In this artist interview, site founder Tim Bauer and staff writer Brad Miller sit down with Savanna of Chicago-based band Burr Oak. Continue reading to find out about Savanna’s influences, Burr Oak’s debut album, and experiences playing music in Chicago.
Tim: How long have you been performing as Burr Oak?
Savanna: I started the project officially in April of 2019. The first recordings that we did were at my house in mid April of last year. So yeah, it’s been almost two years now since the beginning. It feels like longer.. time is a conundrum with the pandemic and everything.
Tim: Where was your first show that you played?
Savanna: The first show we played as Burr Oak was at a place called the Hungry Brain in Chicago, on April 19th, 2019. It’s funny that I remember the exact date off the top of my head, but yeah, it was definitely April 19th because I had started doing recording for the first two singles the weekend before that. It was an odd time when I first started the project because I didn’t even have a band together or anything. I had some friends who played in other projects that were also great studio musicians come in and play on the recordings with me. Then right around that time I met my drummer and one of my best friends now, Tony Mest at Schubas (when I was an intern there) and he joined the group shortly after.
Tim: Awesome! What are some of your favorite Chicago acts to play shows with?
Savanna: I feel like I haven’t played a show in forever.. wow. When we were gigging heavily in the first few months of being a band, we played with a local group called Fauvely, who I really like. Sophie Brochu is the lead singer and I think she formed the project as well. There’s another band called Sick Day who I really love too, we played with them for our single release show back in July 2019 at Schubas.
Brad: When I listened to your body of work, I was struck by the latest single “Trying”. I think it’s a very apt song for this moment. What was your process for creating that song?
Savanna: I’m gearing up for my debut album release, which has been a long time coming. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for, for like 10 years now…I was going through kind of a weird/ rough time when I decided to put that song out, it was kind of perfect. It was in the midst of the pandemic and I originally was going to call it “drop dead” because that’s the hook: “until I drop dead”. But then I was rethinking it when we were in the process of mixing it.
It was a very last minute decision when I changed it to “Trying”. It’s an emotional and serious kind of song about substance abuse, addiction and going through a relationship that ends in a breakup. Though it touches on a lot of serious subjects that may be negative, I wanted it to be ultimately this positive message. Even though the song is very sad in a way, it’s saying: “even though things are hard, maybe I can’t get out of bed one day because I’m so depressed or I’m feeling like I can’t keep trucking along and just want to give up, I’m going to keep pushing. Deep down I don’t want to give up and I’m going to keep trying until I drop dead.”
So that’s the message; Don’t give up. Even if whatever you’re going through seems the bleakest and there’s no hope in sight, keep trying. It doesn’t have to be what I went through or even close to it, it could be your own situation. Just keep trying. We all have hard days and I guess with the pandemic and everything, it all comes full circle. We’re all in this together, we’re all going through this. We may have lost a job or may have lost a family member, but we’re still going to keep trying because that’s what you do. You don’t give up.
Brad: Being an artist at this time, I imagine it’s hard to write and not have anything reflect on what’s going on. Is this one of the themes of your upcoming album?
Savanna: Yeah, that’s definitely a theme. The album’s going to be called “Late Bloomer.” Some of the songs I wrote while we were in quarantine and I was feeling very creative. Then there are songs on the album that I wrote like five years ago. So it’s a debut of all these songs, a culmination of songs that I’ve put together over the years.
Brad: So you’ve been regularly making music since the start of the pandemic?
Savanna: It’s been up and down for me. I went through a really creative month in the beginning where I was writing a lot and now I finally feel like I’m getting back to it again. There was a while where I was not writing at all or in the right headspace to think about music. So it comes in waves for me. I wrote the song “The Crowd”, which is going to be on the album, in the beginning of the pandemic. I put out a demo version that I did with Tony’s drum machine during quarantine when I was bored. I was like, “I’m just going to go down to the basement and record this track.” I spent two days making that demo. Then it ended up going onto the album in a completely different way.
Like I said, it’s been up and down for me, but I’ve been working. I’ve been trying to kick myself if I start to get lazy. Some days I’ll be like: “just sit down and just try to write something.”
It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. Even if it’s a poem, it doesn’t even have to be a song. Sometimes it’s good to push yourself instead of waiting around like “Oh, I just want the inspiration to hit me.” Sometimes it’s not there. So you just have to kick yourself to do the work and create something.
Brad: I think that’s an interesting philosophy. It’s hard for me to do personally, but I do see value in it. As you mentioned, this upcoming release is sort of a combination record. How do you string together the older material with your more recent stuff? How does that work in terms of track listing and themes?
Savanna: I think it’s just my life. Since this is my solo project, it’s my stories that I’m telling. In my old band, Elk Walking, there was another member, Julian Daniell, who was writing in the band too and telling his story. It was kind of this split, we would both write and sometimes it didn’t go cohesively but we tried our best to make it work. So now it doesn’t really matter when I wrote the songs I think, because they’re coming from me fully. I write all the lyrics and music. Then the band gets together and the guys write their parts, which is huge and part of the whole process. It just works. Even if I wrote the song years ago, it still makes sense to me and is cohesive because it’s coming from me.
Tim: Have you all toured as Burr Oak yet?
Savanna: No, we were just about to go on the road and then the pandemic hit. We were so close, we were going to go to New York and do a little east coast run in April. We were going to play Baby’s Alright and a few other cool places I was very excited about. So no we have not yet; we’re really looking forward to that once it’s safe again.
Brad: What would your ideal live music experience look like post-pandemic?
Savanna: I’d be most looking forward to playing a Chicago show again, like a tour kick-off. I miss hometown shows and playing with friends here. We were supposed to do a show at the Whistler before we were going to head out on our East coast tour. It would be fun to play there since we never got to, that is, if the Whistler is still around. I hope it will be, since some venues have been closing down, like the Clipper, I heard closed down. Or maybe Lincoln Hall would be cool, but I don’t know if we’re ready to headline there yet. I just want to do a hometown show and get back on the road. Like we were supposed to do this year.
Tim: Do you have a favorite Chicago venue to play or to see shows?
Savanna: Yeah! Schuba’s and Lincoln Hall are two of my favorites, since I interned there out of college and developed a relationship with people there. Dan and Patrick are just good people and, Schuba’s especially, is like a true home. It has that classic tavern vibe and just feels homey when you walk in and play there.
Tim: So your name’s Burr Oak and it seems like you mention plants or flowers in some songs?
Savanna: So I guess the story is, and this is what I usually tell is that, my dad planted a burr oak tree outside of our house when I was born. And it’s this cute little wholesome thing, he planted it and I didn’t know this. I came up with the name on a whim. Cause I wanted to come up with a name that was kind of like Savanna. So I came up with ‘Burr Oak’ and then was like, “Hey, I’m thinking about naming my new project Burr Oak. What do you think?”
My dad and I always talk. He’s a big music person and we just talk about stuff a lot. So I always ask him his opinion about everything and he said, “is that because I planted that Burr Oak out in front of the house when you’re born.”
I was like, “No, I had no idea you did that. I literally didn’t know that was a Burr Oak!”
And so it was just kind of funny cause it’s been growing up outside of the house and I actually live across the street now. So that’s kind of how it was solidified, I had the idea and then when he told me that I was like, “It’s kind of perfect.”
Tim: You mentioned your dad being into music. So what music have you bonded with your parents on? And when did you start playing and writing music?
Savanna: So, my dad, he’s not a musician himself, but he’s a writer and I grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Simon & Garfunkel. He played all kinds of folk like the sixties, seventies, folk revival kind of music. We would take road trips to Wisconsin and listen to that stuff in the car.
It’s funny actually, because I started writing before I knew how to play an instrument. I remember like sitting on toilet, this is weird, I was a kid and I would just like be doing something, you know, when you’re mindless and you’re just like either taking a shower or going to the bathroom and you don’t really have anything you’re supposed to be doing and you’re kind of just like “lah-de-da”. I would be going to the bathroom as a kid, singing on the toilet and singing a song sporadically. I was just singing whatever came to my mind, like spontaneous combustion of thoughts. Eventually when I grew into a teenager I discovered that I really wanted to learn how to hone in on my skills.
I started playing drums when I was 11, but I realized that I wanted to learn another instrument since it’s hard to really write a song on the drums. So I asked for a guitar for my 14th birthday and then my dad got me one for my eighth grade graduation. And then no one could pull me away from that thing. I took some lessons at Old Town School of Folk Music, but ultimately I was just learning stuff on YouTube. So I guess when I was like 14 and a half, maybe 15, is when I really started writing songs.
Tim: And also you mentioned Joni Mitchell. Brad is the biggest Joni Mitchell fan I know. So…
Savanna: I Just listened to “River” today because it’s one of my favorite Christmas songs.
Brad: Do you have like a top five of Joni Mitchell songs? I don’t know if I can name mine, but I don’t know if you have…
Savanna: I don’t know if I can name my top five songs. I think I would say my favorite record is definitely Blue and like just that whole record is amazing! I have all her music on my iTunes, I’ve got all her albums and it’s hard to pick, but I think she was just such an incredible talent, especially for that whole generation and the folk scene and everything like Woodstock. I think, you know, she was like ahead of her time… No one had that voice. And not only was her voice amazing, but her song writing, she would just tell us the story, these stories that were just incredibly detailed. And so I think it’s kind of timeless music. Like you can listen to it now and just relate to it. It doesn’t really matter that it was from, what, 50 years ago.
Brad: Yeah, that’s great! I always liked that Joni did all these alternate tunings or “weird tunings” and she would set the guitar down and then anyone else at the party would pick it up and they’d strum on it and go, “what?”
Savanna: One of the things about her was that she didn’t know music theory. She didn’t really know the technical aspects, like where it should resolve or whatever and what chords to play in a progression necessarily. But she just felt it and she would just tune the guitar until it felt right, until it worked for her. And that’s so unique to me, it really says something about music. Like “Yes, you can know theory and you can know the ins and outs of everything, but really you don’t necessarily need that to be an amazing songwriter, cause look at Joni Mitchell.”
Brad: I think that’s a great place to end on!
Photo Credit: Ashleigh Dye