Canada Calling: Collette Savard and the Savants update Toronto’s rich alt-folk history
A new sound, a new band, a new attitude. That sums up Toronto singer/songwriter Collette Savard’s latest album, Collette Savard and the Savants. After releasing three independent albums with her former partner, John Zytaruk, Savard was determined for her next project to expand her scope by connecting with some of Toronto’s most experienced, dynamic and creative musicians. The results are a brilliant folk-jazz-blues hybrid showcasing not only Savard’s own highly affecting performances, but the contributions of the aptly named Savants: backup singer/percussionist Rebecca Campbell, bassist and producer John Switzer, drummer Martin Worthy, guitarist Tim Posgate, and keyboardist Megan Worthy.
These songs were written throughout a period of great upheaval in Savard’s life as her 13-year marriage and musical partnership came to an end. She channeled the mixture of emotions that came from that time into songs like “In Over My Head” and “I’m Counting On You Heart.” Ironically, the latter song (about embracing the strength of one), was the first tune Rebecca Campbell happened to catch during an open mic at Toronto folk music hub the TRANZAC, where the pair lead the board of directors. This proved to be the catalyst for Campbell to help Savard form the Savants and ultimately make the album a reality.
“Every one of these folks has committed their lives to elevating songs and I’m absolutely thrilled that my tunes have drawn them in,” Savard says. “They take my songs to new places, fun places I never thought I would go. They’ve turned clawhammer banjo tunes into reggae songs and simple folk numbers into dance and soul tunes while somehow keeping the essence completely intact. It has been a lifelong dream to have a great band and I’m grateful for every show they play with me. Someone referred to them as my ‘Cadillac of a band.’ I don’t own a car or even have a driver’s licence but this is the only Cadillac I’ll ever need. They truly are Savants!”
Although the album was born out of deep sorrow, Savard views it as a testament to optimism and empowerment. As the band began jelling, it allowed her to try on some different musical hats, as on the Stax Records-influenced “It Shines,” and the Steely Dan-esque “Last Cigarette.” Overall, anyone familiar with Savard’s previous work will likely be surprised by this new effort, which in the end became precisely her intention.
“These songs all have a thread of light-heartedness and really speak to how the struggles they describe aren’t some sort of anomaly with me but just things everyone deals with,” she says. “The song ‘Cecil Street,’ for example, has a line that goes, ‘This is the human condition, this is the state of our times, no matter what you’ve been given, no one escapes worry all the time.’ I wrote that with the idea of ‘worry’ being something tangible in my mind, like a mob boss always trying to shake me down. That sounds terrifying, but really it was my way of turning anxiety into a cartoonish villain.”
Originally from North Bay, Ontario, Savard started singing as a very small child and at the age of 12 learned her first three guitar chords. By age 19, she was seriously writing and performing her songs, and in 2005 she released her debut album with Zytaruk, entitled Most Improved Cheerleader. Savard released two more albums—2008’s Zen Boyfriend and 2012’s Best Dress—displaying influences ranging from classic country and French chanson, to Joni Mitchell and Lucinda Williams. These first three records also featured some of Toronto’s most celebrated musicians, including legendary jazz trumpeter Guido Basso, saxophonist Richard Underhill and keyboardist Bob Wiseman. Her main goal always has been, and continues to be, never to repeat herself. Collette Savard and the Savants certainly displays that philosophy, and has kicked open the door even wider for further experimentation in the future.
As Savard says, “I’m still pretty eccentric because that’s what happens when you don’t know the rules—you don’t follow them. I’ve made half-hearted attempts at learning musical theory but my brain just doesn’t seem to be wired that way. I still tell people I’m not really a musician despite playing a plethora of stringed instruments on stage. What I mean by that is that I’m not a technician. I’m a songwriter; I channel whatever mystical energy is in the air using my instrument like a lightening rod of sorts. Like so many other songwriters, what drives me is the constant fear that whatever magic this is that allows me to create something from nothing might leave me.”
Luckily for us, there’s no sign of that ever happening.