Making Her Mark ~ Interview with Karen Savoca

Singer Karen Savoca relishes everything that goes into writing the perfect song

By Bill Livick

"It was a gift she could not keep, nor bear to give away; she threw it out into the snow, and there it left a mark...

So what if life is just a dream where no one ever wakes; we touch each other one by one, and always leave a mark, and always leave a mark," sings Karen Savoca on her latest album, "All My Excuses."

Savoca and her songs definitely leave their mark - her pieces also leave room for interpretation. Savoca says she thinks that's important in a good song. "I love songwriting where there's something left to your imagination, where it's not just spelled out for you," she said.

Savoca is one of those talents who, once discovered, makes you wonder why you haven't been listening to her deep, lush music for years. She's a rare songbird who flies below the radar of the pop-music industry, but Savoca and her partner, Pete Heitzman, are rising stars in the acoustic music circuit.

They built a recording studio in their New York state home and made their first album in 1988. By the time they wrote and recorded "All My Excuses" in 2001-02, they had perfected the art of capturing the intimate sound and feel of homemade music. The couple The couple produced and recorded roots-music master Greg Brown's "Milk Of The Moon" at about the same time, not long after the tragedy of Sept 11.

Savoca said early in 2001 Brown suggested that they make a record together. He was planning to visit Savoca and Heitzman later in the year to do the project, but then came 9-11. "We talked on the phone, and Greg was kinda wondering if we were all up for this," Savoca recalled during a telephone interview/ "And we all said that we feel like we need it; we need to get together and make music, and of course Greg, in his wonderful, poetic way, said, 'Well, we gotta keep puttin' stuff on the love pile.'

"So it was a really beautiful time. He sat on our porch and wrote a few of the songs here. It was an amazing experience. He and Pete did everything live. Pete with the little remote for the deck at his feet, and Greg would just say, 'Oh, here's another one,' and he'd play it, and Pete had never heard the song before but would play along. And Greg would say 'That sounds right,' and that would be the take. It was a really old fashioned way to make music."

Heitzman and Savoca met onstage in a band in the early 1980's. They were based in Syracuse, N.Y., and for seven years they played Monday nights at a local club, drawing crowds of a couple hundred. They established a large following in New England but didn't have much exposure to the national music scene, Savoca said. "Pete and I both got to the point where we really wanted to travel, and the other guys in the band had families and didn't want too leave the area," she said.

The couple began touring regionally and hit the national folk club and festival circuit about seven years ago. They had never heard of Brown until one night, six or seven years ago, when he played at the falcon Ridge Folk festival in New York state.

"There he was on the stage and Pete and I were just bowled over," Savoca said. "We fell in love with him and thought, 'Oh my God, how could we not know about this guy?' And then a promoter thought that we'd just be great together and asked if we'd open for him. So we did. He watched our whole set then asked us up to perform with him. It just sort of grew from there, and we were hangin' out together... He's one of our dearest friends now. He's such a beautiful songwriter and such an insightful man and so good with words."

Savoca says Brown has been a big influence in her approach to songwriting, touring, and performing. She usually writes her pieces accompanying herself on guitar or piano. Heitzman is the producer and recording engineer on their albums. He's also a phenomenal guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who accompanies Savoca onstage, while she plays conga and other hand percussion instruments, singing in an unforgettably rich, expressive voice. She doesn't usually play guitar or piano onstage, she said, because with Heitzman at her side, there's no need.

"And I find it hard to go from whacking on the drum to playing guitar," she said. Savoca took up the conga because she'd missed the drums and the beat she'd grown used to after years of playing in a full band. "We love playing ballads and pretty songs and all that, but we also love to get people moving, and the drum is very helpful in that regard," she said.

In writing her songs, Savoca says she tries to use few words but lots of imagery, and she and Heitzman keep their arrangements sparse. "My problem with a lot of the people on the folk circuit that are revered as writers is that they're a little too heady, too clever, for me," she says. "There's a lot of words but not much emotion."

Listening to Savoca and Heitzman's recorded music is almost like hearing it live because "we record very live as well," Savoca says. "If I play guitar, I play and sing at the same time and it's the same take. That can be a drag because if you screw something up, you have to do it again, but I don't have a lot of patience in the studio. If I don't get it in one or two takes, I'll move on to something else. It's the way you do it when you sing live. I mean, you wouldn't sing a song in concert and then say, 'That wasn't quite right; let me do it again.' So we try to keep it pretty organic, and then we overdub simply because it's fun and we've got a house full of weird instruments."

Savoca and Heitzman will be making their second appearance at the Café Carpe; their debut performance was about six years ago. But the club, with its warm, intimate setting, left an indelible impression. "The vibe is great," Savoca said. "It's one of those places that just makes you want to cry. You can feel how much fun has been had there."

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