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A Conversation With Savannah Conley

Portraits by Sophia Matinazad

Interview, Words, and Show Photos by Tommy Moore

Savannah Conley photographed by Sophia Matinazad

‘Playing the Part of Me is You’ at times feels like a rainy night in the city. Romantic and cinematic, as well as pining and bold, Savannah fades through the dimly glimmering cityscape with a lover from a time ago. At moments hand-in-hand, other times alone and lost amongst the chaos, she navigates turbulent relationships and feelings as she comes into her own in today’s world. Her vulnerability and self-doubt is laid out like a blanket draped over a spring day’s grass. White linen sheets dance along a clothes line in the distance as she bounces between wondering if she’s enough, if she should stay or go, if she should invite them over.

Though this pandemic era record is technically her debut, it’s far from the launch of her career. Raised by two parents within Nashville’s country superstructure, she was deeply ingrained into the music fabric from an early age. As one does, Savannah rebelled and fought to swim against the current of the Nashville music mold that crafted her. Amidst her rebellion, she inked a major record deal with a label that wound up hell bent on turning her into an Americana icon. Two years, two unreleased records, and more than her fair share of feathers ruffled later, she finally left finally the label.

As she reconsidered life outside the confines she had lived within for what felt like ages, the world came to a crashing halt. Her hesitancy of a continued pursuit of music vanished as quick as the world flipped. Squaring up to the scars left behind from her industry battles and falling deep into a pandemic love, a new world of writing presented itself. From it came a post-millennial indie-rock sound that is sharpened by some of the tightest and most pointed writing we’ve seen in a long time.

From start to finish, ‘Playing the Part of Me is You’ listens like the book you can’t put down. Every time I’ve listened through I uncover another layer of depth, another line so striking it pulls me away from reality, another batch of feelings I didn’t realize was baked in.

Months before the record came out, I caught up with Savannah after she wrapped up a long stretch of tour. As she settled back into home, we dove into the work that went into the making of ‘Playing the Part of Me is You’ and finding those fleeting moments of escape.

Savannah Conley photographed by Sophia Matinazad

Tommy Moore: Have you somewhat recovered?

Savannah Conley: Yeah, we just got back yesterday. So I'm still a little… like my house is wreck. I'm so glad you can only see this corner.

TM: I move out of my place in two days, so it's nothing but boxes, too, so don't worry.

SC: My whole my whole tour is in my apartment—my one bedroom apartment—right now. It's boxes and gear and boxes and gear, but I'm somewhat of a of a clean freak. But honestly, if it's this intense, I have an easier time letting go than if it’s a small mess. It's a huge mess and I’m like, Okay, well this is just where I live now.

TM: Where did you guys wrap up?

SC: We ended in Richmond, Virginia. I'm in Nashville, now. I've never lived anywhere else. I've toured so much that I’m like, I could live there, but then I would never see my family because I'm touring. So I've stuck around.

TM: Does everybody still live in Nashville?

SC: Yeah, my whole family. Big, big Southern family.

TM: Were you born into music at all? Or into the music scene?

SC: Yeah, my dad is a guitar player, and my mom was a background singer. That's how they met.

TM: A few months ago you put out ‘Best I Can’. Can you talk about the making of those?

SC: I was in a really shit major label deal for about three years that didn't allow for—I mean, honestly, my whole career in the beginning was just hyper professional really quickly. I signed a deal way too young and didn't have the coming-into-it-on-your-own kind of thing. So I got out of that deal in 2020, and after that I just kind of had whiplash and was like, I don't want to do anything. It didn't feel good to make music. It didn't feel natural to me at that point anymore, and so I kind of took a break. Then I talked to my manager, and I was like, I just want to make music with my friends. That's all I want to do. I don't want to have any pressure on it. I'm going to do these songs, and if I decide that I don't want to put them out, then you have to be okay with that. I just don't want any sort of expectation on this at all.

I got together with my friends, Hank Compton and Josh Lovell. Prior to that, all of the songs were co-writes, which is not usual for me. But again, I just wanted things to be collaborative and to not be because I had been either in my little hole doing things by myself completely, or being completely washed over by in a studio setting.

I went to LA for a while, and wrote a bunch of songs with people, and by myself, and went with two of my best friends. It was really great. And Marshall Vore, who is one of my good friends, and he's just an amazing writer and producer, lives out there and we got together and wrote. Then Hank Compton, we got together and wrote as soon as I got back. And then my friend Erin McCarley, we had had this song, Oh, New York’, and we wrote that a long time ago. For some reason, it just felt like that belonged somewhere. We had a demo that I just always wanted to do something with.

‘Always Gonna Happen’ I wrote with Marshall in LA. Then Hank wrote Best I Can’ with me here. Then Hank, and I and our friend Josh, got together with the most ragtag setups, and we went to our friend's house in Franklin, which is a little outside of Nashville. He was like, Yeah, it's a studio, and then we get there and it's like, a room. No gear. No, nothing. We're like, Well, all right. So we set everything up, and it was super thrown together, and then we couldn't go there anymore. Then we went to my dad's place, which is, at that point, it was just wooden walls and no gear, or anything. So we recorded it in probably like four different places, or five different places. Three songs in five different places, which was frustrating in some ways, but freeing in others, where it was like, Okay, we all want to get the songs in a place where that we feel good about them, so we're just gonna do it in the ways that we can do it.

TM: Going through that process with your own crew of people, is it somehow even more personal than doing it on your own? Something I've always noticed is when I'm working with my crew people and the people that I want to be around, that work ends up being more of what I would expect myself to do than I would do on my own.

SC: Totally, totally. There's a sense of honesty. Hank, the guy that did the songs, we've known each other since we were children—like four years old. I can't be anything other than what I am with him. And same for him with me. So when we work together, there's this sense of complete honesty. We talk to each other like siblings almost.

TM: Creatively, that's the best possible relationship. I've got a few people that it's the same way. It's so fun, and if somebody else from outside heard us talking to each other they thought we were insane.

SC: Yeah, they think you hate each other. In reality, it's like the deepest love. You love each other so much that you can absolutely just rip each other apart. Hank and I've been wanting to record something together forever. I’ve always said that our styles and our sensibilities have always gone together. The way that I sing is the way he plays guitar. We just flow in and out of each other so well, because we were in and out of bands together for so long. We've learned our sensibilities together, and groomed our own tastes together. I'd never had that kind of experience before, and it's really fun. It's complicated to work with friends, but it's really fun.

TM: There’s always that layer of complications, but I feel like there's so many benefits creatively from it.

SC: Now we're working on a full length record. He's not producing it, but he's playing all the guitars. That relationship just keeps coming back, musically. It's been a thread throughout a lot of things. We toured my very first tour ever. He was my guitar player and then I was always so wishful that he could be involved in the recording process when I was on my old label. Now he gets to be involved in almost all facets. He doesn't tour with me anymore, but in the recording scenario, it's that stamp of him knowing me so well, and knowing what I gravitate toward. That's been such an important relationship for me, and I hope for him too.

Savannah Conley photographed by Tommy Moore at Schubas in Chicago, IL.

TM: I feel like those they always go hand in hand. I hated the saying when I was growing up, because it was like my parents telling me not to hang around bad kids, but it's the five people you surround yourself with, that's who you become. I feel like creatively, it's that on steroids.

SC: He was a bad kid for sure. *laughs* Definitely the kid that my parents were like, Do NOT, but he got it together. Creatively, you're going to glean inspiration and influence off of whoever you're around.

TM: And you have to lean into it too. I feel like a lot of people try to keep those boundaries up and like keep everything their own, and that’s when things fall flat.

SC: I am so community oriented. I am very private, and I live alone, but I only do that because I like for things to be in the same place when I get home, you know? In reality, I love community. I love my friends. I'm not a super social person, I'm not the life of the party or whatever, but I love my community. And that goes for music as well. Getting to make music with people that you love is just the best thing. Coming off of this tour is this is probably the best time to catch me talk about that, because we spent over a month just completely immersed in each other as a band and as a touring group. I just love them so much. I love my band so much. I love playing music with them and love hanging out with them. Touring is 23 hours of not music and one hour of music. You work for 23 hours to make it to this one hour where you do your real job. It involves so much besides compatibility musically, and to spend 10 hours in a van together is a lot to ask, and I could not ask for a better setup.

TM: Have you been with this crew for a while now?

SC: I've toured solo so much that I've been really fluctuated. Hank, the guy I've been talking about, he was my guitar player for a long time. Our group kind of cycled in and out of a band. I've had the same keys player for three years, and she's been the most consistent. She's fucking incredible. I love her to death. And then the guitar player and bass player that have been on these past three tours are in a separate band, and they're both incredible. My drummer is 19, so he's a baby baby. We love him. He's only been in Nashville for like six months. He was thrown in the deep end and killed it.

TM: I know you've got a little bit of a break now, but what's next? Where’s your head going now that you have a little bit of space?

SC: This year has been insane. This is like the longest that I've had off for eight months. We've been kind of working on this record for almost a year, to be honest. It's hard to record and tour at the same time. I'm not at the liberty right now. So they just kind of have to go in and out. We started this record in October of last year, and then I toured a ton. Honestly, it was really great to get to try the songs out live before the record comes out. It's been a really cool experience of already having the songs done, nobody having heard them before, playing them getting the reaction, and being like, Okay, cool. When I put this out people will be prepared or whatever.

TM: Like the reaffirmation beforehand, almost.

SC: Totally, totally. I would love to say that I don't need that, but I fucking do.

TM: Anybody who says they don't is fully lying.

SC: Totally lying. So we're done with the record. I think we need to go back in next week to listen through and be like, Okay, is it done? I have some curveballs that I think I'm gonna throw that I don't know if they're gonna be received well. Then next month, I fly to France for two weeks, and we're doing all the visual aspects of the record in France. That'll be so exciting. It was a complete pipe dream. One of my best friends has done every visual, every photo, every cover of everything. She's been the one to do it and her name is Sophia Matinazad. We've known each other for years. She's the best. I fucking love her. Her first photo shoot ever was for me, and so it's been the coolest. She's doing all the Kacey Musgraves stuff. She does so much cool stuff. So she's doing the creative direction for this whole record. We were talking about it, and I've been like obsessed with this chateau in France for forever. It's this couple who’ve been restoring this Chateau to 1500s quality—legitimately restoring. I'm a history fucking obsessed person. And they've been completely restoring it. I've been following it for years, and I'm like, I want to go so bad. So I'm sitting with Sophia and I'm like, Picture this. Obviously, can't be this, but like, just put yourself in this world. And then she's like, Why can’t it be that? and then I was like, Why can't it be? So we presented this plan. Usually, for videos, you'll have like a 30-40 person crew for like two videos and this massive budget, so instead of that, we're just bringing a three person crew to France, and just sending it.

TM: I had friends that grew up in like the 30 person shoot worlds and then I grew up in the outdoor you've-got-one-camera-and-a-car-full-of-people kind of thing, and I just love that so much more.

SC: You can do cool shit with 30 people, for sure. You can make something that's insane. But at the end of the day, this record is very intimate, and deeply personal. It just didn't feel like there are very many fun songs, not that I have a lot of fun songs in general, but even by my own standards, there are not very many fun songs on the record. So it needed care and vulnerability. Even in the visual sense, thinking about what the visuals should be, what popped out to me, visually, is it has to be something with vulnerability. Even again, I'm pretty private, and I have a pretty tight group of friends. I don't trust super easily. I have my close circle, and the crew of three are all in my close circle. So it's just gonna be the most easily vulnerable, easily accessible situation. I just felt like I needed to access stuff that I can't do in front of a fucking room of strangers.

TM: You just want it to feel comfortable and safe, and as creatively open as possible. That's so hard to do with new faces.

SC: You get in this mode where all of a sudden, something is a performance. And you're like, Wait, I’m fucking performing right now. I don't need to perform. I don't need to be this version of myself. But it's impossible to not, you know? You have 30 people around you that are all there for you. But for this record, I want to be really intentional. This is also my first record, so I want to be super intentional with every aspect of it. The pipe dream became reality, and then we fly in two weeks. We're really stoked.

Savannah Conley photographed by Sophia Matinazad

TM: We’ve been focusing on the idea of daydreaming and slowing down half speed to kind of a euphoric state. What is that for you? Whether it's a headspace or a physical space, where do you go where everything fades away?

SC: I am not good at it. Truly, truly horrible at that particular thing. I'm possibly worse at it than most things in my life. It’s a true battle to slow down. I’m not wired for it. There are a couple places—writing is not that for me, never has been. I have the worst analogy that I've always used for writing, but it's just truly the most accurate. Writing for me is like vomiting. You're sick, and then you throw up, and you feel better.

TM: Oh, I really like that analogy, actually. I may steal that.

SC: Yeah, it's not fun. It's not an enjoyable experience. I know people who it’s an enjoyable experience for, and they really like themselves, which is awesome for them. Super happy for you. Really glad I do not fall into that category. When you're having to so deeply look at yourself—I can only write for like an hour at a time and feel okay. Then after that, everything is horrible.

My hometown is technically 30 minutes West of Nashville. It's really tiny, like actual small town. My family owns a restaurant there and coffee shop. I go out there and I feel like I can breathe. It's very green and remote. It feels very removed from everything. Plus my whole family's out there, which is great. My aunt and uncle have this big house that my uncle built. They have this huge, pasture yard, and there's this little tiny house in the back of it that I lived in for like a year. When I'm there I can legitimately close my eyes and I am not thinking about anything, which is maybe 5% of my life, but it's possible there.

TM: I operate the same way. Those spaces are very rare, but they feel so nice once you can find them.

SC: Yeah, if you can get there. But sometimes, it's hard to force yourself—I don't think you can force yourself.

TM: It happens when it happens, right?

SC: Sometimes I get out there and I'm there for like an hour, and I'm like, Fuckin’ hell, I have to get home. I have to get this done. I have to go. I have to go.

TM: It's like the idea of a true vacation, like going and sitting on a Caribbean beach, sounds like torture to just sit there and stew.

SC: Yep, I would have to be so high. I would have to not even be in my body. Yeah, I can't really do that. I also noticed this yesterday when I got home. I went to go pick my dog up from my mom's house, and I got to the exit of my family's house, and I was overwhelmed with this feeling of if I needed something, there are 100 people that I could call and I would be fine. When you're touring, and you don't know anyone, if something happened I have to be the one. Which is fine with me, I'm totally fine with that. But getting to a place where I know I don't have to be that person is like, I'm okay. I'm good. It's a fucking privilege. Not everybody has that for sure, and I'm really thankful for it.

Savannah Conley photographed by Tommy Moore at Schubas in Chicago, IL.


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