By Brad Lopez
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"That was a real boom," she effuses, snapping her fingers. "I've made a lot of compromises in my life, but when I saw Neubauten, there was totally no compromise. I don't remember exactly what their setup was on stage, but there may have been drills and sledgehammers involved. It was just ridiculously loud, crazy. That was when I realized I had to stop what I was doing and go to Berlin."
Savage had done some audio engineering in England, so she sent a resumé to the world-famous Hansa Studios in Berlin. To her surprise, they hired her, so she packed up immediately and left for Germany. Her first day on the job was, tragically, Neubauten's last day there finishing up a recording. But she didn't have to wait long for more luminaries of the underground to walk through the door and forever alter her life.
"Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds booked the studio, and I got assigned to them," she says of working on 1990's The Good Son. "I was overjoyed, even though I wound up not getting credited on that record. They were just there for a week doing basic tracks. One morning, I remember, Nick walked in, and I was sitting there with a guitar working on a song. And he said, 'Oh, you've got a song. Sing me a song.' And I was like, 'No, I don't think so,' and got up and started working. I just could not sing for Nick Cave.
"Later," she continues, "Nick was going to come back to the studio to do some piano overdubs, and he asked if I would engineer that. But I got sick, and I couldn't do it. It was the night the [Berlin] Wall came down. They had to take me in an ambulance to the hospital, and I heard it on the radio. I thought I was dying; for a couple of days, I was pretty sure that was going to be it. I had a strep infection, plus I was smoking and drinking and doing a lot of speed at the time. I was definitely pushing it, the way I was living."
Soon after recovering, Savage was almost laid up again -- by shock. One day at the studio, the Edge and Adam Clayton of U2 walked in, scouting places to record their epochal album Achtung Baby. But Savage, a longtime U2 fan, wasn't looking for an autograph: She wound up working on Achtung Baby for six months, scoring an assistant-engineer credit on the disc.
"I went to see U2 in Munich after Achtung Baby came out, and Bono asked about my music," she recalls. "He said, 'You know, I think it would be interesting if you went into the studio with Mick Harvey.' It's like he knew that was my dream. And he said he'd pay for it."
Savage called up the Bad Seeds' Harvey, who enthusiastically agreed to record with her, even roping bandmate Hugo Race into the project. The result comprises the first four songs on Matter of Time. The Bad Seeds influence is pervasive; "Whiskey Well" is a folklore-like parable about spirits, both liquid and phantasmal, and the title track is a loping, tribal threnody with swooning chord changes and Savage's husky, spoken-sung delivery.
Emboldened, Savage began trying to secure a record deal with the Bad Seeds demo but recieved nothing more than half-baked offers and flat-out rejections. "It was a very frustrating, awful time," she says.
To make matters worse, she started undergoing a musical identity crisis. "By this time I had become alt-country," she explains. "Only we were just calling it 'country.' Much to my embarrassment, I had not heard Hank Williams until I lived in Berlin. I remember being in the pub, and this music came on. I was like, "Who's this?' And the bartender said, 'Zis is Hank Villiams. You don't know Hank Villiams?' That's the idiot in me; I had to go to Germany to hear Hank Williams. I was hit by this recognition, this homesickness for America, for the Deep South."
After recording songs with Alex Hacke of Einstürzende Neubauten for a German documentary, it was time for another relocation -- to Austin, Texas. But as Savage notes, her transition into American alternative culture wasn't a smooth one: "Berlin was like a little village full of people who wore black, just like me. Germany is such a heavy place; everyone grows up in the shadow of World War II. There are a lot of heavy battles taking place inside of people; there are ghosts everywhere. I loved that. I've been fighting demons for as long as I can remember, and everyone's fighting demons there.
"And then I went to Austin," she adds, rolling her eyes, "where people were having demons tattooed on their faces."
Fed up with Texas, Savage returned to Denver in 2001. But her eight years back in the States have not been fruitless ones. In that time, she gave up drinking and became born again, an epiphany that she describes as "a total head trip; no one was expecting that less than me." Then an acquaintance with famed producer and recording artist Daniel Lanois led to sessions at his studio in Los Angeles, which resulted in four songs on Matter of Time. But one of these -- "Darlin'," a hushed, languid folk tune that sounds like the Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning" as read by Gillian Welch -- ended up being released years before Savage's new disc.