Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
It’s a damp, muggy day in London when I meet Canadian songwriter Sean Nicholas Savage. We’re at the studio of his friend Alex Cowan, one half of the band Blue Hawaii and labelmates with Savage on Arbutus Records. It’s a small, lovingly decorated room in the middle of a huge warehouse complex in East London. Savage has been staying here since he arrived in the country a couple of days ago, working on music fairly casually with Cowan (“It’s super different to the sort of stuff I normally do,” Cowan offers when pressed on it). It’s raining outside, but Savage is leaning out of the studio’s wide windows, smoking a roll-up as thin as his moustache. “I love ciggies,” he says, “It’s a love/hate relationship.” When I ask what the “hate” is, he pauses for a few seconds. “I hate them for having me,” he chuckles before taking another drag.
Savage is a peculiar but charismatic person who speaks openly about himself, his feelings, and his unique philosophies on the world without a filter. The naked honesty with which he addresses his life – the successes and the mistakes, the ups and the downs – manifests itself not just in conversation, but across his music, lyrics, and live performances. It’s almost overbearing – a show in Dalston a few days after our interview sees Savage come alive, performing with an almost confrontational sincerity – but it’s also what makes him such a compelling artist. His new album, ‘Bermuda Waterfall’, is a collection of heart-on-sleeve pop songs, with the understated soft rock disguising just how deeply personal and confessional his lyrics are. It also disguises just how fantastic a songwriter Savage is: like an artist like Paddy McAloon before him, Savage works with melodies, scales, arrangements, and textures unlike many musicians today.
‘Bermuda Waterfall’ is Savage’s 11th album in six years. I was interested to talk about what I perceived to be an almost obsessive urge to write songs, but our hour-long talk ended up covering everything from the moon landings to the materiality of the waking world to the robust catalogue of Simon & Garfunkel.
I’ve got all of my conversation topics listed under loose headings. The first one simply says: “11th album?” Which is actually different to what I’d read before, which said this was your fourth, or something.
Sean Nicholas Savage: “My format growing up as a songwriter was albums – I made albums. I’d make as many songs as I could without thinking, just sit down and try and improvise with the direction of the song, and then tone it together a bit and make a pop song. I’d try and make many songs in a few days, give it a cover and a name, and make an album. So I started making albums when I was a teenager.”
How long was the turnaround? Are we talking days, weeks…?
Sean Nicholas Savage: “I would make them in a week. It’s how I make my art. Then I started working with Arbutus, and releasing albums with them. But it’s a blurry line: when did Arbutus Records begin, and when do you start counting my albums? What maybe feels like my first record was ‘Spread Free Like A Butterfly’.”
At what age did you start writing?
Sean Nicholas Savage: “I was making songs and little movies and stuff when I was a little boy, as far back as I can remember. I was a creative boy. I started playing in bands when I was in about Grade Six – so, pretty young, still. We wrote songs in the band, so I was writing songs on the guitar, and lyrics, since I was about 12 or so.”
And you’ve just never stopped since then?
Sean Nicholas Savage: “Well, my first band had three guys doing that, so there was a competition for who could write the best songs between my friends. You could be inspired by looking for the next best tune, or by showing each other your tunes. I got in another band like that, and another band like that, and then I had a collaborative band, where I did most of the lyrics. Then as you get older, you see your peers are writing more songs as solo projects, but you’re still inspired by their stuff, and you’re trying to have your own ideas. It’s a fun game. Now it’s broader – lots of friends making music, and I have my own identity as an adult.”
I’ve got a very vague, but also very open-ended question here: why do you make music?
Sean Nicholas Savage: “I have a lot of faith in music. I think it’s really, really important. I think that Clair de Lune is a lot more important than the moon landing, or the internet. Music is cool because, unlike architecture or something, it’s not even physical. It’s not as tangible, so it’s the closest and the freest artform. It’s the greatest artform, and art is one of the highest things. You can put words into pop songs, and pop songs are the medium of today. I think it’s the most important thing you can be doing. There are a lot of unhappy and lost people out there, and they should be making more music. I think that if everyone made songs, then everyone would communicate a lot better. They’d learn a lot more about themselves – they’d be forced to.”
“I have a lot of faith in music. There are a lot of unhappy and lost people out there, and they should be making more music. I think that if everyone made songs, then everyone would communicate a lot better. They’d learn a lot more about themselves – they’d be forced to.” – Sean Nicholas Savage
Can you talk about how you write?
Sean Nicholas Savage: “I think about different themes in my life. I get pretty fascinated by little interactions, little plots and stories in everyday life. Long and short, big and small. I’ll have a theme or idea or thesis about something in life, and little plots that I can stick that onto. It’s usually pretty easy because I’m writing poems all of the time, and they’ll come out in my poems.
“With the musical part, I just listen to a lot of music and I’ll typically be like: ‘Right now, I wanna make this kind of music’, and, ‘Right now I wanna make this kind of music’, and so on. So I’ll just be listening and trying to just get melodies. I have a knowledge of scales from when I was younger, learning guitar and singing, so I just put it together pretty freely, as free as I can. If I wanna do something beautiful, like, ‘Oh, this is a nice catchy song, but it needs some beauty’, I won’t try and grind out some beauty. I’ll try and think about beautiful things.”
What sort of beautiful things are you thinking about?
Sean Nicholas Savage: “I was talking about melodies. Blurriness is really pleasing to the ear, or to the senses – you can do that with notes by using chromatics, or off times. You can make things sound a little more advanced, and that’s pleasing to the ear, it’s not just a trick to make people think that you’re good at songwriting. Make them a beautiful song, put some chromatics into it, or complexities in the melodies and chords. If you wanted something to be more beautiful, I’d get pop melodies and try to jazz them up a little bit. You can do that in recording too, with textures – make them a little jazzier, or make them a little rougher, or smoother, or whatever direction you need to go to add contrast and different depths.”
What was your musical background when you were growing up?
Sean Nicholas Savage: “My dad’s really passionate about pop music, and I had different friends in my life who were passionate about it. So that’s where I come from – just listening to and really respecting a lot of music, and writing all the time since I was pretty young.”
What sort of music were you listening to?
Sean Nicholas Savage: “Any kind. I’m not like, ‘I’m a punk kid!’, or ‘I’m into classical music’, or “I like metal’. I like every kind of music. I like really commercial music and I like underground music. I just try and find out why people like it. If you don’t like it at first, you know that a large group of people do – they’re getting something out of it, so you might as well try and get something out of it too.
“It’s like you don’t like pickles, but you know pickles are famous, so pickles must be pretty good. Or people go to New York, and say, ‘I don’t know if I like New York’. But like, wait – New York is pretty famous, it’s a big city. It probably has something to offer you. So maybe you need to go back to New York and figure your shit out. It’s the approach I take to music, and it’s the strongest and the simplest with music.”
"I like every kind of music. I like really commercial music and I like underground music. I just try and find out why people like it. If you don’t like it at first, you know that a large group of people do – they’re getting something out of it, so you might as well try and get something out of it too. It’s like you don’t like pickles, but you know pickles are famous, so pickles must be pretty good." – Sean Nicholas Savage
When you write, do you consciously try and work in things that you’re listening to, or is it just innate having listened to it for a while?
Sean Nicholas Savage: “’Bermuda Waterfall’ is a big deal to me. I wasn’t just trying to dip into things that I’d been listening to recently, but the things I’d loved my whole life. So the influences are pretty strong. I love bossa music; there’s a little bit at the beginning. There’s some cheaper sort of songwriter-y production that I’d consider more like European ‘80s or ‘90s pop. There’s that Leonard Cohen stuff. With the song Bermuda Waterfall itself, I was definitely going for a Bridge Over Troubled Water, Paul Simon kind of thing. A big song that was a pop song – I think I did that pretty well. I love that song.
“The lyrics were really the focus on that album, too. Heartless is just one chord, but it’s the chord that The Police use on Every Breath You Take and Message In A Bottle. I was going for a Bruce Springsteen kind of drum sound, which is also kind of like ‘Graceland’… I mean, you can just connect the dots to stuff I like and respect. I didn’t fail on anything making ‘Bermuda Waterfall’, it’s a 100% successful album.”
So why is this album, in particular, a big deal to you?
Sean Nicholas Savage: “I’m a pretty intense guy, but I don’t always make intense albums. ‘Other Life’ was made during a really intense time. I was pretty broken at that time and not feeling very song, and it was pretty difficult for me to make an album because I was very, very depressed. But I was just trying to be positive with it: so like, ‘I’m gonna live another life!’, sort of optimistic. ‘Other Life’, for a while, was called ‘Sad Cat #9’, which means, like…. it was the last chance.
“But in ‘Bermuda Waterfall’, I felt like I had a lot more energy, and that I was happy for a while. But I was still using drugs a lot, and abusing substances, and when I’m abusing substances I’m a pretty extreme person. So the highs and lows are very far apart. So it’s a pretty dramatic album, which I wrote with a very heavy hand – which I’m pretty proud of, but it’s not something I’d preach, even to songwriters like myself. Every line means the world, which someone could call cheesy or too serious, but it’s a pretty heavy and serious album, I think. And if there’s any light or cheese in it, then it comes out of a real dark sarcasm. It’s a pretty heavy album, but there’s a lot of love in it, too – but love can be real heavy.”
I read an interview with you that focuses very heavily on your dreams, and it mentioned that the title of ‘Bermuda Waterfall’ came from a dream…
Sean Nicholas Savage: “Yeah, I use dreams a lot. I really remember my dreams very well. They’re a big part of my life. I’ll take guidance from them a lot – a lot of lessons from everyday life, and metaphors, are in my dreams. And as I said about music earlier, the dream world is not so tangible as the waking world, so you have a lot more freedom to find answers, and a lot more power. So I use dreams a lot for inspiration, and they’ll be mixed – a bit of my dream, a bit of my real life. Because I was writing with such a heavy pen, I had to take a lot of the weight off by using my dreams. I was also having some pretty epic dreams at this time in my life – the song Bermuda Waterfall is based off a dream I had."
"Every line [in 'Bermuda Waterfall'] means the world, which someone could call cheesy or too serious, but it’s a pretty heavy and serious album, I think. If there’s any light or cheese in it, then it comes out of a real dark sarcasm. It’s a pretty heavy album, but there’s a lot of love in it, too – but love can be real heavy.” – Sean Nicholas Savage
Yeah, that’s what I wanted to know – what was the dream?
Sean Nicholas Savage: “It’s pretty much verbatim in the song. I write down my dreams. I had this dream written down, like an essay, and I turned it into a poem, maybe adding rhymes and a chorus and a rhythm to it, but trying not to take out the description of what’s happening. I understand that it might be pretty hard for someone to follow, but it pretty much describes the dream if you have the lyrics to read along with – which the record should have.
“[In this dream] I’m floating through a bathhouse and I come to the head of a ship deck, and there’s a commander there and a nude girl, both of whom are my love interest. And I make love to the nude love interest. The consequences of my lust, good and bad, are unknown, but it was fate, and you just have to have faith in fate. And lust, I think, is so important to survival of the species, because if we sit down and think about some of the things we do when we’re depressive, we might not decide to continue… Depressed people get real horny, too, and then they’re so sad and just wanna die and then they get together all sad and horny and have sex and then they have a kid. [Cracks a wry smile] And then the species wins again!
“So that’s sort of what my dream was about. Why not just have faith in it? The Bermuda Waterfall is a reference to the Bermuda Triangle, the ‘confusion of the mysterious disappearing sailing eyes, tightly shut back into the war’, that I love. The Bermuda Waterfall is like a waterfall – you know, the water is the juice of life. Sex, water, rainstorm – there were desert planets in the dream with waterfalls falling on them, and I could see that it was ruining the ecosystem of the desert planet, but creating a more humanlike planet, and that’s what the ship had been there to do, even though it was against their morals, but they couldn’t see how they could do it ‘til I came in all horny and just screwed this girl. So the messiah came – stupid old me, in my dream – just to have some sex. And that’s the whole meaning of life – having faith, going with the flow, the mysterious flow that you’ve gotta have faith in, the Bermuda Waterfall. That’s my relationship to it, the messy, confusing relationship that I had. And that’s my dream…”
That’s a much more vivid dream than a lot of people might have.
Sean Nicholas Savage: “Yeah, I paid very close attention. They can be so nice to you, dreams. I have gifts and messages from my dreams. I have a brother who passed away, and last night I saw many different ages of him – angry things and happy things. We were hugging each other and I woke up just feeling so good. It really felt like I’d spent time with him. And that’s just a gift. It’s a beautiful gift.”
Arbutus Records released ‘Bermuda Waterfall’ on May 14th 2014 (buy).