Peeling back the gauze of growing pains, revealing all the joy and jest love has to offer, Catherine Savage invites listeners to understand and be understood in her debut EP, Back Problems.
As if poems, the songs invite the listener to take part in creating meaning. This invitation to explore the songs’ reach and try on what they feel like blooms from Savage rooting every song in a moment. “I almost always start writing lyrics in the space of whatever emotion happens to be overwhelming me in a particular moment,” said Savage. “There has to be something I need to get out, look at, turn over in my hands.”
Her process generally begins in the spark of that moment, and she’ll write “too much, word-vomit style.” It’s from this product she will begin to see patterns, imagery and melodies emerging. The spark may also come from a place that’s real or an observation. “But even then, there’s a sense of being overwhelmed by something – someone’s beauty, or the tenderness of the moment, something like that,” said Savage. “I think that women artists in particular have a tendency to use language that removes our agency from the creative process – “It just came to me,” stuff like that. But on the flip side, writing often does feel that way. If I find myself having to really reach for the right melody or wrestle to find the perfect phrase, then to me that means the song isn’t ready. It’s still underripe.”
There is a rich palette of details to devour in these moments, places and reflections she crafts in her lyrics. At the same time, the landscape feels all too familiar, as if you’re walking through Savage’s home and surprised to find the same knick knacks that are in yours. “I think there’s a sort of domesticity to this EP that I wasn’t fully aware of until it was all recorded and put together – and I don’t mean “domestic” in the sense of being tame or staid, but “domestic” as in lived-in, warm, in comfortable motion,” said Savage. “A lot of the EP’s imagery speaks to that idea: laundry, parking permits, cats and dogs, sacks of flour. I hope people feel invited to sit by the fire with me, so to speak, and create new meaning and connection.”
The opening track, Detroit, is a warm introduction to Savage’s play with metaphor and rhythm. As she sings about a game played unfair, the rhythm plays with her, giving life to talk of love that hurts. The tempo moves like a river, coming like rushing water only to calm and part for Savage’s ruminations, “Use your love for me as a way to justify”. As it picks up, towards the end, it feels as though she might escape from this game not anchored on the same rules, and perhaps she’s sensing the freedom of running away.
Listeners are invited to rock out – and sink into – the next track, “After That”. The lyrics lap at the feeling of a relationship fleeting, and yet how it remains worth itself to stick around to leech the love that’s there. “But I’m the one holding you! / And I’ll take my time with running – / Always running / Am I a burden to you?” She navigates the hope and inherent heartbreak of watching someone move towards a future you support them in, but doesn’t include you, “And when the big one hits I know / You will run and you won’t look back / To see me there / But I’m hard-wired to care”.
Your Dolly is tender. It seems to say that despite, and even in accompaniment, of the navigational pulls and ties of love, it’s lovely. “Ooh, that boyish grin, / I love him. / Ooh, for all my sins, / I love him.” It lets the pureness play out, it’s her choice to be a dolly.
And then, the masterpiece of Torn brings the listener to the end of the EP, but not without some housekeeping and bedroom dancing first, “I do my laundry and fold our clothes / I do my chores,” sings Savage. The track later weaves a terrific tapestry of sound, etched by her own honesty, for your own indulgence, “…lyrics-wise it feels a little embarrassingly personal.”
The song’s energetic release is something she’s really proud of. Savage studied jazz piano for the six years she lived in Seattle and sees a lot of the teachings of her teacher, Karin Kajita, present in the song, “like the idea that key is relative and that musicians can manipulate tempo to create a yummy push-pull of tension.”
“I wanted the ending to feel like tumbling down a hill, like a total release of inhibition,” said Savage. Often opting to play the section up-tempo live, it felt natural to her to throw on some drums and bass and push it into pop territory. Jack Jahries on bass and Jake Fine on drums helped bring her vision to life, “Jake is such an intuitive drummer; I think he said, “Like this?” and it ended up being exactly what I had been hearing in my head. The two of them, along with Matt [Hurd] on lead guitar, have played together for a while now, and the fact that they were so at ease around one another helped make the process really comfortable and fun.”
The name Back Problems wasn’t immediately apparent for the EP. The tracks were originally planned to release as four singles, but Savage ended up thinking of them as one unit. “Since there wasn’t that cohesion initially, I had a hard time finding one line or phrase that served as the heart of the EP.” However, once she had taken what would become the EP’s cover photo, Savage could see one consistent through-line in her own life: “my chronic back pain, the result of the constant hunched-over posture that began the instant I hit puberty and started developing breasts. I’ve been so uncomfortable for so long!” Although it makes for beautiful poetry, the pain of pinched nerves began to affect Savage’s playing this year, to the point where the fingers on her left hand would swell and stiffen after fifteen minutes of guitar practice. The EP was recorded in the midst of traversing this discomfort, and she’s still in the space of managing her back problems, rather than solving them, but she’s feeling success in her endings bouncing back from irritation more easily.
“Anyway, this EP took tenacity, even just on a physical level, and I like being reminded of that in the title,” said Savage. “It was my partner, Sam, who initially suggested the name. I laughed and said, “Hey, I like that!” And here we are. It’s 2023, all our backs hurt, let’s laugh a little and listen to some music together.”