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Sean Nicholas Savage falls to earth

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As he explores all-new forbidden fruits on his new record, the prolific pop balladeer talks Prince, poetry, and why you should never stand in fate’s way

Taken from the autumn 2016 issue of Dazed: 

With his bone linen suit, white tennis shoes and peroxide bright hair, Sean Nicholas Savage camouflages easily with the treeless, bleached-out light of Greenpoint’s main artery, Manhattan Avenue. It’s a Sunday afternoon and we’re wandering around for a place to chat: our first choice, a quaint neighbourhood piano bar called the Manhattan Inn, informed us we had walked on to a movie set and kicked us out. Auspicious!

Instead, we settle on Danish beer boutique Tørst, and soon Savage stands at the long wooden slab counter to order a drink, surveying the cleanly masculine, colour-coded room. His unswerving monochromatic attire, complexion and hair give him a slightly sinister if anaemic allure: he could be a heretic preacher from an apocalyptic TV series, or a cult guru in town to sell you on cryogenics. It’s a look that carries an ideology.

Savage is from western Canada and now lives between Toronto, Montreal and Berlin. He’s an alien balladeer fallen to Earth, a bedroom pop singer with a philosophical bent who spreads his art and ideas with impressive prolificacy, averaging an album or more a year on the influential label, Arbutus Records.

“I wouldn’t want to go forward a year, but I wouldn’t want to go back a year either. I’m pretty excited about my current situation,” he reflects, easing back with a wine-glass of ale in hand. He’s just turned 30 and is on the cusp of releasing yet more music, as well as  his first foray into published poetry. He begins to hand-roll cigarettes as he speaks, commanding the corner nook he’s created for himself in the bustling bar. 

“I think I’m as prolific as anyone who’s working on music all of the time,” he says. “I’m going to try and have an even higher turnover of releases in the next year or so. In the winter, I wasted a lot of time. There was just something negative about me – sad and stressed. The weather changed, it just got so much better and I was like, ‘Wow, you really had the winter blues.’ It was totally preventing me from getting any work done.”

“My new album is called Magnificent Fist. It’s all about a sort of beautiful energy – like a jump, a great jump is what it means” — Sean Nicholas Savage    

When Savage did get down to work, he challenged himself to transform the broken beauty of his homespun tunes – haunted, soft pop lost at the wrong end of the dial – into something more dimensional.

“My new album is called Magnificent Fist. It’s all about the energy of the swing and the fist – not a punch, it’s not called ‘Magnificent Punch’, it’s about the fist. Just a sort of beautiful energy – like a jump, a great jump is what it means. For this new record, I was like, ‘I want to produce this,’ and I know I’m a good producer as far as an artist goes, but I need to learn a bit of skill. And I learned a few things that won’t really be noticeable to the listener, I think. This is Sean Savage’s production with a decent sound.” Savage still mainly records from wherever he’s calling home, and praises DAW Logic Pro X for helping advance his process, joking about the popular algorithmic tool, Drummer, and how it reminded him of a Tony Hawk video game. But he’s not a gearhead, and prefers not to dwell on specifics.

“I really feel that it doesn’t matter what I’m using,” he says. “It’s all about how I find my own personal nuanced tone, and how it relates to the other tones I’m using, and working them all together. I love doing really sketchy takes, and then turning them into the pleasing-to-the-ear sound of perfect pitch. I’m not afraid of flat notes – it’s a natural thing. It’s like with food. If you’re making beef stew, you want it to be rustic, a blues-soul thing – burned bits and grease. But if you’re making sushi, you don’t want rustic. You don’t want sloppy sushi! So I use Auto-Tune to put more life into it, not to pull the life out.”

One moment from the Magnificent Fist recording sessions stands out like fate.

“This one night in Berlin there was a thunderstorm and my (musician) girlfriend was recording the same night. We were like, ‘We can’t hang out, we’ll get together later’ – we had to record! So I opened up my windows in my room and leaned out, pressed record, and then I saw a huge flash of lightning across the sky, held my hand up like an antenna, and the thunder came – like, a HUGE crack of thunder – and then I pulled the mic back and sang the first line of the song.” That moment became “Blow Me Away”, a song originating from Savage’s propensity for letting a moment create itself.

Whether pondering music-making, friendship or the State of Things, Savage talks a blue streak about discovery, process, intuition and faith. His stance is broad but consistent: everything good, real and worth resonating is raw and exposed to chance.

“I believe in fate and letting nature take its course, that two heads are better than one, and that nature, or God – I don’t see nature as just trees and plants, I’m 30 now so I’ve been thinking a bit! – is much more powerful. (If) you can let a song write itself, and just give energy and not control, just let it grow itself, it’s going to be much better than you could ever be. You don’t want to stand in the way of it.”

“I believe in fate and letting nature take its course, that two heads are better than one, and that nature, or God, is much more powerful” — Sean Nicholas Savage 

Savage depicts himself as spiritual, a state that, for him, embodies “perspective and perception and a kind of worship”. But that also comes with its own caveat. “There’s so much religion in the world – religion is like the politics of spirituality. But humans like to cook, they like to have sex and swim and dance and sing, and they’re naturally very spiritual. ’Cos you have to worship something, you have to serve something – a purpose – or you’re lost, and idle hands are the devil’s plaything.” He pauses and sips his beer and retracts into quiet reflection for a minute.

“I think that music, visual art, poetry, all this kind of play, is closer to God – or the kind of God I’m talking about, which is nature, and being in touch, having perception of your surroundings,” he continues. “Being cool is perception: where do you fit among your surroundings? Are you cool? Can you perceive what’s going on around you and come to terms with that? And then, what’s the music? And can you play within that, live within that? This is worship, whether we like it or not, for natural reasons. Because it’s communicative.”

Savage churns out confident utterances like these while gesticulating with his hands, his elevated energy and volume piquing curiosity from the bar’s afternoon patronage. With this level of intrigue, he could convert any of them to his peculiar kind of creed on the spot.

That combustible energy will soon be channelled into new outlets. Savage’s first book of poetry is out soon – probably August, he says (“thunder and clap / spread on the breeze / i’ll knock out the world / this abyss / with ease”, runs a line from one poem, also titled “Magnificent Fist”). “I’ve been putting my ranting and raving into my poetry and putting a little more playfulness into my music.” He’ll also star in an upcoming short film for Dries Van Noten, written by The Lobster’s Yorgos Lanthimos. “I don’t know if my acting is very good, but I love Keanu Reeves and (cult 80s crime flick) River’s Edge and stuff like that. I also really like bad acting with the right angle on – I guess it’s all about angles.”

Angles come up a lot when we talk process; scanning any situation for clues, for stories to spin, is one of Savage’s many preoccupations. Image-making is another.

“Everything you’re showing, displaying, should be something that you have refined,” he opines. “There’s no need to be fake about it because it sucks if it’s fake anyway, and you want to be good, don’t you? So do it real, be real, do it good. You are what you eat – if you want to be open, you’ve got to live open; if you want to be strong, you’ve got to live strong. People have eyes and they are looking. If you’re a performer, you should work on every aspect of your performance.”

“If you want to be open, you’ve got to live open; if you want to be strong, you’ve got to live strong” — Sean Nicholas Savage 

Modelling, fittingly, intrigues Savage as yet another performance mode, and he’s been booking some jobs for fun. “I really like photos. It’s like liking movies when you want to be an actor. I like photos and I want to be in them!” he says with deadpan simplicity. “It’s easy to get insecure, because I have a weird self-image thing, like everyone. But I wouldn’t let that stop me from doing it; I’m still putting myself in front of the camera. I think you can be pretty wrinkly and saggy – not talking about myself, here – and be quite beautiful if the composition is right, and that’s the thing. I can be a model with a great photographer a lot easier than I can become a great photographer and go around the world taking photos right now. I respect both sides of the camera.”

Despite being a kindred collaborator with labelmates TOPS and Blue Hawaii, as well as Nite Jewel and Doldrums, it’s easy to perceive Sean Nicholas Savage as something of a lone wolf: a truth-seeker and dreamweaver of his own domain, who wanders through other people’s worlds as he feels compelled. He doesn’t speak much of his “roots”, only that he started playing music very young, and that it was, verbatim, shit. “That’s where I come from,” he says. “I come from shit and I’m still a piece of shit, I always will be. Anyone who thinks they don’t come from shit, they can look down their bloodline and see they are wrong!” He also doesn’t have a plan B – it would thwart his ability to see A all the way through. “Things that work don’t work until they work. Everything I do sucks. But I think everyone’s work just sucks and it’s all context. So I just try and really enjoy myself making my shit. And put a lot of sincerity and love into this shit. And then, when it’s about right and it’s time, I put out some shit.” 

Eventually, happy hour looms and the bar becomes louder than us, so we walk to nearby McCarren Park, circling its borders before settling at a picnic bench where Savage prepares more cigarettes.

“I’m really into forbidden fruit. As soon as you’re not allowed to use something, you figure out a way to use it and make it cool” — Sean Nicholas Savage 

“I’m incapable of recreating things in a good way,” he explains as he rolls. Artists that might seem tempting to peg as influences – Ariel Pink, or Prince, whom he eloquently memorialised on his Facebook – are more mentors of technique. “The cool thing about Prince is he would use a ragtime beat and make it funky. I’m really into forbidden fruit. As soon as you’re not allowed to use something, you figure out a way to use it and make it cool.”

That might rationalise Savage’s current mission to play Elton John covers on the road. “When you go to an indie show, you don’t see someone singing a big Elton John song, ’cos people don’t write songs that good any more, and in karaoke you realise it. So when I sing those songs, people might be like, ‘Woah, I never expected to come to this hip new indie show and hear this song from The Lion King soundtrack,’ but then they’ll be like, ‘Holy shit, this song is actually unbelievable,’ and I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, it is – we need to step it up or I’m going to keep playing covers!’”

This might feel like trolling from another artist, but from Savage, it feels totally sincere. Part of his appeal is not taking anything too seriously, but being very serious about his play. This mindset keeps him flexible and free, he explains. “There’s a line in my book about how geniuses work like lawyers – they always try not to work in court. Actors hate acting. The good ones always have a lack of respect for the form, and that’s how they stay free, that’s how they are brilliant at it – by not doing it! Like, Miles Davis would never play his trumpet.”

Savage’s past few albums were influenced heavily by his dreams. He now says that’s not so much a focus, though he still believes in evoking the subconscious in his art. “I just believe that ideas are bigger and better when they’re not mine, when I’m a filter.” He soon segues into a reverie about impressionism, Debussy and the nature of life, drifting in and out of abstraction. “It’s super-beautiful when things are blurry and you can’t quite hear a melody that’s poppy or pretty – I love that. Mystery. Visually and sonically, question marks are so beautiful. And dreams are full of question marks. You see this person, who are they? They’re one person, they’re another person. Where is this place? It’s one place, it’s another place. What am I doing? I’m flying, I’m walking. Why was I talking about that? I don’t remember…” he glazes over. “But I do love dancing around an idea in different ways.”

“(But) if I’m super-broke and I’m a great, great artist, how broke could I be? You wouldn’t even be thinking about the fact that I live in a shack, you’d be inspired” — Sean Nicholas Savage 

Wherever those ideas take him, Savage has let go of worrying about where the journey takes him. “I think that the business side, the pressures and industry can really get in the way,” he says. “I’m trying to steer away from that, because (when) you taste a little success – not that I’ve tasted a lot – it’s very addictive, and it can really slow you down.” For some, turning 30 might trigger existential conflict, or a sense of competing against time. But, in his wayward way, Savage actually finds himself mellowing out, happy to “stay out of the rat race”, he jokes. “I just want to make the great work, and then in the future, things are going to spread faster than the internet. You know, we dig up old albums people forgot about now – and things are going to get way more accessible, I have faith in that. If I’m super-rich when I’m older and I’ve got all this success and people come over to my house, and I’m a stressed-out dick with a lot of problems, then I suck. But if I’m super-broke and I’m a great, great artist, how broke could I be? It just takes time and patience, and bravery. People come over to my little shack and I’m super-beautiful to hang out with, because I’ve had this lovely life that wasn’t full of fear with walls up, and I’ve got some things to say and I’ve opened my mind and experienced all these things. So you wouldn’t even be thinking about the fact that I live in a shack, you’d be inspired. And that’s cool, man. Anybody got a light?”

Magnificent Fist was released on 26th August 

Grooming Edward Lampley at Bryant Artists using John Masters Organics, photographic assistants Eduardo Silva, Kohei Kawashima, fashion assistants Katy Fox, Victor Cordero, grooming assistant Yohsuke Hiraka