“Fantasy and storytelling are always at the forefront of my creative life,” Savannah Pope says. “I have that Roger Taylor quote — ‘Don’t become some background noise’ — tattooed on my neck,” she adds about the Queen drummer’s lyrics to “Radio Ga Ga.”
The charismatic local singer is hardly in the background, but there is plenty of hard-rocking noise on her debut album, Atlantis, which is officially released on Friday, April 26. Pope revealed the potential of her fiery, powerhouse vocals with her old L.A. glam-rock band SpaceCream, but she demonstrates wider musical range and more ambitious — and sometimes quite bizarre — subject matter on the new record, which was engineered and co-produced by Paul Roessler. Fans of SpaceCream won’t be surprised by the tangled, metallic riffage of such cranking tracks as “Just My Luck” and “Daddy Issues,” but Pope unveils new sides of her multiple personas on the dramatic power ballad “Superstar” and the enigmatic tale of bestial transformation “Ms. Moreau.”
“I love the idea of human animals and cross-breeding,” Pope says by phone from her home in Hollywood. (“The tree across the street looks like it’s vaping — just plumes of flower dust,” she notes at one point.) “‘Ms. Moreau’ was inspired by the H.G. Wells novel. I really love that book,” she continues about the 1896 science-fiction fable The Island of Doctor Moreau, which centers on an obsessed scientist who vivisects animals together to create hybrid human beings. “The imagery from that book stuck in my head after I read it in high school. I wanted to write it from a woman’s point of view, a lonely woman stuck on an island. It’s allegorical, about the dark side of obsession and how it can consume you. … I wrote the song years ago, but it never fit in with SpaceCream. Once I went solo, I could bring different elements to the album.”
“I’m a freak girl … I will feed it cream from my tits/My knife raised to your face,” Pope croons coolly with atypical restraint against a lulling bass line. “I fed you chloroform, shed your human form … I can hear them/Whispering over me like I ain’t even there/As if I died, but I shoot life like a rocket.”
Things turn even stranger on the album’s title track, a sarcastic and surreal apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles sinking into the ocean. “Oh, the hubris of a dream/The weight of ecstasy/Proved too much for fickle land to bear,” she confides, setting the scene for her own private disaster movie, alternating images of natural destruction with playfully absurd asides. “Saw Regina Spektor hit by Capitol Records/The tower tumbling down/As waves overswept her/And gazed at my demos awash in the unopened mail.”
“I love Regina Spektor. She’s one of my idols,” Pope explains. “The whole song is about the death of the music industry. It’s echoing the economy; there’s a huge gap in the industry. The difference between the resources are massive — you’re either indie or a mainstream pop artist. Unless you have major financial backing, it’s pretty crazy [trying to tour].”
“Atlantis” and “Ms. Moreau” are relatively poppy interludes, but much of the record is dominated by heavy hard-rock anthems like “Rock ’n’ Roll No More,” a somewhat autobiographical story of musical salvation. In the song’s video, Pope’s body is carried through the streets and to the top of a building in a black wooden coffin as a crowd of freaky friends and fans — including scythe-wielding Death herself — mourn, cavort and brawl with one another. The funeral ends in a mass suicide before Pope resurrects herself and brings everyone back to life as the song shifts into a theatrically rocking climax that recalls The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Not many people get to attend their own funeral, so how did it feel to be dead for a day? “It was a complete clusterfuck,” Pope says about the filming. “It hit me more when I watched the video and watched it all the way through. … I was lying face up in a coffin in pouring rain for hours while directing it. It was great. I got to work with a ton of cool people on this; it felt very collaborative. I really liked the Mad Max feel of the alleys surrounding the venue. It was just a bunch of industrial waste. The whole album is apocalyptic.”
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So is rock & roll really dead? “Well, not for me,” Pope says. “My relationship to the whole subject is complex. There are a lot of angry sentiments, audacity and hope and humor. If you want to do something outside of the mainstream, you have to have a sense of humor. The culture now is stuck in kind of a shallow mode. … I think that [rock] is going to come back up. People want substance.”
In the video for “Creature,” the notoriously visual performer styles herself as a garishly made-up winged phoenix who soars through the galaxy, morphs into bewigged royalty floating through a lavish Versailles-style palace and turns into a clown leading her own circus. “I’m sort of inherently rebellious in my fashion sense. If somebody tells me I have to do something, I will immediately do the opposite,” Pope says. “I was naked on the cover of [the single for] ‘Creature,’ and I was psyched about it. I’m painted and vulnerable and bleeding. To me, it’s my choice to do it. It’s confusing to be a girl. I don’t want to be objectified but I want to stand up for my sexuality. … I’ve always had a very funky sense of style, looking for something that’s my own. I’m not skinny, obviously. Finding avant-garde stuff for my body type is hard.”
Her visual sense extends to her onstage antics. “During ‘Daddy Issues,’ I’m putting pacifiers in people’s mouths. I shoot colored sugar out of baby bottles at people,” she says. “Glitter confetti is the greatest invention! Glitter is like herpes — you’re never going to get rid of it.” Another riff-heavy tune is “Just My Luck,” which she wrote with GayC/DC’s Chris Freeman. “I want to record with the whole GayC/DC band because I love those guys.”
Despite writing folk songs when she was 14, it was later Pope’s ambition to be an artist, and she attended art school in Barcelona before returning to her hometown of L.A. and becoming a singer by accident. “I got dragged to a friend’s open mic,” she recalls about a night at a Venice coffeehouse. “I decided to borrow a guitar — ‘I’m going to go onstage!’ I did one of my folkie songs — they were pervy and rebellious, sad folk songs — and it was such a great feeling. It was like a high, a great high I’ve wanted ever since.”