By the time I met Savannah Conley’s tour manager at the door to interview her backstage at Columbus’ beloved Newport Music Hall, the line for the sold-out show, which was headlined by local indie-folk duo Caamp, stretched well down the block along High Street.
Conley’s publicist at Atlantic Records had alerted me to the rising Nashville singer-songwriter just a few days before, noting she had recently been named one of Rolling Stone’s country and Americana “Artists You Need to Know,” and that she was a 2016 recipient of a BMI Foundation John Lennon Scholarship. Only twenty-two years old, her musical reputation has already landed her guest spots on tours with industry heavyweights Willie Nelson, Brandi Carlisle, Vance Joy, and Anderson East.
Her major-label debut EP for Elektra Records, Twenty-Twenty, was released in April on Dave Cobb’s burgeoning Low Country Sounds imprint, who also served as the set’s producer. Twenty-Twenty is a trio of dreamy ballads: “Same Old Eyes,” “All I Wanted,” and “Never Be Ourselves,” each with their own distinctive atmosphere. Conley’s voice is an adept and mellifluous instrument, reflecting a maturity in its storytelling that far exceeds her actual youth.
To say that she and Cobb have achieved a winning chemistry in the studio seems like a short-sell—they were clearly made to create music together. Twenty-Twenty has received unanimous praise for its magnetism, and it’s so well deserved. Like good music should, it left me wanting more.
Leaning against the wall of the Newport’s green room, Conley and I chat casually for about a half-hour before showtime. She’s incredibly funny, down-to-earth, and clearly humbled by the good things happening to her in the industry. Shortly after we ended our conversation, she was out on stage warmly engaging the buzzy Friday night crowd when she wasn’t filling the rafters with her voice and thumb-picked acoustic guitar, which was especially impressive since she told me after the show that she’d lost her playing callus. It was heartening to see the audience was as appreciative of her as she so evidently was of them.
The next twelve months will find Conley on the road when she and Cobb are not plotting her next batch of recordings, which will ultimately accumulate in a full-length album sometime in the latter part of 2019.
Grant Walters: You were actually born and raised in the Nashville area, which is sort of an anomaly among a lot of artists I’ve talked to over the years who became transplants while looking for or finding work.
Savannah Conley: Yes. Everyone is. Everyone’s a transplant.
GW: So, what was it like to grow up and become a musician in a hometown that’s monumentally famous for cultivating them?
SC: Well, my dad was a guitar player my whole life—he still is—and my mom was a background singer. My dad still tours full-time. It’s the only job he’s ever had. My mom quit touring when I was seven. I saw my dad have a lot of successes and I saw my dad have a lot of failures, and, you know, it was all very tumultuous. The music business is always tumultuous.
But it was really great for me to see successes and failures at the same time to know what works, what doesn’t work. If you fail, it doesn’t actually mean you’re dead in the water, you know?
GW: You’ve mentioned that your household wasn’t just profusely musical, but also incredibly objective and genre-less in terms of the kinds of music your family embraced. I’m curious if your parents, as veterans of the industry, were that open-minded when you wanted to pursue a career in it, and what did they try to teach or instill in you?
SC: I think, really, they just wanted to protect me from anything that tried to change who I was—what was, at my core, me. The business isn’t as evil as people think it is. It really isn’t. I mean, there is absolutely evil, and there are absolutely shitty parts of it that are just not good. Nashville doesn’t pull the wool over your eyes in any way. You’re exposed to all of it. But I think my dad specifically—my mom, too—had been in all angles of the business, and I think what he was really most concerned about was not having me be in a situation where they wanted to mold me into something I wasn’t.
GW: That’s certainly something worth defending.
SC: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. But they also knew that I was fiercely independent, and so they had to let me try whatever and be whatever on my own. Or else I’d go in the complete opposite direction of where they wanted me to go, so… [laughs]
GW: And now you’re a full-fledged professional in the business with a major label propelling your craft, not to mention that you have Dave Cobb as a producer. I think he’s one of the best working right now.
SC: As do I.
GW: So now you’re negotiating artistry and commerce and figuring out how they fit together. Is there a core value or perspective that isn’t up for debate or compromise?
SC: My voice, really. It’s got to be my voice coming out of me. It’s got to be…my words are really what matter most to me. The other stuff is important to me, but my words are the only thing I can absolutely, one-hundred percent control at all times. It’s coming out of my mouth, and it’s happening solely in my control.
And co-writing has been a journey with that. I didn’t get into the co-writing world until later than most, I guess. I’m twenty-two, so I guess I haven’t done anything super late, but I’m just lucky to have a group of co-writers around me where it’s a respectful, cohesive, complementary relationship I have with all of them. And it’s been really nice to find those people, and to find Dave, who allows me to say whatever I want to say. And the label lets me say whatever I want to say. It’s been amazing. They haven’t tried to steer me in any direction. It’s great.
GW: Dave’s done a fantastic job of capturing your authenticity on this EP—there's so much depth and nuance there. How has he helped to shape and evolve your sound from in the booth?
SC: He’s very opinionated, in the best way. He’s so right all the time, you almost want him to be wrong, even though it’d be at your expense. [laughs] He’s so right and you want him to be wrong just once so you could say ‘see? It is possible!’ But he never is. No, but he’s a joy to work with, honestly. We did a joint interview recently where it was basically just us talking good about each other in front of each other. [laughs] And it was just so funny because I never get to hear how Dave talks about me, and I don’t get to talk about Dave in front of Dave.
It was really cool to listen to the things that he sees in me and wants to bring out, and there were a lot of things he said that I didn’t even realize consciously were happening. Things like he wants my voice—my singing voice—to be the most prominent thing on all of my records. He built the tracks like that and he mixed them like that.
GW: Oh, yeah. You can hear that quality. Absolutely.
SC: He said ‘I want people to know what she’s saying. I want them to not have an option to not.’ And I was, like, ‘I didn’t even realize you were doing that! That’s exactly what I want!’ You know? In the studio, it’s very fast-paced, which I’m not used to. And I’m so glad because I am not a studio rat. My dad is a studio rat, I have buddies that are studio rats. They can just hole up and spend hours on one project—forever and ever and ever and ever. I’m not like that. I have to get up and move.
But I’m also kind of a perfectionist, so if we listen back and I have enough time with it, I’ll just nitpick it to death. He doesn’t allow me to do that. One of the things I’m really hard on myself about are my vocal takes. And there’s a trick that he does to me and I still fall for it. I’ll say, ‘you know, I feel good about pieces of that, of each take.’ Because we only cut live with the band. And I’ll say: ‘can you take my vocal track and comp it together?’
And he’ll go ‘oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ And then he’ll comp it—or he’ll say he’ll comp it—and then he’ll play it back and say: ‘what do you think about that?’ And I’ll say: ‘sounds good!’ And then he’ll say ‘yeah, well that’s the whole first take!’ [laughs] So, he makes me think that he’ll take the best parts, but really he wants the magic of one take. And I do, too, but I’m too hard on myself to think it’s good enough.
But it’s things like that, and he lets the song be the song. He doesn’t want to cover up anything or hide anything. His first priority is for the song to be heard in its best light, and that’s what he tries to do.
GW: I think that translates so well on the EP. Those songs really have this organic life and breath, but they feel cohesive, too. And now there’s a full-length album in the works, yes? Or is it a finished album?
SC: Yes...well...maaaybe? We keep going back. Because I’m signed to Elektra and Low Country Sound as well, which is Dave’s imprint, and the great part of that is that he’s technically the label head. Which means we can technically go in [to the studio] any time we want. So, when we went in, he said two things: first he said: ‘I don’t want to make an Americana record on you.’ And I said: ‘fine by me.’ I love Americana and Dave loves Americana, but we’re wanting to move on. We’ve been there, and it’s wonderful, but it’s not what we wanted to do. He said: 'I want us to do whatever we want to do, and I want to have fun.’ And I was, like, ‘you got it! Let’s do it!’
So, part of that was saying ‘we’re going to cut as many fuckin’ songs as we can. As many as we want.’ We ended up cutting, I think, twenty-three songs?
SC: You know, and I’m always writing more and so I keep sending them to him, and he’s, like, ‘alright, well, maybe we could do this, and maybe we could do that.’ And I was, like, ‘alright, at some point we’re going to have to cut ourselves off!’ [laughs]
I’m glad you said that the EP, as a whole, feels cohesive. But I am young, and I am at the beginning of this, and I do have a lot to say, but I don’t know that it all flows together and that it’s enough to merit a full record.
So, what we’re thinking about now is that we’re going to release singles in the new year, and just have it build up to a full record, for my own peace of mind. Because I feel like a full record is kind of a coming-of-age thing for me. Maybe not for other people, and other people have different mindsets. Sometimes I wish I had that mindset. But for me it feels like a coming-of-age, and it feels like ‘this is what I want to say, and I’m saying it!’ And, I’m not ready for that.
I don’t think I’m ready to say ‘this is who I am.’ Because I don’t even think I’m sure yet.
I also got heartbroken before writing this record, and I never wanted to put out a break-up record and I felt like that was what this was becoming. And I thought, ‘oh, God! No! I can’t do that. My first record can’t be a fucking break-up record!’ So, that was another aspect.
GW: Right. So, you’re giving yourself some buffer time.
SC: Yes! Yes. I need to write about more shit than just that, you know.
GW: How are you enjoying being on the road? I mean, you’ve worked in front of audiences your entire life, but now you’re a major label artist and have a following to match.
SC: It’s higher stakes. It’s higher stakes and I have to take myself out of the fact that there are people who are riding this. There are people now that have stock in it, and it’s not just me playing around and hoping for the best now. My team is invested, and there’s pressure, for sure. But touring’s my favorite part.
GW: I was going to ask if this environment was where you felt most at home. It seems like it is.
SC: It is. I don’t want to say it’s when it feels worth it, but it feels like ‘aahh! This is it. This is why we fuckin’ slave in the studio and beat ourselves up and sit on my couch and cry!’ You know? [laughs] It’s where you feel most seen—not just visually, but seen in your being, I guess. I love travel, I’m very antsy all the time and I love being in a new place every day. It suits my nature.
Honestly, I love being an opening act. Truly, I do. We’ve learned so much from bands we’ve opened for, and it’s just really nice to see how different peoples’ systems work, and how different people do different things. I enjoy the camaraderie and we’ve been lucky to only have toured with cool people. It’s definitely my favorite part of everything. It’s a magical thing—as magical as traveling to a new place every day and barely getting sleep can be.