She writes songs that could have boomed out the Brill Building circa 1962, but her songwriting is more than teen angst. This is adult pop nostalgia, with yearnings from the Shangri-Las to the Carpenters, a nod to the Pretenders, a wink at the Pipettes and then a long fond farewell to the girl groups of yesterday, in a debut solo album that has been 30 years in the making.
Speaking from her native New Zealand, Dons Savage talks to MOJO’s Dave Henderson on how it started and just how that debut album finally saw the light of day in celebration of new album ‘Harry’ out now on Fire Records.
Dead Famous People’s ‘Harry’ album was met with plaudits and praise upon it’s release last month. 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.
You’ve been on hiatus for some time, why the long break?
Dons: “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”.
Dead Famous People first emerged in the 1980s, releasing on the likes of Flying Nun and earning praise from the likes of John Peel, who invited them in for a session. However, things didn’t work out and to the dismay of many fans, they never released a proper album.
“When we settled in London 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. 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.”
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.
“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.”
Three decades later Dons was tracked down by Fire Records and given the opportunity to finally enter the studio to record. Somewhat more philosophical than her earlier work, ‘Harry’ is an album that feels like the right one for a world of uncertainty.
The songs 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.
And, there’s more to come…
“I’m in the middle of the next album already,” enthuses Dons, “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.”
Photo credit: Frances Carter
Praise for “HARRY”
“Triumphant and Heartbreaking” Troy Ferguson, 95bFM
“Exceptionally catchy and emotionally vast” Under The Radar NZ
“One of those rare albums that is thoughtful, catchy, and a delight to listen to – a melodic treasure” NZ Musician
“Chiming guitars, an upbeat ethic and summershine tunes have rarely sounded so refreshing. Or, right now, as necessary.” Elsewhere, by Graham Reid
“Channelling the Brill Building pop of Carole King as well as the scruffy, giddy New Zealand pop/rock of Dead Famous People’s origins .. ‘Harry’ is an indie pop gem” ★★★★ AllMusic
“Her songcraft – equal parts Brill Building and indie jangle – remains undimmed, while her spiky defiance has mellowed into songs of devotion, occasional lust and philosophy” Mojo
“Songs thrive on the steadiness and smarts that come with experience, all while keeping a handle on the verve that made the old stuff such a treat.” ★★★★½The Vinyl District
“Compelling .. with the charm and the hooks of late-’70s Nick Lowe and swoons like prime Kirsty MacColl” Brooklyn Vegan
“Perfectly imperfect pop” Clash
“Albummet lyder som Chills-sangen hun for 30 år siden var med og koret på; en «Heavenly pop hit»” ★★★★★ Stavanger Aftenblad
“Un retour inespéré (…) Les dix chansons d’Harry séduisent instantanément” Les Inrocks
“10 kitschig-kraftvolle Jangle Rock Songs, die in eine grosse und längst vergangene Ära der Indie-Musik zurückversetzen.” Album of the week – SRF3, Sounds!
“Zehn Indie-Pop-Perlen” Journal Frankfurt
“Charmante rammelpop” Gonzo Circus
“Een verfrissend en aangenaam ongecompliceerd album dat erg goed in elkaar zit” ★★★★½ MPodia
“Son deliciosos” La Cadena SER, Hoy por Hoy
“Insólito regreso al esplendor” Fernando Neira, Un Disco Al Dia
“Al pop que nunca tendrá fecha de caducidad” Muzikalia
“Cori stratosferici, chitarre jingle jangle scintillanti e melodie sublimi, tra esultanza e malinconia” Rockerilla
“Un disco che prende fin dal primo ascolto” Rootshighway