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Sean Nicholas Savage

Meeting a lounge lizard out of time, Arbutus's king of sing, the inimitable Sean N Savage

The first time I saw Sean Nicholas Savage perform my eyes twice inadvertently flickered towards the glow of the exit sign. The two gentlemen of the press I was standing with were noticeably WTF’ing.  It was very disquieting, and insanely refreshing. Musicians who can entice and cajole, whilst disturbing and confounding, aren’t all that common. Ones who appear to have zero filter and confront their highs and lows in your face rarer still. His feelings are yours. Savage struts, bemoans losses and spills woes; and it is all for you.  For every audience. 

Savage has created ten albums to date, six of which, including titles as tempting as Won Ton JazOriginal Feelings and Movin Up In Society.  The central force in Arbutus’ synth-pop tribe, the Montreal label even released a compilation record of covers of Savage’s songs by their other acts earlier this year.  When I spoke with one, Airick Woodhead, who performs as Doldrums and who used to live with in the same house mentioned that Savage never ever stopped writing. "He could easily nail several songs before breakfast."  

Savage also just completed a European tour, and his show suited a big stage at Primavera Sound as much as the tiny Servant Jazz Quarters. At the former the mixed nationalities in the crowd, late set time and festival setting brought an aura of group-catharsis to his performance.  Hopefully it will become common as his name grows.  I think we could all use it.

[Live video by Angus Borsos}

Hello Sean.  At what age did you start making and performing music? 

Very young. I was so moved by music on the radio that I had a desire to have my own songs and concepts as far back as I can remember.

When you are writing how much of it is your true self, and how much is coming through the voice of a character?  

Typically I write from a place of reflection on a topic within my own life experience.  It would be impossible to do anything else.

Is there anything that you wouldn’t write about? 

No, and there's never been anything I've been afraid to think about either.  I made that deal with myself when I first began to fantasize. There's no point in putting walls up unless you're sharing, then it's about consequences and respect.

Do the people that you write about know which songs are about them?

I don't name drop very often. I'm also careful not to make immature judgments in my lyrics, not because I'm afraid about what others will think or feel, but because I pride myself on quality work, and slagging in your writing, that's garbage anyways.

Do you sometimes find what you write funny?  Do you ever feel you are parodying yourself?

I'm often writing from a reflective perspective, so there is a "parodying" aspect. I do find life profound, absurd, and sometimes hilarious, but I'm not a comedian, and my music is not a joke.

Do you ever find it difficult to separate actual yourself from the character you project on stage? 

There's no separation, but I do take myself someplace on the stage, into my dreams, where nuances rule, the sweet spots, where I can fly, where miracles are physical, and it's painful coming down, yes. 

Are you ever still daunted by performing live after all these years? 

Yes, I'm daunted by these songs.  I've robbed them from the mouth of my life, so I walk a fine line between Robin Hood and asshole each time I perform them.

Would you like to be able to perform with a full backing band?

I'm a minimalist, those nuances we talked about, and my presence is essential.  It's a lyrical performance. That's what I'm into, that element of folk or country music. This year in Europe I've been performing alongside Dylan III, this is the only way it could be, and I’m so happy with it. We'll be playing with a percussionist in the fall, is that a band? I play guitar sometimes.

Are you very aware that you might come across as almost confrontationally raw to some people?

Yes, I use dead space in my performances and arrangements.  Half of music is silence, that space, and that I can stand confidently through it, that's my guitar solo, my weapon.

How important is it to you to cause a strong emotional reaction in your audience?  

It's important to me to make music that moves the listener, that's something worth spending a life on, making a difference. 

How often do you have people come up to you at shows and confess you stirred something in them? Do you get weird confessional fan mail?

That's what I'm trying to do to a room of so many people every night, so at least one or two will e-mail me or come talk to me, and I don't think it's strange at all. I think it's lovely. Reassurance that there's some connection, that I've got family out there in the abyss.

It’s an incredible feat to have put out as much music as you have already.  Is it simply impossible for you not to be so prolific? 

Thank you.  No, there's so much time, and it's the reason I'm here. I don't know for how long, and there is a definite reason why, because I'm a person of faith. I have faith in life, and so I'm giving myself, my time here to do what I think is most important, to create art of beauty, my favorite art; music. What do you think is more important? The work of Chopin, or the moon landing? Do you think the rest of the universe is rooting for our advances in technological communication or emotional and spiritual communication?

How did the compilation of your songs come about? I can imagine it was a very special moment for you.

Marilis Cardinal had it in the works for a long time. A very special friend of mine. It's mostly close friends covering the songs, we can all have a laugh about it, but it is nice.

Lastly, if you lost the ability to write and perform music for some reason, how else do you think you might attain emotional catharsis?

My ability to express myself?  Like in the video for Metallicas' ‘One'?  If I were that guy with no body and only a mind? Ooo, then I'd be in big trouble.