XMPL Cover Story: Savannah Ré – Lays It All Out On Debut Ep, ‘Opia’

Cover Photography: Kyla Mah / Makeup: Eminent Allure / Style: Bulgun Bulia Puteeva / Hair: Keisha Hunte, Jelissa Iris / Production Designer: Electa / PA: Jesse Blim, Pat Ryder

Hailing out of one of Canada’s music capitals, Toronto, Ontario – comes the illustrious singer and songwriter, Savannah Ré, who has solidified herself as one-to-watch in R&B as she’s been releasing singles since 2017, leading up to her debut EP, ‘Opia’, which just dropped a few weeks ago, on November 20th. Executive produced by legendary Grammy award-winning Toronto producer, Boi-1da and Ré’s husband, YogiTheProducer (Jessie Reyez, Kehlani) – the Scarborough native delivers an EP that’s close to home, a project that goes deep within herself and one’s own personal relationships.

Unlike her previous releases, Opia allows listeners to get a full glimpse at what the Toronto-based artist has to offer in a full length project. With years in the making and taking on subjects like love and relationships, Opia evokes emotions that are far too familiar. “What it really is essentially when two people stare at each other and they get uncomfortable because you feel like that person is seeing too much of you – those are the windows to your soul,” Ré says on Opia, which she states she found through The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Ré welcomes listeners to look into the window that is Opia and to interpret as they wish. 

With each visual from this project, Ré experiments with her videos, choosing how to express her R&B sound in physical form without conforming to any known theme. “I never even watched romance, drama or anything growing up. So I’m kind of like, how can I tie in being an R&B artist with like non-traditional music videos? That’s just something going forward that we want to always do” Ré adds. 

As quarantine progressed throughout the summer, Ré began releasing singles, leading it off with ‘Where You Are,’ produced by Allen Ritter and Boi-1da – Savannah takes us to the homeland of Jamaica for the music video for breathtaking views of beaches, sights and community in the country that her parents grew up in. Following up with her second single, ‘Homies’ is given a calming 360 visualizer treatment. Diving into the sci-fi world, or what feels like an intro to an episode of Black Mirror – the ‘Solid’ music video, directed by Alicia K. Harris – feels like a dream, reminding us to just hold on. Concluding the series of visuals for Opia is the mini-film and music video for it’s title-track, where we get to see Savannah and her husband Yogi fully experience what is “Opia” – by looking directly into each other’s eyes along with other couples.

On top of Opia debuting number one in the iTunes R&B albums charts as well as #4 on Apple Music’s R&B charts – Savannah also found herself named Amazon’s Music Breakthrough Artist Of The Month. Most recently, Apple has also announced that Ré’s lead single “Where You Are” has just been added to their 100 Best Songs of 2020. With only a few weeks in since the release of her EP, Savannah has received immense support from Canadian listeners and R&B lovers, as well as finding herself headlining several renowned online publications and playlists. Making the North proud, Ré is an obvious star on the rise and a rare gem in our Canadian culture. With Canadian greats on her team, such as Jessie Reyez, Jully Black, Kardinal Offishall and more – Savannah is well on her way to be one of Canada’s top R&B artists. 

In an interview through a Zoom call, we get the chance to talk to Savannah and dive deep into her debut EP, ‘Opia,’ working with Boi-1da and her husband YogiTheProducer, as well as discuss some of the music videos from this project. Read the summarized interview transcript from November 19th and be sure to stream ‘Opia’ by Savannah Ré below: 

Photo: Hansel Alonzo

XMPL: It’s been such a crazy year and I’m sure for an artist who’s trying to put out their debut, I’m sure there’s a lot of challenges you might be facing, but how are we feeling ahead of the release?

Savannah: For me, it’s such a mix of emotions because it’s my first project. We are sort of in a weird time as far as 2020, but as much as it’s tragic, this year was also a very introspective year for me. There was a lot of inward searching and kind of like “life goals” that we met. So for me, going into the project it was like “We’re doing this.” I could have waited until next year, but in my head, pre-pandemic, this was the time period for the EP, so I’m like listen, we just have to make this happen.

What’s the story behind the name Opia?

I don’t know if you know of Brent Faiyaz, he’s an R&B singer but he’s also in a group and it’s called Sonder. And I kind of always wondered what that meant. I used to be nerdy and read the dictionary and stuff, and I never saw the word sonder before so I’m like, is it a word? So I actually went to Google it and it’s not in the Webster’s Dictionary. It’s in a dictionary called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and it’s 45 words for feelings. So, I’m scrolling through these words and oh my goodness, they’re all such like eerie-feelings that finally have a word for them and then I stumbled on opia close to the bottom. What it really is essentially when two people stare at each other and they get uncomfortable because you feel like that person is seeing too much of you – those are the windows to your soul. And I was like, oh my goodness, I didn’t know that there was a word for this, this is it. I write all my music, so for me it’s very very personal and vulnerable music and generally speaking, it’s strangers that are consuming this personal stuff. So that’s exactly what it feels like, so it ended up being called Opia.

Can you tell me about what it was like going to Jamaica and filming the music video for “Where You Are”?

Honestly, it was really full-circle because I haven’t been to Jamaica since I was a child, both my parents are from Jamaica. And that was my real, first music video at the same time, so you know, what better place to get to do that? We shot over a number of days and the days that everybody ended up choosing fell over my birthday. So, it was just like, what is happening? It was a very aligned trip. It was great to get to interact, go in the water, we went to the market, we actually shot some scenes in the market. The people in Jamaica are just so incredible and that whole experience, that whole video just completely exceeded any expectations I would have had.

Do you know of the show Black Mirror? Or do you watch Altered Carbon? 

I don’t watch Black Mirror in specific, I saw like one episode. But, I’m very much science-fiction, it’s my favourite genre, and fantasy. 

I ask because I really love the video for ‘Solid,’ and it gave me a kind of like Black Mirror/Netflix-production type of vibe. I thought it was really cool. What was the inspiration behind that video?

I’d like to say that it’s Black Mirror, but pretty to describe it. I know the premise of Black Mirror, but I’m not into cerebral sci-fi. We’re not gonna go that scary. The whole kind of imagery behind Opia is sort of sci-fi leaning, down to the fonts we chose for the art, down to the way we chose to shoot the Solid video. Alicia [K. Harris], the director, and myself – we sat down for like a year, trying to figure this out and it’s based off of something we created called “Opia World,” which talked about what type of colours, what type of feeling do we want people to have? How do we want this to be? How do we want to bring in human interaction in a different way? Because I’m not gonna diss anybody else’s music videos but for me I never even watched romance, drama or anything growing up. So I’m kind of like, how can I tie in being an R&B artist with like non-traditional music videos? That’s just something going forward that we want to always do. It is artful, and I hate to say what it means because it’s interesting, so many people have had different interpretations of what the Solid video means. Some people are like, did he die and he came? Some people are like, oh it’s a personal, internal struggle. It’s all so different because art is so subjective, you know?

What was the symbolism behind the flowers?

I believe the symbolism for that was “don’t let it go, we’ll let it grow.” In the beginning, you see just one flower in one cup and it’s just like… what is this solitary flower doing? And then by the end of the video, it’s literally like 60 and I think that it’s symbolism towards something growing. I don’t think the flowers are, to me at least, they’re not super symbolistic but I think it kind of just is letting it grow. It’s interesting too cause somebody said to me, water is like the drink of life and flowers drink the water – some deep stuff. So it’s whatever anybody wants it to be. But for me it’s for letting it grow.

Cover art for ‘Opia’ EP

There’s a song on your EP that really took me by surprise, ‘Love Me Back.’ Where did the idea come from to use Romeo Santos’ Imitadora song as the sample?

It ended up being produced by Jordon Manswell, Yogi The Producer and 1da but initially Jordon sent the sample. And I was intrigued too, he was like “I think you would sound really crazy on this.” I hear the sample and I’m like woah, like what is this! And right when I start singing, the whole beat flips and I was like, this is crazy. So for him, he doesn’t speak Spanish but he was probably just like “this sounds good.” So me, I went to go look up what it means and it was fire and then we just rolled with it. One thing that’s hard about this EP, like there’s songs that are out before like ‘Count’em Off’ and there’s like ‘Best Is Yet To Come’ so for me I want this to sound as cohesive as possible, but I was like “should Love Me Back be on there?” And 1da was like “this song has to be on the project.” We love it and it’s funny because that’s the oldest song on the project. We’ve had that song since maybe late 2017 or early 2018 cause I performed it on tour. So it was probably right before tour that we were working on it. It’s so interesting. We did a little listening event too, a safe one cause right now we can’t have listening parties. So what we did was we rented a sprinter and did 1-on-1 listening sessions and everyone had the same reaction to “Love Me Back” – as soon as the sample comes in, I start singing, they’re like “wait, wait, start it over.” Every single time. I was like “damn, people really mess with Love Me Back.”

Another song I thought was dope was ‘Sacred’ and you see the title and you think it’s going to be one of these smooth/innocent R&B tracks, but you went it IN. But that’s classic R&B. You gotta have one of those songs. I even see on social media, people talking about the hype for this EP, saying things like “oh she’s gonna bring back R&B,” things like that. What would you say in response to those kinds of comments?

I hate it. I like it but I hate it. To me, I’m just creating. I think that was the initial problem, when I talk about how do I blend the different genres I do? I was really feeling like I have to sing things a certain way or that way and then I was like – fuck it. As an artist, I care about what supporters or fans think but I can’t let that affect the art that I make. So I was like, yeah, this might be considered R&B but it also might not be, you know? Cause Love Me Back maybe isn’t R&B. Something like Sacred, people are gonna be like “what the hell?” You know, my mom heard the song and it took her a second to figure out what I was saying. At first she was like…girl. And then after, it’s one of her favourite songs now. It is what it is. Some people are gonna be like “I don’t know” and others, it might just grow on them. 

Facts. So, Opia – this project is executive produced by Boi-1da, one of your mentors as well as your husband, Yogi The Producer. How was it working on this project with people that you are so close to, especially for a debut?

Amazing. Somebody asked me if I regret taking so long to drop my first project and I said absolutely not. I’m not super religious but I do believe in God and I feel like God’s timing is perfect. I think that if I had released the project without them, it wouldn’t be the same thing it is now. It’s been perfect to be honest, I couldn’t have had a better experience. One, working with Yogi The Producer, who also happens to be my husband and then also working with Boi-1da, who’s an absolute legend. I am grateful. 

What are you hoping that people can take away after listening to Opia?

I hope that they have a better sense of my journey and who I am. If there’s one thing I felt was missing when I was just dropping singles was the journey. There were long lapses in time, prior to “Where You Are,” I was dropping once every two years, so it didn’t give people a full-scope into who I am. So, that’s one. Two, I hope that they’re able to see themselves in this project, and I hope that certain songs force them to look inward and feel something. I don’t really care what it is but I hope they come out feeling something. 

Would you say that you have a track on this project that was personally significant or maybe you had a unique experience in the making?

100%. Honestly, a lot of them. I would have to say the title track ‘Opia’ was probably the hardest song for me to write. It’s literally the most emotional, probably the most vulnerable song I’ve ever written in my entire life. It was a tough session, my co-writers were Varren Wade and Marcus Semaj – it’s really them two that any song has a co-writer on the project, it’s one of them. Those are my bros. But at the time, we had just met when we were doing this song and it was just so personal. Varren was like, “okay, if you want to do this personal we just need to talk.” So we literally spent like 3 or 5 hours just talking. The song that ended up coming out of it, it’s even difficult for me to listen to it now.

Canada’s weird because I feel that artists that come out of Canada face a few more obstacles then artists from the US. And even though we’re both in the North, there’s still that division, maybe due to lack of resources or lack of support. What challenges do you feel that you may be facing as a Canadian artist trying to go into mainstream R&B?

A lot. I think that now, especially in 2020, our labels are definitely trying their best but I also just think that there isn’t as much infrastructure here for R&B. We’ve had amazing stars, like rappers and stuff like that. But for black, female, R&B – I don’t think it’s ever gone to the level that it should have from Canada. And there’s so many variables and different reasons but I think we’re in a great time now where people are respecting Toronto’s talent a lot more. Or just respecting Canada as a whole, you know? I think that, I don’t know – it’s just hard because there hasn’t been someone from here that looks like me, that’s gone where I want to go. I’ve been blessed to have really great black women as mentors – Jully Black took me to my first studio session. Tika Simone taught me everything I know essentially about performing. I’ve just now been blessed to kind of speak to Melanie Fiona and I’ve worked with Deborah Cox – it’s just kind of like, we all need each other. I feel like that’s what’s really starting to happen, we’re creating this community around our own music here instead of feeling we got to leave. I think we’re in a perfect time to crush those [obstacles]. 

I’ve been doing this magazine, it will be two years in January – and I’ve noticed lately, at least within the last couple of years, that Canadian artists have been a little bit more amplified. We have the talent here, we just gotta amplify them. You’re definitely repping the current R&B landscape, although thin, it’s here. 

If I gotta be the pioneer to kick down doors, other then my sis Jessie [Reyez] – who’s really been pulling me up. Like she’s one person who could’ve had anybody open for her on tour and she decided to reach back and bring me. That’s the type of stuff that we all need to keep doing. Very soon, Toronto’s gonna be just right there on the map besides Atlanta, LA and New York. It’s gonna take time but we’re already doing it.

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