Savannah Buist of The Accidentals

by Jeff Suwak



Things were really starting to heat up for The Accidentals just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The band had spent the majority of 2018 and 2019 touring North America, Ireland, and England. They'd released two live albums (The Accidentals On Audiotree Live and Live) and a third studio album, Odyssey, with their new label, Sony Masterworks. Then, just as it did with the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic forced The Accidentals into a dead stop.

The inertia didn't last long. Quarantined together from the outset, The Accidentals trio of Savannah Buist, Katie Larson, and Michael Dause, got to work. They were also able to collaborate online with a number of notable songwriters, including Tom Paxton, Dar Williams, Maia Sharp, and Mary Gauthier. The resulting album is the beautiful, contemplative TIME OUT (Session 1), set to release on May 7, 2021.

Lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Savannah Buist (Sav) spoke with Songfacts about TIME OUT, pandemic life, and an eventual return to touring.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): What was the genesis for "Night Train?"

Savannah Buist: "Night Train" is one of our favorite songs we've ever written - particularly because we had the honor to write it with Dar Williams.

When we were just starting out we had the opportunity to perform with her at the Birchmere,1 and my mom told me that night that when I was born she was listening to Dar's The Beauty Of The Rain album. Then we played Sisters Folk Festival together and caught Dar's set at Folk Alliance. We just kept running into each other - some things just happen the way they are meant to happen. The co-write was a lot like that.

A lot of songs start as conversations where we are just looking for the commons between us. Beth Nielsen Chapman taught us that: She made us tea and told us about her life before we'd even written a line down. It takes the nervousness and awkwardness out of the equation. So when we got on a call with Dar, of course the conversation wandered to travel, something we'd both been doing for years, and she had recently written a whole book about her experiences.

The mutual experience of finding communities and hope and good people in out-of-the-way places really spoke to all three of us. Dar told us about a recent train ride she had taken and, sometimes, the lines spoken with candor were penned verbatim. As the weeks followed, we continued to flesh out the meaning behind the song, and eventually it fit well into TIME OUT's theme of overcoming, resiliency, and healing. It's the song that allows time for the process, while acknowledging the work left to be done.

Songfacts: 2018: 200 days of touring and 17 festivals.

2019: Album, more touring, stolen gear trailer.2

2020: Locked down at home and forced to do everything via Zoom.

What was it like to go from your frenetic pre-lockdown pace to being forced to slow down, and in the middle of what seems like amazing momentum for you all, no less?

Buist: It was surreal. It's like running full speed into a glass door.

We were on the second leg of a 30-stop tour that included seven indie-rock shows at SXSW and five orchestra concerts and finishing the Vessel album with our bucket list producer in Portland. All of which got nixed.

Believe it or not we've been working on our upcoming album, Vessel, for three years, through all of that. Vessel is the album about perspective - particularly perspective concerning time and how it moves. We think of it a little bit like an airplane. When you're sitting in the airplane, it feels like it's hardly moving at all. When you're on the ground, you can see it inching across the sky. In reality, it's moving ridiculously fast. And all of those perspectives are true enough, it just depends on where you're standing.

So we were already trying to capture that sense of perspective when our trailer was stolen. Then our van was totaled... and just when we had put things back together, the world shut down. We lost all of our income for the year in a blink of an eye, and we weren't the only ones. Venues and artists and booking agencies all struggled to figure out how to shift gears.

Though it was a really scary year, some genuine growth and goodness came out of it. There was a huge movement of normalizing mental health, since everyone was experiencing some amount of grief and trauma, and being able to talk about it made us feel less alone. Time was a true gift. We picked up different skill sets. We learned how to use multiple streaming platforms, how to write over Zoom with incredible artists, how to build a recording studio in an attic, and how to be present and practice gratitude.

Thanks to our Patreon, we had a constant creative safety net to catch us whenever things got scary. And thanks to the radio stations that spun our music even when we couldn't tour it, and to venues that supported our livestreams with their time and energy, we were able to keep doing what we love.

Songfacts: Speaking of that gear trailer, did that experience strengthen your bond with your fans?

Buist: Our FAMgrove has always been strong, but holy cow. We were totally blown away by the sheer amount of support after our trailer was stolen. People from all over the country - and sometimes outside the US - sent funds, gas cards, cookies, and even blankets to replace the Star Wars blanket that was in my pedalboard case.

Our gear sponsors stepped up and replaced a lot of what was lost at cost or free. We've never doubted the support from all the music lovers we've been able to befriend and play music for, but it's still amazing to feel that love in force when such a staggering event has happened.

Around that time, we'd actually started a Patreon where we did behind-the-scenes videos and livestreams, as well as a weekly tour blog. As a result, they really were a part of the process of putting the pieces back together. They are family at this point.

Songfacts: What did you find most different about the songwriting and recording process when done over Zoom rather than in person?

Buist: Well, we are introverts, so hanging out in my room on Zoom is not a bad thing. Saying that, some things are easier and some things are harder.

It's easier to just get on the phone rather than travel to a location and find each other. It's harder to create a genuine connection and play ideas for each other or join each other crafting a song. Meeting over Zoom is weird, letting the silence sit. It's hard to see emotion or feel "mood," so you really have to be communicative and trust each other a little more. Everyone writes differently, too, so we have to really be intuitive that first co-write to make sure we aren't taking ownership of a song or leaving someone hanging. It's been an adventure and we have learned a ton, so it's been worth it.

Songfacts: "All Shall Be Well" seems particularly poignant coming in the chaotic times it's arrived in. What sparked that song?

Buist: "All Shall Be Well" was written three days before Christmas in 2020 over Zoom with Mary Gauthier and Jaimee Harris, and it couldn't have come a day sooner. We were reaching the end of a very long year of isolation, wildfires, election cycles, and protests. So when Mary asked, "How about 'All shall be well?'" it was like finally being able to exhale after holding a breath for a really long time.

The song was written within an hour. The words were simple, yet we spent time making sure they would speak to anyone who really needed to hear the words.

"All Shall Be Well" is by no means painting a perfect picture for the world going forward. It's just a reminder that it's OK to breathe every once in a while. It's a promise that it is going to be okay - sometimes it just takes a minute. That's definitely something Katie and I needed to hear at the time.

Songfacts: Who did the sketches for the single covers?

It's literally clip art in an app called Canva. Art is subjective [smiles].

Songfacts: Tom Paxton co-wrote "Anyway." How'd you hook up with him?

Buist: Our booking agency, Fleming Artists, are known for their family-like approach to their artists roster. They are really supportive and caring and during Covid they took the initiative to set up weekly Zoom calls that allowed the agents and all the artists to come together and talk about the state of the industry, and sometimes we would get together and just play songs we were working on.

We played one of our songs called "Cityview" on one of these calls. Tom Paxton, who is a fellow roster mate, reached out shortly after and asked if we would be interested in doing a weekly songwriting session. As of August 2020, every Monday we've been writing with him. He is one of the sweetest, most respectful and most respected songwriters we've ever gotten the chance to work with. Though there are 60 years between us, it really goes to show that music is the bridge that connects us all.

Songfacts: Paxton isn't listed as a performer on the song. Is there a reason for that?

Buist: None of the co-writers actually performed on the album. We just wrote the songs with them and then arranged and recorded them as The Accidentals.

Michael had some great production ideas for songs like "Might As Well Be Gold," so we let him run with it. We actually recorded TIME OUT EP Session 1 in isolation, in our attic studio called Atticus Blue Studios up in northern Michigan. Katie, Michael and I were quarantined together from the very beginning, and though our original plan was to release and tour Vessel, we decided the TIME OUT songs needed to come out first. As a result, it's just Katie, Michael, and I performing on this record, with the exception of my dad, Rick, who dropped some piano on "Night Train" at midnight one night.



Songfacts: Let's jump in the time machine real quick. Can you tell us about Bittersweet?

Buist: Wow, Bittersweet was our first album. Katie and I were 17, 18 maybe? It was a time of transition to new schools, the ending of high school, deciding to take a production deal... there was a lot going on.

We recorded those songs over spring break and prom. We drove to Nashville to record with Rob Feaster - still one of our favorite producers - at Quad Studios. Billy Strings played on that album along with some of our musical friends from high school and Emmylou's bass player.

Songfacts: How about "Earthbound"?

Buist: "Earthbound" is one of the songs off of our album Odyssey, which we released with Sony Masterworks in 2018.

For a lot of my life, I've struggled with mental health, including bouts of depression, lucid dreaming, and insomnia. Sometimes it can feel like a separate entity standing in your way, blocking you from where you want to be. I wrote "Earthbound" as a reminder that even when it feels absolutely hopeless, it won't always be that way. It's a reminder that those struggles with mental health don't define the whole of me, and they won't hold me down.

Songfacts: "Wildfire" captured emotions from the most uncertain COVID times. How does the song feel to you now, with a little bit of temporal space added and a slightly less uncertain national situation.

Buist: I think we'll always look back on "Wildfire" with a sense of reverence for the time.

For me, it's a good reminder that looking away from the spark, it doesn't stop a fire from growing. Sometimes, you see it coming, and sometimes you don't.

A lot of my personal struggle has to do with control, and if there's anything I've learned from those uncertain times, it's that you can't control what happens - you can only control how you react to what happens. That's the big takeaway for me when I listen to "Wildfire" these days.

Songfacts: These songs grew out of social isolation and digital collaboration, not in person and on stage as is usually done. Because of that, do you anticipate any extra challenges or problems assuming, and hoping, you get to tour TIME OUT?

Buist: [Laughs] We performed the whole thing on the Ann Arbor Folk Festival livestream. We had intense rehearsal for two days, hired a string team, invited Kim Richey to join us, ran through it all once at the venue and went for it. So, yeah, we're down for that.

We know there are a lot of challenges to come as we figure out how to reach a semblance of normalcy. In the meantime, we are playing it super safe. We've been living with immunocompromised people for the entire duration of isolation, and none of us want to do anything to put their lives, or anyone's lives, in jeopardy if we can help it. So, we are starting slow this summer and amping up in October. If it's safe to tour again, there will be lots of elbow bumps, lots of tears shed, and lots to unpack. It's a good time to play the TIME OUT EP. That's what it was made for - to process, to grieve, to heal.

May 3, 2021

More at theaccidentalsmusic.com

More interviews:
Dar Williams
Mary Gauthier
Maia Sharp

Photos: Aryn Madigan

Footnotes:

  • 1] The Birchmere is a historically significant music venue in Alexandria, Virginia. Some legendary musicians have performed there, including Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Little Richard, Joan Baez, and Tom Paxton. (back)
  • 2] In 2019 thieves stole The Accidentals' gear trailer from the parking lot of a hotel in Tucson, Arizona, taking $70,000 worth of stuff. Before eight days had passed, fans had contributed more than $40,000 to help the band continue. (back)

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