For almost 20 years, local musicians have flocked to producer and artist Salim Nourallah’s Pleasantry Lane Recording Studio, tucked inside a converted one-car garage on a residential street in Vickery Park. On Dec. 22, an unusually frigid day in Dallas, singer-songwriter Nicholas Altobelli approaches the pale blue door. A fluffy black cat named Voldemort, or “Voldie” for short, paces at his feet.
Nourallah opens the door, inviting Altobelli and the cat inside. At first glance, the studio is surprisingly spacious. Fashioned in a 1960s mod-style by London-bred and Dallas-based designer Bob Suffolk, the space opens up to a homey mixing room with bamboo floors, lava lamps on either side of the mixing board, and a row of gleaming vintage guitars along the opposite wall.
The tracking room, visible through a large window over the board, holds a drum kit, several more guitars, and a gearhead's cornucopia of other instruments and recording equipment. In the small hallway connecting the two rooms, Polaroids of the many artists whose albums Nourallah has produced and recorded here over the years — members of Old 97s, Smile Smile, Deathray Davies, Sealion, others — paper the walls and doors.
For today’s session, the group includes Altobelli on guitar and vocals; Nourallah on bass and backing vocals; Matt Hibbard, an audio engineer and musician with the band Relick who’s worked at Pleasantry Lane for about three years, on the mixing board; and John Dufilho, a fixture of the local music scene and another of Nourallah’s longtime friends, on drums. Voldie, who belongs to Nourallah’s children, naps on the couch for most of the session, which lasts the usual length of about four hours.
First up: recording drums, guitars, and scratch vocals for a track of off Altobelli’s forthcoming EP, a cover of Tom Petty’s “To Find a Friend” from Petty's 1994 album Wallflower. Altobelli, whose lilting voice evokes a blend of Paul Simon and Jeff Tweedy, tells Nourallah and Hibbard that he wants the track to sound like Randy Newman mixed with early ‘90s Wilco. Next, Nourallah grabs an electric guitar from his collection — a stunning and rare replica of a 1959 Rickenbacker 360 from Australian guitar maker Piers Crocker, and so dubbed a “Crockenbacker” — and hands it to Altobelli.
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“I’ve been waiting 15 years for that guitar,” Nourallah says. “It’s my dream guitar.” He thinks it will be great fit for Altobelli's take on the song, and it is.
Nourallah and Altobelli have an easy rapport; they worked together on two of Altobelli's previous records. This combined with Nourallah’s nearly two decades of producing experience renders the session brisk and fruitful, without a minute wasted.
Standing by the couch with his plugged-in bass, Nourallah offers feedback to Altobelli, who is sitting with a mic and the Crockenbacher, and to Hibbard, who relays the information to Dufilho in the tracking room. For example, Nourallah suggests adding a shaker and then a double chorus at the end of the track — both improvements, they all agree.
Nourallah has owned the studio, plus another building on the property, since 1999. He and his brother Faris first purchased and then converted the garage in 1997 as a place to record their debut, The Nourallah Brothers, in 1998; but soon afterward, the brothers had a falling out and sold the place. Nourallah says he bought it back with the goal of turning it into a working studio so he could produce his own records and those of other local musicians.
Inspired by the Beatles' sound and their producer, George Martin, Nourallah says his vision for Pleasantry Lane took a few years to materialize. But by the mid-aughts, when Nourallah produced the hit Old 97s record Blame It on Gravity, he'd accrued enough money to invest in the space and make it look and sound as impressive as it does today.
“It started with Deathray Davies asking me to do their Kick and the Snare record, which eventually came out in 2005,” Nourallah says. “From that point on, it was kind of an avalanche of studio work.”
Nourallah says he doesn't advertise his services; at this point, word of mouth is enough to keep him busy. In the DFW music scene and beyond, he has a sterling reputation for what he calls his “big sound” — clean, robust, polished — and for his preference in putting vocals to the front, "so you can actually hear the lyrics.”
Another draw is that he offers a sliding scale to musicians whom he knows don’t have as much money for studio time as, say, “an accountant who’s moonlighting.”
"When someone comes in, we have drums and bass to back them — that’s always been included,” Nourallah says. “Studios didn’t use to do that; maybe they still don’t. But I think it should be about the music.”
Nourallah says he makes a point of producing and supporting artists with less money and clout than others in the crowded local scene.
“The most popular acts in Dallas are usually not the best,” he says, “and I want to work with the best.”
Besides fielding sessions in the studio five days a week, Nourallah handles A&R for Palo Santo Records, a local record label he also co-owns and co-founded with Sarah Henry nearly two years ago. According to Nourallah, "it's a bit like a Sam Phillips/Sun Records situation, because I've also produced most of the acts on the label.”
He says that Palo Santo is close to inking a worldwide distribution deal with L.A.-based company The Orchard, and he’s excited about the artists they have cued up for 2018: Xuan, Sleepy Zuhoski, Broken Baby and Stu Dicious, to name a few. Some “super-cool” vinyl reissues are in the works as well, Nourallah says — including The Loyal Serpent, from John Butler of the British band Diesel Park West.
After recording the bulk of his last three solo records in Austin, Nourallah says he has finally reclaimed the studio for himself. His fourth solo effort will be a double LP, Somewhere South of Sane, that he plans to release in late spring or early summer; the single “Boy in a Record Shop” offers a preview.
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Before that, Nourallah says he’ll release a self-titled record from the Travoltas, one of his more recent bands with Paul Slavens, Nick Earl, Emsy Robinson and Mike Hodges.
“So now we spend a decent amount of time also working on my various projects, usually at least one day a week,” Nourallah says. "We mixed the NHD [Nourallah’s band with Billy Harvey and Alex Dezen] and Travoltas records here in 2017, along with tracking and mixing my next solo record.”
For now, Nourallah is keenly focused on Altobelli’s EP. They close the session with Hibbard by recording and comping vocals for another track, for which Nourallah suggests they bring in Paul Slavens on keys. Everyone agrees: That’s a great idea.
“It’s been so nice working with you guys again,” Altobelli says to the group. Nourallah suggests they cowrite a song for the next session. Although time’s almost up for the day, everyone in the room seems to linger — to extend the moment, and the magic, one productive minute longer.