Sean Nicholas Savage explores his Other Life
“The weird question is, ‘Are you serious or not?’ or, ‘Do you really mean it or what?’ And I’m, like: ‘Or? Or what?’ Just tell me what the ‘or’ is, what the ‘other thing’ is! I’m mystified as to what that other possibility would be—that I’m just spending my life pretending something? That would be impossible! There is no other way!”
Sean Nicholas Savage laughs while hollering his punchline, but his outrage is true and palpable. It’s late, and he’s tired. Another leg of his Herculean tour has ended and Savage is temporarily lodged in Montréal, where the demands of renewing friendships are competing with his body’s desperate need for sleep after an exhausting, but thrilling, run of shows. At points in the conversation, he’s disjointed and barely audible, tilting into Dreamland, but he’s also easily roused, a vigorous raconteur who periodically ejects wholly formed vignettes, acted out with brio.
“People say all kinds of things I disagree with about my music,” he scoffs, “but I’m typically never being ironic or silly—it’s a misinterpretation.”
In defence of the confused, Savage’s most recent album, Other Life, has a unique stylistic brew, incorporating elements of pop that are not normally drawn on with such frank affection—post-funk Lionel Ritchie tempos, the kind of sounds used in ’80s movie montages, odd and seemingly kitschy flourishes, production that embraces the plasticky aural nature of the keyboards, urgent crooning. And that’s just Other Life—Savage has an astounding eight additional records, from his 2008 debut, Summer 5000, to 2011’s Flamingo, each with a different sonic profile.
“Everyone hates on what they want to hate on, and I’m drawn to a lot of different things and I love those things,” Savage laughs. “How am I supposed to know what everyone hates?”
Trawling the junkyards of culture to unearth hidden gems may be a habit related to his childhood ambitions in Edmonton. “I wanted to make real movies when I was a kid, I was always looking for a way to do that, which developed into trying to record an album,” Savage explains. “I played in bands that tried to be cool when I was younger, but I wasn’t into the same music they were. So I started making these cheesy songs that really meant a lot to me, and they became ballads, which was really embarrassing when I was younger. But they meant so much to me, I got addicted to them! They just became what I do: ‘life ballads’ with little lessons in them, philosophical love songs.”
Savage’s self-created genre was honed by the environments he played in, which he frames as a serendipitous side effect of Montréal’s fractured cosmopolitanism. “Artists flock [to Quebec]—it’s very affordable, they keep the rent down and a lot of artists and hipsters live in the Hassidic areas. You go there, thinking as a Canadian, then there’s this area that says, ‘Keep out, we’re French!’, and within Montréal, there’s an area that’s like, ‘Keep out, we’re the Jews!’ So there’s this double ‘wall’ up, but you never see police cars around, and you can wear a clown costume and walk down the street and nobody bats an eye. People can live cheap and be zany and lots of temporary underground venues go up, like an old restaurant space or loft or something.”
He soon fell in with a like-minded group of pan-creative comrades. “Arbutus Records grew out of an underground loft thing that was one of the popular ones for a few years,” he recalls. “I started playing there, then lost my apartment and moved in there, then I joined the label. Later on, we lived in a place called The Torn Curtain, more sketchy. Sometimes shows would go on at 3 am, sometimes dawn. Clearly a different sort of entertainment. You learn so much; it was a scene, growing a certain kind of music that lends itself to that time of night and audience, so as a ‘ballad solo singer-songwriter’, it had an interesting effect on my life, to be playing all strung out in the middle of the night for a bunch of zombies.”
Those living conditions will strike you as either paradisiacal or hellacious, depending on you, but Savage’s current home life is inarguably not for the faint of heart.
“I don’t have a home. I’ve been touring for over a year. I lived out of a backpack, but it was stolen, so now I just walk around with this little bag,” he confesses. “It’s trippy. And playing all these shows, I got really confident in my set. You might ask me today about my lifestyle, and I’ll say I want to stop, but that’s just the tired talking. I’m actually pretty happy, as long as I get enough sleep.”
After being embedded in a fecund scene, surrounded by friends, it must have been shocking to strip everything away to a bag and some gear, but Savage betrays little anxiety, although he admits to heartbreak and bedlam, especially during the recording of Other Life, a stressful odyssey that included sessions in Berlin, New York and Edmonton, a serious do-over, consequent meltdown and creative reignition, lit by music.
“Other Life is supposed to be this fantasy,” Savage says. “Like, I’m visiting another city, I go into this nice comfortable store and there’s this young girl working there, and she smiles at me, and I think, ‘Wow, she’s beautiful, what if I just stayed here?’. That fantasy. But then you just keep on going.”
Savage reconsiders. “But if you did it, it’d be the same life anyway. It’s completely impossible to live the other life—your old life follows you; you’d have the same miseries and problems.”
Maybe living stripped down to a bag and some gear keeps Savage poised between possible lives, a reaction to that unkind and untrue fear people have in their late 20s, that you’ll be stuck forever with the life you make right now, like a nightmarish game of musical chairs.
Or maybe this is Savage’s chosen life, his forever life, since music is “therapeutic” to him, no matter how traumatic it was to bring Other Life into this world, no matter how many reversals and depressions and come-downs are ahead. Maybe this is worth it, to come out of this tough year-and-a-bit with almost nothing but the tools and the will to create.
“My life is fully music now. After this year, constantly performing, recording, and writing, more than ever, my life is fully music.”
Sat, Dec 14 (8 pm)
Sean Nicholas Savage
With Calvin Love, Renny Wilson
Artery, $8 (advance), $10 (door)