Saint Saviour

Mari Sarai

Saint Saviour’s stunning debut album, Union, has had great reviews and delighted the army of fans who helped her make it. Becky Jones, the artist behind Saint Saviour, shot to attention as lead vocalist and also a songwriter on Groove Armada’s Grammy-nominated Black Light album in 2010. Her own incredible album features everything from electronic dance tracks to ballads and has seen her compared to Kate Bush, Sinead O’ Connor and Elizabeth Fraser for her soaring voice and amazing songs. Saint Saviour has been dubbed ‘one of British music’s most brilliant songwriters’ and tells us all about creating her music, her favourite kit, and new ways of funding recording.

Stockton-on-Tees, UK
Surface Area

Passion & theatre

Saint Saviour’s album Union features a dazzling array of different musical styles. Her vast songwriting experience means that she can create all kinds of moods and beats. She gave us a unique insight into how she works on her music, and how she made her album.

It’s very wide ranging, basically the album’s mad. I’m quite an emotional person and it just comes out in my music. Also because I’m a music freak and I don’t just want to be a singer, I love all music, I tend to get carried away with styles and there’s a lot of styles in there so it just spans lots of genres. It’s quite theatrical, it’s quite emotional and it’s quite passionate. And as a result my fanbase tend to be quite passionate, theatrical people. So my fans and the crowds that come and see me are often very fun, exuberant.

Saint Saviour says she has an ongoing dialogue with her fans via Twitter and Facebook, which led to her PledgeMusic campaign for the album. She has won plenty of hearts with gripping and passionate songs such as Tightrope. Here is a live version she did for an All Saints session.

It’s fascinating to hear how she begins to construct her complex tracks.

What I do when I write a song, I’ll usually sit at the piano and I might start playing a bassline and then that might spark off a song, or sometimes I’ll just start playing a kind of Kate Bush style ballady type thing and I’ll write more of a piano song.

The way the album came about was exactly that, I just sat in this room for a long period of time, just fannying around, basically. The song Jennifer’s quite electronic, and that was really inspired by Swedish dance music, and so I needed it to be quite electronic and quite fuzzy and synthy so I did most of that at home. So it’s a real mixed bag.

I used lots of technology, and I do a lot of drum programming. I just created a huge load of demos and then I decided song by song, what does each song need? And once I’d written the songs, and finished the songs, I create a finished song. I do the drums myself and I record guitar ideas, then I give it to my band. So on some of the album, on the finished song, the guitarist has replaced the guitar line, the bass player’s done the same and then the drummer’s taken the electronic drums and played them on a real kit. Some of the songs, the musicians in my band just came up with all the ideas themselves, and some of the songs are just really purely electronic.

She is particular about her keyboard, which is a Yamaha Portable Grand Piano.

I like to have a full-sized keyboard, it feels free. Most of the time when I come into this room to write, I’ll sit at that keyboard because it’s got weighted keys and it feels like you’re properly playing the piano. I’m not a trained pianist, I’ve never had a piano lesson or even a keyboard lesson in my whole life. I was given one, I remember just feeling, I can just sit and play ninth chords forever and just be happy.

Saint Saviour has been able to write such a wide range of material partly thanks to her time with Groove Armada. She started out with the band The RGBs, but when they toured with Groove Armada, she found the headliners to be kindred spirits and soon joined them. She had already been writing ‘toplines’ for lots of electronic producers and the band wanted to make use of her talents as a songwriter and eventually vocalist too.

Saint Saviour contributed to the album Black Light, released to critical acclaim in 2010 and nominated for a Grammy.

I just couldn’t believe it but of course said yes and it was really nerve-wracking, turning up to the first rehearsal but after I’d got that out of the way it was the best fun I’ve ever had in my life.

There was a general feeling that Black Light was the most interesting work, at least their most interesting album and the most accomplished in terms of the actual songwriting, so that was really exciting to be part of.

There was lots to learn - including being flexible about song keys!

I learnt a lot as a writer because it became clear at the start of the project that I wasn’t able to change the keys of anything. I was given a lot of tracks in E which is terrible for my voice, because it’s a male kind of rock key. So I had to get over that quite quickly and just write.

In my solo work, it’s simple to see the difference because I sing a hundred keys up. I’m actually a soprano, so my voice just sounds completely different when I’m singing my own songs.

Saint Saviour says that she starts thinking about beats very early on in the process.

I think it’s possibly because I’m mainly from a dance music background so I think about BPM straight away because that’s going to be the style. If I start writing in 90 then I can put a nice hip hop beat, and I’m already starting to think about, it’ll go really well with a trip hop or hip hop like a Portishead or a Morcheeba kind of vibe.

I hate using the word vibe but it’s the only appropriate word to use in so many situations. Or if it’s 120 it could be anything from a house track to quite a fast Foals type math-rock type of tune. So those kind of decisions come quite quickly, and then once I’ve decided what kind of road to go down with the tempo and feel, then I’ll start filling out the arrangement with noises and stuff.

Lyric-writing comes towards the end of the creative process.

I write lyrics quite late, because I like to almost sit down as if I’m going to write a poem and make sure that the lyrics make sense. All of the songs on my album, the lyrics are about things that are going on in the world. I don’t naturally sit and write about love and stuff like that. I find it much more interesting to make it an educational experience as well.

I like reading about history and so I have another laptop which I will use to go on my rhyming dictionary, and I go on Wikipedia a lot and I’ll search for things in the news, I’ve got the Guardian app. I like to take time over my lyrics, so they come last.

Live, the songs are often radically rearranged from the album versions, which can be a bit of shock to some sections of her audience!

The thing is, everything takes so long, so you write the songs, and it takes months and months to finally get them recorded and finished, and then it takes ages to get the mixing and mastering done, and by the time I got to do gigs I was bored of the album versions, so I like to completely rearrange things.

Also the tricky thing, because I do have this terrible habit of going from a ballad to 130bpm heavy dance music, when you play live that becomes the thing, the nut that you’ve got to crack, so what I ended up doing was bringing the ballads up, to make them more pacey, and adding beats to them, and smoothing everything out in a way, so the show makes sense.

Next time round, though, she’s aiming for more unity of tone.

I’m working on my second album now, and what I’d really like to do, I’ve just got a craving to create something that is just dynamically at one level. I really envy artists who manage to finish an album and you can like put it on in the car and it doesn’t go from one extreme to another. I want to create something that’s more sophisticated and more mature and more relaxed.

We asked her about her artistic inspiration too - she admires a musician who is a real legend.

I’m a real muso and a music collector, and I’ve been inspired by so much, but I guess the person whose inspired me the most is David Bowie, because he’s just got everything. He inspires me with his cool ethos, his lyrics, his melodies, his chord sequences, his arrangements, the things he says, the way he dresses, everything about him is just magical. He’s just so untouchable, and I love the fact that he doesn’t do interviews any more.