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Some bands are so dead-set on cultivating mystique, they would have you believe just about anything about them as long as it raised their profile. Sadurn isn’t one of them. Bandleader Genevieve “G” DeGroot is a truth-teller, both on their band’s debut album Radiator (out now on Run for Cover Records) and in our discussion about it—down to the particulars of the “secluded cabin in the Poconos” where it was recorded. “It was kind of just a house. We call it the cabin, but it was just a small house that had some wood paneling. It wasn’t a very pretty house,” they admit with a laugh. “I feel like we call it the cabin because that’s what we’ve always been calling it. But I think that when people hear that, they picture this rustic, Bon Iver-type situation. That is not what it was. At least architecturally.”
The place where Radiator was recorded may have been ordinary, but the music itself is anything but. Vocalist/guitarist DeGroot’s songs, which they perform alongside guitarist Jon Cox, bassist Tabitha Ahnert and drummer Amelia Swain, are so intimate, it’s almost as if we shouldn’t be hearing them—like unsparing reflections lifted from a dog-eared diary, or from letters written but never intended to be sent, and then set to delicate, patient folk-pop. Radiator finds DeGroot navigating the nuances of relationships romantic, friendly and familial, and striving to both express and accept the tumultuous emotions involved. Their songs are haunted by darkness, but always reaching towards the light (“So it’s OK what I’m feeling, it’s alright if I’m crying / And maybe there’s some good coming, although I cannot find it,” they sing on centerpiece “special power”), and that push-and-pull is depicted with the exact same fearless honesty the “cabin” was. “I know my fault is that I speak every damn thought in my mind,” DeGroot sings on Radiator’s special opener “snake,” “But I want you to know that I’ll be holding that line.”
Long before DeGroot would form Sadurn, they had already found their voice: “I think I started singing […] probably three or four years old. Always been someone who makes a lot of noise. Very annoying person.” (This last bit is, to me, a rare lapse in their honesty.) They learned to play their mother’s piano by ear, then took some lessons—the piano didn’t stick, but the singing did, from choruses and a cappella groups to a group at their college specializing in traditional Eastern European, Georgian and Balkan music. “That was one of my favorite things,” DeGroot says. “It’s incredible music. I love it. I still sing it with friends.” They teach me about the supra, a traditional Georgian feast in which eating, drinking and polyphonic choral singing all go hand in hand. Their experience with these far-flung vocal traditions contributed to the advancement of DeGroot’s vocal techniques: “There’s no way that it doesn’t seep into how I sing now.”
It wasn’t until DeGroot graduated from college and moved to Philadelphia that they took up guitar (inspired in part by The National’s Trouble Will Find Me) and started getting serious about songwriting, as well as singing. Though they note in press materials that they “came to the game really late relative to most people,” this lent them a perspective they now see a silver lining to: “I think there’s always something to be said about the beginner’s mind of [starting] something. I was definitely songwriting with having just started playing guitar, you know, I could barely play,” they recall. “If you [can] play three little strings on a guitar, then you can probably write a song. And you’re not overthinking certain aspects of it that you would if you had a whole lifetime of theory and skill, [and] experience at your disposal.” Not only did DeGroot come to writing their own music with an open mind, but they also had no ambitions “to be sharing it, or having it be part of a project that would become anything or be performed in front of people” at all, finding creative freedom in that lack of expectations (and, therefore, pressure).
Accordingly, “there was no title to the project” at first, DeGroot says, “and I wouldn’t share those songs with anyone today. My mom really likes them. And she’s always like […] ‘Those were the good songs, we need to bring them back.’ They’re bad. Bad stuff. But that’s okay!” DeGroot wrote these songs on a nylon-string guitar, as well as a $20 baritone ukulele, both of which they still have. ”I’d actually been trying to order a ukulele, because someone had one and I was like, ‘Oh, that’d be fun to have,’ but I was at work when I was ordering it. So I accidentally ordered the wrong thing. So glad I did.” The baritone uke was “bigger and more resonant,” and its four strings made writing easier, given DeGroot’s lack of an “extensive guitar background.” They wrote and recorded by themself using a USB mic and GarageBand, adding the occasional harmony or baritone uke fill, and “decided to upload some of my songs to Bandcamp” in early 2017, releasing the EP Friends with your friends under the name “Veev” (short for “Genevieve”). It wasn’t until six months later, when another Veev’s cease and desist forced a name change, that Sadurn was born.
For most of the project’s history, though, Sadurn has meant DeGroot and Cox, who “met and realized we lived across the street from each other in 2017, and just became really tight. And he’s someone that I felt so comfortable just playing my songs in front of.” DeGroot had started writing more complex songs, layering in lead guitar parts, and Cox (whom DeGroot calls “a genius”) was just the bandmate they needed. The duo would perform as Sadurn from that fall until early 2020, a period DeGroot remembers fondly: “I would just write songs and then I would bring them to John. John is one of these kinds of musicians who is so fluid and just can come up with stuff right away, off the cuff.”
The duo’s frictionless dynamic made them “best friends,” as well as natural collaborators. They would trade off playing the nylon-string and the baritone uke, depending on the parts that DeGroot had written for each song. Those instruments saw them through not only their dual 2019 releases, including a January split with Ther (aka their friend and collaborator Heather Jones) and March’s Gleam EP (mastered by Jones), but also their transition into a full band. “All the songs on the full-band record, I wrote on [those instruments],” DeGroot notes.
That includes “snake,” which first spurred Sadurn’s transition to a full four-piece almost by accident. “I’d written that song, and it’s about this particular feeling that is really intense and decisive, I guess, or this feeling that there’s this strong conviction. And when I was playing it by myself on my acoustic guitar, I liked the song, but it didn’t really click,” DeGroot recalls. “It didn’t really feel like it was right until Amelia and I jammed on it in her basement one time, and she was playing drums. And it really clicked. It was clear to me that song needed the volume and the expanded capacity of expression [of] a full band […] in order to manifest the feeling of it most truly.” Swain became Sadurn’s drummer and was soon followed by Ahnert on bass, completing the quartet we know now. They played their first full-band gig at Philly’s World Cafe Live in mid February of 2020, and “immediately were making plans and scheming with Heather to record some of the full-band stuff in June” at Jones’ West Philly studio So Big Auditory, DeGroot explains. The pandemic, of course, had other plans, putting everything on pause.
Although DeGroot and Ahnert lived together, “generally, none of us could see each other and play music together. But Heather and I were like, ‘How can we make this work?’” Fortunately, they found an affordable Airbnb—the “cabin” in the Poconos—where they could record while eluding Covid. “That’s an upfront cost that is not necessarily accessible,” DeGroot reflects, adding, “Just the whole process of making an album is not an accessible thing.” In the fall of 2020, the five of them reunited at the cabin to form a “pod, and isolate together to both practice, and arrange and record the songs, and set up a makeshift recording studio,” DeGroot explains. This posed multiple logistical challenges, “but I am really glad that we were able to do it that way. […] The ability that we had to live together while making an album ended up being a really special circumstance. That contributed to how it turned out.”
“It was a small space. We moved all the furniture. We brought all Heather’s recording gear,” DeGroot says. “There were three bedrooms, and there was a loft where John and Amelia were sleeping, in the loft, in a blanket fort. And the rest of us had these little rooms, and we had the control room set up in Heather’s bedroom.” The band made the most of their cozy confines, using the cleared-out living room as their main performance space. “It was really nice to have the control room set up in a bedroom, because we would all get in the bed when we were listening to takes. We would just be snuggling up in the bed, and that was really sweet,” says DeGroot. What the cabin lacked in privacy, it made up for in random tchotchkes: Eiffel Tower and penguin soap dispensers, foil palm trees, a Minnie Mouse figurine, and a big Polish flag that later made it into the band’s “snake” music video.
Sadurn would spend two weeks in the cabin, reconnecting and recording what would become Radiator. Each of DeGroot’s songs walked its own unique path to the Poconos. “moses kill,” which DeGroot and Cox “had already been playing as a duo,” retained its stripped-down arrangement. “lunch” and “icepick,” DeGroot had already demoed on their own, complete with GarageBand beats, synths and guitar tracks (“They were MP3s. Like, they weren’t even WAV files”), all of which the band painstakingly reconstructed. “special power,” DeGroot had written on the baritone uke, and “I wanted to play it full band, but I hadn’t written any parts yet,” requiring Sadurn to flesh it out in short order at the cabin. “golden arm” and “snake,” the band had “already scratched out full-band arrangements for” ahead of their first show. “radiator” was another DeGroot/Cox duo song that transformed after “Amelia and Tab just started playing on it, and we realized that it sounded so good that we needed to make it a full-band song.” And “the void / Madison” was one of DeGroot’s first solo songs, having appeared on Friends with your friends—”We tried a couple older ones, and that’s the one that worked out,” they recall.
DeGroot and Cox spent another “week or two” finishing Radiator at Cox’s house in early 2021, continuing to build out the songs, some of which were “still pretty barebones,” and mixing and mastering it themselves. “It’s the most critical you’ll ever feel of the stuff that you’re making,” DeGroot says of the process, “because it’s a necessity to have your most critical ears on.” Penultimate track “icepick,” in particular, had DeGroot and Cox in doubt, “banging our heads against a wall, trying to figure it out”—it would later become the album’s final single. Once the last of that work was done, “it was time to, quote, ‘shop it out.’” Jones offered some advice on how to reach out to labels, and DeGroot fished their wish: “I emailed Run for Cover the album,” they explain with a laugh, “and was like, ‘Here’s this album, if you wanted to put it out, that would be really cool. And they got back to us, and they were like, ‘Yeah, we do!’ It was very good luck.”
But it was more than just that. Radiator is replete with tender, bittersweet songwriting, its always-accessible instrumentation encompassing subtle bedroom pop and Americana touches alike, and DeGroot sings like Frances Quinlan trying not to wake the neighbors. The single most striking quality of Sadurn’s debut is how unified it is—how its guiding principles permeate the music at every level. On “moses kill,” a poignant, percussion-less folk meditation on strained family ties that DeGroot and Cox recorded live in one take, DeGroot’s central chord progression starts, stops, then restarts, as intimate a touch as if you’re sitting across a coffee table from them as they play. On the title track, you hear nylon-string strums in one ear, then the baritone uke enters in the other, like two old friends getting together. “lunch” and “icepick” retain their GarageBand beats, and on “special power” (and others), you can make out DeGroot’s fingertips traversing the frets of their guitar. “the void / Madison,” even in its full-band form, retains every bit of its plaintive heartache—“And isn’t that a thing for doing? / Lay our bodies down in ruin” is one of the album’s most beautiful vocal hooks—and in its final moments, it sounds like someone stands up in the cabin living room, as if to stop the recording.
None of this, of course, happened by accident. DeGroot says they think of their music as “bedroom folk, because it’s very private, intimate stuff. It’s diary-type stuff. It’s stuff I’m writing for myself, as a way of processing stuff. And because it’s that kind of outlet, I think that the way that things are recorded, when they reflect the same essence or whatever as the songwriting, the same sentiment in the song and the way it’s recorded—that feels really good to me.” They cite Nils Frahm as an influence in this regard: “In his recordings, you can hear the keys being pressed down. You can hear the workings of the inside of the piano. And there’s something about that that makes it feel so much more emotional, or [that] connects more.” This extends not only to recording style, but also to instrumentation—DeGroot, Cox, Ahnert and Swain’s unwavering aim as a unit is to perform their songs with both selflessness and purpose. “We had a really strong intention in bringing in more instruments and layers to try to make sure whatever choices we’re making were serving [the] core feeling of each song, and not moving away from it or obscuring it,” DeGroot explains.
Writing music this way is all well and good when, as in Sadurn’s early days, “releasing it meant, for me, putting it on Bandcamp,” and perhaps “someone might want to hear it on the internet,” as DeGroot remembers thinking. But what about when, suddenly, your songs are going out to a wider audience than ever before? Are any of them coming from such places of vulnerability as to be scary to share? “Definitely ‘icepick.’ It’s such a TMI song. And I definitely fully was thinking, as I was writing it, that it was definitely not something that I would have the option to share. […] Like, ‘This is a cathartic exercise,’” says DeGroot. “I’m happy with how it turned out and I’m glad it’s on the album, but I don’t want every song that I write to be like that.”
That conflict—between sharing their truth and oversharing it—is something DeGroot wrestles with across Radiator, especially in its final stretch. On the title track, they admit, “Suddenly I’m stepping on what I’ve been covering up / When I think about you, it is like a knife in my gut / Maybe I should tell you what,” only to later reconsider: “Maybe I am frightened of what happens if I start / Saying what I have been thinking / Maybe I don’t want to tell you what.” But next comes “icepick,” in which DeGroot’s narrator’s opens up about a troubled relationship with go-for-broke candor: “But you and I are good friends, sometimes we’re in love and / It feels almost like nothing I’m ever gonna find again,” they sing, emptying themself out over acoustic strums, synth and drum machine. Their wholehearted embrace of revelation (“Can’t wait to let the light in,” they sing in the song’s waning moments) feels definitive—until album closer “<—” reverses the sampled riff from “icepick,” as if moving to take it all back. Before you know it, you’re back to track one, with “snake” tempting you to start the album all over again.
Meanwhile, Sadurn’s full-band sound continues to blossom. Cox picked up the pedal steel a month after the band finished tracking Radiator, and the instrument is now a staple of their live set, as I saw firsthand during their set at Run for Cover’s SXSW showcase. “It’s kind of reshaping the way we sound, now that it’s available,” DeGroot notes, just one more creative constraint removed. Songs like “moses kill” and “icepick” are transforming into full-band tracks, each with a “very different feel.” Ahnert “started singing harmonies on some of the songs, which is cool. They have a beautiful voice,” says DeGroot, who sang all the harmonies on the album. The band want to explore incorporating more electronic elements, as well. “There’s definitely stuff we want to try that we haven’t had any bandwidth to try yet.” Each exciting possibility presents its own small part of the band’s central challenge: to expand their scope without altering the essence of what makes their music so special. Put another way: to let the light in, and still tell us exactly what they see.
For now, DeGroot is looking ahead to shooting a live session on a friend’s farm (which was released alongside Radiator last week—check it out above), and to their album release show this week. This Thursday, May 12, they’ll headline Johnny Brenda’s in Philly alongside Shannen Moser and The Afterglows. They have more shows and sessions coming up this summer that are yet to be announced, and a brief North American run alongside their label-mates Horse Jumper of Love that’s on the books for August. “We have a booking agent now, which is great,” says DeGroot, but otherwise, they are managing the band themself, and feeling a bit of burnout as a result: “In order to keep it going, you gotta be able to take a break. Maybe even write some songs, I don’t know.” The band is in various stages of development on a handful of new tracks, one of which has worked its way into their live set. And as our talk winds down, DeGroot is anticipating this very piece. Honest as ever, they say, “I hope it doesn’t end up being embarrassing.” Whatever else it may be, you should know by now that it’s true.
Radiator is out now via Run for Cover Records. Listen/buy here.
Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.