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Interview: Savannah Conley

12 May 2023

Photo by Sophia Matinazad

It didn’t come up during this conversation but it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that Savannah Conley has a Nashville tattoo. The singer/songwriter was born to a studio musician father and professional backup singing mother and has lived just outside of the Country Music capital for her entire life. As a sampling of the current Nashville scene can attest, it’s no longer just cowboy hats, pickup trucks and beer on a Friday night with Conley being one of the brightest, up-and-coming alternative pop stars to emerge.

Gaining experience primarily as an opening act and playing music from the EPs she’s released, Conley is on the verge of being able to put those days behind her with the release of her first full-length album, Playing the Part of You is Me. The album’s lyrics hold true to the experiences of someone entering adulthood, the good and the bad.

Calling while stuck in Atlanta traffic, Conley discussed the making of the album, shared her thoughts about Nashville, and talked about artists she’s toured with and admires.

With Mother’s Day coming up, is your mom going to get an autographed copy of your new record?

SAVANNAH: No. Honestly, she’s not much of a gift person. We’re pausing Mother’s Day and then going to do a trip later on. She’s pretty chill, so I got lucky in that way. She’s not really about most of that kind of stuff.

I imagine you’re more than ready for the record to come out?

SAVANNAH: Yes, for sure. I think it’s a similar story for a lot of artists. You work so long on it, the time elapsed between writing the songs to recording the songs already feels like a lot, and then from recording the songs to putting the songs out, it’s like, “Come on, let’s get on with it!”

How long has the album been done?

SAVANNAH: Since October. Well, it’s been recorded since October. Mixed and all of that since January. And then we had to do all the visuals and everything. It hasn’t been sitting, not having any work done on it.

What is it like touring right now with the album not being out?

SAVANNAH: It doesn’t really make a difference that much, especially on the support tours, just because the majority of the crowd that we’re playing to doesn’t really know anyway. There’s almost a freedom to it because if we mess up, then no one notices.

I think it would be different if it was a headline tour, it would feel a little strange. I like feeling the differences of the recorded songs versus the songs played live. But, I mean, we’ve already had a conversation as a band being like, well, when the record comes out, we’re going to have to kind of re-work and stick closer to the record versions because they’ll be out and people will be expecting certain parts and stuff like that.

You recently played at the Windjammer in Isle of Palms, South Carolina. I’ve visited Isle of Palms but never seen a show there. What’s it like?

SAVANNAH: It’s wild. It’s like a beach party. You’re standing on the beach and the stage is situated on the beach. And then you turn around and just water. I hadn’t done anything like that. I think they have another room upstairs that’s more of a traditional venue with a stage. But where we were was the outdoor part. I’ve never seen anything like that before that wasn’t a festival.

You were born and raised and live in Nashville. Have you found a home away from home, though? Do you record in Nashville, too, or do you record somewhere else?

SAVANNAH: I stick pretty close to home. A little over half the record was written in London, and so I worked there and a lot of the record comes from there. That’s the only other place that really touched the record a lot. But other than that, my whole family is in Nashville. And we tour so much that I wouldn’t get to see them at all if I didn’t stick pretty close to there in our off time.

And I have a super tight knit, borderline cultish, family, so I got to spend significant amount of time with them. Happily. It’s not a chore. There’s so many people that are so good at what they do in Nashville. I had one last meeting in Nashville with a producer and then we were going to go to L.A. after that. We had a whole set of producers that I was set to meet with over there. I met with, and did a trial session, with this guy, Jeremy Lutito, in Nashville and I was like, “Cancel the trip to L.A. This is our guy.”

I’m not opposed, by any means, to working outside of Nashville, and I’m not really gung ho about only working in Nashville. It’s just how it’s happened. And I do think that we have, luckily, some of the best musicians and best writers in Nashville. So it’s lucky in that way for me.

I was looking at some of the co-writes on the album and I saw Iain Archer’s name. I saw him perform at an Irish bar in Austin at SXSW many years ago and, I think, perform with Snow Patrol that week as well.

SAVANNAH: Oh, wow. That’s amazing. We wrote two of the songs on the record together. I grew up with Snow Patrol, so it was awesome. The first time we ever wrote together was probably four or five years ago when I was in the middle of this crazy label deal, and he was one that I was like, “Once we figure all this shit out, I want to write with him again.”

He’s a guy I really want to keep working with. I ended up going to Brighton for a couple of days over the summer, last summer, and that’s when we wrote the two that we wrote together. He’s just incredible.

He’s one of those people that you feel completely at ease with. I don’t know if it’s his accent or his demeanor or what. I think it’s a combo of all of it, but you feel completely at ease immediately with him, and his musical sensibilities are just so specific to him, and you can hear him in anything that he’s worked on.

You’ve released some EPs and singles so this is your first album. Did it just feel like it was time to release a full length?

SAVANNAH: Well, yes. It’s been a pretty heavily curated process on my end. This is definitely not the first record I’ve ever recorded. I have probably three records that I’ve recorded and trashed, fully-produced, ready-to-come-out stuff, and it just never felt right. It didn’t feel like I could stand on them. It was like, maybe musically these are good, or they feel good, but it’s not saying anything, and it’s not telling a full story, or I just felt like it wasn’t fully a representation of me.

We just decided not to put any of those out. And it was over probably three or four year time period. My team was very patient with me, luckily. All of the people that I trust legitimately were in agreement with me that those records were not accurately representative. So this record was the first time that it felt right and it had so much to do with Jeremy producing.

It had so much to do with the way he navigates and how he makes records and the comfortability level there and, I think, my age has a lot to do with it. I’m not a baby anymore, and I feel like I can stand on my own two feet now. I’ve paid my dues in a way that, not that I deserve to have something to say, but I feel like I can hold my own enough to where I can represent myself with the record. And I hadn’t felt like that prior to this. Working with Jeremy was seamless and really become a world building experience, which was something I’d never gotten to do. We really built something from the ground up with these songs, and he was so great about giving the songs what they called for and really treating each one as its own thing. We took our time and chased down every rabbit hole we possibly wanted to.

So, I think it was just a combination of all of that. We were only going to make an EP. And then we finished five songs and we both kind of looked at each other and we’re like, nah, this has got to be a record. And so we did six more. I think it’s just a combination of a lot of different things that all lined up to where it felt right.

My takeaway from the lyrics are themes of sadness, being unfulfilled, a little bit of longing for something.

SAVANNAH: Absolutely. I mean, your 20s are fucking whack. They’re like every high, every low, you’re just figuring shit out and feeling like you know something about something and then it all gets blown apart. And there’s not a lot of stability, especially in what we do. It was just that time period. I’m 26 now, and those songs were written in my early 20s. I don’t think that there’s a single person that doesn’t feel longing and sadness at some point, but I feel like it’s a little bit concentrated when you’re 20, it’s a little more potent, maybe. I think I’m a pretty upbeat person in my everyday life, on my outward expression, and then that’s where the rest of it goes. So it’s definitely a lot of coping going on there.

I feel like that plays into the album title, Playing the Part of You is Me, as well.

SAVANNAH: Totally. Yeah. I mean, that’s kind of why I named it what I named it, because you can interpret it like that, and there are a thousand ways you can interpret it, I think. And I’m looking forward to hearing what people interpret it as, because that’s part of the fun for me.

Outside of your parents and your team, do you have a close friend or confidant that you send songs to to get their reactions?

SAVANNAH: So many. Nobody wants to put anybody in demo jail and have them listen to all their stuff, but I definitely will show my friends. It’s very valuable. But the first people that I do show are my parents. And honestly, the best person is my best friend who does not anything to do with music. She’s an occupational therapist. She’s been my best friend my whole life. And she has great music taste, always has. And she has always been the very most honest with me of anyone. And she’s always my end all, be all opinion, just because I know that she is going to listen from a listener’s perspective. And that’s what I care about. I don’t care about industry fucks liking it. I care about her and people like her. So she’s always going to shoot me straight. She’s really the main one.

Do you have any favorite concert shirts?

SAVANNAH: I was just talking about this. It wasn’t mine. I didn’t go to the show, but my friend had given me a Killers Hot Fuss Tour shirt from 2008. That was my favorite. Someone took it. I don’t know what motherfucker took it, but they did and that was my favorite. I will be looking for that shirt till the day I die. It was awesome, but that was definitely my favorite one.

You’ve toured with Ruston Kelly, another one of my favorite artists that I’ve had the chance to interview.

SAVANNAH: He is nothing but fun and just a complete ball of energy all the time. He’s a blast. But he’s also he’s a great friend as well, so he’s just a great dude.

What he’s so good at is he’s so great at so much. But part of what makes his music so relatable too, for people that haven’t struggled with the things that he has, is that his vulnerability is so immediate and real, but it doesn’t ask anything of you.

His vulnerability doesn’t make you feel like you have to care for him or fix him. It’s like, “This is what I’ve got. I’m putting it on the table. Do with that what you want.” And that’s part of what makes him so great at connecting with people. His vulnerability is just so real. It’s such a true, vulnerable space and he has no ulterior motives in his vulnerability.

I saw that you follow Sting on Instagram. Are you a fan?

SAVANNAH: Oh, my God. Yes. Like, mega. We were just talking about him. My boyfriend and I saw a guinea pig in PetSmart, and he had a mohawk, and we were like, “What cool rock star name could we name this guinea pig?” And we were like, “Sting. For sure, Sting.” But yes, I’m a huge Sting fan. He’s just a fascinating person. I can hear myself doing things that I learned from him. I don’t know if it translates to anyone else, but in my mind, it’s me trying to be Sting. I love him.

And you also follow his daughter, Elliot Sumner.

SAVANNAH: Okay, so that is a record that Iain Archer worked on. That record that she came out that he helped with, when I read his name I was like, “Holy shit, this guy knows what he’s doing.” He co-wrote my favorite song on the record, “Firewood”. That record is bonkers. That was one of my most played albums. That’s a desert island record for me, honestly. I think it’s one that I don’t think about day to day very much, but when I revisit, I’m like, “Holy shit, this is an album!”

You’ve got quite a touring resume. You’ve played with Anderson East, Brandi Carlisle, The Head and The Heart, Ben Folds and the Violent Femmes. I also know you’ve toured quite a bit with a band from Columbus, where I’m from, CAAMP.

SAVANNAH: Yeah, I did their first headline tour ever. I was their opener. And, yeah, it was a wild. They didn’t understand at that point what was happening because they had no point of relation. Being from Nashville and seeing the industry, I was like, “You guys, this does not happen to just every band. What you guys are experiencing is not normal. This is very strange.” I think they understand that now. But it was a fun experience to see them kind of come to the realization and be like, “Oh, okay, this is where we’re headed.” They’re great guys. I think it was just so many things happened at the right time, and they hit this vein that people wanted, and they did not tailor make themselves to that at all. Like, they didn’t they didn’t go to that. All the people came to them. And their fans are rabid. If you are a CAAMP fan, you are a die hard CAAMP fan. It’s almost a little like Phish. The Phish fans are like no other fan in the world. And CAAMP fans are a little similar.

What do you have planned in the way of touring?

SAVANNAH: There will be stuff in the fall and then there’s stuff in the pipeline, as it were.

Are you laying low in the summer?

SAVANNAH: We’ll probably do a couple smaller festival things. And then I have to start writing. I’ve got some songs, but as soon as this project ends, the next one starts.

I’m going to take a solo trip to write just by myself for a week, and then I’ll write with some other people as well. Because, if we’re touring in the fall, then I’m not going to have any time to write then, so I better do it now. That way, we can focus on touring the record in the fall. I’m really bad about not being able to write if I’m distracted, so I have to just kind of hold up.

I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but you mentioned you have some completed records that you’ve shelved. You know, people go crazy for things like that on Record Store Day. Maybe you could do limited releases of those albums years from now.

SAVANNAH: Oh, for sure. There’s one that I’ll definitely put out. That is the John Prine cover that he asked me to do. And that one will come out at some point for sure. We were going to do it on his birthday a couple of years ago, and then I can’t remember what happened. But that one is really special because the plan was I was going to sing that song and then we were going to ask him to do the verse two vocals. He died before that could happen. So I think we have a plan for that, but it just hasn’t been the right time. That’s one that was on one of those records that will definitely come out.

While Nashville isn’t L.A., there are a number of celebrities and musicians who live there. Do you ever bump into anybody or see anyone famous at the grocery store?

SAVANNAH: Definitely not as common as L.A. but, yeah, you’ll see the occasional Jack White here and there, like shopping at Target. But I think people like Nashville because most people don’t give a shit about who they are, and so it hasn’t really gotten that infiltrated quite yet with that L.A. mentality of really being into celebrity culture.

Final question. If you don’t mind sharing, who would I be surprised to find in your phone’s contacts?

SAVANNAH: I think mine would probably be Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top). I think that’s probably my weird one.