F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, which is debatable. But there certainly can be multiple chapters. Singer-songwriter LeeAnne Savage's career is a good example.
A veteran of more than two decades in Tucson music, Savage took home the honors at this year's Tucson Area Music Awards for Band/Entertainer of the Year and, for her To the N9nes, Best New Release. She also was honored as the top country artist.
Released early this year, To the N9nes is Savage's second album, following 1997's Neptune Amor, a document of her days fronting such popular dance-rock groups as LeeAnne Savage and Her Dyn-O-Mite Party Band and Shockadelica.
Born in Missouri and raised in Illinois, Savage moved to Tucson in 1987. She hadn't really performed much before moving here. "Music was much more a fantasy to me as a child," she says. "I was painfully shy. My singing into the hairbrush was the extent of it, although I was in a choir in school."
After settling in the Old Pueblo, Savage sang with several groups—Secret Lives, White Rabbit, Vital Signs and Reform School—while developing her skills and style. She also was tapped to fill in temporarily for the lead singer of a Los Angeles-based band called the Game, which turned into a two-year commitment to touring with that act.
When she returned to Tucson in the mid-1990s, Savage built bands that became some of the most-popular club draws in Tucson, in large part due to her explosive singing and playfully sexy presence onstage.
After a while, though, she grew weary of having to play so many cover songs and not being able to concentrate on her original songwriting.
"I had released Neptune Amor, and we were playing a combination of originals with high-energy covers," she says. "We had built up an audience with this style of party rock and soul, and we were paid very well. But I was growing frustrated, because when we would perform originals, the audience wasn't with us. There were a couple of originals they would respond to—people still ask me to play 'I Want Barbie's Doll' or 'Don't Wait Up.'"
But, most of the time, she says, the audience's attention drifted when Savage wasn't playing Prince, Madonna or INXS covers. "They would stare blankly at us; they couldn't relate. There was no connection."
She notes that over the course of a music career that has waxed and waned, and is now surging again, it has been challenging to establish a performing persona and then break it down. Audience expectations can be a tricky thing. For instance, she never downplayed her sexuality onstage during the '90s—and she certainly understands the complexities of branding and image—but that was only one aspect of who she is.
"I'll just say this: When you're a performer, you go onstage and assume a certain personality to command the attention of audience," she says. "And I think, for me, that persona sort of evolved in that environment to be very much a strong female presence, a very dominant presence, sort of the hostess of the party for any given night.
"But I always was a small-town Midwest girl at heart. And when I was singing onstage and looking at girls who were 16 with fake IDs in the audience, thinking that if I had a daughter, she would be their age, I started to rethink the message I was putting out there."
She also started to rethink who she was as a musician. "There is the tendency to pigeonhole music, and sometimes that doesn't allow a performer to explore all the facets of who she is," she says.
Whether she's playing pop or country or rock, Savage says she is still the same person, but the perspectives of outside observers can sometimes be confining. "It's not the music or the artist or the songwriter that puts limits on what you do, but it's everyone else in the music business who wants to put a label on you for the ease of recognizing what you do."
Savage took the initiative and gave herself the time and opportunity to grow as an artist. From about 2000 to 2006, she rarely performed live, sticking to the occasional private party or corporate gig. During that time, she became a real estate agent and a fitness instructor.
Country-influenced pop and rock music, especially when it had a strong songwriting foundation, always bubbled in the back of Savage's musical consciousness.
"I grew up in the Midwest on country music. Then I took a break from it, and I got into the music of Aerosmith, Styx and Boston," she says. "And as I started pulling out of the club scene, when I was writing, there were these very strong storylines there, which is a large part of country. As much as you maybe try to get away from what you know best, it's inevitable that you go back to it, and when you do, you find yourself."
Around 2005, she found herself writing the songs on To the N9nes, which lean toward the heartland-born country pop and twangy rock often associated with John Mellencamp, one of Savage's musical heroes.
Lyrically vivid and melodically rich, the album is packed with excellent material such as "I Like to Play With Boys," "Say I Do," "I'm Always With You," "The Way You Got to Me" and the downright-anthemic tracks "Midwest Small Town" and "Good All-American Girl."
Savage recorded the album with top session musicians in Nashville, and she says she couldn't have been happier with the musicianship.
But she also has assembled a Tucson band she calls top-notch. It includes bassist Troy James Martin, drummer Daniel Thomas, lead guitarist Charles Lolmaugh, acoustic guitarist Eric Schaffer and keyboards-player Robert Glenn Francis.
"We get to rehearse once a week or so, maybe more often, according to the gig load," she says. "Everyone is really busy with day jobs and having a life. We're adults now."
Savage admits she wasn't as comfortable in the studio for To the N9nes as she would have liked to have been, but she knows the next album will go a lot more smoothly. She has been writing energetically and already has more than enough new material for another recording that she hopes to see released in the spring.
"It's just a matter of picking the right songs for cohesion and getting into the studio to get them down," she says.