Meet Portland’s new queen of angst and judgement

“I think I talk too much,” is the ideal opening gambit for a magazine interview, but, when engaged in conversation, Alexandra Savior is less concerned by any torrents of verbal diarrhea as she is by the fidgety self-analysis that they’d subsequently incite. “I’m a motormouth,” she continues, “so usually there’s a really strange psychological process afterwards, because it is kind of a complex thing to sit there and reveal things, but then I just decided to be honest and then that made it easier.”

“I should be mysterious and sexy,” she suggests, when asked if she feels she gives too much of herself away, “but I’m not.”

In reality, of course, she’s the perfect interviewee - funny, sweet, bashful and considered - and, as I hunker down on a plate of hangover-staving cookies, I almost feel intrusive as she coyly hugs her knees when talking.

We’re sequestered in a booth within a private hotel suite high atop Austin while down below South By South West rumbles on, and in this towering tranquility I finally have the opportunity to meet the chanteuse behind the hauntingly beautiful ‘Belladonna Of Sadness’, an album bristling with smoky sultriness, and delve into the sources of its distinctly noir themes.

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Pursuing music from an early age (“because I was real shit at school”), her first tentative experiences with the industry - despite winning approval from Courtney Love - were jaded by its determination to mould her into an unnaturally fitting pop-shaped teen. “There are decisions that were made that don’t represent me in the way that I want to be represented,” she admits, “and I think that I wasn’t strong enough to do this on my own, and so I should have just not done it, but instead you have people pushing you this way and that, and you end up…somewhere.”

Refusing to compromise may have proven a challenge, but in learning to trust her instincts, it allowed Alexandra to gradually understand who she was as an artist. Moving on a whim from her native Portland, Oregon, to write songs in Los Angeles, the relocation’s impact on her music was significant, but for all the wrong reasons.

“When I first started song writing, it was really just like melodic and I didn’t have any inspiration or direction. There was no structure whatsoever,” she says. “And then, when I moved out to Los Angeles, it got really dark, I think. I was writing about depression and it took a heavy turn. And then I sort of started to get more of my own interests that evolved through just having a lot of time to think on my own. So then that turned into something else, and then suddenly I just became…now I just can’t stop writing about murdering people.”

She laughs, but the trauma of her time there is still evident.

“I had no clue how to socialise with adults that aren’t asking you questions because they are interested, they’re asking you questions that are directly trying to guide you into letting them know what they can get from you,” she sighs. “It was a judgmental place and I struggled… I took those judgments personally instead of just saying, ‘Ah, fuck you,’ or whatever. Some guy living off his parents’ money and calling himself a modern artist telling me that I’m a shit pop star wannabe or whatever when I’m 18? It’s hard to process that, especially when you’re on your own, so that was difficult. I didn’t want to. I just hated everyone.”

Escaping the city’s narcissistic oppression by retreating to her bedroom, where she was “alone and stoned…for the whole two years that I lived there,” Alexandra underwent a creative evolution that produced a wealth of material, which would bear her debut album.

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There were, however, some memorable highlights of her time spent in LA (she’s now back in Portland). Signed to Columbia in that time, it was the label that suggested she meet with Alex Turner. The Arctic Monkeys frontman was duly enchanted, and leapt at the chance to write with and record her, drafting in James Ford to co-produce. It was a dream team to realise the cinematic potential of Alexandra’s songs with an ethereal desert rock panorama, but though the notion of collaborating was too great to refuse, it did again throw up more considerations of compromise.

“I actually think I wanted to be able to hide behind something, somebody else,” she reveals, adding the pressures of being who other people wanted her to be were becoming too overbearing. “And so it was really nice to have somebody there that the attention could just go to him and I didn’t have to worry about not having support from the label and things like that anymore, because he just has his magic power. But now, I’m like, ‘Ahh…’ I keep thinking I should have never submitted to having somebody else have the strength for me because I wasn’t ready.”

Nevertheless, the fruits of their labour are succulent and delicious, and do exalt Savior as a captivating voice. ‘Belladonna Of Sadness’ begins with ‘Mirage’, in which she inhabits the bolshy Anna-Marie Mirage, who embodies the more obstinate side of her own personality; “I sing songs about whatever the fuck they want,” she sneers. ‘Girlie’ is wickedly caustic, an obvious result of her time in LA: “Talk about Hollywood problems / She’s got ’em,” she taunts, “She’s always looking for a wilder ride / And she’ll be fuckin’ with her phone all night”. “I do hope that there are some people that don’t ever hear that song,” Alexandra blushes, “because there are some pretty direct references in that one.”

There’s a romantic vulnerability to ‘Belladonna Of Sadness’, evident in the lovelorn ‘M.T.M.E’ and the bruised hindsight of ‘Cupid’ (“Cupid shoots to kill,” she warns), that’s explored in more spiteful tones in ‘Til You’re Mine’, which takes aim at the “bitch” that stole her man, and the devastatingly vicious finale, ‘Mystery Girl’, that addresses her ex. “Don’t you try and calm me down,” she cautions, as the echoing murder ballad builds to an ominous climax.

“It’s quite an explosion of angst and judgment,” she says of the album with a giggle. “There’s a lot of judgment of others, which I feel kinda bad about, but I might as well do it.”

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Sure, her rancor is palpable throughout, but while ‘Belladonna…’ is undoubtedly dark, it’s anything but distressing. Her voice and provocative delivery imbues the songs with warmth and an infallible humanity that breathlessly lures you in. “Well, that had to do with the sun and all the cigarettes and marijuana,” she sniggers.

As an introduction to Alexandra Savior’s distinctive brand of alluring edginess, ‘Belladonna…’ is practically flawless, yet its creator isn’t about to let it define her. Having forged this path of self-discovery and followed it thus far, it’s vital for her to retain control of her individuality as it evolves. “It was something I didn’t understand until I had already made a record,” she explains. “At first I was really stressed out about people perceiving me in a certain way or listening in the right way or not, or seeing the right images, and so I was on the phone all the time like, ‘We can’t put the video out, we can’t do this, we can’t do that, arrrrgh!’ Mostly because I was afraid. I’ve let go of that in a way where I’m not as controlling, but now I think [I know] who I am more, so it will just be a little easier to create those things.”

I’ve lived with the album for a couple of weeks before our meeting, which arrives shortly before its release, so the attention of the rest of the world has yet to turn on her, but, given Turner’s involvement and her beguiling charm, it seems that’s inevitable. When we meet again a month later, Alexandra will have stepped off stage at Hackney’s Oslo, having won over her sold-out crowd with a bewitching combination of menace and seduction that’s radiated out from under her fringe. (See? Mysterious and sexy after all!) That interest will surely multiply, but growing fame may also bring with it more pressure that will affect the control she craves - something she’s fearful of.

“[I’m afraid of] losing what I know personally - not even anything about my artistic image, losing control of that - but just more about losing what I know about my own intimate self,” she says, looking ahead, and loosening the grip on her knees a little. “It’s sort of like all of the things that I was afraid of is becoming realities, and it’s not as scary as I thought, but I do worry that one day I’m going to end up in this big house with no more ideas and a bunch of friends who don’t give a shit and just want to Instagram me or something.”

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Interview: Simon Harper
Photography: Katherine Squier

Clash Issue 104 is available to buy HERE.


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