The first time Anna B Savage read Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends she felt Rooney had taken an x-ray of her soul. The second time she read it she wanted to cry. “I felt such an affinity with the main character, Frances. The feeling was like someone was writing what was inside my brain. It was very weird. I felt quite stressed by it,” says the London songwriter over Zoom.
In Frances, Rooney had created a troubled young woman crippled by self-esteem issues obvious to everyone but herself. With a silent gasp, Savage realised that much the same could be said of her. Rooney had held up a mirror and forced her, or so she felt, to look deep into herself. It was hugely unsettling.
“I didn’t feel I was being recognised in a nice way,” says Savage. “I felt a bit affronted. I read Conversations with Friends again a year later and couldn’t believe I had identified with this character who so obviously struggled with hating themselves. And with self-destructive tendencies. It made me appreciate how much you can develop in a year. And how much of a difference therapy makes.”
Thoughts of Sally Rooney and her often self-sabotaging protagonists came flooding back as Savage was writing her debut album, A Common Turn, which was released last January and which she brings to Dublin for the first time with a concert at the Workman’s Club on November 28th. The record showcases Savage’s hypnotically baroque vocals, and lyrics that have a poet’s visceral punch, as it dissects, in often granular detail, the 30-year-old’s journey towards happiness.
There is lots to unpack. Among the subjects wrestled with are her issues around imposter syndrome – the suspicion that, as a musician, she had blagged her way into a position of which she wasn’t worthy. These negative voices came close to scuttling her career before it had really begun, she reveals.
“I struggled with low self-esteem and low self-confidence,” she says. “I had ended up in a bad relationship that made me feel smaller and smaller. It was a combination of me and this other person.”
Savage had put out a debut EP – called simply EP – in 2015. Reviews were positive. NPR praised her “husky, confessional” style and “spare aesthetic”; DIY Magazine heralded the arrival of an “exciting new voice”. Alas, the wheels came off following a painful break-up. She fell apart a little, and then a lot. As she did, her musical ambitions evaporated.
“I basically lost all my self -confidence. I just kind of crumbled. I lost all the people I was working with except for my amazing booking agent. Everyone else left the industry or stopped working. I didn’t have a way back. And the industry loves quickness. I had let the wave die.”
A Common Turn narrates her quest for healing and self-acceptance. It is stormy and melodramatic, Savage’s operatic voice variously bringing to mind Antony and the Johnsons and Anna Calvi, while her guitar has the molten quality of lava gathering pace as it hurtles downhill. Yet the project’s inspirations are largely literary. These include the aforementioned novels of Sally Rooney, and H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s 2014 mediation on grief and the healing power of nature.
“H is for Hawk was the kernel,” she says. “I read that book and it was like my brain had shifted. I became more aware of my surroundings. I started birdwatching. And when you start birdwatching, suddenly you’re more in tune with what is around you. And also more willing to listen. And that willingness to listen is, it feels to me, a huge part of the album.”
That sense of finding solace in the vastness and in the ancient silences of the natural world is a thread running through A Common Turn. A streak of pantheist abandon electrifies the LP in ways that are occasionally frightening (there are times Savage lives up to her name and sounds properly, exuberantly feral) but that ultimately leads to a place of catharsis and acceptance.
“I don’t know if this is even real/ I don’t feel things as keenly as I used to,” Savage sings on Corncrakes, a luminescent dirge that draws a distinction between the uncomplicated beauty of nature and the dissociation the narrator feels following the end of a relationship.
Move to Donegal
Savage elsewhere addresses the ways in which a toxic connection with another person can cause you to lose your grip on who you are. “I don’t remember how to be me,” she laments on Dead Pursuits. “I’m not the same”.
Ironically these songs, which are so in touch with nature, were written while she lived amid the hubbub of her native Crouch End in London. However, having recently moved to Bundoran in Donegal, now she truly is cheek-by-jowl with the wilderness.
What’s a Londoner doing in Bundoran? The answer is that she initially relocated to Rialto in Dublin to study for a master’s in music at Bimm, the British and Irish Modern Music Institute. With the city locked down, though, she could not avail of the capital’s metropolitan delights. She noted how much she was paying in rent. And then a friend suggested they move to the west coast and learn how to surf.
“I was quite brazen,” she says of moving to Dublin. “Like ‘London’s really expensive … [Dublin] is not going to be as bad’. And then I was like, ‘Holy s**t … It’s so expensive’.”
A Common Turn is not for the faint-hearted or prudish. On Chelsea Hotel #3 Savage describes, in unflinching detail, an intimate encounter that unfolds as she listens to Leonard Cohen. “It’s a little bit taboo for women to talk about pleasure and desires,” she says. “The difficulty with being a woman and talking about pleasure and desires is that you’re not taught how to express it.”
The conversation comes back around to Sally Rooney. Having moved to Ireland, Savage was arguably in the perfect place to appreciate Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You.
She found the book more emotionally distant than Rooney’s previous work. It certainly didn’t fill her with anxiety, as Conversations with Friends had. She found it revealing, too, that one of the characters is a young author dealing with fame. As a woman in the arts, Savage has all sorts of opinions regarding the attention – positive and negative – Rooney has had to endure.
“She’s a mega celeb. Of course she wants to keep her life private. Not tell people she got married or anything. That makes perfect sense to me. But it’s strange. In music there is this idea that your output isn’t enough. People have to know about you as a person. And you can say, ‘Oh, the music should speak for itself’. And then people get frustrated. I can definitely appreciate both sides. [With Sally Rooney] I’m like, ‘I want to know more’.”
A Common Turn is out now Anna B Savage plays Workman’s Club Dublin, Sunday, November 28th