Savoca shuns labels, focuses on the music

Folk and more in Moab: Audience favorites from 2003 return

By Lisa Church
Special to The Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune

MOAB - Karen Savoca freely admits that her music is difficult to describe.

   The rhythms and vocal stylings of Savoca and partner/guitarist Pete Heitzman have been branded rock, jazz, pop and blues, and they have made a name for themselves on the contemporary folk music circuit. But none of those labels completely captures the complexity of the music, or the breadth and range of Savoca's singing.

   "My favorite is one guy who called us 'heavy petal,' " Savoca says with a husky laugh reminiscent of a well-worn blues record. "It doesn't really just fit into one genre. It's been a bit difficult for us really. Our music is a blend of a lot of different things. It's good music. You try to say that without sounding, well, immodest."

   While Savoca and Heitzman's music can't be pigeonhold, that hasn't stopped audiences from embracing them, as their experience at the 2003 Moab Folk Music Festival attests. Area residents responded so positively to the duo's performance last year that festival organizer Melissa Schmaedick invited them back for 2004. Schmaedick named Savoca and Heitzman the first winners of the "People's Choice Award," an annual honor that will be bestowed on one performer or group each year

   "People just loved them," Schmaedick says. "I was thrilled to see the audience response. And later, so many people asked if they were coming back this year, it planted the seed for the People's Choice Award. I decided to let the local community choose one performer that I will invite back for the following year."

   Schmaedick says Savoca "has a voice that's bigger than the venue she's playing in, and audience feels a strong connection with the duo.

   Savoca describes the award as an "honor."

   "It's really sweet," she says. "I feel like I've been crowned Miss Congeniality or something. We're absolutely honored to be invited back."

   And, she says, the appreciation is mutual.

   "They're my dream audience," she says of the Moab crowd. "They want to laugh. They want to dance. They're just jumping right into that boat and are ready to go with us all the way through the performance."

   That kind of energy and enthusiasm is important to Savoca and Heitzman. For them, the audience is the mysterious unknown in any performance.

   "I always just hope they're open and they're willing to go with you," Savoca says. "Whether you're being silly and want them to sing along, or whether you're doing an intense emotional song and you feel them right there. The place you want to get to is kind of like leaving your body. You're more likely to get there when an audience is great."

   Folk music audiences have been very receptive, she says. But the folk music label also has drawbacks.

   "It had a narrow definition for a while. Sometimes people hear 'folk music' and it turns them off. They think it's going to be someone strumming a guitar and singing political songs all night or something," she says. "Today, the folk world seems very open to a lot of different styles of music."

   The daughter of a big band vocalist, Savoca was raised in a household always filled with music.

   "My mother's favorite singer was Sarah Vaughan, but we also listened to a lot of rhythm and blues and blues singers," she says. "I feel really grateful for that."

   Music, she says, gives her a way to express herself, her feelings and desires. It also creates a powerful bond that can unite people who otherwise share little in common.

   "What's so beautiful about music is that it connects people," Savoca says.

   The best compliments she receives come from audience members who say her music helped them forget their troubles.

   "I know that when it really works, music can help people," she says. "It can really heal. It makes us feel better."

 -- Lisa Church

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