Savannah Conley

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What'd I Say

Savannah Conley

S2, Ep. 1

It’s all about authenticity for Savannah Conley. From her parents telling her to “never do anything that’s not you,” to her respecting fellow musician Brent Cobb for being “forever and always…himself,” the Nashville-based artist is making music only she could make. And this unwavering honesty is on full display in new EP, “Twenty-Twenty.”

Find out how she remains authentic, discover details of her songwriting process, and listen in as she reveals her first music love.

Episode Transcript

Intro: Hello and welcome to What’d I Say, where Atlantic Records talks with artists about songs they made, songs they like and songs they’d like to have made. It’s an inside look into the craft of songs from the artists themselves.

The daughter of a background and a session guitarist, Savannah Conley, started making music as soon as she started talking. She began recording songs at the age of 7, wrote her first song at 11 and released her first full-length album on her sixteenth birthday. Savannah’s latest EP, “Twenty-Twenty,” was released on Electra Records in March of 2018. We caught up with her while she was on tour supporting Brent Cobb across the USA.

Tom Mullen: You grew up in a musical household, that’s awesome.

Savannah Conley: I did.

Tom Mullen: With a singer, background singer in a conference studio and touring guitarist. You mentioned that your house was genre-less.

Savannah Conley: Yes.

Tom Mullen: Meaning that you had every possible record.

Savannah Conley: Yes. My parents kept everything in stock at all times. My mom is a pretty pop-heavy fan, but she loves soul. She loves just about everything. My dad, he’s the musicologist more so than my mom. So he introduced me to new bands, but honestly there was every genre in my house present at all times. Nashville’s a predominantly country town. So, he played a lot of country growing up, but he was definitely not limited to that at all.

Tom Mullen: Was there anything that, as a kid, you want to rebel and listen to other things, or were you enjoying that there was so much variety?

Savannah Conley: Well, see the bummer part was that my parents got everything.

Tom Mullen: You were like the radio station, you had everything.

Savannah Conley: Yeah. They understood everything. If I wanted to rebel and like a band my parents didn’t understand, I couldn’t do that, because if they were good, then they’d be like, “Yeah, this is good.” No, you’re supposed to say its garbage, this is what I want from you right now. But I remember The Raconteurs, that Jack White project, I loved them. I loved them. And I played it for my dad thinking, he’s not gonna like this. And he was like, “This is innovative.” It was like, dammit. No.

Tom Mullen: You’re trying to find something they’re not gonna like. Didn’t work.

Savannah Conley: Didn’t work, didn’t work. [In] Nashville, Jack White and Kings of Leon, all of them. People moving to Nashville claiming Nashville as their home but playing indie rock, that was big for me in the genre world.

Tom Mullen: That’s crazy, there’s so many friends that I’ve had that are moving there and every time I go back there’s more traffic, there’s more buildings I’ve never seen before. What was that like, growing up and seeing that happen?

Savannah Conley: It was weird. Definitely I remember, there’s an area called the Gulch in Nashville, and I remember when that was a lot, wasn’t anything. In high school, when I first started driving, east Nashville now is the hip community and I wasn’t allowed to go there until I had moved out of my parents’ house. You didn’t go to east Nashville as much. You barely went five years ago. Now, it’s totally fine, you can go there all you want. But it’s mainly, I have a lot of native friends that are bitter about the influx. I’m not bitter about the influx of people, if they’ll leave their cars at home that would be great. Just bring your person but not your car.

Tom Mullen: Bike on in.

Savannah Conley: Yes. Please. No, I like the vibrancy of everybody moving in. People are finally seeing that Nashville is not boots and cowboy hats and Broadway. It’s so much more than that, and it always has been. But now people are just getting it and they’re seeing it.

Tom Mullen: Music Row’s been there, there’s more people in the music industry in Nashville than New York and LA combined.

Savannah Conley: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: So it’s always been there, just people are figuring it out.

Savannah Conley: Yes. And it’s been so country-centric for so long. I love country music, but I’ve never really, I’ve always identified with different genres of music more than country. That’s probably my rebellion, was identifying more with things that weren’t country. But growing up an indie kid, that’s such a beautiful thing for me to watch, these people move to Nashville for indie rock. Are you kidding me? That’s nuts. That’s stuff of dreams.

Tom Mullen: Yeah.

Savannah Conley: So yeah, it’s really cool seeing everybody move to town and giving us, we’ve known we have validity, now everybody else knows we have validity.

Tom Mullen: Now you have more flights.

Savannah Conley: We do have –

Tom Mullen: You know what? I can leave for LA every hour now.

Savannah Conley: Yeah. It’s great. Now, that part, yeah. Flights are getting cheaper. I think they were expensive for a minute and now they’re getting cheaper.

Tom Mullen: I always notice that, when I’m like, “There’s more flights here, that’s odd.”

Savannah Conley: Yeah, that’s good. That’s nice. Travel, it’s great.

Tom Mullen: I started songwriting at 11. Was there a first instrument that you gravitated to?

Savannah Conley: Well, I did not write with an instrument until I was 19.

Tom Mullen: Oh wow. So it was just your voice?

Savannah Conley: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: Not just — it was your voice.

Savannah Conley: Oh. Okay.

Tom Mullen: This is going well.

Savannah Conley: Wow. I love this. No, my dad was a guitar player, soloist guitar player. He’s a really good one. So, I was always really frustrated because I would hear – I was little, I would sit down at the piano and try to play things out of my head and I couldn’t do it because I would hear things that I couldn’t play. Not to toot my own horn or whatever, but I had a pretty sophisticated melodic knowledge at the age of 11.

Tom Mullen: You had a plethora of records, too.

Savannah Conley: Yeah. So I was hearing all of this stuff that I couldn’t do. I could hear it, and I could hear the combinations of notes but I couldn’t put it in my hands, I couldn’t make it happen. So finally, I’m a very independent person and I hate asking for help. So finally, I was like, “Daddy, I need your help. And I don’t really know what to do about it.”

So, we started this process, it was kinda live sampling with my dad. I would write the melodies in my head, the vocal melodies and the guitar melodies, and then I would hear the combinations of notes that I wanted. So I would just sing them to him and he would make the chords. He’d play one and I’d say “Nope.” Play another one, nope. Nope. Nope. That one. Until he got what I was hearing. It was a really painstaking process and not really efficient at all. But it worked. It worked for a while. It made me able to write what was in my head and get it out there.

Then, I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 17. And I was like, oh. I don’t have my dad anymore. I gotta do something about this, I can’t go to my basement anymore and live sample my dad. So I guess I started dabbling or whatever at that point. But I had taken a break to focus on school, so I guess when I quit school and decided I wanted to do music full-time, that was when I was like, “Alright, I’m playing the damn guitar. Fine, Nashville, I’ll do the thing.” So, I started playing then.

Tom Mullen: Cool. Do you remember your first favorite song?

Savannah Conley: “Rock Bottom,” Wynonna Judd.

Tom Mullen: That’s a good one.

Savannah Conley: Yep. That was, it’s been that and “Can’t Make You Love Me,” Bonnie Raitt. Those were my first two.

Tom Mullen: I can see you in your bedroom listening to those, and just looking at your stereo being like, “Yes!”

Savannah Conley: I worshiped the Bonnie Raitt tapes. We had the tape in the car, and we had like three copies. We had one for my room, one for the car and an extra.

Tom Mullen: Obviously.

Savannah Conley: Because you gotta. But I was always really drawn to female artists, because I guess it was more identifiable for me. I liked a lot of male artists too, but the ones that I really gravitated toward were female artists. Aside from my first love, which I’m gonna – everyone who might listen to this podcast, you’re privy to this information of my most embarrassing first love in music.

Tom Mullen: That was my next question, great, go.

Savannah Conley: Who was Barry Manilow.

Tom Mullen: Really?

Savannah Conley: Had the box set. Had the poster. Oh yeah.

Tom Mullen: How’d that go over in school?

Savannah Conley: Secrecy. I didn’t know, I didn’t know it was embarrassing, I was like six years old. And I set up a camcorder, made a music video for “Copacabana”

Tom Mullen: Where is it? Where is that?

Savannah Conley: Oh. Burnt.

Tom Mullen: Oh really?

Savannah Conley: In flames. Oh yeah.

Tom Mullen: I want to show you something. No, I’m just kidding.

Savannah Conley: Oh yeah. Wow. That’s so some shit my mom would do. My mom’s in New York right now, and that’s absolutely the shit she would pull. Ugh.

Tom Mullen: Barry Manilow. How about still? What if it came on now?

Savannah Conley: I’d sing along, but my dad got me part of my birthday present, he got me a bunch of vinyl, and in that vinyl were 10 Barry Manilow records. So, I have a plethora of his catalog to this day. But I’m not an active fan. Barry, if you’re listening, I love you. But I’m not an active listener anymore. But six-year-old me was obsessed. Complete obsession.

Tom Mullen: I like that. We talked about, you did a title playlist, which I love.

Savannah Conley: Yes.

Tom Mullen: I loved how it was old and new. And I think even just now, hearing if it was Ryan Adams, Paul Simon, Jim James, Shania Twain. What connects with you first when you start to fall in love with a song?

Savannah Conley: The song.

Tom Mullen: The structure?

Savannah Conley: I guess lyrics connect with me first. I think that lyrics are – but see, I say that. I just think there are so many components that can make a song great. And I think if a song draws you in, whether that be from lyrics, or melody, or emotional content. Whatever. If it makes you feel and it pulls you in, then that’s a great song.

Lyrically, I think that’s my main selling point, is just a really good, solid lyric. But there are a plethora of Paul McCartney songs that are about nothing, and the melodies are so beautiful that you could not care less. “Let ‘Em In,” that’s one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s about knocking on the door, that’s literally almost all he says. “Somebody knocking at the door.” And I like, weep. I don’t actually weep to that song. But it’s one of my favorite songs of all time. So I think there are a lot of things that can make a great song.

Tom Mullen: I think too, having that varied understanding of the history and new, your songs I felt like that EP, it feels like it’s both. I can hear the old and I can hear the new in those.

Savannah Conley: Thank you.

Tom Mullen: Was that conscious?

Savannah Conley: No. Writing is obviously a conscious act. I have to be awake in order to do it, but there’s not a whole lot of forethought that goes into it, or planning. It just, if it happens, it happens. So it wasn’t a conscious effort. But all my influences are gonna come out. And when you listen to – like I listen to the Andrews Sisters, then I’ll listen to Kendrick Lamar right after it. So there’s a wide range of things for my subconscious to pull from. So it doesn’t surprise me that that comes through. I’m glad to hear you say that.

Tom Mullen: And then I think too, the song itself, putting [it] together. Is it a guitar hook, is it a lyric line, what are some things that start off a song for you?

Savannah Conley: Most of the time, it all happens at once for me. Melody, chords, lyrics. It’s all a package deal. The way I put it usually is, I write until I’m not frustrated anymore. I shouldn’t say I don’t write when I’m inspired. I write when I’m inspired but I also – growing up, one of the things my mom would say would be like, “You’re being horrible. You need to write.”

If it gets bottled up in there, I become a crazy person. I think mainly it’s just getting; my brain is going a thousand miles a minute all of the time. So I think mainly it’s just getting that out. And I don’t really know how that happens. I couldn’t really tell you. I know I’m sitting on the couch, and that I feel like shit. And then I don’t feel like shit when I’m done.

Tom Mullen: It’s a release.

Savannah Conley: Yeah, it is. I’ve never journaled, I’ve never done a whole lot of self-help stuff. I have now, as an adult. But that’s always been my – I’d shut myself up in my room and I’d write. I would read and then I would write. I’d read, then I would write. And that’s the way I’ve dealt with things, that’s the way I’ve celebrated, cried, joked.

Tom Mullen: Is there a song that you wrote, a previous song, that you finished and said, “I’m getting this, this is taking me to the next level, I’m starting to really get this”?

Savannah Conley: Here’s the deal. I am my worst critic. I’m never fully pleased with anything that I do. I will see the flaws and pick apart the flaws first, before anything else. I might see one or two good things. One line, I’m like, “Meh, that was a pretty good line, that was alright.” But most of the time, all I can see is what I can do better, what I could have done better, so no. Short answer to that; no.

Tom Mullen: As you start this journey with music, putting out this EP, a little bit more promotion, people involved. What guidance were you given from your parents, or friends? Was there anything that stuck out?

Savannah Conley: Well, I think the main… the advice is ever-flowing from my family. Ever-flowing.

Tom Mullen: That’s what I meant. My parents would be like, “Don’t get into the stranger’s van.” That would be their advice for anything. Yours is very specific to music, so it’d probably be a different-

Savannah Conley: Yeah. I couldn’t even tell you.

Tom Mullen: An overload?

Savannah Conley: Yeah. But I do know, my dad was my producer my whole life. And I remember I was probably about 17, 16, going through the rebellion phase, we were in the car and I was like, “You’re not gonna be my producer forever, you know, I’m gonna grow up.” And he looked at me and said, “The only person I would trust to take over would be Dave Cobb.” And my dad produced my last EP, and Dave produced the one I just put out. So I think really, it hasn’t, the advice is ever-flowing from my parents, but really it’s been protection and example that has really helped me. They’ve really, the advice they’ve given has always been very protection-oriented. They know their shit. They’ve been there. My dad, being a guitar player’s the only job he’s ever had, literally.

Tom Mullen: That’s amazing.

Savannah Conley: He never mowed lawns, he never worked in the food industry, I don’t know how he did it. Well, I do know how he did it. He worked his ass off. But I think really what they trained me to be before being a good artist is to be a good person. One of those things is authenticity, never do anything that’s not you. Morals and ethics, keeping that in mind and never letting it waver.

But really, that’s the only thing you need to know in the music business, too. You need to know it in life, but in the music business, if you wouldn’t do that without anyone telling you to do it, don’t fucking do it. Why would you do that? And that’s something at this label, no one’s told me to do anything that has felt untrue or non-authentic. I think that’s the best stuff that they’ve told me as an adult.

Tom Mullen: Then working with Dave Cobb, what did he bring that you needed to hear, or that you needed to feel? You said you were your hardest critic, what did he bring that helped?

Savannah Conley: Validity, I think. He brought a lot of things to the table that were very beneficial to me. But I’ve been a huge fan of his for a long time, and the artists he’s produced. And for him to say, “This is good, this is good and you’re good,” and for me to think all of that past stuff is good too, I’m like, “Oh. If he thinks all these people are great, and he thinks I’m great, maybe I’m good.”

Tom Mullen: So, confidence.

Savannah Conley: Maybe I’m doing this for a reason. Yeah. It was very – as far as the process, he’s just so very creative and he just knows, he just knows what the song needs. I never felt steamrolled in the process or like my voice wasn’t heard. But the way he does it is, he says, “We need this, this, this and this,” and you’re like, “Yeah. We do. You’re totally right. Of course we do.” So really it was just, he brought validity and decisiveness and direction.

Tom Mullen: I like that. Then touring with Brandi Carlile, you did some stuff with Willie and Brent now. What are you getting out of that, and what are things that – what’s sticking? Because those are different experiences, those are different fans, those are different ways to present yourself.

Savannah Conley: Yeah. There have been multiple things that have stuck with me with each artist. But something with Willie that really stuck with me was his loyalty to his crew. He’s had the same merch guys for 25 years. Longer than that. They’ve been with him since ’77. That’s a long time. And loyalty to his band.

I think with Brandi, her fans, the way she is with her fans has really stuck with me. She is absolutely, she is a master at doing this for her fans, and truly authentically putting it out there for the people. She is a voice for her fans and she does it so well. Watching her with her fans before and after the shows, she is so invested in them. And they are so invested in her, and it’s beautiful to watch. With Brent, authenticity across the board has been so cool for me to watch. He changes for nothing. He is himself, and if you don’t like it, get out. But not get out, because he’s the kindest man ever. It’s like, he will forever and always be himself, and he is unshakeable in that. And that’s been really, really cool to watch.

Tom Mullen: That’s great. So, some fun ones.

Savannah Conley: Oh yeah.

Tom Mullen: Was there a recent song you discovered and had to share immediately with your friends?

Savannah Conley: Yes. There’s this song, one of my friends, my guitar player Hank, he showed it to me. I have now, but at the time a couple months or weeks ago, I hadn’t really listened to Noah Gunderson that much. But I knew who he was. But he apparently has this band called Young in the City, and they have this song called “Annie” that just floored me. It floored me. It’s a great song.

Tom Mullen: Cool. Have you heard one of your songs in public?

Savannah Conley: Yes. I have. It was radio streaming.

Tom Mullen: That counts, there is compression.

Savannah Conley: Yeah. It was radio steaming in a coffee shop, they were playing a station in a coffee shop.

Tom Mullen: Did you look around to see if anybody was tapping their foot?

Savannah Conley: No. I called my mom. I did. I called my mom. I called my mom when that happened, I called my mom when the lady knew all the words to my songs at a show not too long ago, like every word.

Tom Mullen: That’s worth a call.

Savannah Conley: Yeah. I was like, damn. She listened. She cared. She gave a shit. It was just crazy, just nuts.

Tom Mullen: People give a shit.

Savannah Conley: The people give a shit! It’s nuts.

Tom Mullen: What is a song no matter how many times you’ve heard it, you will stop anything you’re doing just to hear it again? Not just, so you can hear it again.

Savannah Conley: Oh, that’s so hard. Any Paul Simon song ever.

Tom Mullen: Paul Simon?

Savannah Conley: Yeah. But also – yeah, I’ll just say the Paul Simon catalog in its entirety.

Tom Mullen: That’s a good answer.

Savannah Conley: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: Is there one song or songs that give you goosebumps?

Savannah Conley: I have a whole playlist.

Tom Mullen: Called Goosebumps?

Savannah Conley: Yeah, that I can share with you. Anything with a major 7. My band makes fun of me for that all the time.

Tom Mullen: What do they make fun of you for?

Savannah Conley: Any song with a major 7 in it. I love it, and I don’t know why, but they’re like, “Oh, this song is a major 7, bet Savannah loves it.” But no, that’s a joke.

Tom Mullen: I’m a big fan of 6/8 time, so anytime it was 6/8 they’d be like, “I bet Tom likes it.” Same thing. Wow.

Savannah Conley: I have to use a metronome in 4/4, because I’ll play in 6/8 when I write every damn time.

Tom Mullen: Why is that?

Savannah Conley: I think it’s lilty. For me, it’s lilt-y, one-two-three-four-five-six. Because I never hear it in one-two-three, one-two-three. It’s always one-two-three-four-five-six. And I think it fits my voice better because it’s lilty and my words flow like that. I’ve always thought that it lends itself well to more poetic lyricism. But don’t get me wrong, 4/4, you’re great too. But 6/8 has always been my go-to. I was writing this EP, all the songs, I was in the hugest 6/8 rut. I could not get out. My dad was the one that told me, he was like, “Put a metronome on 4/4, because this has gotta end.”

Tom Mullen: 6/8 has this, it felt so natural to do that. Every time I had a song, the band would be like, “Don’t tell me, 6/8.”

Savannah Conley: Yep. 6/8 and Sad, name of my next band. But really, that’s all I am, is 6/8 and Sad. I’m not 6’8, I’m 5’2, you can’t see me. But yeah, I love 6/8. Love it.

Tom Mullen: Fantastic, I found my soulmate in 6/8. Any dreams in your head that you’d love to live out? Anything that you think about? It’s been great to have the musical upbringing, have music in your house, having that support.

Savannah Conley: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: But is there one in your head that pops in and out that you’d like to live out?

Savannah Conley: Okay. I’m gonna go back to another question that leads into this question.

Tom Mullen: Okay.

Savannah Conley: I think my main chill bumps song would be “Harvest Moon,” Neil Young. And I think that I just recently acquired a Gretsch, and I think my dream would be to play with Neil Young and have a little Gretsch duo.

Tom Mullen: Say it louder, and it’ll happen. Say it again.

Savannah Conley: No, really, I would love to-

Tom Mullen: Say it again.

Savannah Conley: I would love to sing with Neil Young while we’re holding our matching Gretsches because he plays a white falcon too, sometimes. Sometimes he plays a country gentleman. Hell, I don’t care. He could play-

Tom Mullen: So Neil Young.

Savannah Conley: He could play whatever he wants. But yeah, I would love to share the stage with Neil Young, or meet him in general, or maybe just see him in a crowd. I don’t know. Maybe I would vomit if I had to talk to him, so it might be better that way. Who knows? But yeah, Neil Young is a big one for me. That would definitely be a dream scenario for sure.

Tom Mullen: Cool. That’s it.

Savannah Conley: That’s all?

Tom Mullen: Yeah.

Savannah Conley: Wow.

Tom Mullen: Anything else? Anything else you want to say?

Savannah Conley: Dude. I mean.

Tom Mullen: Did you have fun?

Savannah Conley: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: Great.

Savannah Conley: If you let me talk, I’ll talk for days, dude. I can talk for as long as you need me to talk, yeah.

Outro: A big thanks to Savannah Conley for coming on What’d I Say. Visit savannahconley.com for more information. That’s S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H- C-O-N-L-E-Y dot com. Our theme music is by Max Frost. Be sure and catch up on all the Atlantic Records podcasts, at atlanticpodcasts.com. Thank you for listening.