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Interview

Savannah Ré’s Triumphant Toronto R&B Journey

By Sharine Taylor on

It’s rough out here for the gyal dem. In Toronto, there’s a shared feeling the major labels seem out of touch with how to be in service to our music community, which does very little to empower our artists.

Toronto exists in a peculiar place. Opposed to the college radio culture stateside, Toronto’s contemporary radio culture is by no means a medium to gauge the local scene. The live music scene is a much better ground to see what the city has to offer. Still, with venues who have historically enforced anti-Black policies making it increasingly inaccessible for talent to share their gifts with their fans, compounded with a slew of local venues that have been forced to shut down because of our two current big C problems—COVID-19 and condos—there are many things at stake as we try to preserve the culture.

Singer-songwriter Savannah Ré has had to navigate Toronto’s storied and hostile history with R&B artists. The city’s best-kept secret—until recently—has built a humble following who admire her singing and pen skills. The singer has worked alongside Wondagurl, Keisha Chante, Babyface, and Normani, and was able to garner a massive accolade by signing with famed producer Boi-1da, who has an imprint under Universal Music (Canada) called 1 Music.

For eight years, Savannah has worked tirelessly to perfect her craft. The chanteuse released singles sporadically to keep her fans‘ palette satiated, so it’s no wonder the build to her debut EP, Opia, feels like the ultimate crescendo to what would ultimately be her coming out onto the world’s stage. The nine-track EP is a vulnerability-dipped retelling of life atop the singer’s favourite palette of 808s and super drums. All the sweeter, Opia was executive produced by Ré’s partner, YogiTheProducer, whose credits include Kehlani, Jessie Reyez, and Joyner Lucas.

Opia is a zenith that embodies a lifetime of Ré’s experiences and lessons, bound sonically by her warm and buttery vocals. The only perfect way to describe its reception is the mixed and mastered embodiment of Toronto parlances: “Whoooooooooooooooooooooo’s that?”

Tell me about the culmination of Opia.

In that three-year time span, I was sort of figuring myself out within a new environment. I’ve been married now for two years, I’ve started to embark on songwriting a little bit more seriously, and for me, it was just a time of artistic exploration. At that point, I’m like, “Okay, you’ve been dropping singles every couple of years, and, by the grace of God, you got a little support. But you can’t keep leaving for two years, dropping a single, and leaving again. You got to figure [it] out.”

It was all over the place as far as the music, but I just wanted to create as much as I could. I didn’t want to put any pressure on when this project needed to be done or what it needed to sound like. I just wanted to rely on my gut. It was three years of exploration.

How do you make yourself in service to your pen, so you’re able to get your vulnerable feelings across?

I’m not hyper-religious or anything, but I do have a strong relationship with God, and I say “God” all the time. This is an anticlimactic answer, but I feel like I’m a vessel at the end of the day. The things that come to me and come through me are my experiences, but the way I’m able to do and channel those things is God. When I say I abandoned fear, I was scared as hell. I went from “Count Em Off” to “Best Is Yet To Come.”

People haven’t had the chance to get to know me, so this project, and it being called Opia, it’s the journey. I want you to see into the journey from the top to the bottom. “Opia,” the title track, was the last song that was left. [Before it was made], I was like, “There’s still one more song we have to do that has to bring this home,” and that was the hardest song to write. I went to its co-writers, Marcus Semaj and Varren Wade, and was telling Varren I need a song that is uncomfortable to write. It was a six-hour session, and we ended up talking for three of those hours. It was almost like a therapy session to break down the walls and get to pull from that place.

It’s honestly somewhere I’ve never written from before. I touch on serious topics but in a playful way. In “Best Is Yet To Come,” the first lyric is “I be out here eating kale and shit / Tryna balance out the scale a bit,” because that’s just how I deal with things on a surface level. But really, that’s me talking about having issues with my weight as someone who’s visible in an entertainment industry that tells you that’s not what you’re supposed to look like.

Getting into Opia was a test of how open I could be and just thinking about more than myself because there’s gonna be somebody listening that can relate to those vulnerable thoughts I’ve been able to share.

How have you navigated the changing nature of R&B in two capacities: one, as a songwriter (and if the writing has changed over time), and then two, as a singer, technically?

My goal is not to be trendy. What I do when writing is try not to consume too much but see what’s going on. My concern as a writer is, I don’t need to give artists exactly what’s already there. I need to try and be able to see what’s next. Back in the day, you had to be able to blow because you were being recorded on tape. If you messed up, you had to do it again, so Auto-Tune where?

I try to be cognizant of the time we’re in too. If your rhythm and your blues doesn’t involve church vocals, then your rhythm and your blues doesn’t involve church vocals. Sometimes in R&B, there’s a shaming that goes on where if you don’t sound [similar to someone] like Jazmine Sullivan, you don’t deserve to be in the genre. I don’t like that. I have pretty strong vocals and went to church when I was a kid, but in my formative years, I was not in church. That pressure for R&B artists to be everything musically is almost elitist because they don’t do that to the pop girls or the pop boys.

That question on its own is super layered and loaded because I think it also has to do with the fact that the R&B space is Black music, and we always have to work 10 times harder to get half the recognition.

What do you think Canadian artists bring to the R&B scene?

We’ve been trapped for a long time. I think it’s built this hunger. A lot of the times, when we talk about infrastructure and all these things, [we have to remember], there are more people in LA than there are in Canada, so there’s only so many ways or spaces you can enter in Canada that are gonna propel you forward. That created monsters out here. Because what we’re all doing is basically in the basement or in the studio with other super talented people, since there’s so many talented people here, and we’re just creating our own thing.

We don’t have any other choice but to be great. It’s even interesting for me to say Canadian R&B because it’s always under the umbrella of R&B in America. We bring hunger and a totally different outlook to the genre.

Of course. So you’re standing in front of Savannah in the past. This is her very first performance. What is one thing you would impart to her that you hold with you right now?

I used to have really bad stage fright. That first show was torture. Now I would just say: “Your steps are already numbered. There’s nothing to worry about. As long as you are singing from your heart, that’s the best thing you could do.”

Especially trying to think back to that moment, you’re thinking about all the wrong things when you’re scared: What if they hate the song? What if they don’t like me? What if I hit a bad note? What if I forget my lyrics? None of that matters. The only thing that matters when you get on the stage is connection. I still get nervous now but [they’re] happy nerves. It makes me feel alive. If I don’t get nervous before I go on stage, I’m gonna be like, “Maybe you don’t love this shit no more.”

Photos by Hansel Alonzo (main) and Othello Grey (vertical).

InterviewSavannah ReR&BToronto