The voice snakes in around the cracks of the song like a curl of smoke, a vapor stinking of lust and poison. "I threw everything away/That you'd ever given to me/All the things I saved are gone/The dead flower from the time/That my little baby died," Bambi Lee Savage groans in a throaty, shaded whisper in her song "Dead and Gone." Clots of discordant piano clog veins of pounding feedback, and the bass line throbs like a tick in the temple. "I only wish that I/Could clean myself inside/I wish I'd never let you in/But I won't let you again/Because you're dead and gone/Dead and gone from me."
"Life is a love-hate type of deal," says Savage with a laugh. "Dead and Gone" is just one of many paeans to the dichotomy of passion and pain that appear on her debut full-length. Fittingly dubbed Matter of Time, the disc was made in bits and pieces over the past eleven years, in seven studios across two continents. You wouldn't think an album of such craft and ardor would have been so difficult to assemble -- especially since it was made under the patronage of Bono and Daniel Lanois and features musicians such as Mick Harvey and Hugo Race of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. And yet, Savage's pilgrimage to fulfillment has been a long and tortuous one, a trek that began in Denver's punk- rock scene of the 1980s.
"The first real band I was in was Pagan Cowboys. That was a really fun, cool time," she says, sipping a non-alcoholic beer as Merle Haggard's "The Bottle Let Me Down" blares out of a jukebox. It's Saturday afternoon at a downtown bar, and a boisterous crowd has started to pour in. Despite her self-deprecating claim that she's "neurotic and paranoid," Savage seems pretty relaxed talking into a tape recorder with a stranger in a public place. With nondescript dark-brown hair and a trim-fitting black coat, she looks a far cry from someone who once rocked in a shit-kicking punk band.
When presented with the assumption that her younger self went more for the dour, British, post-punk chic -- long coats and black clothes, in the style of Joy Division -- she grins warmly. "You got me pegged! I haven't really changed much since then."
Savage played with Pagan Cowboys -- a Denver group inspired heavily by the dark, contorted tones of Nick Cave's the Birthday Party -- in 1984 and 1985. Along with bands such as Acid Ranch and Brother Rat, Pagan Cowboys gigged in warehouses under the since-demolished 15th Street viaduct, as well as venues like the defunct Bamboo Gardens on East Colfax.
"I was the dork," she comments. "I was kind of an outsider. With the Cowboys, I knew I was the only one who really wanted to go for it as a musician. So I left and moved to London at the end of 1985. I always knew I was going to leave Denver."
In fact, Savage had picked England as her spiritual homeland when she was still a girl. "I would get this big atlas of the world out that we had at home," she reminisces. "I would open it up to page 73, Great Britain and Ireland. I would just stare at it all summer long."
Even at a young age, though, Savage knew the road. Born Shannon Strong in Pensacola, Florida, she spent a lot of her adolescence traveling the country -- particularly the South. "My mom is from Tennessee and Alabama. That Southern influence really stuck with me," she says. "I didn't notice it until I left America; it's kind of scary how many things are in you that you're not aware of."
Savage's family eventually planted roots in Colorado after her father died in a plane accident while working as a stunt pilot in Hawaii on the set of the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! But her childhood vision of Britain never left her, and at the age of 22, she found herself in London, with only dreams of rock stardom to sustain her.
"I was kind of disappointed by London, actually," she confesses. "It's a very big, hard, expensive city. Everybody that I knew was on the dole. The thing is, though, people get real creative when they're broke. I can still remember some of the little adventures that we'd go on, breaking into things and climbing around in abandoned old buildings. The last place I lived in London was a squat. The cops busted the door down a couple days after I left there, so I got out just in time."
Besides the economic depression, Savage found that England was suffering from a musical one: "They say it was happening in the '80s in England, but I must have missed the tail end of it. It was a pop-music place by the time I arrived. Punk had already had its huge zenith."
After a few false starts in various outfits, Savage joined a group called HorseLand, with whom she released an EP in 1987. But the allure of Britain finally fell away when she witnessed a performance by Germany's legendary Einstürzende Neubauten at London's Kilburn National Ballroom.
"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."
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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.
"I got a call from Dan about two months after I finished those recordings, saying he was working on this underground, low-budget movie and that he and the director wanted to put my song 'Darlin'' in it," she says. That "underground, low-budget" project became the Oscar-winning 1996 smash Sling Blade. As great a boon as that was, though, Savage was unable to parlay it into a contract with Island Records, the label that released the Sling Blade soundtrack. But with the self-release of Matter of Time, Savage hopes to vindicate herself -- or at least purge the demons of disappointment and doubt that have often eaten at the heart of her career.
"I had been through so much and didn't even have a CD to show for it," she says. "I had to get it done; then I could resume my life. I'd much rather be quietly fighting my battle, occasionally getting something out that somebody might hear and say, 'Oh, yeah, I can relate to that.' It's like fingernails down a blackboard to me if something sounds forced. I'm so sensitive to that in other stuff that that's the standard I hold up for myself. For the same reason, it's hard for me to push my own music. You have to be cutthroat; I'd rather be true to myself. That's so cliched, isn't it? But I want to be able to sleep at night."
Being true to oneself isn't just a bromide for Bambi Lee Savage; it trickles all the way down to her set list on stage. "'Dead and Gone' is not a song I would relish singing live," she says of the wine-soaked, suicidal knell that was born of her alliance with the Bad Seeds. "I haven't even been on a date in eight years, let alone a bad relationship, so I don't have those kinds of experiences anymore. But I do remember what it was like, and I don't really want to go back there."