Anna B Savage and Mike Lindsay (Tunng) Just Wanna Have Fun (And Get Their Work Done)

The singer-songwriter and her producer talk in|FLUX.

Mike Lindsay is a Mercury Prize-winning producer, and a member of the experimental folk band Tunng; Anna B Savage is a singer-songwriter based in London. Mike produced Anna’s latest record, in|FLUX — out this Friday 2/17 on City Slang — so to celebrate, the two caught up about the creation of it, and much more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Mike Lindsay: I’m unprepped. I was stuck in London because of the train strike, and then I went to see my parents, so I don’t…

Anna B Savage: All that needs to happen, really, is we have really insightful, pertinent thoughts about music, creativity, the world, and we say them really succinctly and within a very small time frame. What could go wrong? [Laughs.] No, I’ve got a couple of questions that I’m interested to ask you about. And I guess maybe just ask me questions as and when they come up?

Mike: Yeah, let’s see how that works. Go for it.

Anna: I wanted to ask you, Mike Lindsay, about what you think the most important components are for a good collaborative experience. Because, you know, as a producer, you work collaboratively with so many different people, so obviously that’s a well-honed muscle. What do you feel like are the most important elements, or what do you try and cultivate?

Mike: I think fun is good. I think it’s different for everybody, but first of all, listening to what that other person is going to bring to the table, and then trying to figure out what it is that you can add to that, or even just facilitate that other person and their ideas — I think the whole bouncing of ideas and letting that kind of flow is important. And that can be anything from one sort of chord change to just talking about what kind of tea you like drinking, or some nasty experience that happened on the street down the road or whatever. Those things can sort of turn into the the vibe of the session.

Anna: Yeah.

Mike: I do like collaborating with people, partly because I don’t always trust everything that I think of alone.

Anna: Me neither. [Laughs.] 

Mike: I mean, I’m not sure if anyone does. But I guess people do work alone quite a lot — you’ve worked alone a lot on your stuff.

Anna: It’s like an accidental, unintended aloneness. Because I think for loads of years, I just was too scared to ask anyone to do anything with me because, you know, they might ask me a question and I’d be like, “Well, I don’t know.” If they’re like, “What’s the root note of this?” Or, “What chord do we go to there?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, it’s an E shape, but it’s on the seventh fret and we’re in DADGAD. Sorry.”

Mike: [Laughs.] Well, that ruins everything! DADGAD!

Anna: [Laughs.] It’s my favorite!

Mike: Well, I think everybody’s scared like that. I think that’s part of it. Then what’s exciting is when, at the end of the day — or the week, or whatever — you’ve made something. And if that feeling is shared, that you’re all excited and have got that rush of endorphins because you’ve made something bad ass — which wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been in the room together — then all those fears kind of disappear. And if you’re lucky enough to do more than one day with that person, then you kind of find a rhythm together. And we did, because we’ve done a record.

Anna: We certainly did. I want to go back a little bit, because the first thing you said that you want to do is fun. How do you think fun works? Because fun was the first thing you said, but you’re also quite strict with timing, which I found interesting. It was kind of a, “We’re working every day 10 ‘til 8” — and that had me quaking in my boots initially. [Laughs.]

Mike: Well, that’s so we can have fun afterwards. I think fun for me maybe sounds a bit unfun for other people, but it’s more like in a sort of working-fun kind of way. I find if an idea takes more than 20 minutes to manifest itself once you’ve had the idea, you’re not having any fun anymore, you’re just sort of trying to make something work. So if you say, “Hey, let’s try this strange sort of wibbly string sound that I found practicing over here,” and if we can’t make it work in 20 minutes, I don’t feel like we’re having any fun. But the fun is happening whilst trying to make it work in 20 minutes. So on that angle, trying to keep the day moving with exciting pop-up bits of sonic fun is definitely a good method. Otherwise, you can be four hours in and you’re still working on that wibbly string sound, and you don’t even like it anyway, and you’ve kind of lost what the tune is.

Anna: Yeah. So kind of working within parameters, but not letting yourself get too bogged down, I guess. 

Mike: Yeah. But that’s just me sat in my wonky studio. You’re at home spending maybe hours crafting lyrics, or finding inner feelings and true stories about yourself and wondering how brave you can be to put them to paper. You know, that is a different process.

Anna: Well, yeah. It’s funny, because I think one of my main things about this record is I really wanted to take away that — because my first album, I worked on it so much alone. I worked on it for about two years before I even got Will [Doyle, producer of Anna’s debut A Common Turn] involved. And I did so much of that, like, really tweaking one moment for five hours and kind of doing it into the ground, to the point where initially writing them, I don’t know that I had that much fun. 

I kind of thought, Well, if I’m not having fun writing the music and I get really bad stage fright and I’m not great in interviews, what am I doing? [Laughs.] So I was like, OK, I need to reassess how to do this all. So I think bringing stuff in to you — which I, you know, on occasion definitely described as like a couple of lines written on a soggy piece of toilet paper, because it felt so underdeveloped to me and so embarrassing. 

Mike: I think they were developed. 

Anna: Some of them.

Mike: And some of them that weren’t so developed became mega bangers. I think that’s the where the nature of collaboration can help, because you can sort of share the burden and just allow another set of ears, and hopefully you trust that person. Another word is trust, though, actually, because if you’re constantly battling the other person with ideas — and I’ve been there a couple of times — it doesn’t quite work. You’re just not on the same page. That’s fine, you’re just not the right match.

Anna: I’ve found you need to be quite amorphous to be able to be the best producer. You have to be able to kind of fill in. Because — well, for me specifically, I feel like some days I would come in and I’d be, like, bawling my eyes out. You’d need to be like, “Here’s a packet of biscuits and a cup of tea, and here’s a little hug.” You have to put on so many hats in order to get stuff done, especially with overly sensitive emotional artists like me. [Laughs.]

Mike: Well, but you’re amazing and brilliant and that’s part of who you are. So if you came in upset one day — we did actually watch an episode of like…

Anna: The Office, wasn’t it?

Mike: The Office or something, for about an hour. 

Anna: Just to calm me down.

Mike: Good reason for it, which we won’t go into, but I suppose that’s all part of it. But I don’t really know what a producer is. It’s also just someone who, you know, meets like-minded people that are interested in making weird tunes.

Anna: So how did that work with you and Sam [Genders] when you initially met?

Mike: Me and Sam from Tunng. It’s worked with him the same way it sort of worked with you, and worked with Laura Marling and other people that I’ve collaborated with. I suppose when I first met Sam, actually, he did come to me to try and help him produce an EP of his own music.

Anna: Oh, really?

Mike: But really I sabotaged it, and realized it was amazing and said, “Let’s just make our own record. Not any of your your tunes.” We did try. But I had a couple of instrumentals and asked him to sing on those, and quite quickly we’d found a sound somehow that we didn’t know we would find. So it was an experiment. You know, as most studio-based jigsaw-puzzling together of music is, it’s all a bit of an experiment.

Anna: Definitely. What elements of you and what elements of Sam do you feel complement each other?

Mike: Well, I mean, Sam’s a genius.

Anna: That’s very complimentary of you. I mean, I don’t know him, but he is definitely a genius.

Mike: Yeah. I think I was able to bring kind of sonic flavors and directions that he never would have dreamed of thinking about going towards. Probably would have been a lot more successful if he didn’t try and do that, but he did. 

Anna: [Laughs.]

Mike: Sam can can write twisted fantasy stories about, I don’t know, people that get turned into rabbits, or an old woman that kills people and writes fantasy stories in their blood on a homemade typewriter.

Anna: The usual stuff.

Mike: Yeah, the usual thing. But he can write them in half an hour sat in the back of the room. So he just brought this wonderful instant otherness to my — and he gave me confidence, as well, to start trying to write more songs for me. Sam was writing songs as well, wnd then we kind of switched, and he’d help out with that. He’s a special one, yeah.

Anna: Definitely. 

Mike: You’ve been on songwriting, collaborative residential experiences in Canada and stuff like that. I mean, I’ve never done anything like that, with a lot of people or thrown into a room having to write together. What was that like?

Anna: It was completely life-changing for for me. I did that before I started working on A Common Turn with Will — I’d written the whole thing, but I hadn’t even considered doing anything with it. I didn’t really know how to do anything with it. And suddenly, being in this — you know, Banff in Canada is literally a magical place anyway. Like, I think Feist was there when we were there, Joni Mitchell used to go and write there. It’s got all of this real incredible stuff brewed in its bones. 

There were probably 20 or 30 different musicians there, and each person, or duo or group, had their own discipline, their own way of working, their own enthusiasms. And it was from all different types of music. There was a kind of experimental modular synth person there, and then there was a string quartet or a classical pianist or a jazz double bassist — all of these people doing super eclectic [work]. And I desperately fell in love with every single one of them. 

I feel like every point in my life, I’ve realized that there’s no one way, no right way of doing it. The only thing that’s important is actually doing it. Which is really fucking annoying, because it means you have to do the work to do it. [Laughs.] 

Mike: You have to do it.

Anna: I had been looking for the secret formula, for so many years, but it just wasn’t there. And I think that felt like a real cementing of that notion of everyone is doing it differently and everyone here is doing something absolutely incredible, and you can basically do whatever you want. It took me a couple of weeks to build up the courage to play anything in front of people, and when I finally did, people were very lovely and very complimentary. And by that point, I’d already heard all of their music and I thought they were the best musicians in the world, so I was like, Holy shit, if these people think I’m OK, then that’s a huge vote of confidence

So actually I think that maybe goes back to [mainly] working on my own thing — I think maybe that was marginally detrimental to me, because I was so scared. I don’t want to say “precious,” because it didn’t feel precious. It felt like I was so timid to open it up to anyone. But when I finally did, I was like, Oh, shit, I wish I’d done this more. Suddenly, you let the joy in when you let other people do stuff with you. 

Mike: It’s very brave of you to go into that show-and-tell kind of thing. Because I haven’t really done that, and I don’t know what I would do in that scenario. I’ve worked with lots of people, but they kind of work with me in my environment, so I still have a sort of control.

Anna: But you’re showing-and-telling all the time — every time you release an album that you’ve worked on, every time you release something, that’s showing-and-telling on a much bigger scale than what I ever did.

Mike: Yeah, well, you’re doing that now, too. 

Anna: This sounds a bit brutal — do you think there’s an element of grief when you do finally actually release something? 

Mike: Grief?

Anna: Yeah. I think I use that word specifically, because I was really surprised — I’d been looking forward to releasing A Common Turn for such a long time that when I finally released it, I just felt really sad for ages. I was like, What the fuck is going on here?

Mike: I mean, that might be quite personal to you, the sadness. I think I know what you mean — like it’s your child, and you’ve kind of let it go off to university. But I think there’s a release  — I mean, it’s called a release, but something kind of leaves you. But that doesn’t feel sad to me. That feels like it has a new life and it’s its own thing and you don’t own it anymore. And I feel that’s very exciting, to watch what happens to it. Maybe nothing happens to it. Maybe it takes you on a whole new adventure. I used to say making a record was like a ticket to fun. You’ve got to make the record, and then you can go and have all the fun.

Anna: No! The fun bit is making the record, in my opinion.

Mike: Yeah. I’ve come full circle. And actually, I’m in the studio a lot more than than leaping around on the stage. And I love being in the studio, but I used to love both. I used to love both equally because they’re both completely different things. You can’t have one without the other. You probably can, but I didn’t think you could.

Anna: I mean, there was a pandemic, so I think most people didn’t leap around on stage as much for quite a long time.

Mike: And then and found joy in in creating, if they were lucky enough to be able to do that from home. So yeah, it does feel different, doesn’t it, since those days?

Anna: Well, I don’t know, because I wasn’t really doing any of it beforehand. So this is just my landscape now. Post-apocalyptic, post-pandemic.

Mike: A Common Turn — when did that come out? 

Anna: It’s almost two years ago exactly, January 2021. But yeah, it’s interesting — I want to back myself up a little bit to that thing of releasing something and having that grief. I hadn’t quite been able to understand it, and then I was reading Michaela Coel — she wrote Chewing Gum, which was that amazing Channel 4 comedy series and then wrote I May Destroy You, and she starred in both of them. She’s unbelievable. I feel like everything she says is about three years ahead of what my brain is thinking.

Mike: Oh, I think you might have mentioned this before. Didn’t she turned down some big offer or something, because she would have to to to change her vision?

Anna: Yeah. So with I May Destroy You, I think because she’d worked with Channel 4 before, they wanted to option it, but they said, “Oh, we want a different producer, we want to change the script.” And she basically said, “No, this is you take it as it is or I’m walking.” And they didn’t want to take it as it is, so she went to the BBC. The BBC bought it with exactly what she wanted to do, and it was made exactly as she wanted it to be. 

But she also wrote about that feeling of having poured everything you have into something, and feeling like you almost have a purpose and you’re excited to get up and work on this thing every morning, and then suddenly when it’s released, you’re like, Oh, fuck, now I don’t have that thing. Because like you say, once it’s released, you’re doing stuff, but it’s in a very different world. You’re promoting it or you’re playing shows, but the creation element isn’t there.

Mike: Yeah. And other than I guess if it sells and you get money, it’s not quite yours anymore. That’s the feeling I get… You spend all that love and energy for months, or a year, or whatever, to make the thing. I can understand why you feel sad when that process is over, but I actually don’t feel sad.I love that process.

Anna: I wish I didn’t feel sad — ever. [Laughs.] Do you do you read reviews?

Mike: Yeah. Yep, yep. Although these days, I mean, I’m just happy to get a review, really, if I put something out. Because you don’t always get reviewed. I suppose I don’t know what you’re about to say, but I am one of those people that if they say something negative, it sort of impacts me more. And if someone says they love something, I’m like, “Yeah, of course you do.” But as soon as someone says something bad, you’re like, “Have you seen this review?!” And then you secretly think, They know. Because we’ve all got our self doubt, so as soon as you hear someone say something negative you think, Oh, they figured it out. But obviously nobody says anything negative about your music, Anna.

Anna: Hilarious, and not true. And that’s also why I don’t read reviews. But also, it’s really hard because I feel like reading reviews makes you almost mythologize something that you’ve made yourself. It feels really unhealthy — and maybe it’s the nature of the content of my lyrics but for the first album, people would be drawing amazing parallels that were very kind of pertinent and poignant, and I’d be like, Fuck, I’d never even thought about that. And it would send me off into this weird spiral where I’d be like, Oh, god, they, they’re reading stuff into my subconscious when I’m writing that suddenly feels so pertinent and real and evident. What kind of an idiot wouldn’t be able to see what I was actually saying underneath that? And I didn’t! And now suddenly it’s becoming available to me. So, yeah, I guess that’s another reason that I don’t read reviews, because I don’t want to know more about myself in the eyes of others.

Mike: Yeah, I suppose when they’re digging into what your what your lyrics mean, and your lyrics in particular do come from you and your emotional state and how you feel about a situation or a person — I suppose it comes into a sort of kind of therapy world at that point, when someone’s analyzing your psyche.

Anna: Yeah, I do enough analysis anyway. I don’t need more. I spend good money on a therapist I like.

Mike: Maybe that person should be the only one to review your records then.

Anna: You know, that’s true, actually. I did actually play her “Say My Name” before I brought it to you. I don’t know if I told you that.

Mike: ou did say something about that. You talk about lyrics with her as well?

Anna: Things like that, yeah. I played it to her and we kind of talked about the content, because I hadn’t quite got it right. She said that it feels like it doesn’t quite go where it wants to go, and I was like, “Perfect. That’s exactly what I want from that song. Thank you very much, Scarlett.” [Laughs.] Constrained, constricted, ideal. 

But yeah, it’s really interesting. I feel so indebted to her. And she’s coming to the London show — she was like, “I don’t really know if I’m meant to, but I thought I’d tell you that I bought tickets to your show.” And I was like, “I’m going to give you a really big shout out,” and she was very embarrassed. 

Mike: When is that show again?

Anna: March 28, Village Underground, London.

Mike: Put that on the old calendar.

Anna B Savage is a London-based singer-songwriter.

(Photo Credit: Ebru Yildiz)