Anna B Savage keeps writing about birds, but she’s not sure why. Her debut album, A Common Turn, released in January, is full of them: swallows, corncrakes, doves, and in one punny instance, a song about terns.
“I’m still trying to work this one out,” she says. “When I was writing the album, and I was really struggling with it — like pulling teeth — I had a dream where a version of me stood in front of me and was like, ‘You’ve got half an album, and there are too many birds in it.’” Instead of dialing the birds back, she decided to just keep adding more.
The inspiration may be unexpected, but Savage, 30, is learning to go with the flow. “My area of expertise is being completely uncertain about everything,” she says with a laugh. After releasing a buzzed-about EP in 2015, and touring with the likes of Jenny Hval and Father John Misty, the British singer-songwriter went off the grid for a few years, overwhelmed by the attention she was receiving and bent on finding herself in the midst of a painful breakup.
“I felt like I just completely lost who I was,” Savage recalls. “I forgot how to dance, I lost my ability to write songs. And I was kind of beating myself up about it, because I was like, ‘I’ve got this opportunity.’”
In hindsight, she says, the break was beneficial for more than just her mental health. Through therapy and introspection, she eventually found her way back to making music, and rediscovered her strengths. In addition to her distinctive, brooding alto voice, Savage has a way of meticulously working through life’s conundrums over the course of a song – even if she doesn’t always arrive at a solution, or a happy ending.
On A Common Turn, no song exemplifies this more than “Dead Pursuits,” which she released as a single alongside a disturbing, picture book-esque music video that recalls The Babadook. “I don’t remember how to dance/The beats change,” Savage sings gravely. “I don’t remember how to be me/I’m not the same.”
She uses her observant prowess in lighter moments, too. Take “Chelsea Hotel #3”: Where the Leonard Cohen song it riffs on was a tender memory of oral sex, Savage instead recalls a partner who couldn’t make her orgasm, peppering the awkward moment with dark humor. As her mind wanders to her own pleasures — and the music turns, well, climactic — she fantasizes about Y Tu Mama Tambien and Tim Curry in lingerie.
“I like putting in stuff that’s very true to life for me, which is having these big, impactful moments next to really quite funny things that make you laugh,” Savage says. “I like having that levity next to the depth. It’s just a human thing.”
Outside of her music, Savage took life-imitating-art to a whole new level with Baby Grand, a short film that she worked on simultaneously with the album (one of the Common Turn tracks is also called “Baby Grand”) and that deals with much of the same narrative inspiration — namely, her break-up with filmmaker Jem Talbot, who directed and starred in Baby Grand alongside her.
“Baby Grand (the film) and A Common Turn (album) are companion pieces: woven together in subject, inspiration and time,” Savage told The Line of Best Fit when she released the music video for the song “Baby Grand.” “Jem was, for want of a better word, a muse for A Common Turn. Expressing ourselves through our different mediums (mine: music, his: film) became a way for our disciplines to talk, perhaps in place of us.”
It’s a radical idea for “a shifting dialogue” between two artists, as Talbot put it, especially when you consider the fact that he and Savage hadn’t spoken in seven years before she reached out to collaborate. Rather than capture the (nonexistent) objective truth of the breakup, Savage says the focus for both projects was more on conveying “as close to the emotional feeling as we could get.”
“There’s instances in songs when I talk about moments that you then see in the film,” she says. “And vice versa – there’s moments in the film where I’m talking about things that were happening while I was writing, and while music was being heard. It’s been amazing to have those two different outputs.”