“When I was in high school, my family moved from the New Jersey suburbs up to Cobleskill,” says Karen Savoca. “I was always hearing people talking about ‘We’re going to the City this weekend’ and I would think ‘Wow! People up here are much cooler than I thought they were going to be! They’re driving to New York for the weekend!’ It took months before I finally realized they were talking about Albany !”
The singer-percussionist-songwriter’s suburban sensibilities must have been successfully subsumed by her Cobleskill experiences, as she and her partner, guitarist-bassist Pete Heitzman, operate from the equally rural Central New York hamlet of Munnsville these days. Savoca and Heitzman will be ‘Going to the City this weekend’ (and that’s our city, ahem) for a Saturday night show at the Eighth Step. I called Savoca at the home-cum-studio she and Heitzman share and asked how the duo ended up in Munnsville.
“We just kind of ended up moving out to the country after years in Syracuse,” Savoca tells me. “I really enjoy it out here. I find the solitude really good for writing and for when I need to just regroup . It’s really nice to have the silence when you want it.”
The solitude, silence and regrouping opportunities are clearly working their magic for the duo: since moving to the country, Savoca and Heitzman have won Musician magazine’s Best Unsigned Band Contest plus a handful of Syracuse Area Music Awards, including best folk-rock group (two years running), best album (1995’s On the River Road ), best songwriter (Savoca) and best rock vocalist (also Savoca).
“I was really surprised by that last one,” Savoca notes, “as I don’t really think of myself as a rock vocalist. But we kind of fall between the cracks, so we just go with the flow–you want to call us that, okay, that’s fine. The awards are very nice, of course; they’re good for bookings and they look good on our bio and, hopefully, they draw attention to Syracuse, ’cause there’s a lot of really talented musicians working there.”
Savoca herself was first drawn to Syracuse by its large University. “I had started to put together little folk groups in high school”, she explains, “and I knew that was what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know exactly how to do it. So when I was choosing colleges, my biggest criteria–or my sole criteria, actually–was that it be a big school, ’cause I figured that way there would be some kind of a music scene. Syracuse was pretty much the biggest school that wasn’t too far from home.”
“Once I got there, I got into any group I could. I was in an interesting folk band, and then I was in some bands that did obscure covers, and then Pete and I met and formed the Mind’s Eye, playing all original material. We ended up with this long-standing Monday night gig for, like, six or seven years, just off the SU campus. It was really great, we’d get a hundred to two hundred people every Monday night. It was just one of those things that people still talk about, because it was a great dance scene and just a whole lot of fun.”
The Mind’s Eye documented all that fun with an eponymous 1989 cassette-only release, that Savoca’s brother serendipitously popped into the stereo at a New York City restaurant where he was bartending some years later. “This guy came up to my brother and said ‘Gee, what is this? I have a friend who would really love this!'”, Savoca recalls, still sounding incredulous. “My brother took the cassette out of the player and gave it to him. About three months later, the friend walked up to my brother and said ‘Hi, I’m T-Bone Wolk’, and the next thing we knew T-Bone wanted to meet us and play with us and co-produce our record with us. It was all just too wonderful!”
Wolk, a veteran musician and producer best known for his work with Hall and Oates and the Saturday Night Live Band, travelled to Munnsville to record On the River Road in Savoca and Heitzman’s home studio. The record’s sound is distinctive and ear-catching–and perfectly illustrates why the Syracuse Area Music Awards people had a hard time pigeon-holing the disk and Savoca into a particular genre.
“It’s different,” Savoca acknowledges, laughing. “People use the word funky a lot, and we like when that word comes up, ’cause we want people to move–or at least feel like moving–at our concerts. I get a little frustrated sometimes these days, ’cause I come from a band background and I want people to dance at our shows, which doesn’t always work in the rooms we’re playing as we work more and more in the folk community.”
“But, you know, after playing in bars for so long, you’ve just got to move on or you start to doubt what you do. We were lucky, ’cause just as we were getting fed up with the bar scene, things really started opening up for us and we started getting into better listening rooms. Occasionally we do play bars and clubs still, and that’s really frustrating. Some of these places don’t even have tables, and I hate it when we’ve given our all and people want to applaud–but can’t, because they’ve got drinks in their hands. So I always say ‘Okay, I know you’re holding a drink, but stomp your feet or something, ’cause that’s the fuel I need to get me to the next song!'”
The folk community’s awareness of Savoca and Heitzman was given a huge boost by their participation in this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival and the North East Regional Folk Alliance gathering. “Falcon Ridge was just amazing!” Savoca enthuses. “It was one of those deals where we got to do a ten minute showcase before the headliners came on, and we figured we’d get to play our ten minutes and then walk around all weekend wishing that we could play some more. But we got an incredible response, and we were asked to do three other workshops over the weekend. The last one was a real thrill cause we got to work with the Neilds, Marty Sexton and Greg Brown.”
“The folk community just seems so wonderful and supportive and gracious to me. I don’t like to make generalizations, but in the rock community it seemed that people were very afraid to share contacts and things, ’cause they felt like that would somehow take those things away from them. In the folk community it’s not like that at all. I mean, this North East Regional Folk Alliance thing was all just like one big hug! The people are really, really nice . . . and I like that.”
So have Savoca and Heitzman’s burgeoning successes forced them to spend more and more time “going to the City” from their beloved country home-base? “Well . . . we’re actually not on the road as much as we’d like to be”, Savoca admits, “because we book ourselves and the problem with that is that I do most of it–and I really hate it. I can’t really think of anything I hate more than having to book. I mean, once you’ve played a room and you know the people it’s okay, but it’s that initial thing of having to call and say ‘Okay, hi, I’m so-and-so, and I’m booking myself, and be nice to me please, ’cause I’ve had a really weird day.’ Blechh!!”