When I meet Nathan Salsburg, the solo guitarist and folk music archivist is sitting with his 6-week-old daughter, Talya. He’s calling over Zoom from his home in Louisville, Kentucky, where he lives with his wife and frequent collaborator, the songwriter Joan Shelley. Over his shoulder, I see a vivid green wilderness in the distance, a landscape he says has come in handy as he and Shelley have found their way as new parents: “If shit gets wild in the night,” he says, “we can walk out among the trees and be quiet, be alone and calm the baby down.”
Eventually Talya starts crying for her mother, so Salsburg obliges and then returns to discuss his new album, Psalms. Unlike his previous full-lengths—2014’s Hard for to Win and Can’t Be Won and 2018’s Third—Psalms features more than just the sound of his acoustic guitar: a texturally gorgeous, melodically uplifting, and instantly identifiable style he has lent to recent records by Shelley, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and the Weather Station. Amid a buzzing scene of solo guitarists, Salsburg feels both like a figurehead and one of its most active players, with each new release offering a bright step forward.
For this latest album, a newly arranged set of music for eight Hebrew psalms and one Hebrew poem, Salsburg sings lead on every song for the first time, accompanying his fingerpicking with a melodic baritone. He also enlisted a full band, bringing the music to life without sacrificing the heart-tugging intimacy that has come to define his work. Guests on the record include regular collaborators—Will Oldham, Shelley, the producer and songwriter James Elkington—along with an extended cast that includes Israeli singer-songwriter Noa Babayof on backing vocals and drummer Spencer Tweedy, whose maternal grandfather has a history with Jewish music: “He had what felt like a family tradition with this sort of thing,” Salsburg explains.
For Salsburg, too, the album became a way to connect with fond memories of his past—he first found his way as a guitarist while attending Jewish summer camp in Pennsylvania—and the more uncertain present. “There is such a profound sense of uselessness as a musician—especially during COVID,” he explains. “Part of my yearning was for a creative, engaged Jewish community, which I lacked,” he says. “Not everyone on this record is Jewish, but it felt like putting a minyan together for a creative service.”
While serving as a creative breakthrough, Psalms is also a clear evolution from Salsburg’s last project, a pair of records called Landwerk that found him performing alongside samples from 78 RPM records, largely featuring Yiddish music and klezmer. Closer to drone than folk, the project represented a more conceptual left-turn that has encompassed all of his recent work. In addition to his fundraising for progressive Kentucky senate candidate Charles Booker, he has found increasing political meaning in his work at the Alan Lomax Archives, where he has been employed for 20 years. Most recently, his work has involved creating an extensive digital archive of Lomax’s historic recordings. “Preserving the voices of fundamentally disenfranchised people is no small task,” he says. “I feel so lucky to have so much to work with, and so much stuff to listen to. A lot of this stuff has never been heard in any public aspect, so it is a massive privilege.”
Pitchfork: You started writing the music on Psalms in 2016 and finished last year. Can you speak about the process?
Nathan Salsburg: It was like a weekly meditative practice. I’d get up, make a cup of coffee, sit down at my desk, and open the psalm book. Getting a verse down with a melody that I liked made the rest of the day so much lighter for me. I was primarily looking for things that resonated emotionally or spiritually. I would copy the text over—both in Hebrew and in English. I don’t speak Hebrew, but I remember it from my Bar Mitzvah days, so it was fun to reconnect with that experience. Creativity is functionally a spiritual practice for me, and to be able to tie it into my Jewish experience was a real satisfaction because those things had never really been connected in my life in any meaningful, practical way.
Psalms marks the first album to feature your singing so prominently. What inspired that decision?
As you read the psalms, one of the recurring themes is that we are enjoined to sing songs to God. I realized that if I was going to recreate the psalms in my own musical voice, in terms of being a guitar player, I needed to do the same as a singer. Part of that was also a confidence-building exercise for me. There are so many wonderful songwriters that I esteem so highly: folks who set the bar so high. I couldn’t imagine working in that idiom too, because I didn’t have the tools to do that kind of work. Whereas with guitar playing, I felt like I did have a voice that was my own. As a lyricist, however, that was never something that I felt comfortable about. There are just too many good ones.
You and Joan also started a family while the album was coming together. How did that affect the process?
When we were making the record, we didn’t know there was a kid coming. But the timing worked out great. There’s such a sense of satisfaction that I don’t know if I would have had at a different time, and certainly not with another record. Over the past year, we’ve been doing Shabbat and Havdalah. I’ve been turning my phone off for Shabbat—which if you have any means of doing that, I cannot recommend it enough. Joan and I have talked a lot about how we’re going to raise this kid, if she will be raised Jewish. And she will be—to some extent. She likes to be sung to to fall asleep, so I’ve been singing these songs to her: What a gift to be able to do that. To have made this stuff that I can pass on. I never considered that being something I might be capable of, or have the opportunity to do.
So much of your work involves recontextualizing history, or finding your own voice through older music. How did you develop that relationship?
It took me a long time to feel okay about it because of my role with the Lomax Archives, where I had to deal with a lot of people asking for reuse of materials—sometimes for great things and sometimes for horrific, miserable things—like an Ibiza dance remix using prison songs. So I was really sensitive about not being blithe about my borrowings. I’ve done some traditional songs, but they’ve always been either a syntheses of various traditional songs or something I’d gotten from the revivalists, which feels a little less exploitative, somehow. It sounds kind of dramatic, but I’m trying to protect the integrity of the context of the original stuff.
There has been so much great guitar music in the last few years, and I see Psalms as one of a few records by artists in your field experimenting beyond the confines of the genre. Are you still interested in the form?
I do like that more guitar players I’ve heard are working with melody and are not just doing six string drone, fake raga stuff. Some of my favorite guitar music now is being made by singers: Jake Xerxes Fussell, Alasdair Roberts, and Sarah Louise—people who cut their teeth in the idiom finding ways out of it. It’s exciting to me. It shows you can have that initial creative experience and then build up your compositional chops and take it into so many directions, because fundamentally it is a kind of minimal music.