July/August 1998

Performing Songwriter JPEG

DIY Artist Spotlight

Karen's song "Some Days"
appears on
the Performing Songwriter's Top 12 DIY's
Compilation, Volume 5.

Karen Savoca

By Christopher Smith

"I know it's no brilliant move to bury your title cut," laughs Karen of her most recent album Sunday In Nandua. "I thought 'only an independent artist could put their title cut as the last song'. A record label would never have let us do that."

Independent is what Karen Savoca is all about. Since teaming up with guitarist Peter Heitzman in the early eighties, the duo has released three well-received recordings and have won a slew of local and national acolades, including Musician magazine's award for Best Unsigned Band in 1995. Though generally recognized in the folk-rock category, Karen suggests 'agri-love', while fans have offered 'heavy petal', mostly because of the recurring nature imagery in their songs [to which Karen attributes living, writing, and gardening in bucolic Central New York]. But even with a number of major and minor labels knocking at the door, the two grow more comfortable in their maverick recording style with each release. Karen attributes part of their confidence to pioneer Ani DiFranco.

"Two or three years ago, if you told people that you made your own records, they would look at you pityingly (laughs), 'oh I'm so sorry nobody wants you' and even when you explained to them that you turned down deals, you could tell they didn't really believe you. And now, if you tell people that you're independent and you have your own little label, they go 'oh cool!' They think that's great, and Ani has a lot to do with that. She's given it respectability. And in the long run it's going to make the majors work better - this is my dream - in the long run, it's going to kick them all in the butt. And they're going to have to say, 'hey, we're going to have to look at this, and how can we do what we do better?'"

You're really well-known for your live performance. How much of that "live-ness" makes it into the studio?

It's tough for me to answer that because I appproach records differently than I do live performance. For me, personally, I want records to be a little more layered. When people come to see the two of us, when it's live, there's all the movement attached to it and the energy of the moment, and it just goes out in the air and there it goes, and you have to remember it and remember the way it made you feel. And I think with recording, I'm very conscious of wanting someone to be able to listen to it over and over again and hear things that they didn't hear the first time and the second time. I like to layer things a bit more in the studio so that maybe it unfolds more with repeated listening.

What do you want to get from your audience when you're playing live?

I want to feel that they're coming with me. I want to feel like we're going someplace together, and the best audiences make you feel that. It sounds so trite to describe this stuff because you tend to use words like "connected", you know what I mean? (laughs) But the best audiences go with you wherever you take them, and that's a great feeling. I think about this a lot. As a performer, there are times when I think, "Why do I do this? Why do I need to stand up in front of people and sing to them and tell them what I feel about life?" and I think it's that you're always looking for that beautiful moment when you feel like you understand each other.

I've noticed how drastically your voice changes on different tunes. What makes you choose how you're going to sing a song?

I think the mood of a song decides how I'm going to sing it. Every song has a different character. And sometimes there are different characters within a song and one character might call for different voices too. I loved your interview with Paul Brady [P.S. Issue 29] where he talked about how singing a song is being an actor sometimes. That's pretty much how I see it, too. Sometimes you literally act the roles within a song. I like to have fun with it.

Your aversion to major labels is understandable, but why aren't you going to the smaller labels where you have a lot of the benefits you have now plus a lot more?

In the last few years we've turned down a bunch of little label deals. When you sit down and look at the specs, it's really hard to see where we'd be better off than we are now. That's really what it's all about. We're out there and we're playing, and we're able to sell our records at shows. We don't have distribution yet, which is what we really want by the end of the year, but we're in a smattering of stores across the country now. We're available on the net. It's hard to find a label that can really get you to radio and really get you some exposure that you can't get on your own. It would be great to find the right company - and I'm not saying that won't happen - but we're not in any hurry, and we're not going to sign any deals unless we really feel the label is perfect for us.

-- Christopher Smith

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