time. No wonder the dishes pile up. But the more you do it, the easier it seems to come. It also doesn’t hurt to have a record to get out by a deadline. I guess it’s the slacker in me. I need someone to say , “do your homework!” to really get myself to just put the words on the paper. But then a good fishing trip can do the same thing for you. Get an idea out their while reeling one in, come home and cook up some fresh trout and finish the tune at the dinner table. Works for me.