Interview: Collette Savard and the Savants, “Collette Savard and the Savants”

Collette Savard and the Savants

Sometimes in life, if we’re very fortunate, it’s possible to turn an ending into a do-over.  With her new band and new album, Collette Savard has done precisely that – transformed painful personal circumstances into a new beginning.  The self-titled debut from Collette Savard and the Savants is a terrific pairing of an excellent singer/songwriter with other superb musicians, as Collette works here with Rebecca Campbell, bassist and producer John Switzer, drummer Martin Worthy, guitarist Tim Posgate, and keyboardist Megan Worthy.

For me, the opening song “In Over My Head” really sets the tone for the whole album.  As Collette sings about trying to find wisdom (and presumably a way through what she was experiencing at the time), I found myself thinking of all the times I’ve found myself facing what I thought was a closed door and, yes, feeling over my head.

“Check” (as you’ll see from my question below) is another of my favorite songs on the record, not only for its non-standard rhythm but also for its catchy melody.  (Listen to it in the car and see if you can keep yourself from singing along to the chorus – I bet you can’t…)  “Counting on You Heart” is a beautiful ballad that really hits home for anyone just trying to make it from day to day, while “The Hardest Part” opens with a fantastic bass line and totally doesn’t let go with its 1970s vibe. And don’t miss the closing track, the fabulously waltzing “Top of the Trees.”

If you’re a fan of roots rock, this is an album you definitely need to pick up.  (It officially releases tomorrow, 26 January.)  This is a thoroughly enjoyable album from a skillful songwriter with a terrific band backing her up – highly recommended.

We really appreciate Collette Savard’s willingness to answer some questions about the album.

For a number of reasons, this album represents a fresh start for you – musically and personally. Now that it’s complete and about to be released out into the world, how would you describe the experience of making the album?

Where my writing process is concerned there was nothing different about how these songs came into being. I’m walking around trying to distill my experience of life into hooks and choruses. I can’t control when or how that happens, I just hope I have a pen around when it does. When I look at the collection of songs that make-up this album I see the denouement of my life as my marriage and intertwined musical partnership was coming to its end. Some of these songs like I’m Counting On You Heart and Copper Moon were written during the toughest part of the end of that relationship but I didn’t know it was the end when I wrote them. The songs knew though with their lyrics of looking for something more and finding my power as an individual. Songs like In Over My Head and The Hardest Part reflect the time after the end where I’m coming to terms with being alone. Then there’s Top Of The Trees where I’m not only ok but I’m happy. In fact I feel like I’m really addressing my ex in this song saying I’m ok, I hope you are too now let’s focus on the positive. It’s only in hindsight that I see that I wrote the break-up album.

My friends and fans would try to make me feel better after the separation by saying this process would inspire a great album. I thought 13 years of writing about both the good and the bad of my marriage was enough though and was dubious that that’s where I was headed with my writing. I never had the post-break-up prolific writing session. Low and behold though, 4 years later I have written a snapshot of this period. This isn’t your typical break-up catalogue though, there are no, I can’t stand to be away from you or how could you do this to me themes. These are songs about a journey through darkness into light.

The band of course represented a new musical beginning too. I really have Rebecca Campbell to thank for that. She was a part of this scheme from day one. She joined my duo with John Zytaruk (aforementioned ex-husband) and knew how much I’d always dreamed of my own band. She made that a reality by pulling all these people together. It’s been quite the journey for me. I look back at who I was in that very first rehearsal with the band and I know I’ve changed so much. I would also say though that I have a long way still to go. Having a band is so much fun especially with the wonderful people I get to work with. It’s also a hell of a lot of work. There’s no space or time for the insecurities that held me back in my old projects and that makes me rise to the occasion. As the front person, if this thing is going to happen it’s on me which is a heavy load but it’s made me stronger and more confident and I think will continue to do so as I try to make something of this awesome thing we made together.

Do you find it easier or more challenging to write out of difficult circumstances such as you’ve experienced in the last few years (e.g., the end of your previous relationship)?

The thing I’ve noticed about my relationship with inspiration is that typically I need negative experiences to trigger my writing but that my best songs come when I’m feeling better. In the fluctuation of my mood, I seem to plant the seeds in my darkest hour and they bloom when the sun comes up. At my lowest I often find it hard to motivate myself. I’m still reflecting on the nature of my hurt and often trying to distill a line or to from it but it’s only when I’m feeling happy that I become prolific and can boil down that reflection into song. Often I’m writing about the painful things in those happy times. I can still connect with the feelings but from a safer distance. That’s not to say that I haven’t used my writing to dig me out of a dark place, that’s certainly happened, just not as often and those tunes don’t often see the light of day. Maybe that has to do with the instrumentation more than the lyrics. When I’m positive I can be open to all kinds of rhythms and chords but when I’m having a rough time I’m more likely to write a three-chord country ballad. Trust me I’ve written my share of those!

As I was listening through the album, I kept coming back to “Check,” which I find a really intriguing song, both with the lyrics and the rhythmic feel that the repeat of “Check” brings. What inspired this particular song and how it ended up sounding?

I love that song both lyrically and because it’s so much fun to play with the band! Here’s the deal with that tune: I experienced some very dark times and eventually sought professional help. Some of that help really did just that, it put me on the path to be the mostly happy stable person I am today. Unfortunately though when I look at the totality of the mental health infrastructure it seems pretty broken to me. Check was inspired by a psychiatrist I had who despite his high position within his institution seemed like the last person who should be diagnosing others when he was so clearly messed up himself! I often would worry about his well-being when I left his office. At the time though I was the one who really needed help but I often felt that I was being treated like a generic case instead of a complex human.

In this song I try to think of traits that are both common within us all and also signs of mental illness. The opening line is, “Do you think outside the box,” a trait respected in the creative person but also an item on the checklist for certain mental health disorders. Basically the lyrics are a laundry list of human traits: egomania, substance abuse, paranoia, inability to focus, things we all experience all the time in minor ways. When mental health professionals are just following a generic checklist, they aren’t always doing a great job at differentiating these traits in the average human versus the very sick individual. I felt that all their academic conjecture left them missing the point entirely. The question should have been, how can we help not what do we call this? The repeated check check check in the song refers to the items on the checklist and simultaneously I’m using the concept of checking the sound in a microphone to express how I felt like I wasn’t being heard. I sing, Is this thing on can you hear me yet. That sums it up lyrically.

As for the music, usually the instrument I write on really dictates the mood and style of the song. I wrote this on dulcimer in a tuning that has a really mysterious jazzy sound. I came up with the tuning through pretty random trial and error but I really love it. Check and My Last Cigarette were written in this tuning. My part is really open in the verses which leaves a lot of room for the band to go on a funky space odyssey. The chorus by contrast is very rhythmic, I’m essentially playing the marking of the checkbox. If you see me do it on stage the movement of my left hand looks like it’s making the checkmark. I didn’t plan for that. In all honesty the mysterious muses of song get all the credit for my instrumental parts. I don’t speak the language of music. I don’t plot out chord changes, in fact I couldn’t tell you what key “Check” is in. You’ll have to ask the band for that. You’d also have to ask them how they make this tune sound so great. The rhythm section certainly holds this tunes together but everyone’s doing cool stuff. Megan’s keyboard parts especially really set the mood!

Speaking of addictive songs, “The Hardest Part” opens with a killer bass line. How did your new colleagues, the Savants, impact how your songs were translated onto the record?

Oh man! That bass-line has to be one of my favourite things on this record and a very good example of how the Savants impacted this record. I’ve had occasion to work with a lot of great musicians. Although my previous act was a duo, we called in some ringers when it came time to make my three solo albums. The difference here is that the Savants have had the time to really get to know these songs and put their stamp on them. Everyone of them is a master at adding just the right little thing and somehow amazingly staying out of each other’s way. As mentioned above, I’m not a formally trained musician. My job is to write the tunes and stick to the arrangement. The way I played a song 2 years ago is for the most part how I’m going to keep playing it. It’s the band that moves around that structure. That bass line is such a shining example of how one part can totally transform. The Hardest Part was essentially a folk singer-songwriter tune with a forward momentum but John Switzer made it instantly danceable. Tim Posgate and Megan Worthy add such beautiful melodic parts to all the songs. Their solos are some of my favourite parts of the record.

With Rebecca, where do I begin?! If you saw the film Six Feet From Stardom you know that the back-up vocalist makes or breaks a tune. Rebecca is a genius of perfectly outlining the lead so that the listener doesn’t even notice there is another voice but without a doubt they feel it. It’s a kind of alchemy, she’s putting a gold plating over my voice. When we play shows her vocal is more up front where she totally belongs live but on the record she’s mixed more subtly at just the right level. The thing about Rebecca though is that she’s not “just” a back-up singer. I recently met Don Kerr (Rheostatics, Ron Sexsmith) who referred to Rebecca as the grooviest percussionist in town! Switzer really showcased this on the album, you can hear the various shakers and tambourines right up front and they often make the arrangement happen. She also plays melodica and guitar too. Her melodica on Fire is sublime. There ain’t nothing that woman can’t do well when it comes to music. She’s our secret weapon! Finally, a band is only as good as it’s drummer. I truly believe that. What I love about Marty is that he is also a really fantastic songwriter (as are most of the rest of the band!). He knows how to lock-in to the tune. He’s always paying attention to the whole song and it shows.

Collette Savard and the Savants

Off-the-wall question: I think you’re the first person we’ve interviewed who plays a charango, and I suspect most people aren’t familiar with them. Can you tell us about it, how you generally tune it, etc., and whether yours is a wooden one or the more traditional kind (made out of an armadillo)?

Ha! The charango is a pretty awesome instrument. I’m always reluctant to say I’m a charango player, or a ukulele player or even a guitar player. I play songs on these instruments yes but I don’t think of myself as a “player”. Maybe that’s just semantics or imposter syndrome, who knows but I can say that I only have about three tunes on the charango thus far and only play one live on occasion. It’s tuned G-C-E-A-E like a ukulele but with and added E. I bought it on a trip to Peru a few years back from a stall in one of those big indoor bazaars.

It is in fact made from an armadillo! I wrote my first song on it en route home when it occurred to me that given that it was essentially a dead animal, customs might have something to say about me leaving with it. I was really nervous about that. I already had a song written and that meant something to me. The customs guy looked at the case slung over my shoulder. What is that? A musical instrument I said. I didn’t want to say charango in case he knew what they were made of. He said, is it wood? I said yes… and nothing more. What?! It is wood. It’s also a dead animal but he didn’t ask me if I was carrying an animal carcass so I didn’t offer it up. He let me go. I love my little armadillo buddy!

Another intriguing part of your bio mentions your love for Edith Piaf… what kind of influence would you say her singing has had on your own?

I would say that my love for Edith Piaf specifically came along later in life but my early years of singing traditional French folk songs really comes through in the kinds of melodies I sing. I was also told by a parisien who heard one of my French compositions that my way of writing was very French (as opposed to french-canadian). I’m not sure what that means or if that translates into my English work but clearly it’s in there somewhere. Maybe it’s this deep rooted relationship with French chansons that draws me to Edith. There’s just something about singing her songs that is so visceral and sensual. The way the air flows through me when I sing her stuff ignites every cell in my body and I am transported. I don’t really have occasion to do Piaf tunes these days but here’s a Soundcloud link to my performance of “La Vie En Rose.” I’m really passionate about how much better the French lyrics are compared to the English ones.

In French you have a subtle love song about how beautiful the simple day to day is with your lover. The anglo version seems a bit contrived in comparison. The piano on this rendition is played by a former collaborator, Asher Ettinger.

You have the album launch event planned for January 26. After that, any plans as yet for touring with the new band?

I had really hoped to lead up to this launch with a long list of tour dates to advertise but alas the life of the indie musician does not always go as planned. Yes yes yes, I plan to tour but I have a band of six busy people to wrangle and I’m still learning the ropes of being my own booking agent. It’s like herding cats, only cats don’t have as much gear. I’ve got some lines on shows in Southern Ontario that I’m following up on and I’ll continue on from there. Rebecca and I are planning to go out to the East Coast in the Spring as well. The band is modular with the three ladies forming a trio. We play a lot of the same tunes but with our roots showing so to speak. I’m hoping to do the house concert thing this year with the gals, which should be fun. In the meantime those in the Toronto area can see us the second Thursday of the month at the Tranzac and we also do a regular thing at Grossman’s though the scheduling fluctuates. Watch for this and other tour dates on my website Better still if you have a venue we can play, get in touch!

~ L

Visit Collette Savard and the Savants’ website.

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