Music is love in search of a word

Interview with Karen Savoca and Pete Heitzman for, The Netherlands

By Wim Boluijt

W.B.: Where were you born?

Karen: In New Jersey, 20 minutes outside of NY City.

Pete: In Central New York State.

W.B.:.Where do you live now? The pain in Just Let Go! "People sleeping in my yard" (have they always been there, where-ever you live?).

Pete: No, we live in rural central NY, in an old renovated church with 175 yr old cemetery for a back yard.

W.B.: The day the roof just caved in. There is something about the soil too. Dig down in the dirt. The boy and the mud. Wearing down the earth. You are rooted but your branches are swaying in the wind and you are losing your leaves….

Karen:  Ha! Yes we’re all losing our leaves! Our main concern is that they grow back in the spring. Yeah,  we’re  worried about how long the earth will tolerate us before spitting us out. I feel strongly about recognizing our need to stay connected to the earth.  I’m worried about the leaves growing back. Our culture is pulling us away from all that, out of the ground.

W.B.: Who are your father and mother?

Karen: My mother was a big band singer before she met my father.  He was a builder and didn’t want her to work, so that was that. They divorced  after 28 yrs and that inspired a lot of writing as well.

Pete: My dad is a chest surgeon, and my mom a nurse. Also divorced after 30 yrs. They’re all living nearby.

W.B.: Do you have children? Again: the boy in the mud. Just Let Go may be about a child too? Or Green: "Baby sleeping, when she wakes everything’s turned green".

Karen: None of those references were intended to be about children, but I love that you went there because my intention is to be very open and suggestive, more symbol than metaphor. No kids, not even pets. We love them, but we travel too much.

W.B.: What is the best (most influential) book you read when you were young? Please tell something about it?

Karen: Many. I read a lot as a girl. Mark Twain’s Letters From The Earth was an eye-opener. He redefined Satan’s role,  said he was banished to earth for some brief celestial period for a practical  joke on God, as I recall. There’s also a hilarious passage on the myth of male superiority. Also John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Zora Neal Hurston … People that write about misery, and still leave you loving humanity… Not easy to do.

W.B.: Any favourite poetry/novels/movies?

Karen: I’m reading Knut Hamsun’s Growth Of The Soil. We’re both film buffs, so it’s hard to make a short list, but To Kill A MocKareningbird, Network, anything by Frank Capra, Marttin Ritt, Richard Brooks, Mike Nichols, Wings Of Desire, Being There... We love comedies too.

7.What authors have influenced you and why?

Karen: Tough to pick just a few, but Sam Shepard, Carson McCullers, Kurt Vonnegut. They all write about the human condition in a way that makes me feel connected to everyone on earth. I don’t read Sci Fi, or adventure, romance… they don’t interest me.

W.B.: Karen, your music (especially your lyrics and the way you sing) seems to me to be all about longing. For the tiny miracles of everyday (Butterfly and things growing), for peace of heart (Between Girl and Gone and a house that is a home) and a longing to get rid of the anger (Love is a Hammer and 16 Windmills and Mother’s Arms). But most of all I hear a longing one cannot put in words. Somewhere between girl and woman? On In The Dirt you are dreaming a lot as well. That’s a form of longing too!

Karen: I like that Sidonie Gabrielle line “Music is love in search of a word”. I think love and longing go hand in hand.

 W.B.: All My Excuses is very well produced. And so is In the Dirt. The music is firmly rooted in tradition of all sorts and yet, it does not sound ‘old’ or traditional. Percussion and arrangements sometimes remind me of Pete Gabriel (in a way) or Daniel Lanois.

Pete: Thanks. We’re trying to forge our own way. We avoid anything that sounds cliché to us. For one thing, we’ve been using only Karen’s hand percussion, which has her unique feel. A conventional drum kit can easily mask that nuance. The way I see it, she makes gutsy, but subtle and somewhat feminine albums, which, I think, is not that common for women artists.

W.B.: Where do you see yourself in the Great Line Of Musicians On The Earth?

Pete: More and more I see that it’s a bazarre thing we do, driving from town to town, getting people to come to shows, growing an audience. Finding our people… Gathering a community. But it’s actually an ancient profession, on the grassroots level anyway.  It’s almost like a travelling revival meeting. And as someone who has rejected a conservative Catholic upbringing, this has been a shocking revelation for me!

W.B.: I have some Live at the Black Sheep questions... What brought the four of you together?

Pete: That was Garnet’s doing. We’d all just played the Ottawa Folk fest and Garnet invited Greg Brown and us to join him for two nights at this little club in Quebec. We did a round-robin song swap for two nights. Fortunately, Garnet had the foresight to have it recorded. All impromptu. None of us knew the other’s songs. We had previously worked with Greg a lot, produced his Milk Of The Moon album, but at The Black Sheep shows Greg did mostly covers we’d never played. So it was all very sporting. We were winging it,  taking chances, listening. No rehearsal, sink or swim...We love that.

W.B.: Karen, you are funny! (Same All Over), is the funny thing a part of your music? I did not hear it on All My Excuses? But saw it on your website.

Karen: I suppose our last two CDs have been a bit on the darker side. That’s part of our current political climate here. But in live performance, and as people, we can get pretty silly.

W.B.: For the Greg Brown tribute album, Going Driftless, why did you choose two little feet? "A big love to lift us up once more.."

Karen: Greg has so many beautiful ballads that I would have loved to sing, but he wanted something with some lift, as the record was already ballad heavy.  Plus, I love that song.

W.B.: Garnet Rodgers?

Pete: A grand and generous fellow. We’ve become good friends since then.

W.B.: T-Bone Wolk? How beautiful he plays on In The Dirt! The bass and the accordion. Where did you meet? He seems (in a way) essential for your music.

Pete: T-Bone heard our first album back in 1988 and contacted us about a production deal. We did some recording, but once he got what we were about, he stepped back and let us produce ourselves, and has been very encouraging. After playing with him, we’ve never wanted to record without him. Occasionally we get to play a live show, but as one of the top session players in the world, he’s a very busy guy.

On the other hand, I think we have a unique live approach as a duo that is complete in itself. Karen plays a low-tuned conga, and I work a heavy bass line into the guitar arrangement. People tell us the duo sounds rather like a band.

W.B.: Pete, tell me about the guitars on this album. The slide…

Pete: All old beat up guitars with old strings! Some of what sounds like slide, or pedal steel is actually string bending. I went through a Clarence White (The Byrds) phase as a kid and didn’t know he had a  string bending gadget on his Telecaster. A bit like how Art Tatum learned to play... from piano rolls. He thought they were cut in real time as a single performance. So, I didn't know i wasn't supposed to be able to sound like Clarence without his gadget. I also simulate some slide, I call it faux slide, and double string bends, which developed because my guitars were never set up well for that. I do play some slide in the studio, but not on stage.

W.B.: Do you write songs too?

Pete: I do write a bit, especially when we score films. My main creative thing is improvisation.

W.B.: It seems there is some sadness and anger (more than before) on In The Dirt. A sense of loss. Anger about the war (Mother’s Arms – what a beautiful word play that is!!!) and the way we use up the world. But the darkness of life creeps into the house too. The title, In The Dirt, refers to both the mess we’re in (where our wheels spin and spin) and the things that grow out of this dirt?

Karen: The darkness is not personal, I’ll tell you that. Frankly, we are now in the sixth year of an Administration we despise. These guys are thieves. At least half of us here know what they’re up to, and we’re furious about it.

W.B.: Why do you have a roof on your o?

Pete: That was my suggestion, because we Americans seem to need help pronouncing vowels.

W.B.: If a painter would paint your music (or have painted) who would that have been or be?

Karen: Hmmm, if I had to choose just one… perhaps Marc Chagall.

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