Moving on from the defunct O Emperor, Paul Savage is striking out on a solo run under the Whozyerman? moniker.
There’s an age-old question every musician in Ireland faces at family functions: Are you still at the music? Its ubiquity is so strong that the phrase features as a distorted refrain on BlurBlob, an enveloping composition in the final act of Blink, the debut record from Whozyerman? “Maybe it’s a sort of Catholic guilt that you have to suffer in life,” posits Paul Savage, in dismantling the innocuous query over Zoom. “When you tell someone you’re a musician, they might react with, ‘What? You get to actually enjoy what you do!’ Most of the time, they’re not being facetious about it. Ireland is still a very conservative country where taking a risk is a strange thing. I think there’s an admiration for the courage it takes to do it, because they wouldn’t know where to start, or feel it’s not a viable way of making a living. It’s a very hard way of life.”
A hard life, indeed, but one that can teach you a great deal. For Paul Savage, the musician behind the Whozyerman? moniker, his current guise has been instrumental in bringing a fresh perspective and approach to creating music. Based in Bray, Savage is one of Ireland’s most inventive and incisive songwriters.
Originally introduced to audiences as a member of the Waterford-via-Cork outfit O Emperor, whose disbandment in 2018 coincided with the release of their third LP, Jason. That record garnered critical acclaim along with the highly coveted ‘Album of the Year’ title at the Choice Music Prize. Jason, their final chapter (a prologue to Savage’s solo material) is a record of great imagination and experimentation. Returning to it today, it continues to be a breath of fresh air.
In its essence, Blink feels like a first cousin to Jason. It’s equally kaleidoscopic in its timbre. While there’s a likeness to the melodic sensibility (the seeds for some of the songs were initially laid whilst recording Jason), the process of making Blink saw Savage reconfigure his compositional approach.
“I enjoyed wanting to learn the process of recording and doing something completely on my own. Even if it was haphazardly learning more about keyboards or little drum machines. At the time I wasn’t even thinking that this was going to be an album. It was just part killing time, part enjoying having the time to try new things.” He continues, “With O Emperor’s material, normally I relied on Brendan (Fennessy, the band’s drummer) to take on the role of the head engineer. He’d always done the nitty gritty of editing and mixing. It was nice to figure that out myself, making more producer-type decisions. ‘Where is this going?’ or ‘Is this any good?’ It’s an interesting thing to do because you have to be subjective whilst being in the music as well. That said though, Brendan did end up mixing some of the stuff!” he laughs.
In 2018 he relocated to Bray, where he amassed over a hundred tracks which he then whittled down to ten wonderfully diverse songs. Across the tracklist, there are traces of Air’s Moon Safari on Blinking Back and Forth while reverberations of Stereolab and Broadcast’s sinisterly intoned electronic textures reside within Savage’s unique artistry.
Looking back on the period between the end of O Emperor and the beginning of Whozyerman?, Savage recalls, “I was already in a headspace of solitude before [the pandemic and lockdown] started. When the pandemic hit, I was already in that stride of home recording. I’d had two years of endlessly recording various things without really thinking too much about it and going back through files, almost like leafing through a sketchbook, and clicking on random sessions. It’s always nice to revisit a demo, having forgotten what it is, and be like, ‘Oh, ok. I’ll put a little bass line to this and maybe some keyboards on that and put it away again for a while. It sounds like I was a hermit, but I wasn’t!”
If anything, a quieter existence enabled Savage to absorb his surroundings more, which would feed into his songwriting. “All The Time to Kill came from walking around,” he explains. “Obviously the last two years were spent aimlessly walking around which was surprisingly enjoyable, especially with the lifting of the anxiety of all the things you had to do. At the start there was a sense of comfort knowing everyone was doing nothing. There was a surrealness to that. The lyrics for that song came from having the space to look at what’s around you. Stuff you maybe never noticed because you were always going somewhere or thinking of different things you have to do in the future. It was very much having to live in the moment even though the moment was incredibly banal!”
Much like the paradox of life being simultaneously surreal and banal over the last two years, lyrically there’s a welcome dichotomy of wit and worldly assessments which add to the breadth of the record’s overall mood. Finding that balance whilst taking the time to push his lyricism forward was important to Savage for Whozyerman?’s material. “With [O Emperor], the music always came first. When we were making Jason, we’d listen to jams and shoehorn a vocal that fit nicely around what was there in the instrumentation. I find that a nice process, too,” he explains. “But with Blink, I enjoyed being more meticulous about the lyrics as opposed to using them as another instrument. What I wanted to do this time was to write lyrics, poetry really, away from all music. If I was on the train or sitting somewhere, just trying to jot down lines. And not in any poetic sense, but purely just as a sketch to have lines for when I wanted to put down a vocal. I could leaf through a notebook and have a line to say instead of mumbling. At least then you have something to hook it. And maybe that might subconsciously spark off an idea where you go, ‘Ok there’s a line about this…’ It might start to give you a context or to ruminate on and return with.”
With Blink, Savage has built a sonic retreat for listeners to escape reality. The (unintentional) recording of the album also provided a source of great solace. “Korg brought out the Volca series and I got a few of them. Playing around with them can be a therapeutic process. When something repeats itself back to you, you get into a hypnotic rhythm of composing. I got into a space of playing the same thing over and over again. That way of writing was therapeutic. It was kind of like a mantra or form of meditation where you can get in the flow. Especially when you’re building up the loop, or layering drones on synths or pedals. With a drone, even though it’s the same note, it could have a different vibration or certain timbre to it that you can get very lost in. There was a lot of enjoyment in becoming the robot in the sequence. Even if it was just playing one note to add to the arrangement, I’d happily sit for two minutes to play that one note and steadily layer the textures bit by bit,” he fondly remembers.
Textures that are tremendously warm and inviting, leaving listeners eagerly anticipating the return of Whozyerman?.
Blink is out now via Whoz Asking?
Words: Zara Hedderman
Photo: Celeste Burdon