Bambi Lee Savage is about two and a half decades into her career, yet her third album, Darkness Overshadowed, just dropped last year… Although the story behind her slow progression is pretty existentially romantic. In the late 80s and early 90s she worked behind the scenes, as a recording engineer at Hansa Studios in Berlin… Her credits include Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ The Good Sun and U2’s Achtung Baby… She made quite an impression on the heavy-hitters… Such the impression that Bono decided to fund her recording sessions and Bad Seeds Mick Harvey and Hugo Race decided they want to play with her themselves (Harvey even produced and provided much of the backing band on her latest.) All of this work, well over a decade in the making, was finally released on 2003’s Matter of Time, a collection of songs on the darker kind of Americana. Her follow-up, recorded with Josh Klinghoffer before he joined Red Hot Chili Peppers, was a concept album of sorts, about sex trafficking, a bit more abrasive than her debut. Her latest LP, Darkness Overshadowed, rings a bit of post-punk and ethereal wave, but that Southern Gothic twang is still what shines most prominently. I recently got a chance to chat with Bambi Lee Savage about, more or less, her entire career, and where she thinks she might be heading in the future.
Izzy Cihak: How do you feel like your latest, Darkness Overshadowed, compares to your previous work? Do you consider it to be an evolution of sorts in your sound, or possibly just another side to it?
Bambi Lee Savage: I see each project as its own entity, with its own character and style, determined, firstly, by the songs, and then, of course, by the musicians and producer, if there is one, as well as circumstance. The first album was really a collection of demos that were the result of charity recording sessions – Bono sponsored my first recordings with Mick Harvey just after Achtung Baby, then Daniel Lanois let me use his studio for a few days a few years later, and I spent another several years trying to find a record deal with those demos. So, finally I asked Dan for a couple days in his studio to record two more songs and just released them all as a record independently. Somehow, I think they manage to work well together, but it was a real patchwork, and circumstance was a major factor.
GJ and the PimpKillers, on the other hand, was a process that all started with the idea for “I’ve Got a Gun,” which had been on my mind for about a decade. Then I got this electronic keyboard and wrote that song in one night. I wanted to make a statement, because I’m quite passionate about the idea of women protecting themselves at all costs! And sometimes I fantasize about a world where only women have guns. But I tried to represent different parts of that personality and experience too. It’s not all in-your-face feminism, but that was the initial inspiration. The rest of that record just followed pretty naturally, mostly using the keyboard for writing and arranging. I don’t really play keyboards, I’m more of a guitarist, but it turned out to be a great writing instrument. And the vocal style is pretty much in character on that record. “GJ” was the person telling the story.
With Darkness Overshadowed I had these particular songs in mind that belonged together and I knew Mick was the perfect producer for them and was waiting for the opportunity to work with him. But when he eventually told me he was going to have time and I sat down and gathered them together I realized there were only seven, and I needed ten. I always need ten. It has become like an OCD! I think in the back of my mind I knew there weren’t enough and I was going to have to come up with a few more under a deadline. Really, of all the finished songs I had, only those seven worked well together, so I started sifting through my notes and came upon the first verse of “Nicht Mehr,” which I then turned into a song in about 20 minutes, so easy, but it had just been sitting there waiting for its moment. Then I found the unfinished song “Oh Loneliness” and finished it, which also went really quickly. Knowing a deadline was coming up really motivated me. “Good Advice” and “Waiting” were written just weeks before we recorded, and I even did some lyric re-writes in the studio in Melbourne. Those four worked so well that one of the original songs intended for that record didn’t make it. Hopefully it will find its little gang of ten at some point… So the process is always a little different – the circumstances, the musicians – it always starts with a group of songs and then the adventure begins. But I don’t think there is anything I would call a progression happening, even though that is something people seem to naturally strive for – I’ve just got a great big To-Do list!
IC: Do you have a favorite album track, or one which you feel best represents your current musical mindset? The opening track, “Easy Way,” is one of my favorite things I’ve heard in a while.
BLS: So glad you like that one, I guess it’s a bit of a favorite. And I love what Mick brought to it with the drums and bass and that backwards guitar solo… I can’t say I have a current musical mindset – I am constantly thinking in different genres, based on whatever songs I’m working on, and past experience has shown me I can never be too sure what I’ll be doing next. I really am in service of the songs, so to speak, and I like their individuality and what they bring to the overall picture. They are really a lot like children, little individuals you develop a relationship with. Some you worry about. I was worried that “Elsinore” might be too ordinary when I arrived with a guitar and vocal demo of it, but Mick’s Fender Rhodes and a heroic guitar solo from James Cruickshank were all it needed. Others, like “Easy Way,” I’m just so happy they’re finally out there because it was a long wait but I always believed they were worth it.
IC: What were the album’s biggest influences, both musical and non-musical?
BLS: A lot of these songs were written, or at least started, when I was living in West Berlin just before the wall came down. My greatest musical influences were probably Einstuerzende Neubauten and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Even though that’s what I was listening to, you’re not likely to ever hear any Neubauten-esque writing from me – but I loved the emotion of what they were doing, as well as the uncompromising attitude. I think musical influences are a strange thing, because the fact that you like something you are listening to it doesn’t mean it’s ever going to be reflected in your own music. When I listen to music these days, it’s usually Bach or William Orbit, or maybe something like Earth, Wind, and Fire for a bit of a fun vibe now and then – but I honestly have no idea what other musical influences are in there. That said, one reason I thought Mick would be so perfect for these songs was having seen first-hand in the studio what he can do, and loving his style. I also loved Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, that vibe may have come into play somehow… Roxy Music, Sonic Youth, I don’t know really.
I guess the non-musical influences are just the ongoing themes for me of despair, regret, alienation, survival, endurance, love, and redemption. I tried to give some of the more depressing lyrics an upbeat feel sometimes, like on “Oh Loneliness” and “Take Me Down,” but there is sure no happy-happy. I’m affected in general by a rather dark view of the world. West Berlin, as a city, was very inspiring from an “atmosphere” perspective. Lots of grey and, of course, that amazingly oppressive wall, which was just a sort of unbelievable reality, with its own tragic poetry. It did somehow fuel the imagination. Almost like a wall is there to be conquered. But everyone was so surprised when it finally came down.
Elsinore was the house in Ireland where much of Achtung Baby was recorded. I was working as an assistant engineer. That was an amazing experience and I definitely learned a lot – about songwriting, arranging, all that. It was probably the most demanding job I’ve ever had, and also the most rewarding. And by the end of that production I knew for better or worse my future was in songwriting, not engineering. Then they all went off on their busy, successful ways, while I began the long, lonely life of a struggling artist! Some of the songs are really autobiographical. They all have at least a kernel of autobiography.
IC: You’ve worked with a lot of really incredible and even legendary musical acts throughout your career. Are there any contemporary, young artists that you find to be especially interesting or inspiring?
BLS: I would love to be able to rattle off a great list for you, because I’m sure there’s a lot of great stuff out there, and I suppose this is a great failing in my life that I am not tapped into new stuff like when I was in my 20s and 30s. I don’t feel I have the luxury of time and focus to take in new stuff. I live in LA, and one is always being subjected to really awful “popular” music in the public sphere. I mean, nearly every shop or business you walk into is blaring something unpleasant, so I’m walking around with earplugs and headphones trying to drown it all out – this wears me out so that there’s not much energy left over for trying to discover new music. And really maybe I don’t want anything to distract me from whatever I’m working on! Trying to stay focused… I’m sure tomorrow I’ll think, “Oh yeah, I should have mentioned so-and-so,” but right now I’m drawing a blank! Ha, feel free to send me a list of recommendations.
IC: You have a handful of recent music videos that would all seem to embody a similar visual tone, so I’m inclined to ask if there are any visual artists or movements in the visual arts that especially inspire you?
BLS: I worked with Rubén Vilar on two of the videos, and he has a very dream-like style that suited those songs really well. I think he’s got a bit of a David Lynch influence going on. I like for a video to just sort of compliment the song, not distract from it. I usually prefer performance videos but, as I don’t really have a band, that’s not easy! I had a lot of moody black-and-white ideas for some of the songs and I also like a sort of visual abstract approach. Who knows, I might get another one made before the year is over… I love the DaDa movement, but don’t know if that will ever find its way into my work. It would have to match the music – who knows, that is always a possibility! I’m so old-school.
IC: What are your future musical plans? You seem to take your time with each project or work and really conceptualize what you want before you take it on.
BLS: Well, it’s definitely not by choice that it takes me so long – a lot of the material is already there and waiting to get “out of the house” – but getting it recorded well can take time. My career has moved so slowly in terms of what I’ve released while my songwriting and planning have continued, and I’ve been thinking several albums ahead for years now. I am definitely way behind schedule! There will probably be an alt-country record next and, among other things, I’ve got some electronic/ambient stuff in the works, too.