Linda Ronstadt says of Ann Savoy, “One time she came to visit me in Tucson and she brought me a box of rice that had a beautiful illustration on it that was so pretty. When she came back from Russia, she brought a box of tea like they have in the supermarket, but it had a beautiful design on it. She has a jeweler’s eye for beautiful things.”
Ann Savoy says of Linda Ronstadt, “All these songs are really important to me, and I never had a chance to sing them before. Who could be more your dream person to sing them with than Linda, whose voice is getting even better, if that’s possible?”
The two have been friends since they were introduced at Jazz Fest 15 or so years ago, and Ronstadt vividly recalls her first visit to Marc and Ann Savoy’s farm outside Eunice for a boucherie. “Everybody’s dancing and eating,” she says. “I walked into her farmhouse and it’s like Martha Stewart goes to the swamp for real.”
The two first recorded together when Savoy produced and performed on 2002’s Evangeline Made, then again in 2004 for Creole Bred—both all-star treatments of Cajun music. They have finally recorded an album together, Adieu False Heart, under the name the Zozo Sisters (“Zozo” means “Little Bird” in Creole French. Savoy says they were considering calling themselves the Bluebird Sisters, but she jokes that they were afraid “Zozo Bleu” would be pronounced more like “bleah” or “bluhhh” outside of Cajun country).
Adieu False Heart has its share of Cajun songs, but it’s by no means a Cajun album. It also features songs by Richard Thompson, Julie Miller and others that draw on Appalachian, Celtic and pop traditions. The string-based arrangements keep any song from sounding bound by its folk origins and leave room for their voices, which are the stars of the show.
This interview is actually two interviews—one with Savoy at home and one a week later with Ronstadt, who had just returned home after a tour. They’ve been put together to create the illusion of a conversation, but together or apart, the dominant note sounded by both women was the importance of their relationship, and how Adieu False Heart is first and foremost a manifestation of that friendship.
Is there a deliberate female consciousness to the album?
Ronstadt: Definitely. It sprang in a truly organic way out of a friendship. The fact that we both happen to be musical was part of what the friendship was formed on, but it was formed on other things, too. I believe Ann and I would have had a similar friendship if we didn’t play music. Our sensibilities are ridiculously similar. We probably would have sewn nightgowns together or something.
Our conversations over the year have been about female issues. What do you do with this child who …? What do you do when you need a new sofa and …? Just stuff. If I walk into Ann’s house, she’ll have the same teacup I have. Or the same nightgown, or the same socks with cherries on them. We love a lot of the same things.
Savoy: The songs spoke to us as mothers and as people who have been in love and have had experiences in our lives. These songs are not “Whoopsie doopsie boopsie.” They’re songs about deep expressions, things that have been thought out, like the songs by Richard Thompson—one of my favorite poets—and “Parlez-moi D’Amour,” which was a pop hit in the ’30s in France. It’s a deeper discussion of love, and love from many angles. One of the songs is an older man speaking—“Burns’ Supper”—
Ronstadt: — “Burns’ Supper” is my favorite song on the album—
Savoy: —which was Richard Thompson’s father speaking, but we thought the thought behind it was so incredible, that sometimes people have so much love pent up inside but they’re quiet, shy people and people think they’re cold. In fact, they just can’t express their love. They use music and the poetry of others to get their thoughts out.
One is a very Louisiana song that David Greely wrote the melody for a song written by a slave called “Marie Mouri.” The minute I heard the melody, I said Linda and I had to sing it. The song touched me a lot, and it evokes deep emotions, but some of the verbalizations are very plain: The depth of the fact that someone’s gone and the whole world’s going to stop moving. Nothing’s the same anymore because the person has died. It’s almost told in Creole baby talk, but the feeling behind it is enormous.
Ronstadt: This record talks about a lot of different kinds of love because there’s more than just romantic love, although in this culture you’d be hard-pressed to say what they are. There’s family love, the love mothers have for children, love for your sense of place—where you come from, your culture, where you grew up and what represents you and your sensibility. Those are all things we were discussing in a musical context.
Wasn’t “Marie Mouri” written as a poem?
Savoy: It was a poem written by a slave in Creole French.
[Guitarist on the album] Sam Broussard’s grandfather or father had written a book about Creole French and he had a collection of poetry written by slaves, and that was one of the poems from that collection of poetry from the 1800s.
There’s something about sharing the experience of creating music that you love together that’s a very great friendship thing, and the whole experience of putting this record together went through some great moments. Linda plays the guitar very well, but she’s too shy to play it onstage. I’m working on her.
Ronstadt: I can barely make the chords, and I can’t play and sing at the same time. It’s impossible.
Savoy: She would come up with really pretty guitar parts, and we’d play guitar and come up with two guitar parts, and we’d sing and come up with different harmonies and switch parts. Music is such a great way of communicating, isn’t it? It was really pleasant.
Ronstadt: In the case of the songs that Ann finds, especially a song like “Marie Mouri,” they’re atypical Cajun songs. They have a much more ancient feeling. What I loved about the Magnolia Sisters—another of Ann’s bands—is that they sound like, even though they’ve very gifted musicians, they sound like people who didn’t have the luxury to play music all the time, that they had other things they had to do. In the beginning of the 19th Century, they might be housewives who put down their brooms or the dish of peas they were shelling, and they sat down together and had this musical conversation. A lot of the things that they do a cappella and in unison, are these really ancient-sounding songs that are in a minor key, and they’re very sad. They sing their sorrows to share their burden. I love those Magnolia Sisters records and I’m kind of horning in on it. (laughs)
So have you been working on some of these songs for a while?
Savoy: Not exactly. On Evangeline Made, Linda and I sang two songs. I didn’t want to, but Linda insisted that I sing with her, and it came out really nicely and after that we realized we could sing together. Later on, Linda said, “You should come hang out with me and we can play guitars in my living room and we can come up with some songs we want to do together.” Can you imagine how I felt?
Ronstadt: I can barely make the chords, and I can’t play and sing at the same time. I love to fool around on it, and Ann is such a lady and she’s not intimidating, so I didn’t feel intimidated to play so we were able to explore things in a way that was a little more unguarded.
Savoy: She has all these wonderful guitars, so I’d start playing songs and she’d start singing with me. That’s how it started. We were having fun and liked a lot of the same songs, or she’d say, “I forgot that song,” or “I love that song; teach it to me.” Finally, Linda said, “Why don’t we make a demo since it seems to sound real nice in the living room?”
Ronstadt: We worked them out together in my living room, her living room, and we kept doing it because we liked the songs. Eventually, we decided we should record them, but that came 10, 15 years later.
Was the demo one session or was it strung out over a series of occasions?
Savoy: No, we took a little over a week and recorded eight to ten songs, and only one song off that didn’t end up on the record I think.
And then you went back and rerecorded everything?
What was the process arranging these songs?
Savoy: Well, we started out with the Red Stick Ramblers and Joel Savoy arranging and performing them according to what they had in mind. Then we changed it a bit to give it a more womanly point of view. But we knew we wanted to have drones, and low sounds, and bowed instruments—Appalachian instruments, and a loose-skinned banjo. As a producer, Steve Buckingham arranged it without a lot of our input, and Linda came up with the chamber music idea for some of the songs.
Ronstadt: I have a theory that art song didn’t disappear with Schubert. There’s a whole tradition of American art song that hasn’t been defined that way, but it’s more refined music. In Canada, it’s the McGarrigle Sisters. It’s not always folk music, but it isn’t always pop music. It’s something in-between. That’s what I was aiming for and had been wanting to explore for a long time and had explored in certain contexts. Ann’s materials gave me another excuse to do it in an extended setting.
It was something that I was trying to put together to do onstage with my band so that I wouldn’t have to scream over drums and amplified instruments anymore. I was on the verge of changing everything. I’d already done some experimenting with [mandolin player] Sam Bush; we played Telluride together a couple of years ago, and I’d done it with the standards.
So the arrangements probably are a little different from the original demos?
Savoy: Oh, totally. I mean we were just up here in the country in Louisiana without classical musicians or Nashville musicians. We changed quite a bit.
Are there plans to take this on the road?
Ronstadt: We’re going to go play some shows in Canada and see if they don’t boo us off the stage.
Savoy: We did Prairie Home Companion the other night, and that was our first live performance.
Is it just the two of you, or is there a band with you?
Savoy: We have a band with us, pretty large band. We don’t travel light in any way. Bring a big car when you pick us up.
Are the Red Stick Ramblers still part of the show, or is it a different band that you’re traveling with?
Savoy: The Red Sticks played on the demo, which sounds really cool, but we need people who can do everything, including a little bit of classical because there’s some cello and bass arrangements on the CD. At this point we’re trying to figure out how few players we can have. Kevin Wimmer [of the Red Stick Ramblers] has been playing with us because he can play a bit of everything. And Dirk Powell because he can play the banjo, and Sam Broussard from Lafayette. The rest of the people are Stuart Duncan and Andrea Zonn from Nashville. The bass player is Linda’s bass player.
Ronstadt: Ann had a lot of creative ideas about inputting specific musicians that she wanted to use, like Dirk Powell. I wanted to take those traditional instruments and put them into a more classical, more of a chamber music setting, with viola and cello and bowed bass. So that was my contribution musically to the kinds of songs and the textures that Ann had assembled.
Was it just my imagination, or did this really focus on your vocals?
Savoy: Totally. It’s usually all about the band, and this is one of the most incredible bands in the world. But, like the guys said, this record is about the songs, the singers, the vocals. It’s a song record. Human voices are the main instruments on this record.
Ronstadt: I’ve got to give Steve Buckingham credit. He really understands beautiful textures and how to bring them together, and he really listened to us.
What I think is really important about what we do is that what we do together, we cannot do alone as individuals. And that’s what makes a very legitimate duet. She’s an alto, I’m a soprano, so that puts me in my falsetto-soprano voice above her a lot. Singing harmony automatically puts her on the lead. That freed me up to sing harmony and not have the responsibility of coming up with a way to sing songs that wouldn’t have been as easy for me to sing lead on. Ann is much more at home in the context of being a traditional singer. I’ve sung other traditions; I can do fine singing traditional Mexican music. I’m very at home and authentic there, but I didn’t grow up in Louisiana. I didn’t grow up in the South, so Ann was my link into that authenticity. I was putting harmonies on it and turning it into something, embellishing it and extending the form in a different way.
Did you record the vocals together?
Savoy: Some of those songs are so edgy that they have to be sung at the same time. Like “The One I Love is Gone”—something about that song, I just can’t sing it unless Linda’s singing at the same time. The other one, “Plus Tu Tournes,” the other kind of Cajun one, there’s something about the blending of voices, I just can’t sing it without her.
When you say edgy, what do you mean?
Savoy: They’re more on the edge of emotion, they’re not as delicate, maybe, and the emotion is right out there.
You can’t always tell who’s singing the lead on the album.
Ronstadt: I’m really glad about that. That shows that we really picked up the resonances in each other’s voices and really blended and turned into a duet. That was very important to me, and it took me a long while to figure out. There were some things we did very naturally in the living room, but it was harder once you got in headphones in the studio.
So you’re singing harmony on much of the album?
Ronstadt: I do follow a part as a duet all the way through; I’m singing the top part. But in “Walk Away Renee,” I start out singing the lead, and when the chorus comes in, I sing the harmony. And then I sing another lead for a verse and then I go up. And then the next verse, Ann sings, and I stay on the high harmonies. It usually doesn’t work that way; usually one person sings lead and the other sings harmony. In this case we switched it around quite a lot.
Did that take practice?
Ronstadt: It’s easy to do it in the room. It’s harder to do it onstage. We’ve only performed once together. When we did Prairie Home Companion in Utah, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know quite how to fill the room up, but the next time we sang together was for Bill Maher’s show, and it was a smaller room. And in that room, it’s there. We can find it through the microphones. Every time you change the medium that’s carrying your voice, it’s a totally different way to sing.
Is it tough to switch from one vocal style to the other?
Savoy: Both of us found it was a big changing of gears, but we thought that the place we went vocally was the voice that told the story.
Ronstadt: Ann spent so much of her time building up Cajun dance music, and I had spent so much of my time singing above a rock ’n’ roll band, that we really welcomed the opportunity to sing these delicate, pretty, very intimate songs that use the tiny parts of our voices.
Is it a bit of a forlorn record?
Savoy: Yes, I think it is. Love is sad (laughs). Love is strange. There are a couple of cheery numbers on there. I think love makes you suffer like nothing else and it makes you happy like nothing else, and I think this is reflective of love.
Ronstadt: It’s a sad record. But, you know, people don’t sing because they’re happy. Art is there to help you identify your feelings. Joy is not happy. Joy is triumph over sorrow, a surge of emotion that you recognize in name. But it’s not just happy, with everything going on nice. So when you’re sad, you’ve got to have a song about it, because how else are you going to get through that experience? People tend to write songs about things that have shaken them, and that have changed the way they look at everything else.
There’s a song called “The King of Bohemia” that Richard Thompson wrote about his daughter who was having a rough patch. Nothing hurts you more than when something hurts your child. Nothing. That song, Ann and I heard it and we both cried. It gave us both a stomach ache. It was too hard to even learn it for a while because it was just too sad, because we both have daughters, and they’re doing okay, but they’re vulnerable. Hearing something like that makes you realize how vulnerable your children are, and you fear for them. You just hope you can protect them somehow, but you can’t.
That certainly ties in to the woman’s point of view on the album?
Savoy: Well, oddly enough, men wrote a lot of the songs on the album—Richard Thompson, Bill Monroe, Arthur Smith. You know, men must feel the same way. Look at Cajun music, it’s all by men and it’s the most tragic music I’ve ever heard, so I guess men feel the same way.
What was the story behind recording “Walk Away Renee”?
Savoy: Who is not touched by that song is what I want to know? I had this old scratchy 45 in my house that I transferred to CD, and when I played it for Linda on my guitar she went wild. It’s this really urban, tragic love song. He’s talking about sidewalks, and parking lots, and things like that, and it’s got this tonality that’s just amazing. I love the note combinations in that song. It’s so powerful and soulful.
How did the conversation go to bring that one up?
Savoy: It’s one of those things that at first it sounds like a funny idea, and then when you hear it you realize that it isn’t funny at all, it’s just beautiful. I just started playing and singing it on the guitar. It sounds so cool and vulnerable on acoustic guitar, it just holds up. And the chorus is so strong. Our producer didn’t have faith at all at first, and then when he heard it he came around.
Ronstadt: It’s a song I always loved and I loved in a special way. I have these little songs that I’ve tucked into a small part of my heart that I love for some reason. And I always loved that song—couldn’t ever understand the words, but it had a real emotional rush to it, of just sort of falling off of the edge of something, and a profound longing and sadness. Ann said, “I like the song ‘Walk Away Renee,’” and I went, “How did you know?”
To sing it, we had to go on the Internet and finally find out what the lyrics were. I never knew what the lyrics were. I figured out some of the chords, she figured out some of the chords, and I figured out the bass line. Then we started singing it, and she sort of sang it in her key. I put the harmony on, but then when we recorded it, I sang lead on that first verse, and she sang lead on that last verse in the most beautiful little way. She sounds like a little lost French orphan. Usually you don’t want people switching leads on a song, it’s distracting, but somehow, we dovetail our leads together. I don’t know why it works, but it does. I mean, I thought it worked okay.