When Savannah Ré sings about desire on her debut project, Opia, it’s skin-tingling. “Homies” keeps the body warm. “Where You Are” yearns, with her honeyed vocals backed by moody beats. Ré’s approach to desire is specific to her experience, yet the feelings she’s singing about are universal: the weight of a text not answered; anxiety swirling around texting someone too much; waiting by the phone for relief. Once that built-up heat is exchanged, once those bodies give in to each other, it becomes overwhelmingly intense and beautiful. Many Toronto music-makers capture desire well; Ré, the Scarborough newcomer, is remarkable at it.
She cut her writing teeth in camps like Amazon’s all-woman creative camp for WondaGurl’s debut album, the Keep Cool/RCA writing camp, and SOCAN’s Kenekt Songwriting Camp. She drew the ear of R&B legend Babyface, has co-written with Normani and Daniel Caesar, and was hand-picked to be the opening act on a Jessie Reyez tour. All of these heavy-hitter career moves came before Opia.
The new nine-song recording – tracing the complexities of desire, connection, and vulnerability – took years to take the shape it has now, because Ré is intentional with what she wants to say. Some of the songs are two or three years old, but they’re on the record for a reason.
“I’m not-hyper religious or anything, but I do believe in God, and I do think that God’s timing is perfect,” says Ré. “I think that if I tried to rush this project, and put it out at another time, it wouldn’t be what it is now.” This perspective feels like a rarity in pop music, as artists are expected to move quickly to keep audiences entertained. But Ré was unbothered, ensuring, she says, that the story within the music was structured clearly, and according to her own vision. Producers Boi-1da and YogiTheProducer, her husband, leave important imprints on its sound.
Thinking ahead, even just a couple of weeks after Opia’s release, Ré says she wants another project out in early 2021. “Now that I’ve done the debut, I have a much better idea of what I want to say,” she says.
Opia emphasizes a connection so strong, the other person can see right into your soul. The EP’s title comes from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, where “opia” refers to an uncomfortable feeling of being looked at directly, and the vulnerability of being truly seen. Ré went literal for the video concept of the title track, influenced by the work of Marina Abramović. In it, couples and strangers sit across from one another, talking and staring. This included the singer-songwriter and her husband.
Ré says that she purposefully titled her record this way, not only because of the shape of the work, but also because she personally demurs in the face of that intensity, even with her own husband. She laughs about sitting across from him in the video, saying, “Why did I want to do this? Even though we’re married, you never just sit across from somebody and stare at them!”
Opia perceives emotional connection graciously, as on “Solid,” a love song that Ré and Yogi worked on for several months, trying to perfect it. And while Ré’s partnership is crucial to her, she says it’s equally important to understand that she writes about her life fully, showing the experiences she’s had before her husband… including other relationships.
There’s a certain perception of married women when they express sensuality; Ré is adamantly against it. “I hate the stereotype that just because you’re married now, you didn’t have a life before,” she says. “Just because you’re married, it doesn’t mean that the other person owns you. You’re still separate human beings.” Ré and Yogi have been together for five years, married for the last two, and their professional lives are thoroughly braided together. But, she says, “he’s been an incredible producer on his own. I do my thing, I’m a singer-songwriter on my own, and then we happen to be married.”
Ré was influenced by Beyoncé as a songwriter, when she discovered Queen Bey’s credits on “Dangerously In Love.” Like Ré, Beyoncé happens to be a married woman, and also a sensual and sexual person. She’s scrutinized for songs rooted in autobiography, and perhaps also for those that aren’t – as though she should exclusively sing about her husband Jay-Z. The contradictory narratives can be too much: one that says desire isn’t yours to hold, and another, outdated one, that says the woman is responsible for the desire required to keep a marriage alive.
“I think marriage is great, but I think people need to stop thinking about it as a cage,” says Ré. “It’s not a cage. I can still say whatever I want, and he can still say whatever he wants. And together, we can still be who we want to be.”
Without these affirmations of a self before she wed, and staying true to who she is, Ré wouldn’t be the compelling artist she is, nor would Opia be as tender and fiery. It’s difficult for a married woman to be fully herself – complicated and attentive, loving and desirous. With Ré continuing to be unapologetically and genuinely herself, she helps change the narrative.