“The Wind, She Whispers,” the banjo- and drum-fueled lead track to Tall Tall Trees’ new album A Wave of Golden Things, launches with an instantly recognizable sound. “A rooster crowed right as we started recording. I was like, ‘That’s amazing, I’m going to keep that,’” says Mike Savino, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist behind the project. He adds that, while working on the record, 16 animals were born.
If a barnyard seems an unlikely place to track an album, Savino explains that he chose Franny’s Farm in Leicester after being invited to play the annual Barnaroo festival on the property, which also serves as an event venue. There, owner Frances Tacy “brought me into the barn where she has a supernice Airbnb … with high ceilings and wood. Pretty much everything you need to record.” So Savino lived in the space for three weeks while working on his latest collection of songs. The farm, he says, “is a little magical slice of heaven.”
A Wave of Golden Things makes its way into the world with an album release show at Ambrose West on Saturday, Feb. 15. The concert will include local musicians Simon Thomas George and Micah Thomas — current collaborators of Savino’s — among others. In fact, the New York City transplant tapped nearly all Asheville-area artists (such as Jackson Dulaney, Stephanie Morgan, Brie Capone and Louisa Stanicoff) to contribute to the new album.
“Asheville has been very good to me,” says Savino, who relocated to Western North Carolina part time in 2015 and gave up his New York apartment in 2018. He was also drawn to being closer to the Appalachian roots of the banjo, an instrument he picked up when he switched his focus from being a session musician to a singer-songwriter. “When I started singing and writing more songs, I started connecting to more people,” he notes. “But I never saw myself as playing [the banjo] as a traditionalist.”
After spending most of his professional life in a metropolis where high-caliber collaborators were easily accessed, “one of the reasons I felt comfortable living [in Asheville was because] there are some amazing musicians here who I’ve become friends with. I’ve felt very welcomed in this community [and] I’ve been very inspired by a lot of musicians here.”
The inspiration for the album, however, was not so joyful. The title track is a song Savino wrote following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. At the time, the banjoist lived near that community, but he put the song away. “I didn’t want to listen to it or deal with it because it was painful,” he recalls. But, “When I started to think about this record [I realized] we’re living in a world where this is still going on. These things keep happening with more frequency.”
Usually when he makes an album, Savino (who is also a member of indie-pop singer-violinist Kishi Bashi’s band) goes through voice memos or songs he didn’t use on previous projects. As he revisited “A Wave of Golden Things,” he realized its timeliness, and that “became kind of an overarching theme for the album, for me — trying to turn a tragedy into something hopeful.”
Many of the songs, he continues, include a plea for more time with friends and family. It’s that sweetness that balances the record. Savino reveals that he wrote 25 songs for the project, many of which expressed anger. But ultimately, “What I want to convey, as an artist and as a person in general, is not to dwell on all the darkness,” he says.
Plucked banjo opens “Expectations,” which quickly expands into a dreamy dance. “I just want to wake up in the warmth of the sun / and thank the gods for another one,” Savino sings. “Ask Me Again” shares lyrical DNA with Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” On that track, pedal steel adds a wistful tone, but the banjo’s pluck is undeniable. That instrument leads “Deep Feels,” too, where a pop of percussion lifts the mood into sun-drenched and summer-warmed territory.
The latter builds in instrumentation and emotional expression as it goes, but overall, Savino kept things simple. The artist — trained as an upright and electric bassist — plays most of the instruments on his recordings and “always had the tendency to overedit and overdub, to pile on layers to hide insecurities,” he says.
“This time I made a conscious effort to leave myself exposed and [let] the vulnerability shine through.”
WHAT: Tall Tall Trees album release show with Slow Packer
WHERE: Ambrose West, 312 Haywood Road, ambrosewest.com
WHEN: Saturday, Feb. 15, 8 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show