“Anybody with any sense would have told me to f**k off” - Jack Savoretti on battling through lockdown to achieve his dream of Europiana...
The making and campaign for Singing To Strangers, Jack Savoretti's sixth full-length effort, saw the singer tick an awful lot off his bucket list.
For the actual recording of the album itself, Savoretti was able to head to Rome to work in the studio of legendary composer Ennio Morricone, while one of the songs on the record featured lyrics written by one Bob Dylan.
The album, which was a soulful collection of songs that paid tribute to Savoretti's Italian heritage, was a smash. It gave Savoretti his first UK Number One LP and launched an epic two-year tour which culminated in a sold-out Wembley Arena.
Coming down from such a massive high was always going to be a challenge, but, fortunately, or unfortunately, the pandemic did it for him. And the question of whether to take a long break from music or jump back into writing was answered by Covid-19.
Like so many of us during the course of this terrible ordeal, the singer was stuck at home with time on his hands and wishing he could be far away. It's a feeling he lent into, with a new album inspired by a desire for pure escapism.
Europiana is an album that blends disco, funk and soul with Savoretti's particular take on songwriting, looking for a world all of its own.
Written in his Oxfordshire home, the album was recorded at the end of 2020 at Abbey Road Studios with Savoretti's longtime touring band and long-time collaborator Cam Blackwood, whose credits include George Ezra, London Grammar and Florence & The Machine, at the controls.
There's one guest star, but one who basically invented the genres that so inspired Savoretti, disco legend, Nile Rodgers.
As the album hit hmv stores, we spoke to Savoretti and he explained why an album that was conceived for a joyful summer was very nearly killed by a brutal winter...
This album was written during the first lockdown when we were all stuck at home. Were you planning to make a record or did you get the time because you couldn’t do anything else?
“Just before lockdown, we’d finished this whole two-year touring schedule for Singing To Strangers. Weirdly, what we all ended up being forced to do was exactly what I was planning to do. It wasn’t exactly a sabbatical, but I wanted to disappear. We’d gone hard for just under two years on that album, but it felt like we’d been going non-stop for 15 years. I needed a breather.”
“I wanted to have some time and to reassess. It’s important to constantly ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. I didn’t want to make another album like Singing To Strangers just because it did well. I needed something to strike, and, holy crap, did it strike! The whole world turned upside down!”
This is a very different record from Singing To Strangers. Was that by accident or by design?
“A little bit of both. After Singing To Strangers, the obvious thing to do was Singing To Strangers Part Two, to carry on down that path. But I didn’t want to do that. I was scared of that and I really didn’t know what I was going to write about. Lockdown was a big part of that. I found myself picking up a guitar or sitting at the piano, and like most writers I guess, writing about what I was feeling, which was anxiety, loneliness, fear, what’s happening to the world. And very quickly I realised that I didn’t want to play that stuff and I didn’t want to be singing about it and especially thought that people really wouldn’t want to hear it from me.”
How did you break the cycle?
“In the first lockdown we had a routine, one night a week, we’d make it really fabulous. We’d get dressed up and have a party and enjoy ourselves. I was playing all this music and getting really nostalgic because I was playing my kids the stuff I heard at their age, so what my parents were playing on summer holidays. I call it Europiana. It happened in the early 1970s when all this American soul, funk and disco came over and collided with European songwriting. Melodic, crooner-esque vocals with real storytelling. I wanted to bottle that feeling. That feeling of summer love, something you know won’t last forever, but you hope can get it again next year. I wanted to try and get that down.”
How easy was it to do that?
“Initially, it was really easy. The writing was great. Once I could work, I’d have writers come to my house in the countryside and we had this amazing weather all during the first lockdown. We were living in Europiana, this little fantasy world, the summer was so good you could have been in Italy or the South of France. Then, once we had the songs together, we were lucky enough to get 10 days in Abbey Road and make the record."
How was that?
"That was just before we went back in lockdown. It was incredibly emotional. I hadn’t seen some of my band for almost a year, which is nuts because we’ve lived in each other’s pockets for 10 years. I felt like a caged animal going back into the wild. Everyone’s energy was insane, the work ethic was insane and you can hear that in the playing. It’s all done live, it feels brilliant. Then what came next was so difficult.”
What was that?
“We left Abbey Road. We knew we’d captured everything. The sound was there, my band had smashed it, me and Cam Blackwood, my producer, were so happy, everybody had done so well. We both thought it was one of the greatest experiences of our lives, there were tears on the last day, it was so intense and we felt so lucky. Then lockdown hit. All the unity and the momentum we’d built was just taken from us. And neither I nor Cam do well in those scenarios. We’re not built for it. We’re both very codependent people. We need love, we need people to be tactile. We’re not perfectionists, we both exist best in the moment. We need other people around us to rein us in. That was all taken from us and it pushed us to the edge.”
How did you get back from there?
“By the end, I was really struggling. But, just as it was falling apart, we opened up again, I went to Cam’s studio, he came here and we got the record done. It was a close call. I was giving serious consideration to ditching the whole thing. I was desperate to avoid this album being a pastiche. I wanted it to be genuine and the only way to make it feel genuine was to make it in that way, full-heartedly. If we’d spent days and days firing references to each other, it would have turned into a pastiche. It only worked when we were a band in a room, vibing off each other. We just pulled it round before it crumbled.”
It’s an achievement to have carried this concept through all that time. It must have felt a bit like filming a Christmas special in March at times, trying to carry this happy concept through some utter misery…
“We almost crashed. The album was written in the summer. It’s a full-on summer album. We were living it too. We were drinking and dancing until the early hours of the morning in t-shirts! We were living out the album. There’s a song called ‘Dancing In The Living Room’ and guess what? That’s what we were doing."
"We were supposed to make this album in France. I’d wanted to go to Provence and rent this beautiful chateau and live it up, become the characters on the album. That was taken from us and even when we got to Abbey Road, I managed to keep that vibe going. But in January, in lockdown, I was struggling to keep motivated. Bad news after bad news. I didn’t think the album was going to survive any more pushback. And, as soon as we could, we jumped back in the room and we saved the album.”
How was Abbey Road? You didn’t have long there, but did you have time to take it in? A lot of iconic moments have happened in that room…
"I got emotional. I’m not going to lie. I’ve got a video of me and Cam losing it when we did the string sections. Seeing Mrs Mills’ piano, this upright piano which belonged to this Cockney pub singer who was huge before rock and roll, which is on ‘Lady Madonna’ and Dark Side Of The Moon, that was incredible. And now that piano is all over my album."
It must have been inspiring...
"Working in environments like that are good for me. My band are so far ahead of me musically. I’m the one who puts it all together, but they’re the real musicians. We did Singing To Strangers in Ennio Morricone’s studio in Rome and it democratised us very quickly. Everyone flies down because none of you can compete with the room you’re in. We’re all in awe of the space and it gave us a mutual respect for one another. Nobody was playing at home, we were all guests, and it gave us a work ethic. We’d all grown up idolising the music that had come out of this room and I didn’t need to tell my band to bring their A-game. Everybody was 12 again.”
You and Cam Blackwood have worked together for a long time now, what does he give you as a producer?
“What doesn’t he give me? He’s so generous with his energy. Cam is more technical than me, but neither of us has a technical mindset. We’re both all about capturing a vibe and the energy you feel in a room when you’re onto a good thing. The fantastic thing about Cam is you’re never in doubt as to when you’ve got the right take. You’ll do three runs through the song and he’ll sit there nodding and then on the fourth, he’ll suddenly look up and jump on the table. I love it. He can’t pretend, no matter how bad you’re feeling. I need that. I need somebody to have a reaction. I need to feel like I’ve got to push myself.”
“The first time we worked together, I remember stepping out of the vocal booth after a take and asking “Is that too much?”. And he turned and said, “That’s not enough”. At that time, for me, too much was middle of the road, I was singing with the handbrake on. You have to push it, you can crash and burn, but you need to go there. We’ve done two albums together now, one when I asked him to go to Rome to work in Ennio Morricone’s studio and make an Italian album where I’m singing in English. And for this one, I wanted to distil European pop into a new genre. Anybody with any sense would have told me to f**k off. But he straight away said “Let’s do it”.”
You’ve got a disco icon on the album in the shape of Nile Rodgers, how did that come about?
“It’s nuts. I came on the radio the other day and I flipped out. I’ve been trying to explain to my kids who Nile Rodgers is and every conversation ends with “You just don’t understand!”. It came about through Mark Ralph, with who I wrote ‘Who’s Hurting Who?’. Mark and I go way back. He’s a fantastic producer and he totally got Europiana. I’d become a bit obsessive about the album and I needed people to come with me. Europiana isn’t a genre, it’s not a sound, it’s aspirational. In the same way that Americana is aspirational, it’s planes, freedom and the Marlboro man. Europeans don’t have pick-up trucks and cowboys and indians, we think about the Mediterranean crashing against the rocks and a summer’s evening in a beautiful garden. That’s what I wanted to capture.”
“Musically, there’s a huge influence from America. It’s the sound of Philadelphia and New York, it’s the sound of this African-American, gay underground club scene with soul and funk turning into disco. Suddenly it crossed the ocean and became hugely successful. Chic were a huge part of that.”
“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve said during songwriting, “Can we put some Nile Rodgers guitar here?”. I’ve attempted to butcher it myself and it was horrible. Mark just said, “We could ask Nile?”. I later found out Mark had worked with him, he’d done some remastering with Chic a few years ago, but I figured when we sent the track off that we wouldn’t hear anything. Two days later Nile wrote the sweetest response and wanted to meet. I explained Europiana to him and he just got it. He understood how the environment affects the music, how hearing his songs in Studio 54, waiting in the queue, sounded completely different to hearing it a year later in the South of France. He gave me real confidence in the project too.”
How was he to work with? He always seems to be busy with something, the guy’s a machine…
“He’s also crazy about his job. I ask myself, all the time, what’s the point of this job? Why am I playing this game? Then you have a five-second chat with Nile and you go “That’s why!”. He’s in his early 70’s. He doesn’t need to do anything. He’s more than okay financially and his legacy is incredible. But he wants to go to work every day. He had a life-changing experience with his health and that changed everything for him, work keeps him alive and he is alive in every sense of the word.”
“He barely takes a day off, but he loves it. He’s never tired. People in this business burn out all the time, but Nile is like a kid. Cam is very similar, he doesn’t have Nile’s years in the business on his side, but it’s the same “F**k it, let’s do it” attitude. They’re perfectly happy to look back at something that didn’t work and be okay with that. I want people like that on my team.”
How’s your autumn and winter looking in terms of taking the record out live?
“We’re taking in one day at a time. One day I’m presenting with a full schedule, the next day 10 of the things we’ve booked can’t happen. I feel like we’ve been catapulted into the future. I spent yesterday doing radio interviews. I did 10, one was in Germany, another in Holland, another in Brazil, and previously that would have been three weeks away from home. There are some pros to this thing. We’re trying to be creative in how we promote this record. There will be events this summer, a few festivals and then the tour is in spring 2022.”
Europiana feels like quite a self-contained project, its own thing in your back catalogue, does that lend itself to structuring your set a bit differently?
“The last tour we did for Singing To Strangers, I really wanted to make it an experience, more than just singing some songs. On that tour, we had five or six wedding proposals. I blew my mind, every time it happened. Two of them I saw happen in the front row and I had to stop the show and celebrate and it was amazing, there was so much love in the room. I was able to meet all the couples after the show and I’d always ask the guys why they’d chosen to do it at my show."
"Three of them said it was because it was her favourite song, the others said the same thing, one wanted to take her to Rome, the other wanted to go to Paris, couldn’t afford a ticket so they came to the show. From then on, that’s been my mindset, if you can’t go to Paris or Rome, come to my show, we’ll take you on a night out and we’ll take you away. Sonically, I think there’s a nice groove, some of the songs from the last records will fit nicely. But by the time we get back, it’ll have been almost two years since we did a show. That’s the longest I’ve gone since I started this. There’ll be some rust to get rid of…”
How have you kept up with your band and your team? A lot of bands have found it profoundly weird having spent years living in each other’s pockets for there suddenly to be so much separation…
“Oddly, we’ve sort of gotten closer than ever. Though we’ve spent years living together on the road, it’s work. We work, we party, we sleep, we don’t really just hang. We did weekly Zoom chats, having a drink with the band and the crew. I’ve loved it. It really affirmed the bond we had and you learn not to take it for granted.”