Jack Savoretti is thankful. “This is the first time I’ve made an album with a clear understanding of what I want it to sound like. Previously I’ve thrown it to the wind: show up in the studio with a song and let’s see what happens… This time there was a real discipline to the whole process. We stayed true to it”.
His fourth album Written In Scars (2015) reached the Top Ten a full year after its release, a performance of Catapult on The Graham Norton Show, well, catapulting the record into the upper reaches of the charts, pushing it to sales of some 150,000. “The luckiest thing that ever happened to me is not having a hit,” Savoretti declares, “because it’s never constrained me into having to repeat it.” Rather, he’s both liberated and propelled – which is what happened immediately after the slow-burn success of Written In Scars. Savoretti wrote, recorded and toured Sleep No More (2016) straight away.
“That kept us on the road again, three to four years. We stopped a year ago – then we got offered this John Legend European support tour. That was an experience we couldn’t say no to. “It was a very bonding time,” he continues. “We were a support band again, and it brought us all back down to earth. It was fun, we were done by nine every night, so we had dinner, a few bottles of wine and it made me decide that I wanted to make an album with all these guys on stage.”
You’d expect a guy whose rich new album Singing To Strangers features co-writes with both Bob Dylan and Kylie Minogue to be grateful, but more interestingly, the English-Italian singer-songwriter gives thanks to his heritage. Savoretti began digging in les crates for the French, Spanish and Italian music from the Fifties and Sixties – and with which, on tour, he regularly entertains his band. “Back then there was proper European music, and that has always inspired me. You’d have a crooner backed by incredible orchestras, but also with these incredible rock’n’roll-era drummers and bass players. And that gives you Serge Gainsbourg doing Melody Nelson, and Patty Bravo and Ennio Morricone in Italy.”
“I also realised I miss romantic music and so I bought a piano for £50 and started writing. The piano took me more to that world – and helped me be more theatrical, melodic and, yeah, romantic. I wrote a song called Going Home and that was the song that ended the fear of the blank page, because I’d figured out what I wanted to talk about: where I am now. I’ve grown up. That doesn’t meant to say I don’t have demons, or it’s easy, but it’s no longer me against the world. Now it’s me in the world – and how do I mould it to how I want?”
So, to Rome – where else? – and to the studio of Sr. Morricone himself. The producer: Cam Blackwood (George Ezra). The band: Pedro Vito (guitar); Sam Lewis (guitar); Sam Davies (bass); Jesper Lind (drums); Nikolai Torp (keys, piano). The mood: romantic. The dress code: stylish.
“Look at all these pictures of Chet Baker and Miles Davis and those musicians,” marvels Savoretti. “They’re not in jeans and T-shirts. No matter how hot it was, I guarantee they turned up to work in a suit and tie, then maybe ended up in shirt sleeves. So, when in Rome, lets think about Marcello Mastroianni and Fellini. Let’s show up, dressed with all that in mind.”
When in Rome, too, don’t go thinking you’re in a studio in New York or London. The city of love has its own schedules, routines, “ways”. “If it rains for ten minutes, it’s guaranteed you’ll get a power cut – even though it’s the capital of the fourth largest economy in Europe, that will happen! And so don’t try and fight it. Just roll with it. “And it changed us. Every evening, being able to go out for a Negroni and see the sunset outside your studio in downtown Rome and discuss what we did that day… Everybody grew up and got into the world I wanted us to be in.”
It was August 2018, it was inspiring, and it was diabolically hot. “Luckily, Morricone’s studio is the basement of this huge church, so it was cooler. And the atmosphere down there was essential, and that was captured in Candlelight, which became the calling card of the album.”
Candlelight – co-written with Joel Potts (Athlete, Ezra) and which opens Singing To Strangers – is an intoxicating, swooning rhapsody of strings, choral harmonies, sinuous bass and guitar, and Savoretti’s woody, heartfelt rasp. It’s followed by the elegant sashay of Love Is On The Line, Savoretti skewing his writing round string parts scored by Davide Rossi (Coldplay, Goldfrapp).
“The idea was to write over string parts rather than the other way round,” Savoretti explains. “melodically strings can give you the courage to go somewhere vocally you might not otherwise go. They give it gravitas.” Rossi also helped create What More Can I Do?, a coolly funky cri de coeur which Savoretti, unabashed, describes as “the song I’ve always wanted to write. The main melody was taken by the power of these strings. It was the same philosophy and approach for Love Is On The Line – and Singing to Strangers.”
The title track, “a very simple song on the guitar”, luxuriates in an echoey space, and acts as an interlude, or sorbet, at the heart of an album of sense-tingling richness. And that title, he adds, is a nod to the realpolitik aspect of his life as a musician.
“That’s my job: I sing to strangers. That is what I’ve spent most of my life doing. And I think that was my way of validating my career, saying: this is how we got here. And also to anyone else out there: you want to do this? Go sing to strangers!” Doing that, of course, requires more intimacy. Singing to friends and family and fans: they’re already onside, so you can, to some extent, sing anything. Strangers need convincing, touching, connection.
That’s a challenge fully met on the album’s two “star” collaborations. Touchy Situation is a co-write with Bob Dylan. Savoretti – whose first gig was Dylan in a half empty hockey stadium in Zurich in 1999, aged 15 – understands that the obvious response to that is: “What the fuck?” Everyone, he laughs, “says that, including me!”
The connection came via Savoretti’s American manager. Dylan’s manager, a contact, had some old Dylan lyrics that had been OK’d to send to Savoretti, with a view to him writing music to them. Perhaps Dylan had heard Savoretti’s cover of Dylan rarity Nobody ’Cept You on Written In Scars (“another fluke, something I found in Jackson Browne’s studio”). Equally, perhaps he hadn’t. Bob moves in mysterious ways.
“So I got these lyrics and I was kinda freaked out by how accurate it was to how I’d been thinking. That’s the power of being vague and being good, which Dylan does so well. And it was written in a very Dylan style, which meant I was scared. I don’t think he writes choruses. He writes statements. Which is very different to how I write. It’s very poetic, and it’s also very hard. So I had to mix it up a bit.
“As excited as I was, I was terrified. I sat at the piano and my wife was like: ‘Don’t fuck this up... Just sit at the piano and play.” It was good advice. As soon as he sang the word “touchy” his fingers instinctively stabbed at the keys. “I thought, let’s musically take this literally.”
From the sublime to the… more sublime. Music’s Too Sad Without You, which appears on the Deluxe Edition, is the song Savoretti co-wrote and sang with Kylie Minogue for her recent Golden album. “She sing-whispers the song and I fell in love with that side of Kylie on her duet with Nick Cave on Where The Wild Roses Grow.”
The latter is Cave’s deathless murder ballad, a form Savoretti also embraces on Dying For Your Love, a song ripped from the unmade soundtrack of an imaginary David Lynch movie.
There’s more movie lore, and movie love, in Youth And Love, a glorious throwback disco homage to the Oscar-winning Call Me By Your Name. “One of the most romantic stories I’ve seen in a long time,” sighs Savoretti, “and a film that reminded me how wonderful romance is. This director, Luca Guadagnino, has brought back what Roberto Benigni did with Life Is Beautiful. Romance is not just depressing; it’s happy, it’s good. It’s not just a broken rose and blood.
“But also: that film’s setting was the Italy I grew up in, having holidays there every year in the Eighties. And to be honest,” concludes Savoretti with a grin as expansive as the glorious mood music of Singing To Strangers, “this entire album became an old collage of looking back at all the things that influenced me.”