Interview: SpaceCream visionary Savannah Pope embraces the strange

SpaceCream - Savannah Pope 001

“As I’m sure you can imagine, I was a strange kid. I was never interested in pouring tea or being a princess. I was intense, imaginative, and enthralled by complex narratives,” says SpaceCream singer, songwriter and aesthetic visionary Savannah Pope from across the pond in LA.

It’s evident. The notion of living your weird and embracing your strange seeps from every pore of SpaceCream’s musical and visual style. Pope’s philosophy is one of otherworldly wonder; an energetic and positive explosion of riotous colour and character. Importantly, it is also one of self-acceptance and personal empowerment. More than just a group of talented musicians with a strong collection of songs, SpaceCream seems to be a way of life that says love yourself and don’t apologise one bit for being exactly who you are.

The band released their extraordinary debut album, Pterodactyl Sky, at the end of January, celebrating with a launch show at LA venue The Mint. Skin Back Alley caught up with Pope online shortly thereafter.

SBA: First thing’s first: how did the album launch show go at The Mint?

Savannah Pope: It was beautiful – I will always remember that night! There was a line down the block and the crowd was incredibly enthusiastic. There’s no high that can top facing an engaged audience.

I imagine it is both amazing AND terrifying to be finally releasing your album?

An accurate insight. On one hand, it’s exhilarating and wonderful to put art into the world; on another, it’s scary to expose something so personal to criticism. I agonised over the details of this this record for months, but at a certain point I had to let go and have faith. Overall, I’m very proud of Pterodactyl Sky. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, so I can’t complain.

As an album, Pterodactyl Sky is a real gem. It’s detailed; the arrangements are fantastic; it sounds brilliant. How long has it taken to pull together and who have you worked with in doing so?

Thank you! That means a lot.

Pterodactyl Sky is over two years in the making, comprised of my favourite songs from SpaceCream’s repertoire to date. I’ve always been the primary lyricist but the former guitarist and I took turns writing the arrangements and ‘Superstar’ is largely his song. Storied drummer Owen Goldman helped and prodigal LA bassist Nathan York Jr. helped with some of the structure, particularly time signature changes. We recorded at Kitten Robot Studios with engineer Paul Roessler (45 Grave, Eliot Smith, Nina Hagen).

Towards the end of the recording process, the former guitarist and I parted ways and SpaceCream went on temporary hiatus for a while. During that time, I auditioned new players and worked on the album. I was so obsessive that Paul ended up teaching me the basics of Protools so he could get some rest while I scrutinised. For me, the studio is a challenging and cerebral environment – almost the antithesis of a stage – so the process was somewhat arduous. Still, it was absolutely worthwhile and I’m very grateful to everyone who contributed to this project.

Every aspect of your work seems to have been thought through in great detail. SpaceCream has a whole and coherent aesthetic, not just a sound based in a genre. Are you a detail oriented person and band? Would you say you think ‘conceptually’ as an artist?

I first mapped out the conceptual aspirations of SpaceCream in 2012. I wanted to pay homage to what I consider to be the greatest era of music, while incorporating the captivating elements of a number of genres as well as my garish sense of style. I wanted SpaceCream to serve as a beacon of intellectually-charged love for anyone who feels like an outsider. It took years of hard work for that vision to manifest musically, aesthetically and personally.

Because I’ve put so much effort into my creative ambitions, I am not inclined to compromise when it comes to details. I know what I want, and I don’t stop until I get it. For a long time that was a hard pill for people to swallow, especially coming from an unapologetic young woman like myself. There was a lot of struggle and heartbreak involved. It wasn’t until SpaceCream won the Battle for Vans Warped Tour and recorded this album that things really started to fall into place. The current outfit is a dream incarnate.

The title track of Pterodactyl Sky is a standout for me. What was the starting point for that song? It’s not every day you come across a rock song about dinosaur-riding warriors fighting merciless alien invaders!

‘Pterodactyl Sky’ is one of the few songs I’ve written without an instrument. Normally I’ll sit down with my Martin or sing to a rough recording, but this time an arrangement popped into my head out of nowhere. It must have needed to come out!

As I’m sure you can imagine, I was a strange kid. I was never interested in pouring tea or being a princess. I was intense, imaginative, and enthralled by complex narratives. When I was at school, I’d read books whenever possible. At home, I’d shave Barbie’s heads, give them pirate warrior names, and mount them on dinosaur figurines. My private life was decorated by colourful fantasies of warfare and star-crossed love. There were no limits.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve infuriated people who prefer the norm, so the freedom of imagination is my sacred oasis. This song is a tribute to that sanctuary, as well as my way of encouraging others to cherish their unique ideas.

There’s a strong theme of self-acceptance running through your work, be that body positivity, sexual positivity or simply accepting the more wonderful and wacky aspects of your personality. Is that a real driving force for your music and lyrics?

Abso-fucking-lutely! I think it’s abhorrent how our society imbues basic facets of the human experience like individuality, sexuality, and physical appearance with debilitating shame. I’ve experienced a great deal of this shame first-hand and have discovered that the only way to recover is through self-acceptance. I am what I am. I’m not skinny, I’m not chaste, and I’m certainly not timid. These are traits expected of women, and in the past I’ve tried to make them my own. But they’re not. They probably never will be. And frankly, I’m glad! Being different has taught me a lot about empathy.

What was your journey in to music like? Has it always been something you’ve been involved in and wanted to do?

I’ve always been passionate about music but the idea of dedicating my life to it didn’t occur to me until several years ago.

The first time I ever got a taste of the stage was actually in reform school. I was fourteen at the time, and so terrified of my environment that I barely spoke to anyone. To challenge me, a staff member gave me the assignment of performing Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’ a ‘capella in front of the entire school. Nobody knew that I could speak more than a few sentences, let alone sing, so when I belted that song out the room just erupted. I honestly surprised myself.

After that, I picked up some rudimentary guitar and started writing songs to relax. I had no idea that something would come of it – I just thought of music as a kind of meditation.

I wanted to be a lot of things before I fell in love with performing. I spent a few years raising grant money and running around with live-off-the-land hippies, hoping to be an environmental activist. When that world started to feel small, I moved to Spain to make art and party. Eventually, that lifestyle life took a real toll on me, and I crawled back to the US felling irreparably lost.

One night, some friends dragged me to go to an acoustic open mic in the hope of cheering me up. I had a very strange, new feeling in the pit of my stomach throughout the evening until I decided to borrow a stranger’s guitar and perform one of my songs. Again, the response was palpable. Once I got onstage, I realized that what I had experienced was not discomfort but a rush of pure creative adrenaline. I’ve been hooked ever since.

When did you begin to discover and develop your voice? It’s incredible; such power, pitch, and control!

Thank you! I have no formal training, so I’m sure it could be improved. I’ve just been singing to my favourite records for twenty years. When I finally got a band together, my voice naturally developed more of a rock sound because I had to compete with the instruments.

I’m intrigued. How did you achieve the celestial sounding choir-like passages in ‘Pterodactyl Sky’? Were there a bunch of angels in the studio, or was it the mystery of multi-tracking?!

Multi-tracking all the way! That opera solo was not a part of my original arrangement. I was laying down a simple harmony when more parts popped into my head. I asked the engineer to record each one, and when I heard them all played back I said, “Cut the instrument tracks!” We had a lot of fun.

SpaceCream crop 2016

How did you put the band together as it is?

A thorough audition process. I’d been through a number of members in the past and decided that enough was enough. These guys were highly vetted, and I waited until I was confident they were right for the project before I offered them a permanent place. I am really, really thrilled with the current players. They’re incredibly talented and smart.

David Bowie’s work seems to have been a significant influence on your own. You must have felt his death quite keenly?

I have him tattooed on my left shoulder blade. His work has filled me with such comfort and creativity. I am devastated about his death and still crying about it. But how incredible and unlikely is it that we got David Bowie at all? I’m so grateful for him and thrilled that he got to live a fabulous life. He even died beautifully. An artist forever.

Do you remember when you first discovered his music?

Another nod to reform school! It was a fluke, really. Most of the music that came into that place had to be approved by the staff, but for some reason our gym teacher decided to play the radio one day. ‘Rebel Rebel’ poured through the speakers like a warm beam of light from the Mothership. I felt it had been written just for me – a trapped, misunderstood, androgynous creature from some other planet.

And do I detect a distinct Rock Horror/Richard O’Brien influence in the opening bars of ‘SpaceCream’?

Haha, couldn’t help it! Watching Rocky Horror was among the more formative experiences of my childhood. The visual decadence, the soundtrack, the encouragement to love your weird – it was like coming home for the first time. Richard O’Brien shows up in the work unintentionally. He’s just there!

Where else do you find inspiration for your work, be that music, subject matter or stage wear?

Everywhere, I suppose! My creative process is intuitive. I have a very specific and personalized aesthetic that I work to achieve on all levels. Being a visual artist definitely helps, as does reading and travelling. I also find a lot of inspiration in old films and photographs.

Are there any SpaceCream music videos in the works? I’d love to see how you translated your work in the medium of film!

Yes! I love making music videos. That will probably be the next step for us. Expect a lot of gold.

How is the rest of 2016 shaping up for you so far? Can you share any plans for the year ahead?

Releasing Pterodactyl Sky was a sensational way to kick off the year. As a result of that night, SpaceCream has secured a number of great gigs and opportunities. We headlined iconic venue Molly Malone’s last week and will play LA Record’s Silverlake Lounge residency with Vice Versa on February 23rd. We have six So Cal shows mapped out for March, including a return to The Viper Room on the 2nd.

I’m especially psyched too for our big LA Fashion Week show at the Taglyan Complex on March 17th. I remember snagging tickets to the runway last year and thinking, “I’ve never seen a venue so regal and exquisite. Maybe, if I work really hard, I’ll be able to play here someday.” I’m so grateful that the creative director of Art Hearts Fashion happened to be at our album release! He was impressed and asked us to participate in the closing gala.

I can also tell you that we plan to go on tour this year. I really want to take this act all over the states – not to mention overseas!

Connect with SpaceCream at:

Album Reviews | Live Reviews | News | SBA Lists | The Playlist | Under The Skin | Without A Song

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