Anna B Savage – a voyage of self-discovery and wanking

"I was small and timid and just so uncomfortable in my own skin so I had to build everything back up"

Most people’s New Year’s resolutions are humdrum: night-time pottery classes, travelling to more countries beginning with M, that sort of thing. For Anna B Savage, it has been to wank more.

Not your average objective for the year ahead, I say, sipping tea in the (extremely quiet) Queen Elizabeth Hall cafe on London’s Southbank, worried our booth neighbours are listening. 

“Basically I wanted to wank more!” laughs Anna, suddenly not caring who can hear us. “I was sad that I had never thought to learn; I thought I could be in charge of that. I got to a point where I was reading all this feminist literature which made me realise I am not in control here; I am not getting off in a lot of the scenarios that I am having with heterosexual men so I need to take this into my own hands. Also, I love making lists and that was right at the top. Second on the list was to learn to whistle with my fingers in my mouth, which I also did!”

In basic terms, it turns out wanking was the creative catalyst Anna needed, the result being a new album set for release this year that deals head-on with female sexuality and discovery. It’s the next step from Anna’s breakthrough EP, that came out in 2015 followed by an abrupt silence. “Yeah I kind of disappeared,” she says. “I wasn’t having the best time in my own brain – that was the first thing that happened. People were nice about my first EP and I just wasn’t expecting it. I just thought I am never going to be able to write anything as good as that ever again. It’s quite funny as I released a single yesterday and people have been saying this is so great but my brain is already saying, ‘you’re never going to write anything as good as that again’, so I am like, ‘oh no not you again, shut up!’. I am better at batting my brain away today – that’s the difference between now and then.”

Back in 2015, Anna’s fragility echoed throughout her frank and honest debut; listening back now, it’s a startling collection of songs that earned her tour slots with the likes of Father John Misty and Jenny Hval before cataclysmic life changes halted her progress. “After the EP I broke up with someone and moved back to London. How can I put this, I was small and timid and just so uncomfortable in my own skin so I had to build everything back up. There were building blocks put in place right from the bottom, I had loads of different jobs and I was just following things that I love. I was always desperately trying to write music, but I was thinking everything I am writing is shit, it felt like pulling teeth, it was so painful. I was just thinking, why can’t I do this anymore?”

It turns out wanking was the cure, along with her decision to make a film about virginity with the ex-boyfriend from that break up. Anna can’t help but laugh at herself.

“Yes, I’m so weird aren’t I? Female sexuality, that’s a very strong theme throughout both the album and this film. It’s a portrayal of me losing my virginity. I’ve been working on it for 3-and-a-half years; it’s morphed from a music documentary into a film about memory, fallibility of memory, perceptions and, of course, sex. The film and the album are companion pieces that stand alone. There are songs on the album about him and there are songs on the album that are about the filming process.” 

It must have been an emotional journey – a raw exploration into something so private as one’s own virginity. 

“That’s right. It’s been tough. In the film we re-live losing our virginities, having the actors work out what we remember, where does your left hand go at this point, where does your right hand go? How many thrusts are there? We hadn’t spoken for several years since we broke up, so we did loads of interviews separately with a third person, a close friend to both of us, so we wouldn’t infiltrate each other’s memories, the two versions of the virginity play out next to each other. It’s very stark and our memories are quite different. It goes back to the female pleasure thing: I don’t cum, I don’t get anywhere near cumming, and it lasts for about 25 seconds, just all the stuff that isn’t normally shared.” 

I point out that she’s about to share that information twice, in both an audio and visual format. “It’s so bizarre! I don’t think I would encourage anyone else to do it as it’s been quite difficult, but it’s worked for me and for us, I think. It’s strange trying to remember why you loved someone and why you were with someone, drudging those feelings up from out of the dirt. I leak a lot anyway but there has been a lot of crying. It’s been a real learning curve and seeing the difference in him has been incredible too.”

As if Anna’s new single, ‘Chelsea Hotel #3’, wasn’t shocking enough in its scream for female autonomy and pleasure, it ends with a glorious lyric about Tim Curry in lingerie. Anna smiles in recognition. 

“I think it was the first time that I ever felt something downstairs and thought, ooooh what is going on? I was watching Rocky Horror Show for a first time when I was 10 or 11 and I remember that being the moment where I thought what is happening down there!” Anna gleefully namechecks influences like these throughout every song she’s written, almost as if she can’t help it. 

“These are the things peppered through my album – there is Spice by the Spice Girls, Funeral by Arcade Fire, films like Y Tu Mama Tambien; I literally namecheck all of them. I don’t know if I do it on purpose so much, but I know that it’s very important to me that there are streams and rivers and to know what stuff is flowing in from where. I spent so long when I couldn’t write, and when I was finding it so hard to create anything I was struggling with the idea of people plucking this amazing stuff from out of thin air and they were just able to do it, wake up one day and just do it.”

It’s clear Anna takes pride in her body of work – the first EP in 2015 was a solo labour of love; for the album she enlisted the help of William Doyle, an artist in his own right who was looking to develop his production skills. “It was a dream,” she says. “I had spent nearly 3 years up until he got involved, where I had tried different things but ran out of money, but he put out a thing on social media saying I am looking to produce things and if anyone is interested please get in touch. Within twenty seconds I was typing away to him. I knew the kind of audio world that I wanted it to be in – really intricate and with tiny metallic audio things going on – I didn’t know how to do it. He understood the world that I was trying to create – it was perfect.” 

I ask what it was like to suddenly find yourself in a room with another headstrong musician. “William is such a joy,” says Anna. “I tend to go off on red herrings – oh shiny things. He is very good at not doing that, saying, you know, maybe we should do a bit more work now. Just spending 2 or 3 days with him for over 6 months was great. I was embarrassed though, not knowing all the terms. I would say I want it to be earth and mud with sparkles, so he was very patient.” The pair finished the album before sending it to City Slang, a much-admired label who quickly signed Anna to their roster. After years of toil it was a moment to cherish. 

“Yes, it’s totally cemented the hard work, but having done the album before I was signed, with just Will and then presenting the album, that was where the pride comes from. I have spent years honing this. So, City Slang saying yes was also very nice.”

You’re not going to disappear again, are you, I ask as we step out onto a wind-swept Southbank. “Last time I read everything. I think that was part of my demise. But it’s hard as it just gets filtered into my eyes and I can’t avoid it. It’s hard to know what I am going to do. Don’t worry, I am not going to vanish for another five years, that’s far too sad. I promise I won’t read reviews or listen to anyone, I’ll just do my own thing.”