Dead Famous People’s ‘Harry’ album was met with plaudits and praise when it came out recently. A mere 30 years in the making – life got in the way; there were EPs, singles, journeys to and from far off lands, many live shows; then no live shows – ‘Harry’ is a wonderful song-filled coming-of-age; an assured realisation of melodies and harmonies that have been maturing in the mind of original DFP songwriter Dons Savage. Speaking from her native New Zealand, she tells MOJO Magazine’s Dave Henderson how it started and just how that debut album finally saw the light of day…
Harry is loaded with memorable songs: opener "Looking at Girls" twists on the kind of tragic melodrama often depicted in girl group singles; "Goddess of Chill" has the charm and the hooks of late-'70s Nick Lowe; and "To Be Divine" swoons like prime Kirsty MacColl.
There’s a chord change in ‘Take Your Leather Jacket Off’ from Dead Famous People’s six-track EP on Utility from back in the hazy days of 1989 that elevates the song – originally called ‘Who Cares?’, fact fans – to a higher plane. It’s post-Marine Girls harmony could have been sung in the lift at the Brill Building* decades before; a timeless piece that’s every bit the teen soap opera. The EP was called ‘Arriving Late In Torn And Filthy Jeans’; another super visual one liner that tells you pretty much where Dons Savage’s head was at.
The New Zealand record label Flying Nun released the band’s debut mini album in 1986 and, when a couple of years later a visiting small label impresario and acoustic-rattling left fielder, Billy Bragg heard it while in the country, their bedroom antics took a turn for the better.
“He was on tour here in New Zealand and he heard us on the radio and got hold of us and asked if he could put some of the tracks out in the UK,”
Indeed, the double B was starting his own Utility label for erstwhile revolutionaries and nu folkies, his enthusiasm and encouragement tempting the band to quit the warmth of NZ for the draughty streets of London.
“We decided to go to the UK as Billy was very positive but it was pretty hard to get six people organised and get there and sort out accommodation, a rehearsal space and everything; it was hard to get that sort of band life together. When we settled in, it was pretty mind blowing, we couldn’t believe how many bands there were playing every night, I even saw The Stone Roses walking up the street.”
Oh yes, the streets of London were paved with pop wanabees; post-new wave anarchists were rewriting indie and Brit Pop was just a twinkle in the Good Mixer’s dirty glasses. The Utility EP came out in 1989 and Dead Famous People were contenders – they had the songs – ‘Postcard From Paradise’ a gorgeous melody infiltrated by strings, a piece of indie baroque that’s a period movie waiting to role.
I think we wrote a couple of songs and someone said, ‘should we start a band?’, it was very casual. At the time there was the Flying Nun scene going on with The Chills, The Bats and Blue Go Purple, people like that
“We stayed in the UK for three years and I think we played two or three shows a week; we plugged away. I think at the time we went over, John Peel played the record and people seemed to like it. I got letters…”
Another album followed on the super lo-fi indie La-Di Da label in 1991, the ‘All Hail The Daffodil’ album saw Dons take writing credits on all of the tracks, utilising the band’s girl group harmonies, turning up the Marr-esque guitar, nodding to The Chills’ for organ. The storylines became yet more tactile, living experiences of a lost indie dreamer.
“Those recordings were pulled together for the La-Di-Da label but there came a certain point where things didn’t seem to be advancing for us. Just before I came back to New Zealand, The Chills were in town and we played with them at ULU in London, then I sang with them on a couple of tracks including the single ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’.”
At the time we went over, John Peel played the record and people seemed to like it. I got letters…
Only one of the greatest indie pop anthems, ever – a most glorious and uplifting 45. And before departure, Dons also loaned her voice to a couple of St Etienne songs, two epics lost in the ether of time as she headed home.
“My mum hadn’t been well and I wanted to be near her and I was kind of worn out from the whole experience; It had been years of trying to knock on doors that weren’t opening. To an extent we were received well but we’d kind of hoped for more. So I got back and just started painting again, something that I’d always done since I was a child.”
You’ve been on hiatus for some time, why the long break?
“Well, my son is 16 now and I wanted to give him those formative years, to be fully present for all of them. Around two or three years ago I started writing, I thought, ‘well, let’s get back and dip the toe in the water again’. I’d always written, always had the guitar there when I was painting, but it took a while to get over the whole thing of being in London and the whole music business. Eventually things began to take shape and I was working towards an album with a friend and Flying Nun showed some interest but just before we were about to release something, Fire showed an interest and I signed with them.”
As with the painting is the songwriting process something that is continuous, something that’s part of the everyday process of life? Are you a prolific writer?
“I can be just driving along and tunes with all the words just come out all at once.”
The songs on the new album have a timeless element to them; like the old school tunes that might have come out of the aforementioned Brill Building, or one of the writing schools that produced so many teen hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s. In addition, the arrangements utilise multi-layered vocal elements, making the sound even bigger, something that producer Dave Trumfio (Handsome Family, Billy Bragg & Wilco, American Music Club, Built To Spill, The Jesus And Mary Chain) has brought to the fore on the new album ‘Harry’.
“Amazingly, I never met him, he was in LA, the whole relationship was handled remotely; we exchanged ideas and things went back and forth but I did want to leave him to do the job really. There weren’t too many things for me to do by then.”
Lyrically, the songs are filled with situations and relationships that people can readily identify with; romance, love, longing, loss, it’s the stuff of real life. Do that process ever get too personal?
“Sometimes, when I’m writing about my son, it can get really emotional, maybe too much so. He’s going to ballet school later this year and the idea of him leaving home is tough.”
Within it all, there’s still that indie spark of positivity, hope amid the melancholy, like the chord change on ‘Leather Jacket’, it’s a knack; a songwriting skill that warms you with melody while the tales flutter by and unfold. On the opening track, ‘Dead Bird’s Eye’ and later, on ‘The Great Unknown’, Dons is writing symphonies for the soul, great swathes of sound underpinning the songs, a songwriter who, through it all, continues to paint larger than life scenes, songs to live with. It’s a continuous narrative which, after the lengthy break looks set for further episodic unravelling as time moves on.
And, there’s more to come…
“I’m in the middle of the next album already. So that won’t be too many months away and after that I’ve got the third, fourth and fifth albums all sketched out, ready to leap straight on. After all, I’m catching up on lost time.”
Dead Famous People ‘Harry’BUY ALBUM
The Chills ‘Submarine Bells’BUY ALBUM
The Chills ‘Soft Bomb’BUY ALBUM
*For Brill Building read: the song writers who gave us ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’, ‘The Look Of Love’, ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’ and ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ among many others; teenage angst, then the growing pains of life set to hummable melodies. Feed that into a bedsit with no heating in decaying London town at the end of the ‘80s (imagine the black and white soap opera of The L Shaped Room film dilapidated after 28 years of dusty denial). But before we get there, let’s get some history…