Sean Nicholas Savage: “I Lost a Big Piece of Myself, I’m Still Recovering”

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Sean Nicholas Savage - Ain't What It Used To Be -
Sean Nicholas SavagePhotography by Marta Cikojevic

After escaping to Crete during the pandemic, the Canadian musician created his best album in years. Here, he talks about the ocean as a metaphor, working with Mac DeMarco, and why music can make you less lonely

There are at least two sides to Sean Nicholas Savage, the cult melodramatic pop singer and playwright whose divine new album Shine drops this week via Arbutus Records. On stage, he’s a magnificent and sometimes hilarious performer who can captivate an audience with his antics and enthusiasm. On the record, meanwhile, he’s heart-wrenching, passionate, and deeply personal. The latter is a facet that has ensured him a loyal audience over some 15-odd albums, which have channelled everyone from Prince to Arthur Russell, and won him an admirer and collaborator in Solange – who featured Savage as a vocalist on her Billboard 200-topping 2016 album A Seat at the Table. Today, as Savage greets me via video link from a bedroom at his Dad’s house in Edmonton, Canada, I wonder which side will emerge the most prominent.

Savage, with his signature peroxide blonde hair and gap-toothed grin, flickers back and forth between upbeat ebullience and pensiveness. We buzz on Britney Spears, get interrupted by phone calls from mum, and pause for moments to gaze in deep contemplation (“singing is crazy … singing is so weird …”, Savage mutters, distantly), and I’ll be satisfied that yin and yang are present. But a short while ago, Savage tells me, this balance wasn’t there. “I went through a really hard time, actually,” he says. “A lot of things changed for me in my life.” 

Break-ups, hardships, and other kinds of struggles had a great and unwelcome impact on Savage’s life for some time after he penned, scored and performed the musical Please Thrill Me in 2020. A run of shows produced by the Ballet Opéra Pantomime in Montreal would end just weeks before the pandemic struck. He admits, it’s not exactly “super poetic,” but it’s sobering to hear him open up. “I’m so much about connecting with people as a living being, so I became very powerless,” he tells me, gazing distantly. “I lost a big piece of myself … and I’m still sort of recovering from that.”

When the winter blues that struck at Savage’s home in Berlin reached the point of being “intolerable” that year, he jumped aboard a budget flight to Crete in an attempt at restoration. “I was just by myself – writing, or healing, or something,” he says. It was only here, with the writing of Feel Like a Child (the album’s lush, nylon-stringed opening track – featuring a vocal delivery as crushing and poignant as ever), that he would start to come out of “the kind of depression where you don’t feel like you want anything.” 

Like the rest of Shine, this track exudes a profound warmth and brightness, evoking the Balearic setting powerfully. “They have really high-quality sea in Greece,” Savage opines, describing the elemental force that would be one of the album’s key influences. “It’s really clear. It’s shimmering, it’s beautiful. I’m inspired by the waves – it’s all about connectivity because it’s water. It’s the ebb and flow of life, and anything to do with time.” 

The ocean metaphor is a powerful one, and it’s present everywhere on Shine, from the slightly absurd cover photo – taken by Mac DeMarco (the album’s producer) in Malibu, and featuring a fully-clothed Savage splashing triumphantly in the sea – to the sound of the album itself. “We put reverb on the master track,” Savage explains, “because I wanted it to sound like a big, wet gust of wind coming over the edge of the sea.” It was an idea partly inspired by the album Big Wave by Japan’s ‘King of City Pop’, Tatsuro Yamashita – whose lounge-y, nostalgic, and often tropical 1980s music compliments Savage’s so effectively. The result on Shine hits the intended spot: “it complements an introspective walk on the beach quite well,” Savage says.

The presence of acoustic guitars – a departure from much of Savage’s past work – was meanwhile envisioned for an “Elliott Smith-style album”, but there are more obvious serotonin-charged influences at work on Shine, too.

“I was going on this art diet,” Savage explains, “where I would only listen to Max Martin for, like, a couple of hours every day.” He’s referring to the Swedish super-producer and songwriter responsible for some of the biggest hits by NSYNC, Celine Dion, and Britney Spears. And while the bingeing process, as Savage describes, is sometimes purely for health’s sake (“lately, I’ve been listening to All Star by Smash Mouth every day, which is arguably not even music at all.”), it’s often a cognitive effort to channel inspiration and creativity. The song Blow Me Away, from 2016’s Magnificent Fist, for example, came off the back of “just sitting in a room listening to hair metal ballads for two nights,” he explains.

On Shine, it was Comet – a tender, hook-laden highlight built around glowing keys, vocal harmonies and smooth bass – that ended up being “a Max Martin rip-off” after DeMarco and Savage realised they needed a more upbeat tune to balance the album while recording in Malibu. “I was listening to old school Britney Spears that I grew up with as a kid,” Savage says – before unexpectedly bursting into the chorus of Everytime. Minutes later, we’re both down the rabbit hole, and Savage’s pulled up an article titled 10 Darkest Britney Songs, which he announces with an enthusiastic “ooh!”, before breaking into I Was Born to Make You Happy. “Early Max Martin is really brilliant,” Savage summates. “It’s really fun music, so I get pumped when I hear stuff like that.”

Further highlights on Shine include the billowing Harmony, built on thick, dusky pads and evoking the mysterious fug of Twin Peaks, but Savage divulges that Streets of Rage – a real stand-out, full of lilting, quivering vocals that build towards a powerful emotional crescendo – is “one of my favourite recordings I have ever done.”

The song is about “loving someone, and looking up to someone you’re not going to be with anymore, and just telling them you still believe in them.” He says, before gazing off, shuffling pensively, and then interrupting his own silence. “It does make me sad if I listen to the recording, even though it’s beautiful to sing,” he says. “But it’s like worship, or blowing kisses, so I’d never feel depressed when singing that song.”

So what’s next? “I might take some time off,” Savage sighs, before cracking a laugh in a moment of self-realisation; “I want to write another play.” Incidentally, his latest work in the field is a one-person psychological thriller called The Fear – written, scored and performed by the artist himself. It’s about a dream analyst who accidentally predicts the future, he tells me, and “it’s a very frightening, scary musical” – so much so that he’s now decided to tone it down, because “it’s making me upset.”

In the present, though, the emotions manifested in Shine are ready to be released – and it will be a cathartic moment, no doubt. “I just love making music,” Savage says. “It can change a room, and make you feel rich, and really make you feel less lonely. It’s spells. It’s powerful. Music’s really powerful.”

With the artist restored (or, at least, on his way there), Shine now serves as a mellifluous and sun-soaked gift – and perhaps Savage’s best work in years. “I hope that it’ll be healing for some people,” he says, signing off. “There’s still a lot of healing to do. Whether you find it in a year, or on release day – you never know. But it’s a bit more healing than the other work I’ve done, and I feel good about that.”

Shine by Sean Nicholas Savage is out on July 22.