Interview: Seeking Common Ground, Sean Nicholas Savage.

Interview: Seeking Common Ground, Sean Nicholas Savage.

Oh Sean Nicholas Savage – where do I begin? Or rather, when do we begin? “Ten minutes late by my watch – sorry about that” the supremely gangly purveyor of gloriously awkward melodic chantey proffers by way of apology, though this one’s already been brewing a while. Our paths had meant to cross at May’s Primavera Sound although as so often seems to be the case out in Cataluña, we glided past one another like ships in the oily Mediterranean night with definitive places to be come sunrise. Sean, known only over email correspondence as ‘Seanie’, then stopped off in London for a couple dates at Dalston’s Servant Jazz Quarters but once more, finite coordinates could never be fixed. And so, as is so often our wont, it’s over Skype that we at last convene. He is, beyond the above, fresh from maxin’; relaxin’ back in Berlin and, now severely jet-lagged in the wake of his most extensive European tour to date, begins a bit dazed.

“For the past few days, I’ve been in a fog. I’m back in Montréal, but it’s perfect – it’s rainy, which is kinda nice!” Summer neglected to pick up the memo this side of things as well, as I stare out the window at interminable, totally impermeable sheets of rain slashing down outside. And the weather, so apparently, has behaved according to that same flippancy with which Savage at least superficially treats his artistic craft, as highly discernible stylistic discrepancies have, up until this particular point in time, starkly differentiated each recording from his every previous. “Well, I really suck everything I can out of whatever it is that I’m doing at the time” he exhales seemingly exhausted, tokes and puffs of smoke slipping down the blower. “And then there’s nothing left! So I have to start over. Once I’ve done something once, I’m not able to replicate it ever again. So I like looking back on past albums, as they’re parts of my life that are now categorically over.”

It’s a perhaps contradictory affirmation, not least as certain songs to have made the final cut for his superlative latest, Other Life, are nothing but remasters of songs shorn straight from its predecessor – the equivalently supreme, if barely comparable Flamingo. “Well, You Changed Me was sort of the first song from the time at which I was moving into that distinctive Other Life theme, even though it was originally on Flamingo. And I wanted for that and Chin Chin to make it to vinyl, and therefore the vast public, as soon as possible so because this was a bigger release than I’d ever had before, it seemed the ideal opportunity” he candidly reckons. A case of killing two birds, or rather a couple flamingos, with the one stone then, though the need to refresh and recommence every last time – can it ever become a source of intense frustration as I can’t help but assume it might? “Yes! And I’m currently stuck in one of those periods! There’s a big difference between being able to see what you want to do with music, and being able to hear what you wanna do. If you can hear it, you’re in the clear but a lot of the time you think you know what you wanna do, but you’re in fact only seeing it. You’re seeing a bunch of colours and candy, but you’re a musician; not a painter.”

Though in a thoroughly positive respect, Other Life has a sound which conjures abstract impressions of it having been mixed together on a palette few have had their paws on previously. Its cover may be of a thalassic blue hue the like of which Joni Mitchell would doubtless approve, although its contents resemble little else out there now, or indeed ever. And it’s as such a record that’s nigh on impossible to define: “I’ve been reading my reviews, and there have been a few that have really gotten the different subtleties and influences I was trying to dance around.” Though to invert our widely accepted cultural roles, I wonder as to how its author may describe this distinguished portrait of self-reflection and incessant yearning. “I think it’s when people reference really stoopid ’80s music – Anna Domino, and stuff – that they’re really getting it. We have MuchMusic here in Canada, and then we had MuchMore – that was the extra channel – and they just played B videos, as well as hour after hour of ’80s Video Flow. And I got really into it! Because whenever I would listen to music when I was younger, I would listen to a lot of bands that I had to really seek out – it wasn’t as though I had any friends I could talk to about music, so instead I just had my Discman and listened in by myself. So I just let it fly! I was really into The Cranberries at high school, and that’s really not very cool at all!” Nonetheless we here hit upon common ground, in that I too struggled to encounter like-eared individuals throughout adolescence and beyond, and would thus cultivate my abiding tastes almost entirely independently. Contemporaries at school weren’t taken by picking up Swedish CD-R releases over PayPal, impatiently awaiting the moment they’d arrive in a Jiffy Bag overflowing with confetti and that’s of course absolutely fine. But to find someone of Savage’s sincerity – even after all these years – is faith-restoring to a not insubstantial extent.

That said, the times they’ve so patently a-changed, and as I’ve so often insinuated in the past the distance between left field territories and the mainstream is diminishing all the time. “I mean now, you put The Cranberries on, and everyone’s like, ‘Yeah!’ And obviously there are so many bands like that. I mean I listen to a lot of bad music very passionately, and I love it. And I’m making music for myself in mind of my influences, of which there are tons, so I’m not having to just pull from the one band or something. I see similarities between my music, and that of other people who’ve moved me.” Savage’s lyrics, however, forever come first. “I mean I always take a little recorder out and about with me, ’cause I always get hit by these little toons whenever I’m thinking about something. I talk to myself quite a bit, as did my dad: when I was younger, I’d hear him from down in the basement and he’d be having a full-blown conversation with himself, and I feel I really inherited that from him although I sort of full-blast make songs for myself, if that makes sense. So when I get a good one, and something’s really going on in my life – life is a pretty dramatic thing, so there’s usually something – I record it and often I’ll keep working on the words, before sitting down at a keyboard to work out the chord progression. I usually just do the correct third harmony and the proper chord progression. I’m really into that, and don’t really think too much about: ‘Well, it naturally falls on this chord, but I’m gonna play it in this chord.’ I mean I don’t even really write the music much – I just reproduce it exactly as I hear it in my head, because I have the faith and just do exactly what I do.”

It’s almost as though he’s conducting a conversation all of his own accord all the while and whilst I too may be prone to bouts of thinking aloud in various incompatible languages, my voice here takes a backseat to allow for Sean’s wry fancies to really drive the dialogue. Though who, or indeed what Sean may be remains unclear to my mind, for there appears to be an acute disconnect between Sean Nicholas Savage the man, and Sean Nicholas Savage the musician. He’s even been known to refer to himself in the third person both onstage and off it, pleading “Don’t let me down, Sean” during the geeky, frequently crowd-pleasing Come Back To Me and indeed the artwork adorning Other Life explicitly reflects this duality of character with Savage shadowing he himself. Though how concerted a disconnection is this? Savage is quite evidently a genuine eccentric and so too an incontestable maverick musically speaking, but just how sincere does he deem such a perception to be personally?

“I’m pretty… um… I’m pretty… um… I have a good answer for that, but it’s… um… somewhere in my brain. I wanna say I perceive myself distantly, but that’s not the right word. In the third person? Very often. It’s like I’m always looking at myself from behind, and that’s an old-fashioned thing. You know, like when your parents tell you: ‘Just make yourself do the job, even though you don’t like it.’ A continuation of: ‘Just go through school, and stick it out.’ I don’t make my choices that way, but I lead Sean that way. However, if things aren’t going well, then I wonder as to why Sean’s doing this, or doing that. But I do definitely, consciously, put him to work 24/7. And as I get older Sean enjoys more and more, but feels less and less. It’s just… robot.”

Yet another nonchalant puff of smoke worms its metaphysical way down the wires, a rich blend of 24/7 touring exhaustion and relaxing nicotine spewing out my end.

“He’s not yet been worn down, but worn in” by the insistence of the industry, he reassures me casually. “But I’m not the industry – I am art.” He is thus both the portrait and the painter, although only rarely is the artist known only as Sean Nicholas Savage a cohesive self-portrait as such. And never are two live shows ever the same, with each tending to strike differing chords in different people. Though most pertinently, there is always an art of performance at play: “Yeah, I always thought that I was really charismatic even though I’ve always been a recording artist and songwriter in place of a live performer. But as I’m a charismatic guy, you throw me onstage and it’s not bad! Though I’ve been thrown onstage a lot since I started touring a few years ago and even next year, we’re planning to add some more members to it. So I feel as though I’m getting better at doing not the thing that everyone does, but at hearing and seeing what I’m supposed to be doing and that’s purely because I’ve been doing it so much. So I’m becoming pretty proud of the live aspect, but I don’t feel as though I’m not gonna nail it for another twenty years or so.”

Though oddly enough, in spite of the intrinsic element of unease, there’s a real sense of Sean really being in his comfort zone onstage. “I’m not dealing with that – I’m wielding it!” Enigmatic to the last, it’s ostensibly Sean having to deal with that, “and like I said he’s not… I’m not… I guess I’m in the other spot now – the behind. And if I try and physically keep him in check, then it’s all going well ’cause I’m not even thinking from there, so it’s fine. But my brother was in the crowd at Primavera, and that made me more than a little nervous for the first time because I spent a lot of my life growing up with my close friends, but my brother knows the old story. I mean I don’t feel as though anything’s changed – I feel like I’m still exactly who I was from the day I was born – but my brother’s perception is formed of so much information! There’s nothing that I’m doing that isn’t real, but also he can see through to the real me. And I was thinking about that a little bit, which made me really stress out.”

In a roundabout way, such an affirmation seems to suggest that, to disregard the third person perspectives etcetera a minute, there is no onstage persona and that somehow, what we’re getting is indeed that which we’re seeing with person and performer in fact one and the same after all. “Well, another thing about performing those songs is that it’s really heavy to get up and talk about these things… I mean I don’t namedrop, but let’s say I had a song that went: ‘Oh Tina, Tina; Tina means a lot to me’, and that basically is what I do except it’s not Tina but You Changed Me, let’s say, and that’s a very important thing for me. Like I say, the lyrics are just there so just as I used the natural chords, I took the natural words as well – I take everything straight from life, and it’s all right there. I watch for it, and catch it so I’m capturing what’s already there. And if I abuse that, or if it’s not going right and I’m the one that put it up on stage to begin with, it becomes really hard to emotionally disengage my brain and then get into that moment. It’s blasphemy for me if I’m using these songs inappropriately – I can’t just get up and slag off one of those toons, ’cause they’re so important. They demand my full attention and emotion.

“It’s all been pulled from the spheres of experience and circumstance and whether that be staring at my elbow or looking down at my feet, that’s what I’m sharing. So when people write to me to say that they really feel it, and understand it, then we match somewhere for sure. The bigger the experience, the more general it tends to be and I write on a reasonably broad scale, even though I’m often still writing a romance that’s really personal. So in romantic music, you can put the philosophical ideas that you get from relationships to work and the metaphors forged from social rapports are really evident in everything else in the world, I think.”

And this, quite categorically, is the absolute crux of Savage’s wily opera: that in expressing those most intimate of feelings, he conveys messages which are at once innately universal. “I want everything to just be out there, ’cause nothing should be hidden in love. That’s why it’s so true, y’know?” Both lyrically and so too musically it’s a readily accessible aesthetic that Sean promotes, and yet the likes of Other Life provoke fears of it being an all too esoteric strand of eccentric 21st century pop. These are albums worthy of widespread acclaim, even though they appear destined to lonesome confinement in only those most discerning of iTunes libraries. Which is nothing short of a modern-day tragedy to make Shakespeare blush, and there are both frustrations and so too reservations over Sean remaining a niche artist of sorts: “At some point in my life, I’d love to infiltrate the airwaves with a completely disguised pop song sung by someone else, so that I could appeal to the mass ear. It’d be, like, a club song or something with some helpful philosophy sneakin’ in there. People would think they were listenin’ to a bing bong song or something, when actually they were being treated to something else altogether!”

So were his songs translated to the mouth of a somewhat more, shall we say conventional contemporary singer, who would he opt to recite them so?

“It depends. I mean I love mainstream music right now, even though I’m really taken by melody. And popular music, right now, is pretty rhythmic. It’s aesthetic, too. And that’s cool, but I don’t quite fit that mould. Which is a little frustrating right at this moment, but what I’ve got right now is a ton of writing I’ve been doing whilst on the road and that’s all really exciting. But what to put that into, and now that I’m a little more in the periphery of the public eye, makes me have to consider what’s appropriate to be seen and heard in that public eye. Though on the flipside, I feel as though I should just throw it into the kind of music that I love! I listen to a lot of soundtracks, and jazz, and real music. When I listen to music, I care about ideas so I’m most passionate about, like, genius music. I’m looking for melody, and compositional guile but only a little aesthetic. I mean if I could nail all that at once, then that’d be good!

“But it all makes me think of when the punk guys came along, and all the folk lot were like: ‘These guys just suck! They’re playin’ terribly – this punk music is awful!’ You have to know what you’re listening for. People don’t listen to punk because of its great musical proficiency, but instead because of the message behind it all. And the fashion – it’s like a fashion thing! So I have to know what to listen out for, and then find my niche for the next album. And then I’ll stuff my music in there! But I ultimately want to make something timeless, so that my words can be continually listened to. You can’t know if something’s timeless while it’s contemporary. Unless it’s brilliant, but that makes it beneficial for me to steer a little bit outside the box, I suppose. It’s good for me not to be too in the box, or I’ll be boxed in!”

Though to revert to the theory of the box, thus probably less the timeless and more the transitory, and indeed to return to the inquisition in question, were Sean Nicholas Savage to assemble an ensemble to reinterpret Other Life, who would make the proverbial grade?

“It’s the music itself! It’s too melodic, and stuff. I mean I do ballads, but how many ballads are popular these days? They would maybe, like, sample a part of my song for a bit of romance come the chorus, but then they’d have a really rhythmic, dancey rap thing in the verse, y’know? They would only use a small chunk, I think. They could just steal a chorus, and my song would still probably come across. [The flickering click of a lighter flares up in the background so Snoop, if you’re reading, Seanie would be more than content to share a smoke by the sounds of it.] Rapping is aesthetic too, ’cause you’re probably saying as much even though you’re using more words to do so. It’s a way of speaking, so they could take what I was saying and then rap about that. I guess that’s what they do usually.

“I mean it’s old school, but I’ll Be Missing You taking Every Breath You Take and mildly changing the meaning is an example of a job really well done. Puff didn’t need the whole song and even though I know that there’s hip R&B now too – and that’s so great – I’m just not into that. It’s production, and you could probably produce one of my songs in that style. I really like the whole Auto-Tune sound, and I think what’s cool about it is that it’s not that you can’t sing – and I love singers that can’t sing, too – but to do a really imperfect vocal and then Auto-Tune it, if it has a really wild quality to it and then you improperly perfect it, is such a cool thing! Like polishing up shit. But when I’m recording, I often sing in front of a mirror, and I get ready. It’s a time of day thing, so I’m not just trying to get the vocal take but just like I try and capture experiences from my life lyrically, with the recording I’m trying to capture a particular time in my life. So with each song, I can remember when, where and how I sung it. I never think about the recording, but instead the vocal take. I don’t hear it; I see it, ’cause that’s easier. I see when, where, and why it was special. ‘This is a wild night! This is a wild night! I should record that song tonight!’ And it comes around, and it’s all particularly natural.”

Sean Nicholas Savage’s time could, and indeed most likely should be now. It’s merely a case of the contemporary musical landscape accommodating for his wrought vocals and wild musical endeavours. And one day, hopefully in the none too distant future, that time will itself come right around.

Other Life is out now on Arbutus Records.

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