Wisconsin-born singer/songwriter Derek Sallmann is an up-and-coming artist who you’ll want to keep an eye on. I got the chance to talk with him about how he got into making music, his new single “Love, Future You,” his love of birds and so much more. Keep reading to see what he had to say.
Tell me a little bit about how you first got into making and performing music.
I first started getting familiar with music because my parents are both performers themselves. My dad has been in bands for a really long time and I would always listen to his band practices in our basement. One day I noticed my dad left his green “Guild” guitar on his bed and I asked him if he would teach me some chords. He said yes and drew me diagrams on Post-It notes and I remember just being so excited to come home from middle school and play an “E-chord”. I was about 13 at the time. My dad also plays guitar and sings, and my mom plays flute in our 3rd Sunday church service.
A few of my first performances were in Waukesha, WI, where Les Paul was born. It’s one of the Gibson “GuitarTowns” and so the streets are decorated with a lot of guitar art. At Waukesha West High School, our choir teacher, Mr. Ajack, asked if anyone would be interested in performing for “Friday Night Live”, a music event in Waukesha where they close the streets and have a bunch of performers. My hand shot up immediately and it was a great experience for me. I also started playing at a local coffee shop called The Steaming Cup and a wine bar in Mukwonago called Pam’s Fine Wines. A friend of mine and I also competed in a “battle of the bands” type competition.
Was there a specific moment or person who made you realize music is what you wanted to pursue professionally?
My dad has definitely been a huge influence on me and has encouraged me to make music as big a part of my life as I want it to be. He’s never been super pushy but will always help me if I ask for it, which I think has been a big factor in preventing me from getting burnt out. I think friends and family have an enormous influence on you when you’re starting out. When starting anything new it’s easy to feel really vulnerable and if that vulnerability is met with discouraging words it can cut really deep and make it easy to quit, but if you’re met with encouragement it really makes you believe you have something special.
As I’ve continued in my music career, surrounding myself with other musicians who are pursuing music as much as me has been a huge influence. I started doing a lot of co-writing over Skype, which has been cool to write with other people from all over the world, and meeting and connecting with other musicians has been huge for me. There’s kind of a “well, if they’re doing it, then I can do it too” mentality to it.
I’ve been performing at Summerfest in Milwaukee for about the past 5 years, and the crowds there are always ready to listen and discover new music, and anytime somebody buys a CD it makes me feel like I can do this professionally. To me, it just validates that you connected with someone and they’re willing to invest in you and your music, and that means a lot to me.
You grew up in Waukesha, Wisconsin. What was the music scene like there and how did growing up there influence the artist that you are now?
Waukesha is a great place to grow up and the music scene is very unique. As I mentioned earlier, it’s one of the Gibson “GuitarTowns” so it has a great feel to it. There are a lot of great events like “Friday Night Live”, and cool venues to perform at. There’s a small downtown area but it has a great community feel. You get to know the other songwriters in town and being able to perform in such a welcoming community has helped make me a more confident musician and performer.
I’m always genuinely curious about what artists want to convey with their music. So how would you describe your sound without using genre names? What kind of music do you produce?
On this latest EP, 4 out of the 5 songs were produced by Billy Lefler (Ingrid Michaelson, Joshua Radin, Dashboard Confessional), and we just wanted to make the songs as good as possible. We didn’t specifically try to stick to one particular genre but just wanted to take the song as a whole and make it the best song it could possibly be. I like to write songs that are easy to comprehend on a first or second listen, but with enough ear-candy and unique lyrics so that the listener will keep listening to it and discover new things each time they do.
I want to convey honesty and hope. I think in the world of social media influence it’s so easy to feel alone but at the same time feel like there are so many people around. It’s kind of that “have you ever been alone in a crowded room?” feeling, and I think music helps to break that up.
I would describe my sound as uplifting, hopeful, unique, concise, and current.
Going off of that, who are some of your musical influences?
Growing up, because of my dad, I listened to the Third Eye Blind self-titled album a lot, which still brings me back to my childhood when I listen to it. I’m a huge Matchbox Twenty fan, as well as John Mayer, Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes, Lauv, Dan Croll, Andy Grammer, and a lot more. I listen to a ton of music from different time periods and go to a lot of concerts.
Let’s talk about the new single, “Love, Future You.” What’s the story behind the song?
“Love, Future You” was the first song I co-wrote with my friend Kyler England, and we wrote it over the internet. She’s a great LA-based songwriter and I came in with the intention of writing a really upbeat, pop song. I had just been through a really bad breakup earlier in the year, and when you’re in a writing session, no matter what your intentions are, I feel like you always end up writing about what you need to write about, not what you “intend” to write about. We ended up talking about breakups, and I had been on a breakup movie marathon and just watched the movie, Her. I mentioned there was a scene where the main character says he feels like he’s felt everything he’s going to feel and everything from now on will just be a lesser version of those feelings. I told Kyler that I know that it’s silly to think that, but that’s how it felt. Using those feelings, we channeled that idea into writing a love letter to yourself, from your future self, telling you everything’s gonna be alright, and that’s how “Love, Future You” was born. I remember feeling a little bit lighter after writing the song, like I didn’t have to think about those feelings as much.
I also took a ton of video in the studio and will be releasing a “making of” video for “Love, Future You” that shows how Bill (producer), Caleb (his engineer) and I created the song in the studio. I really love it when artists take us behind the scenes and I wanted to give that experience to my fans.
Your EP is expected to drop this fall. What can fans expect? Is it finalized enough yet where you know how many songs are on it?
Fans can expect 5 well thought-out, well-produced indie pop songs. I wrote a bunch of songs for this EP, and then picked out the best ones for the project. I flew from Wisconsin to Los Angeles to work with Bill and I’m really proud of the EP and can’t wait for everyone to hear it.
You are still very new to the music game. What are some music industry-related goals or benchmarks that you’re aiming to reach in the next couple of years?
There are actually a lot. Here are a few of them:
The EP will be released on December 14th, 2018 and I want it to make the iTunes charts. Fans can help by pre-ordering the album. I will post when it’s available for pre-sale on my website and all my social media pages.
In the next few years, I would love to be an opening act for a big-name touring artist like Andy Grammer or Dan Croll. Also, to be able to do co-writes with some of my influences would be amazing.
I would also love to be a headlining act at Summerfest in Milwaukee in the next couple years. I’ve been performing there for a while and have seen so many amazing acts, and it would be incredible to reach that level.
Overall, I just want to keep improving and becoming a better performer and writer.
Last question — we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner-nerd. What is something you nerd out about?
I 100% nerd out about birds. My brother Ryan and I got into birding (bird watching) after watching a movie called The Big Year and were like, “People actually do this?” We started getting out in our community and found out that a bunch of people are into it. We even started our own educational YouTube channel called Badgerland Birding that focuses on unique species in Wisconsin and teaching people about birds and animal conservation in a fun and unique way.
In fact, Bill and I actually sampled a bird call in the single “Love, Future You”. There’s an atmospheric track that plays from the beginning and then it creates kind of a rhythmic chirping noise that continues through the song. We thought that was cool since I love birds so much, and I was glad we were able to include it in the track.
I also love fish and have my own channel called Badgerland Fishes. I was a biology major in college, and birds and fish are huge passions of mine.
On the musical side, I can tell you almost every song John Mayer has ever created, even the obscure ones.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and continuity.