Andrew Savage :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

It feels like a long stretch of time has passed since 2017, when Andrew Savage debuted his first solo album Thawing Dawn—a country record put through the filter of city life and a momentary step away from the post-punk creations of Parquet Courts. Time spent walking during those fall months following its release typically involved listening to “Wild, Wild, Wild Horses” on my headphones, feeling as if the world was slowing to a gracious crawl for a brief few minutes. Now six years later, Andrew once again comes to us with another solo project, this time confronting the feelings of departure from a city he has called home for so long. 

Several Songs about Fire, released earlier this month, is an album of change, both in setting and self. After living for twelve years in the same Brooklyn apartment, Andrew left New York City for reasons both definite and ambiguous, all of which he deals with on his new album. Whether we like it or not, the place where we live tends to bind to us. It can shape us in ways that seem unnoticeable until the time comes when the distance growing between the person you are and the person you see in the mirror is substantial enough for change to be necessary, or as Andrew sings in the opening lines of his album, “Hollowed face stranger/Just who might you be?/In the mirror, someone’s crying/with the same eyes as me.”

I spoke with Andrew over the phone and wondered if he feels as though he has changed as a songwriter since Thawing Dawn. “I feel like that’s one that’s never for me to answer really,” he tells me. “In a way, I haven’t changed at all. I just do what I do. Things around me change, and that’s key I guess. But as a songwriter, I’m just doing what I’ve always done really.” Thankfully for us, Andrew continues to do what he has always done with Several Songs about Fire. It’s an album that is as complicated and beautiful as fire itself, exploring ideas of destruction and change while never letting go of the hopeful promise that something good will follow. During our call, we talk about his newest album, touring with Cate Le Bon and returning to Chicago’s Empty Bottle. | t cundy

Aquarium Drunkard: So where are you living nowadays?

Andrew Savage: I’ve been living in France since May.

AD: And how’s that been?

Andrew Savage: It agrees with me. It’s nice to be in Paris where I know a lot of people, but way less than I do in New York. It’s nice to be in a place where I have way less social pressure to hang out with people and make sure I show my face around town enough. I don’t really feel that pressure here, and so far I’ve gotten a lot done, which feels good.

AD: Are you missing New York at all?

Andrew Savage: Well, it’s a bit too soon to fully miss it, but I’m gonna miss people. I miss certain ways of life, but it’s still just been a handful of months. I think I won’t miss it until I go back in a few weeks for this tour. We’ll start by rehearsing there and then the last show will be in New York at the Bowery Ballroom. I think that when I leave after that show maybe that’s when I’ll start to miss something, but for now I’m kind of focused on the the new. The new place. The new part.

AD: I know from personal experience there’s that anticipation and back-and-forth that happens when it comes to departing a place you call home, particularly a city, and I always find that the hardest transition comes from the process of thinking to leave and the actual concrete decision to leave. I was wondering how that process manifested itself to you. 

Andrew Savage: Well, I’ve dealt with it and that’s what the record largely is. It’s kind of a historical record of me dealing with it and every artist has a relationship with the place that they’re from and the place they call home. The version of myself that I am now started [in New York]. I guess I will always be of it in a way, but I’m really interested in kind of living nowhere for a bit, like not identifying myself with any place. I’m not even sure I’ll stay where I am now and there’s something liberating about that because that hasn’t been the case in a long time. I mean for twelve years I lived in one apartment in Brooklyn, so being without a place is a really exciting stage.

AD: I think the order you chose for these tracks really tell that story as well. With writing these songs, and I guess with writing in general, is the process structured in a way where you sit down to formally write, or is it a less deliberate than that?

Andrew Savage: I think it’s both because as an artist I think you have to keep your heart and mind open for whenever inspiration strikes, so it serves one to organize their life in a way to be ready for that. So I keep a notebook and I think that’s an important thing that any artist of any type should do in order to record an idea on something that isn’t a phone. But also I think part of being an artist is the discipline of giving yourself the space in time to make what you make, so that sometimes means sitting down and saying, “OK, I’m gonna do this thing. How do I do this? What do I got?” 

You have to plan that time and space yourself, even when inspiration doesn’t meet you. You have to write down something. You have to say something, even if it just totally stinks. At least you did it, then sometimes those missteps lead to something cool anyway.

AD: And I think writing it down makes it much more intentional, rather than jotting it down in your notes app.

Andrew Savage: There’s just things that you can do on a piece of paper that you can’t do on the phone. There is something about the act of writing with a pen on paper that makes your brain store it differently than it does on the device. It stays with you in a different way.

AD: It was interesting listening to Several Songs about Fire because, compared to your last album, it feels like the acoustic guitar leads the way rather than the electric guitar or noisier elements.

Andrew Savage: There’s a lot of acoustic guitar on the record for sure, but it’s interesting what you pick up on, because there’s a lot of instrumentation on the record. The acoustic guitar is what I wrote a lot of songs on but I don’t hear it as much on some songs. I mean obviously a song like “Hurtin’ or Healed” sets the tone for the record and that’s got a very upfront acoustic guitar, but it doesn’t seem like a super acoustic record to me, although you wouldn’t confuse it with a Parquet Courts record. I did start writing just on a guitar, and I play a lot of the songs that way too. 

When making a record, I’m often the kind of person who thinks about how it’s going to be done live, and just budget-wise it’s hard to pay eight musicians every night to recreate this record. There will be some moments on tour where I’m able to do that, but there will be some moments where it’ll just be me singing my songs with the guitar. 

I think it’s important for any artist to be able to distill what they do down to a single element. I guess guitar and voice are two elements that could be distilled down to just guitar or just voice. If you’re going to scale what you’re doing up, it’s important to be able to get an idea across in a very minimalist way because that implies there’s a nucleus. There’s something at the core of this idea. You can look at an artist’s sketch of a painting that’s just pencil and still get the bright idea of what the final painting is, because really the emotions that we try to communicate in art are very simple things.

Having said that, there are some amazing musicians on this record and there’s a reason why it’s not just a straight up record of me playing guitar and singing. I wanted it to sound like a band in a room, which it is. It’s a band in a room full of people, and each player brings a lot of their personality into the recording. John Parish did a really excellent job of capturing the mood in the studio. He’s really good at putting musicians in a room and having them sound like musicians in a room. That kind of sounds like a silly and obvious statement, because you’re like, “OK, that’s what making a record is,” but it’s really not so much these days. 

When you listen to songs on the radio in the the year that I’m in, it’s one person doing a lot of things. Or maybe it’s a band or a group in theory, but they’re never in the room at the same time, and you can hear that. That’s why I wanted to work with John on this record because you can feel the room. That’s what he’s really good at: bringing the room to the listener.

AD: It definitely keeps a consistency of emotion through the record as well. I think part of the reason I was thinking of an acoustic guitar as the centerpiece was because I first listened to some of these songs while seeing you open for Cate Le Bon last year. How was that tour?

Andrew Savage: That was great. It was so nice after coming hot off the heels from the last Parquet Courts tour because I was the opening act. It was much lower stakes. People were not there to see me. In fact, I was surprised a lot of people didn’t even know who the hell I was, which was cool because I love the cold sell. I don’t really get that chance with Parquet Courts anymore because we’re kind of literally preaching to the converted at this point. People come to our show with the intention of seeing us. They know us, they know our songs, they know all the words to them. But that wasn’t the case with me. I was just the guy that kind of stumbled out before the star came out, and that was cool. 

I just had my guitar with me, so my sound checks were like ten minutes, and then they would go ahead and do a three hour sound and light check after me. During that time, I was working on lyrics and working on these songs while thinking, “Okay, how can I do tonight different than I did last night.” That’s not a thing I get to do so much with the band, because when you’re the headliner your day is just so booked. As soon as you get to the venue you’re on, you’re working. Maybe people don’t realize that when they go see the band play, but in this case I was chilling because they were the stars. And so I got to chill, work on my songs and switch lines out. 

The way I write is I tend to do 3 or 4 versions of each line and switch them in and out just see what works best, so I was able to do that. I was able to write new stuff. “Thanksgiving Prayer” started as a very different song than the way it ended on that tour. Same thing with “Le Grand Balloon.” It was nice. I was in the van with with all of them, but it felt very autonomous. I was the only guy out there on the stage. 

It was a nice way to end a very long year and transition into the headspace for making the record, which happened just a few months afterwards. It was cool because Dylan [Hadley], who plays drums and sings a lot of the vocal parts on the record, was in Cate’s band, as was Euan [Hinshelwood] who does sax and clarinet. It wasn’t long after that I went to the UK and started working with Jack Cooper from Modern Nature, who was also on Thawing Dawn. After that tour was done the record came together real quick.

AD: I was reading the lyrics last night as I was going through your songs, and they have this very evident poetic feel to them.

Andrew Savage: Are you reading and listening or just reading?

AD: A bit of both, I read most of them with no music at all. I think it’s a nice way to take more time with the lyrics by reading each line. I was curious what kind of poets you typically come back to, or certain poetry books you keep picking up.

Andrew Savage: I find myself going back to Frank Stanford. He’s a poet from Arkansas who had a very brief career and died young, aged 29. He went to an all boys Jesuit school, which is interesting that there’s a Jesuit boarding school in Arkansas, but there is and it’s called Subiaco. Joyce is one of my favorite writers, he’s obviously referenced on the record and he started in Jesuit education too. Two people that I go back to a lot are Stanford and David Berman. Also Frank Stanford’s lover, C.D. Wright, also an Arkansas poet who died a few years ago. She had a much longer career than Frank and was an amazing poet herself. Those are a handful of people I tend to come back to because of imagery. All of these people have a very good way of setting up a sense of place and setting, and that’s an important thing in my work: giving the reader an idea of the physical space the work is coming from. It helps if you can familiarize yourself with the geography and all the emotion that comes with geography. Stanford had a really amazing way of basically using emotion as a type of clay to make a geographic landscape. He talks about geography a lot and that’s something I’ve always admired about what he does. David Berman does that too. He sort of uses the familiar and the mundane to create something grotesque and beautiful.

AD: Yeah, David Berman could really make something mundane seem so beautiful. 

Andrew Savage: Actually I have his book right here, Actual Air. I don’t know how many people know that book, but I always recommend it, especially if they mention Silver Jews.

AD: Right around this time of year I always find myself feeling the need to put on the Purple Mountains record or a Silver Jews record. 

Andrew Savage: I know what you mean. I have that sort of relationship with the seasons and music too. It’s for that reason that I’m happy to release a record in October. The color scheme’s got that fall look to it too. 

AD: Yeah, and it has that change-in-the-seasons sort of feel.

Andrew Savage: Yeah, it seems like a good time for a record like this to come out. I would have been happy with it coming out in the spring or summer, but this just feels like a fall record. I remember when I was a kid, I got really into the Pixies record Bossanova. I must have got it in October or something because every time the temperature drops, I start craving to listen to it.

AD: You’re about to head out on tour?

Andrew Savage: Yeah, the tour starts on the 20th. We’ll come through Chicago at the Empty Bottle which is definitely a very important room for me.

AD: Oh yeah, you’re a fan of the Empty Bottle too?

Andrew Savage: Who isn’t? There’s not many places left like that. I would say that’s the kind of place where if I lived in Chicago I would go there even if I didn’t like the band that much. The room feels nice. It sounds nice. It’s a place where you know you’re going to see a friend and I’ve had a lot of important nights in that room. It’s a special place, I’m happy to play there. 

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