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Artist Spotlight: Savannah Conley

Grant Walters Grant Walters Artist Spotlight: Savannah Conley
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The rising Nashville singer-songwriter talked about her latest EP "Twenty-Twenty" and growing up in the heart of country music territory during her visit to Columbus earlier this month

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By the time I met Savannah Conley’s tour manager at the door to interview her backstage at Newport Music Hall a few weeks ago, the line for the sold-out show, which was headlined by beloved local indie-folk duo, Caamp, stretched well down the block along High Street.

It’s not often I get to interview artists face-to-face when they’re in town, so I jumped at the chance. 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 22 years old, Conley’s musical reputation has already landed her guest spots on tours with industry heavyweights Willie Nelson, Brandi Carlile, 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 four-time Grammy award winner 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-an-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.

Unlike most of Music City’s working artists, Conley was born and raised in the industry epicenter, receiving an invaluable education from her parents who made a living from it.

“My dad was a guitar player my whole life – he still is – and my mom was a background singer,” she explains. “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,” she insists. “If you fail, it doesn’t actually mean you’re dead in the water, you know?”

When Conley decided to pursue a music career herself as a teenager, the two veterans opted to help her navigate the business rather than dissuade her from it.

“I think, really, they just wanted to protect me from anything that tried to change who I was — what was, at my core, me,” she says. “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.”

Her record deal with Elektra/Low Country means Conley’s creative efforts have substantial commercial obligations. Even so, her unique voice and point-of-view are values on which she won’t compromise.

“My words are really what matter most to me,” she emphasizes. “The other stuff is important to me, but my words are the only thing I can absolutely, 100 percent control at all times. It’s coming out of my mouth, and it’s happening solely in my control.”

In the studio, Dave Cobb ensured Twenty-Twenty fulfilled that vision.

“He wants my voice – my singing voice – to be the most prominent thing on all my records,” Conley says. “He built the tracks like that and he mixed them like that. He said ‘I want people to know what she’s saying. I want them to not have an option to not.’”

Conley and Cobb have since continued recording, chipping away at nearly two-dozen songs that will, most likely, result in a full-length album late next year after they first see daylight as singles. But despite their prolific output, Conley is hesitant as she thinks about what a proper album release means for her artistically.

“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,” she says. “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. 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,” she confides. “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.”

As we talked and shifted from talking about the studio to the tour she was currently on with Caamp, it was evident that Conley’s first love was performing for an audience.

“Touring’s my favorite part,” she affirms.

“It’s when it feels…I don’t want to say it’s when it feels worth it, but it feels like, ‘Aahh! This is it,” she gushes. “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.”

Although a headlining tour is inevitable as her career blossoms, Conley is perfectly content in building a following while she’s supporting other artists for the time being.

“I love…honestly, I love being an opening act!” she exclaims. “Truly, I do. I love touring with bands that…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 it – 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,” she reflects. “As magical as traveling to a new place every day and barely getting sleep can be. “

Savannah Conley‘s latest EP, ‘Twenty-Twenty’ can be streamed and purchased via her official website.

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