Where the Buffalo Roam is a series of stories and interviews focusing on Buffalo and Western New York’s contributions to the world: our musicians. Every Where the Buffalo Roam segment will focus on an Americana-related musician who has gone on to fame and — sometimes — fortune outside the boundries of our fair region. This month’s guest is Savannah King, a great young singer and songwriter from Niagara County. She made her mark on the Buffalo scene before heading out for the great southwest, where she’s been living in her RV as she tours. Her new album, “Cliffrose,” was released at the start of March.
— Elmer Ploetz
EP: 1. What prompted you to hit the road in your Ford Coachman (1987, I believe)?
SK: I finished college at SUNY Fredonia in 2014 knowing that I wanted to be a full time musician.
However, that can be a pretty tough thing to do. Being an independent musician is a labor of love. One thing I did know was that I wanted to tour a lot. Living in a van to tour was suggested to me many years ago, but all I could think about was the SNL skit with Chris Farley – “Living in a van, down by the river”. I wanted no part of that.
Eventually, I started doing some research and found an incredible community of people my age living in small RVs, traveling the country. I saw it as the perfect opportunity to scratch my travel itch and play music full time. Not only does it lower my cost of living so that I can afford to be a full time musician, but it has allowed me to tour places I never would have before. I found our van 3 years ago on Craigslist in North Buffalo. We’ve affectionately named him ‘Vance’ and he is a 1987 Ford Coachman.
EP: What drew you to the Southwest?
SK: The desert is the complete opposite of where I grew up in WNY. The first time I visited the Southwest I was absolutely mesmerized. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. There is a very specific energy to it. A sense of stillness and calm. We take the van out onto BLM land to disperse camp for many days at a time. Usually, we are completely alone. It has made me appreciate the landscape for it’s stark beauty. Everything that grows here has adapted to the harsh environment. It has found a way to survive. I am drawn to that.
EP: What are the hardest things about living the lifestyle you’re living now? What is your life like?
SK: Living in a vehicle has extreme highs and extreme lows. Our vehicle is 32 years old and we’ve put over 56,000 miles on it in 3 years. We have a major breakdown at least once a year. Things break unexpectedly and we have to fix them. It’s forced me to learn to adapt. To step back and take a calm, practical approach to whatever problem we are faced with. Because when you’re 30 miles out on a dirt road in the desert and your van won’t start, panicking doesn’t help. It’s been a good life lesson.
Living a mobile life style definitely has its challenges – finding places to park for the night, filling up water containers, finding coffeeshops with wifi, etc. However I think it balances itself out. We’ve been completely alone in red rock canyons with only the coyotes howling in the distance. We’ve hiked the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Zion. I’ve had a front row seat to some of the best star gazing in the world! I’ve learned to slow down and appreciate the world in front of me.
I always say our van is too fancy for us to be dirtbag vanlifers but it’s not quite up to par with the expensive RVs. We have running water, a sink, hardwood floors, toilet, shower and furnace, just to name a few things. We even have solar panels that feed a battery bank for all our power needs, so we never have to plug in. The van is home to me. I brew coffee on the same stove and pour it into the same mug every morning. The only difference is that when I open my front doors, sometimes it’s Utah, sometimes it’s New York, and sometimes it’s Mexico! I’ve made the best memories of my life in that van. I’ve also learned my greatest lessons.
EP: What’s the craziest story you’ve experienced so far?
SK: Last December, we decided to drive down to Baja Mexico for the month. A local told us about a remote fishing village on the Sea of Cortez that was, in his opinion, the most beautiful beach in Baja. So we drove 40km down the most intense dirt road I’ve ever experienced. In many spots, the road was wide enough for only one car with sheer cliff drop offs on each side. After 3 hours of driving, we finally made. It was gorgeous! A village of about 70 people surrounded by a bay of turquoise blue waters. We were the only outsiders. We parked on the beach, enjoyed a local food stand, fishing, swimming, snorkeling, and no cell phone service.
The next day I took my paddle board out into the bay. I always put my phone in dry bag around my neck when I go out on the water. On this day, I took my phone off the lanyard to take a photo. That’s when a large wave rocked my board. I hastily shoved my phone into my pocket so I could paddle to a calmer area.
After 10 minutes of paddling I looked down and realized my phone was no longer in my pocket. I knew it was in a dry bag, so I searched the whole area but found nothing. I assumed it sunk. The water was deep and there was nothing I could do. So I paddled back to the van wondering how I’d get a new phone in foreign country. I decided there was nothing I could do in that moment, so we might as well stay in the village and enjoy ourselves.
Two days later, there was a knock at the van door as I was cooking dinner. I poked my head out and a voice said, “Are you Savannah King?”
How would anyone possibly know my name on this remote beach in the middle of nowhere Mexico?
There was a small woman standing outside the van door. She yelled, “I have your phone!” and holds up the dry bag. “I texted your dad from our satellite phone trying to find out who you were, but then I saw the pictures of your van and found it here!”
Apparently my phone had been washed out to sea and she found it floating off edge of her sailboat. She looked through my pictures, saw the van, and sailed down the beaches looking for us. Not only did we end up staying on that same beach long enough for her to find us, but my phone still had enough battery life for her to use it.
And it survived two full days floating through the Sea of Cortez in a tiny dry bag. Meanwhile, my dad is panicking because he had gotten a text message from a foreign number saying his daughter’s phone was found floating in the middle of the sea in Mexico. I made sure she called him back.
EP: What are the Western New York influences you take with you?
SK: I have learned my work ethic from WNY. Maybe it’s the rust belt mentality. If you get pushed down, get up, dust yourself off and try again. The musicians in Buffalo are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever known.
EP: Who are some of your favorite WNY performers?
SK: I have so many! The Rightly So (Jess Chizuk & Greg Zeis) are two of my favorite people. I’d known both of them for a long time, but we really connected when they moved into a vehicle to tour long term. We’ve gotten our vans together in different cities all around the country!
Another person I really respect is Davey O. He has been a mentor to me for many years. We’ve shared shows and helped each other navigate the crazy world of being independent touring musicians. He is a talented Americana songwriter and performer with a work ethic to back it up. I am so grateful for his friendship.
I also really love the bands Darling Harbor and Folkfaces!
EP: Do you still think of yourself as a WNYer?
SK: Absolutely! The Buffalo music scene is where I cut my teeth as a performer and independent musician. It is a place where I feel supported and appreciated for who I am and how much I’ve grown. Some of my greatest mentors and friends are WNY musicians. It has been really wonderful to grow alongside them. I still spend part of my summer in WNY, so I always come back.
EP: What sets your new album apart from what you’ve done in the past?
SK: Cliffrose is a huge step forward for me. The amount of life experience I’ve gained between this new record and my last one, Bold & Unsteady, is immeasurable. Cliffrose encompasses everything I’ve learned and experienced living in a van and touring the country. The people I’m surrounded with, the songwriters I’m learning from, my mindset, and goals for myself have all shifted since the last record. I hear growth when I listen to the new album. I am proud of that.
EP: How did you go about recording it? I think I see some WNY names on it!
SK: The theme of my album seemed to be Fredonia! My co-producer and engineer was Buffalo native Kyle Wierzba. We recorded the album at his home studio in Nashville. Not only is Kyle is a graduate of Fredonia, but my drummer (Loren Metzger), guitar player (Mark Bamann), percussionist (James Ralls), and synth player (Sean Flinn) are as well. Richie English, another Buffalo native also arranged strings on two of my songs.
The process of recording Cliffrose was immersive. I parked my van at Kyle’s house/studio, which means he basically let me move in. We would wake up and work 10 to 12 hours a day for 5 days in row, then take 1 day off. I had Mark (guitar) and Loren (drums) drive down to Nashville with me to record their parts. Everyone else on the record was living in Nashville. Being able to utilize the incredible musician talent in Nashville was a huge luxury. We made the entire album in a month and a half.
EP: How would you describe your songwriting process?
SK: If I’m being honest, I would describe my songwriting process as erratic. I am somewhat at the mercy of inspiration and inspiration doesn’t always look the same. Songs will throw themselves out of my brain and it’s up to me to reign them in. That’s what I’ve tried to become better at over the last few years. Taking the chaotic inspiration and making it something palatable.
Although I have become more deliberate and disciplined about my craft, I still have a lot of work I want to do. I think a great song is a great story and I mesmerized by the great songwriters of our time.
EP: Where do you see yourself — or do you see yourself — in the Americana landscape?
SK: I have always had roots in the Americana genre, though my music has swayed more towards alternative folk. To me, Americana has been a blend of styles I’ve borrowed from and learned from. Genres and terms can muddy the fact that it’s all based in great melodies and storytelling.
EP: Looking further down the road, where do you see life taking Savannah King?
SK: Being able to travel in my van has lit a fire in me to see the world. I would love to eventually do a tour of Europe or Asia.
With my music career, I am trying to build something stable in a constantly changing environment. That can be difficult but I hope to have many more years of trying. With my songs, I want to continue to inspire people to look at the world differently.
EP: Why Nickel City Arts for your CD release show?
SK: As a songwriter, I have a deep appreciation for an attentive audience and a silent room.
That is what I wanted my CD release show to be. A place where I can celebrate my new album and talk about the meaning behind my songs. The reason why I do what I do. That is the type of environment Mark Buell is fostering at Nickel City Arts. I really love his mindset and I wanted to support him.