Anna B Savage
“A Common Turn”
intro by tom johnson
words by anna b savage
photography by ebru yildiz
Some records take time.
Some six years have passed since we first covered the music of Anna B Savage here on GoldFlakePaint. It’s taken until this week for her debut album to finally arrive, the years that have passed between and now a mixture of discovery, of learning, of self doubt, and finally, chiefly, fruition.
Some records take time.
A Common Turn is neither simple or straightforward. At first blow it’s all about that voice, how it moves, and swallows, and explodes and shrinks. But over time so much more is revealed; the little whispers of idiosyncrasies that sculpt it into even stranger, more fascinating shapes as we bend to really listen.
Out now, via City Slang, and produced beautifully by fellow musician William Doyle, A Common Turn is many things at once: a document of growth, an exercise in vulnerability, a collection of strangely skewed pop songs that can sweep through the listener in a gust. It’s a striking, often remarkable album, and one that Anna has been kind enough to walk us through, twist and turn and all, here below.
So hit the play button and keep scrolling.
by anna b savage
Intro to album
A Common Turn is the culmination of three years of labour, preceded by approximately twenty-five years of build-up. For the first two and a half years, it felt like pulling teeth, and almost completely unattainable. The writing took many forms – part housesitter, part park writer, always solitary. One month I printed each set of lyrics out on a page of A4, blu tacked them to my rented room wall, and drew lines between each corresponding idea, highlighted things to do with sexuality, to do with touch, birds, hands, an attempt to connect. Making sure I’d lyrically covered all the themes I wanted to, linking ideas, deleting repeats, and making me look like a literal serial killer. I had the demos for a beat but wasn’t sure what to do with them. One day I saw on Instagram that William Doyle was looking to do some more production work. I’d heard his stuff as East India Youth, and responded within about 30 seconds trying to get him on board with producing my album. I knew that I’d contributed the more acoustic side/ the melodies and structures and full songs, but I had no idea how to get the more electric, harsher elements I was envisaging into the songs, without losing my warmth. That was something I always thought Will had done super well. From his first response to the demos, I knew the album was in safe hands. He was so deliberate, considered, thoughtful and imaginative.
A Steady Warmth
I wrote this, along with many others, on the floor of my childhood bedroom. A Steady Warmth, the last song I wrote, felt like a place for play: all the other songs were structured, linear and in my mind fully fleshed out. I wanted to play with the recording of this, keep it loose and experimental, but I knew it needed to be there. The lyrics are, much like most of the things I like, questioning the integrity of my own thoughts and emotions.
I had ended a not good relationship and spent the summer feeling like an alien, being very solitary and looking after myself gently. I remember going to Hampstead Heath on my own, swimming in the ladies pond, then lying down and reading a passage from The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. In it she talks about a summer she spent back in Orkney, counting Corncrakes for the RSPB. She vividly describes the sound these nocturnal birds make, the “crex crex” (it’s wild, go check it out) waiting to hear them in the darkness, then desperately trying to spot it with her torch. She explains how they seemed so loud and so present, and yet she didn’t see one the whole time she was doing the survey. She knew they were all around her and yet when she came closest, they evaded her. “Although I’ve heard almost thirty males, I still haven’t seen one. The corncrake is always just beyond me”. At the time of writing, I wasn’t really sure why corncrakes fit into this song, it felt like one of the puzzle pieces presented to me by the world which I just had to roll with. Now it seems pretty self-evident, although I’m still reticent to point it out too explicitly. “I don’t know if this is even real/ I don’t feel things as keenly as I used to” is a sentiment which, in my mind, sums up the entire album. Things feeling ever so slightly out of reach: the album, this relationship, the corncrakes. This was the last ‘full’ song I wrote, and came out the same afternoon as ‘A Steady Warmth’.
This was one of the first songs I wrote. I was struggling, to consider myself a musician, to believe that I was doing anything that was worth something, even to myself. I was at a particularly bad place and had lost so many things I thought of as anchors to my sense of self: my love of and relation to music, my voice, my songwriting. The strange lilting 3/4 in the chorus was a conscious choice – a break from the easy 4/4 of the verses. The slightly jarring shift felt analogous to how I felt when suddenly music would come on and I could no longer dance without self-consciousness. I have always loved dancing, but I completely lost the ability and desire to do so.
When I was finding writing especially hard, I went to New York to stay with DM Stith, hoping to eke out some inspiration. The previous time I’d visited, I was staying with one of my best friends, Flora. This is a love song for her. At that point I was, as always, worried about not being far enough along in my music career, worried that I didn’t work hard enough. She, on the other hand, works so hard and is so singularly focussed (and excellent) that she’s not lived in the UK, or in the same country as any of her friends or family since she left University in 2012. I love everything about her: she is hilarious, and awkward, and so gangly, and loyal, supportive, talented, smart, encouraging, has bright red hair that she intermittently grows super long and then chops it all off, and she also happens to be one of the most physically beautiful people I’ve ever seen. She met me at the airport and we rode all the way to her house in BedStuy holding hands, and she laughed at my jetlag. We shared a bed the entire trip, and I was so sad to leave her. I thought about that trip often, and looking out of my bedroom in David’s apartment, trying to get something to come out, I’d not had any luck, then on a walk back from Whole Foods, I suddenly got the lines “last time I was here, I was with you // your bright red hair, the shortest it’s been” – I realised how much I missed her, and how strongly associative New York was with her, and (sadly) that feeling of not living up to my potential.
Ah, Baby Grand. This one is a big one. Jem (my ex-boyfriend and collaborator) and I had just started filming for our film, and he came to stay with me one night. That night we spent the night being in that strange limbo thinking we might get together. It didn’t happen. We danced around it for a while but then he lay on my shoulder and fell asleep. It was so weird. I could smell his hair, and I remembered how it smelt, same with hearing his snore. It was too familiar. So weird.
I was disappointed and a bit relieved and confused. We went to bed, nothing having happened, and when I woke up the next day I was writing the song when he was in the next room. It felt like a fucking Benny Hill sketch- he’d walk in and film me and I’d try to remember to cover up the lyrics I was writing about the night we’d had before. It’s the same night that sparked a kind of change of direction in the film. Our film, now also called Baby Grand, was initially about exploring our past love and relationship. This night brought (and the song acknowledged) the confusing ‘present-day’ element that was arising. I think this album and the film are in direct conversation with each other.
Again written on the floor of my childhood bedroom. I felt particularly low and felt like I wouldn’t be able to write anything about it, but just kept trying and over a series of writing sessions, this one slowly started to appear. For a few weeks, all I had was the first two lines. I knew I wanted the chorus of this to be heavier than stuff I’d done before – I was listening to lots of Hardcore punk at this point and wanted to express those sentiments and feelings, musically as well as lyrically. I wanted to sound a bit more aggressive, how I felt my internal narrative was when aimed at myself. Will took this and made it into a whole new beast. This song makes me have butterflies when the first chorus came in. It felt like the most perfect combination of both of our talents, and exactly why I’d wanted him to produce the album.
A Common Tern
Potentially the most oblique album on the record, it felt different when I was writing it. Although admittedly I didn’t really know what I was spelling out, I didn’t want to make this song as straightforward as the rest. It was at a tough moment of reckoning: realising I’d been in a relationship that was actually harmful and finally allowing myself to admit it. I saw a common tern for the first time while I was on a fishing trip with that ex. It’s strange to me now, as I was vegetarian at the time, and am a veeg now, but I went fishing with him anyway because, well, I did all of the things he wanted to do even if they didn’t interest me, or even if I didn’t agree with them. I made myself so much smaller, so much less, in order to satisfy him. The fishing allegory felt pretty relevant: namely, the barbed hook in its frickin face and the inability to get away. Again, I don’t think I entirely grasped the relevance of the terns when I wrote it, but it’s something about the freedom of birds. As for the wordplay, the common turn is the moment you realise something has shifted internally in your understanding of a relationship. A more classic one would be ’the ick’. Something that, once it’s realised, can’t be come back from.
Chelsea Hotel #3
I had already decided I wanted to write a song addressing female masturbation, or more specifically, my masturbation. I was fucked off that it had taken so long for me to feel l like I was allowed to be sexual, allowed to express it (both in songs and in bed), and I guess I wanted to try and get over the shame of the fucking thing. When I played it to Jem the first time, he was like “ oh this is really brave”, but in all honesty, I never expected anyone to hear it. I never expected anyone to hear it, but still, I hoped they would: hoped some younger person would hear it and think “ah, okay, I don’t need to feel ashamed for being a sexual person”.
Ah hotel, in my mind the gatekeeper to the entire album. I didn’t mean to make such a long song (do I ever mean to? no. Does it happen a lot? yes. dammit) but when I saw this was going even longer than normal ones, I decided I wanted to make it in lots of different parts, with different personalities. Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick was my inspiration. Wish I could’ve got a jaunty flute solo in somehow. I worked on this for four years on and off, started immediately after the release of my EP and it was still being re-written on the day I recorded it. I was trying to reckon with the idea of fulfilling a life long dream by ‘doing music’, being in a hotel, and realising I still felt alone and empty. A lot of this song is now just my own anxieties, and how I deal with them. Breathing exercises, sleeping, listening to Pink Moon on repeat. I played with chords which weave in and out of one another and flitting between different time signatures in a quite formulaic and uneasy way. Part of this is because I’m so concerned that people will hear my music and think it’s boring, and part of it is because I’m wanting to musically try and convey these strange cyclical and linear, anxiety patterns that go on in my head.
This feels incredibly concise now, having played it so many times and feeling so comfortable with it. I find it quite funny, though I’m not sure many other people do. Again, I wanted to write a song that used different time signatures: this starts in 5/4 and goes into 6/8, and gave me a bit of comfort when I read a few articles saying “ this very simple song” and I was like ‘haha, I tricked you’ while still also crumbling because it’s terrifying to me that someone could think I intentionally wrote a simple song when actually I was trying to do something clever because I’m just not that good at what I do/ smart/ good enough/blah blah low self-esteem. I was dating this guy who was a rollerblader (no fucking joke) and I remember being so sad that he’d left the lights on that I did indeed keep my t-shirt on (but t-shirt syllables didn’t scan). These tracks one and two feel so far away from me now it’s kind of hard to recall writing them, but I know I wrote this in my student room in Manchester halfway through my MA. At this point, it didn’t have the more ‘upbeat’ ending. I played it a couple of times at open mic nights and in shows I’d booked, and decided it needed something to lift it at the end. I went home and remembered a friend from earlier in my uni days who had said: “If I get stuck on what to do, I just use the same words and chords and change the rhythm”, so, that’s exactly what I did, started playing around with the ‘I want to be strong… mind” chords. It sounded banging, so that’s how I decided to end the ending of the song, adding in another rhythmical change so people didn’t think I was a slacker. And there it is!
A Common Turn is out now, via City Slang. You can buy it here
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