Savannah Conley isn’t used to the spotlight.
“I'm a very other-centric person,” the 26-year-old Nashville singer-songwriter tells NYLON over Zoom. “I love collaboration, I love working together on something. I'm always going to someone else's idea more than I like my own.”
But that’s not the case on her debut album, Playing the Part of You is Me, an astonishing set of open-hearted songs that she describes as “cracking me open, and you can just dig around and see what I’m all about.” Across its 11 tracks, her feelings swarm like spilled milk: clinging desperation (“I wanna twist myself to turn into someone who deserves you”); overwhelming affection (“Surely, I'm dying, but as it seems I love you”); ambivalent lust (“I’m using you but you’re using me, too”). A few weeks before its release, Conley is, understandably, feeling ecstatic and terrified. “I definitely want to throw up a little bit thinking about it,” she says. “But at the same time, there's not anything that I would change.”
It’s a good thing for all of us, considering the adventurous, crashing soundscapes — which kick these songs to the next level — we’d be missing out on. Working with producer Jeremy Lutito, the record runs through an electrifying array of genre, at one turn craggy indie rock, at another, breezy, wistful folk pop. Early standout “Muscle Memory” even includes a foggy (and tasteful) interpolation of Drake’s “Passionfruit.”
Prior to this album, which she is releasing independently, Conley’s output skewed soft Americana, a lane her previous label tried to keep her inside. But her latest effort reveals her to be a more than capable songwriter with a cohesive enough vision to move beyond labels; it’s one of the strongest debuts of the year.
Below, read our conversation with Conley as she talks about the meaning behind the album’s title, the artists that have influenced her sound, and why her songs always build up to a cathartic climax. Plus, find the exclusive video premiere of her song “Contortionist.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Sonically, this album is so different from what you put out before. How has your sound evolved from what you were making previously?
To tell you the truth, I don't really think about it a whole lot. I've always been very, "Whatever serves the song the best," and it's a conglomeration of a lot of things. It's just a hodgepodge of everything that I listened to growing up, and now, and things that are just innate in me, too, from my family or my environment. I think this record is the most accurate representation of me there has been. It's the most involved I've ever been. I was extremely hands-on with this record, and everything that you hear is me. Every lyric is me, besides two lines. That's part of the nerve-wracking part, is that it is so heavily me, which is scary, and not something I am comfortable with.
The title is very unique. Can you explain the meaning behind Playing the Part of You is Me?
I wanted it to be, you read it that way, or a lot of people have read it, Playing the Part of Me is You, which also works. Every experience that you've ever had, you are not the only person to have it. There's some aspect of it that someone can relate to. I feel very solitary sometimes writing music, [but] the more I think about it, the more I’m like, “Actually, there's got to be somebody that relates to it, and surely someone will glean something, or feel understood by this.” I think the title is just encompassing my whole reason for putting out music in the first place: it is a coping mechanism, and I could easily keep it just for myself but at the end of the day, what does that do for anybody unless you put it out, and allow it to maybe connect with someone?
You’ve suggested that the album is very vulnerable. What song did you feel the most exposed writing?
“Past life,” probably. “Past Life” and “Don't Make Me Reach” were probably the most raw emotionally when I was writing them. We did this listening of the record, and my producer's manager, when “Past Life” came up, was like, “We don't even know each other, but I feel like I know you so well now.” I was like, “Oh, awesome.” I'm a very private person, and these songs are very personal and very real to me, and that's the right way to me. The fallout is, you can understand who I am as a person pretty easily in this record.
You could have made this record to be more obscuring, but what made you feel that you needed to put it all out there?
I think I just got older, and gave less f*cks and more f*cks at the same time. I was just in a place writing these songs where I wasn't trying to be clever. There were things that I was needing to deal with. I was using writing for catharsis more than I had in a long time, and so it was a lot of that, of just really outlining situations that were currently happening in my life that I needed to work through. When the songs were done, when they were all in a pile together, I was like, “Oh, so this is all of me.”
Earlier you said this record fully encompasses you, reflecting what you like and your tastes. What were you listening to when you were making the album? What do you feel really screams you?
I grew up listening to every type of music there is. I feel like, in the music that I had made in the past, we skewed one direction or another, and this doesn't skew any direction. It pulls on all of the things that make me up artistically. I grew up listening to a lot of ‘70s rock, Fleetwood Mac and obviously, ‘70s Americana, Emmylou Harris and Dolly [Parton]. When I was 11 or so, I started listening to the early ‘00s New York rock scene: The Strokes, Kings of Leon, and Regina Spektor, Feist, and that really blew the world up for me. That was music that felt like it was for me, it didn't feel like anybody else's.
You hear a lot of Regina Spektor, you hear a lot of early ‘00s rock stuff, but you also hear some Dolly in my voice, because that will always be the case. You also hear Coldplay melodies, because that's what formed me melodically as a kid. The song that has the “Passion Fruit” ripoff was because the situation that it's about, I walked into a club and “Passion Fruit” was playing, so I was like, “Yeah, let's rip ‘Passion Fruit.’” I think if you own it, and if you really trust that those influences will come out as you and not as a ripoff, then you can do whatever the f*ck you want.
A lot of your songs build up to a really big release. Was that something you intentionally wanted to give space to on your record? Earlier, you talked about these songs serving a catharsis for you.
I think I've always written like that. A lot of songs will be verse, big chorus, small verse, big chorus, and it's very A, B, A, B. I've always written like this, where it starts slow and then it builds up. I've thought about that a lot, of why I gravitate toward that, and I think it's because emotionally, I work like that. I'm not really an explosive person. I take a lot, that's just how I am. And then it does, at some point, explode.