It’s still difficult to talk about, that life-changing event that sent Bambi Lee Savage into an emotional turmoil back in the second month of 1994.
It was, the singer-songwriter told The Ties That Bind Us recently, the beginning of the end. She was just starting to come into her own as a solo artist and was on a return visit to America while living overseas in Berlin. As an assistant recording engineer at that city’s fabled Hansa Tonstudio, she had worked on sessions for U2’s groundbreaking 1991 album, “Achtung Baby,” and a friendship with Bono led the U2 frontman to finance her solo demos. Mick Harvey, a long-time collaborator of Nick Cave, had loaned his talents to the project.
Music, it seemed, was giving her a second chance after cutting her teeth in Denver’s punk scene as a teenager. But then she got drunk, and something horrible happened.
“I was very determined, and was looking for opportunities to get my music career off the ground. But I was also an alcoholic, and little did I realize how vulnerable that made me to being manipulated and exploited by someone I thought I knew,” said Savage, whose birth name is Shannon Strong. “When I started coming face to face with it and seeing it for what it was, my first instinct was to try and plow on past it, to kind of say, ‘So what? Who cares?’ It’s almost like I wanted to embrace it rather than admit how devastated I was.
“But I couldn’t get away from the disappointment in myself for allowing it to happen, and my shame. I had never had this sense of being so ashamed of something, of being afraid that people would find out. At the time, my niece and nephew were almost 2, and the innocence I saw in them just magnified this incredibly shameful world I had stepped into, because of a combination of drinking and ambition. That very ambition that had kept me afloat for so long played a part in my downfall. And that’s when I prayed for the first time.”
Her entreaties came from a skeptical heart, however, and when she didn’t receive any sort of immediate response, she soldiered on, drinking to anesthetize the damage and trying to find something that had been lost — “but throughout those months I just had this sense of a deep need for forgiveness that I knew no human could provide,” she added. Nine months later, before a bartending shift, something happened.
“I had a vision,” she said simply. “I had called on Jesus, and the vision was basically, ‘Okay — you called on Jesus. Now the ball’s in your court.’ That was basically the essence of it. And so I kept that secret in my heart, and when I went back to the United States, I started doing research on the life of Jesus.”
A restless heart, an adventurous spirit
Until that point, Savage and Christianity weren’t on the best of terms. She lost her father when she was young, and a tumultuous childhood led to experimentation with substances at an early age, she said.
“By 11, I had tried cigarettes and alcohol, and then by 13, I was playing around with alcohol a little bit more,” she said. “By 15, I was experimenting with drugs. But I think throughout all of that, I always had some kind of ambition musically, and by 13, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Even though I was getting involved with some things that could potentially hold me back, I had a really strong sense of ambition, and I credit that with keeping me from hitting the bottom of the barrel quicker.”
Born in Florida, she moved with her family to Denver when she was 4, and in her teens, she found a place in the city’s burgeoning punk and alternative communities. Although it would be later in life that she fell in love with country music, many of the bands with which she sang and played featured some twang, drawing equally on influences by Nick Cave, The Cramps and Johnny Cash. While she felt embraced by that scene, she also felt a deeper commitment to music than some of her peers did, she added.
“I did notice that as we went through doing shows and having a great time that I seemed to be taking it a little bit more seriously,” she said. “I had bigger ideas, and I really did want to make it my career. And I had already decided, back when I was 13, that I was going to leave America.”
After a year and a half, she departed for London, where she threw herself into what was left of the punk and New Wave movement that was sweeping the mid-’80s. She stayed there for 2 ½ years, playing in the band Horseland before eventually landing in Berlin in 1988. She found work immediately at Hansa, taking the summer to learn German and starting work in the fall. It was there, she said, that her drinking began to escalate.
“For me, alcohol was both social pleasure and a tool, because it was, for me, the only way I could escape personal pain and the pain of the world,” she said. “I would say that drinking was how I could enjoy myself without feeling guilty about it, because I also knew so many people in the world were suffering all the time, and I’ve always been very sensitive to that.
“It was when I started bartending in Berlin (in 1991, after Hansa closed) that it became a problem. I had some regrettable experiences drinking, and I had some blackouts, but as unpleasant as they were, they never convinced me that I should stop. My whole life was rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s difficult and extremely rare to be in that world in your 20s without indulging in various decadent substances. I certainly enjoyed drinking, and I never thought to myself back then that I should stop, although I did have an awareness that it was maybe getting a little out of control.”
Studio diaries: From Nick Cave to U2
In March of 1988, the Berlin Wall was still standing, and the Cold War was headed toward its climax. West Berlin, however, was an oasis for Savage’s musical soul, and she quickly found her tribe — expatriate bohemians, aspiring musicians, geo-political activists and nihilist artists all gravitated to one another, dressed in black and both listened to and made music from the Western underground that was far removed from anything on popular radio.
When she found work as an assistant engineer at Hansa Tonstudio, one of the artists of whom she was particular fond booked time there. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds recorded basic tracks for 1990’s “The Good Son” at Hansa, and Savage was selected to work on the project.
“It was an honor and a pleasure; obviously Nick Cave was incredible, but they were all incredibly fun people, and the flow and atmosphere made it not seem like work at all,” she said. “Watching Mick Harvey’s input into that creative process was really eye-opening, and I was really surprised at how much of (the band’s) sound was him. It was a career-changing moment, getting to know Mick and seeing him in action.”
The following year, she was called in to give a tour to another band interested in recording at Hansa. While in Denver, she had seen U2 twice, including the legendary show at Red Rocks that would become the soundtrack for the live album “Under a Blood Red Sky.” As the band’s popularity skyrocketed thanks to “The Joshua Tree,” she lost interest, but when she arrived on the day of the tour, she met bassist Adam Clayton and guitarist The Edge, along with producer Flood. At that point, the studio’s owners had scaled back on their investment, and the equipment wasn’t exactly in top shape. The band loved the space anyway, however, and booked time to record what would become a game-changer of the band’s career: 1991’s “Achtung Baby.”
“They used the room and used our basics, but they brought in all of their own stuff, and it was three days of just setting up,” she said. “They moved an additional mixing desk into the control room, and they worked so hard. It was very fun, but it was very intense, and they were there for about two months.”
It was the last session before Hansa closed its doors; the studio wouldn’t reopen until 2008. U2 returned to Dublin to finish the album, and Savage was asked to be a part of those sessions as well.
“Flood was so wonderful to assist, and I consider him very much a mentor,” she said. “He was very good at training me quickly to do demanding things, and I loved working with him.”
A road-to-Damascus moment
She also became a renewed fan of the band — the music, and the four members. Bono, Clayton, The Edge and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. never shied away from being associated with their Christianity, and while that gave her pause as a teen, she looks back on the “Achtung Baby” sessions as the planting of a seed of her own faith.
‘It never came up as a topic; they really played that very low-key, but they treated me so well — like an equal team member. And I think that, after I became a Christian, I realized they were really living it and being it, because they were very respectful and kind, but also a lot of fun,” she said.
If anything, an offhand comment from The Edge would resonate later on in her journey. During an evening out, the subject of astrology came up, she recalls, and he mentioned that Christians are supposed to avoid the practice.
“I must have made some comment about the ‘establishment rules and regulations’ of Christianity, and he replied, ‘But Jesus was a rebel,’” she says. “I can’t remember the entire conversation or the rest of what he said, but that one phrase really stuck with me, and a little part of me thought maybe there was more to this Jesus than I realized.
“And indeed, that turned out to be so! So that definitely opened the door a little bit. And the way they treated me — and everyone — just showed that they were really good, cool people.”
Bono, in fact, encouraged Savage to pursue her own music. Those talents had lain dormant during her time as an engineer, but the U2 singer suggested she get back in touch with Harvey and even offered to pay for studio time to record a batch of demos.
“That gave me the push I needed to ask,” she said. “For him to say, ‘I would be so interested in hearing what that would sound like,’ that gave me the nerve to ask Mick about it.”
In 1995, her life changed forever. After the aforementioned traumatic event and subsequent return to the States, she began her journey toward Christianity. The more she researched Jesus, the more she began to discover that Christ was unlike the strict and oppressive overseer he was often portrayed as from church pulpits.
“Jesus was the ultimate coolness, and I realized that Jesus loved women and that he was actually perfect, and we all know no mere human can be perfect!” she said. “About a year after I prayed, I became a Christian. I have to emphasize this process had a very supernatural element — I did the research but God made it real. I was still drinking at this point, though. It was almost like there was some part of me that knew I could have more control in my life if I didn’t drink, but I kept it suppressed so I didn’t have to make a decision about it.
“But as a Christian, I fell in love with Jesus, and I wanted to make it up to him, not realizing that’s not how it works. My first big drinking binge after I became a Christian was my wake-up call. I woke up the next morning and just thought, ‘I’m not doing that anymore. I’m not doing that to you, I’m not doing that to me, and I’m going to be fully accountable to you from now on for everything I say and do and think, so when it’s bad, I’m not going to be able to blame the drinking.”
From that morning forward, she’s been clean and sober. She even stopped smoking, and what she discovered was a newfound freedom that she doesn’t take for granted.
“For whatever reason, God just made it easy for me,” he said. “It’s a mystery, because I know a lot of people with the same faith I have are still struggling.”
In 1995, she began to get some traction for her music. A German documentary — “Lost in Music: Out of Country” — featured two of her alt-country songs, “I Can’t Count on My Man” and “Demon Alcohol.” One song from a set of early demos, “Darlin’,” caught the attention of producer Daniel Lanois and actor/musician Billy Bob Thornton, who selected it for the soundtrack to Thornton’s film “Sling Blade.” Harvey covered “Demon Alcohol” on his 2005 solo album, “One Man’s Treasure,” and both it and “I Can’t Count on My Man” appear on Savage’s most recent album, “Berlin-Nashville Express.” Unlike her previous albums — 2003’s “Matter of Time,” 2009’s “GJ and the PimpKillers” and 2012’s “Darkness Overshadowed” — her latest, released earlier this year, reflects a love of country that she discovered later in her career.
“It really all began one night in the bar I used to go into, where they were playing Hank Williams (Sr.) — and I had never heard him before!” she said. “It surprised me, because I was never really into country music other than Johnny Cash, which every punk kid in Denver loved. Growing up, I could not get into that ’80s country stuff at all, but Hank’s music and voice just resonated with me, and then I started asking around and getting exposed to more.
“His music was the start, and then Loretta Lynn’s book, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ just blew me away. To me she seemed like a bit of a punk feminist to me, and as I read her story, I realized she was a real trailblazer, and it inspired me on so many different levels.”
And so, at 56 years old, she’s playing music with a swagger and sass that’s in stark contrast to the darker themes of her previous records. “Berlin-Nashville Express” bounces and pops with an effervescent charm, and if there’s any justice in Nashville, Savage will elbow her way to a spot at the bar (non-alcoholic drinks only for her, please) alongside women like Margo Price and Kacey Musgraves. Her age gives her music a resonance usually reserved for the grand dames of a genre — Lynn, for example, or Wanda Jackson.
And her experiences make her subject matter, from the razor-tongued lamentation of “Demon Alcohol” to the freight-train shuffle of “Drinker of Gin,” well-versed in the pitfalls of boozy nights and bad decisions. That she chooses to unabashedly champion her faith alongside the darker stuff is a testament to the duality of Savage’s sobriety: born of darkness, delivered by light.
“I had made a commitment to God, who never asked me to make it, that I would always put at least one song about him on every record,” she said.
Sustained by faith and rock 'n' roll
Nods to her faith helped sustain her during the more frustrating moments of making the new album. Stops and starts and industry setbacks have delayed her productivity, and there were times, she said, that her career has been an “emotional roller coaster.” In the early days, her sobriety, like that of so many recovering alcoholics, was beset by urges to drink, but in those moments, she remembered her commitment to her faith.
“I made a commitment, and that was a way to establish my identity as an adopted child of God,” she said. “I’m His, and I’m going to try and not make Him — or me! — sorry.”
These days, making her home in Nashville, she still faces challenges. She’s still a sensitive soul, and in this day and age, the visceral darkness nipping at the heels of contemporary society pains her tender heart in ways that sometimes bring her to tears.
Country — particularly alt-country — has a forgiving tendency to it, however, and she’s found a path forward that allows her to express all of those things in her music.
“Right now, this day, things are good; probably the best they’ve ever been,” she said. “But it grieves me deeply to know how much suffering there is in this world, and I cannot help but pay attention to those things. It’s a part of my daily life, and while I don’t spend my whole day there, any time I look at the news, there are so many things going on in my mind, and I feel obligated to take it in.
“As far as my sobriety goes, that was something I had to do for me, because my drinking was a real problem. But I think that for a community of non-drinkers, it’s important for us to be there when other people are going through it, and also to let people who still drink know that nobody’s judging anybody.”