The four members of Säje have a very good reason for being a few minutes late to their Zoom with Sage Bava and I. The interview was scheduled for the same time 2024 Grammy nominations were announced. First off, Grammy nominations morning is a holiday in the music industry, especially if you are nominated. And Säje was indeed recognized, earning a nod for Best Arrangement, Instrument And Vocals for their rendition of “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning,” their collaboration with Jacob Collier.
Fitting they were nominated for that song the morning of the interview, as we are premiering the beautiful, trippy, animated video for their sublime version. Bava and I spoke with the quartet about their arranging, teaming with Collier, their dream Grammy collaborators and much more.
In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning // säje ft Jacob Collier – YouTube
Sage Bava: I am just so grateful that you exist as a group in the world. Now having Jacob be a part of it, I’d love to hear just how that evolution of process and how it changed or what developed from adding this new energy to this already energetic powerhouse.
Erin Bentlage: So, Jacob’s been a friend and collaborator of mine for a couple years, and he was really excited about Saje as well. He came to a show of ours early on and was just really excited about us and for us. Then I think the reason why we had this idea was because a couple years ago, we released a song with Gerald Clayton called “Dusk Baby.” It’s a song of his that we arranged, and the entire front half of the tune had been arranged. From the back half, we had the rhythm section improvised like the back half of the tune, and then we wrote around what they played for like the outro of the song. And that felt really good to all of us. We’re used to thinking of everything ahead of time, but there’s something really exhilarating about receiving something and then getting to respond to it. So, I think because we trusted Jacob so much, we were like, “What if we had Jacob lay down an entire tune, just solo piano and vocal, and then we get to write around that?” We pitched the idea to him and he was super excited and was really generous with his time. It was a really cool experience.
Steve Baltin: What did he bring to the table musically?
Sara Gazarek: Well, I think that’s probably why Jacob is listed as an arranger, that he laid down these five different versions of the song, maybe seven different versions of the song that were so different. Each one was really different. And you could hear that he was leaving space for us and infusing what he understood as the sounds of Säje into what he was doing. But the seed of each of those songs absolutely was the arrangement. If you listen to his solo piano version of the one that we picked, it has some motifs and different things that we chose. But then there are sections where he laid out quite a bit, where you can tell he’s handing over the arranging reins to us, knowing that we would be doing it after the fact. But I think it felt obvious. I\t’s inspired by obviously what he laid down in that moment, but it also felt like there was permission for us to show up as Säje in what he had done as well.
Baltin: What were the one or two things that you learned from working with him that really stood out to you?
Johnaye Kendrick: I would say the most mind-blowing thing for me was just to see how tapped in Jacob was and how open he was, which resulted in seven very different takes of the same song, and actually another song as well. So, he did like a million takes of one and then half a million takes of another. Nothing sounded the same. And he kept going. He’d finish a take and he’d be like, “I think I’d like to try another one.” And that next one would be completely different. And the way that he could just tap into that magic and go to the next chapter, or change the channel within seconds, it was inspiring. He’s so out of the way of the music that he’s able to just flow. I think that’s everyone’s goal, because it’s not about us, it’s about the music. And the dream is to be able to get so out of the way that it’s able to be born without all of your stuff on it. It’s just about the music and not about you. And to just witness that in real time was incredible and inspiring.
Baltin: On a fun note, Grammys are known for their unique collaborations. So, who would be the dream artist to collaborate with if you were to do something on stage?
Gazarek: I’m in a Brandi Carlile phase. I feel like she’s incredibly expressive and everything comes from this really honest, raw place that you hear in her voice in a way that Säje also strives for and values. And it feels like she surrenders herself to the music in the moment. So, to me, Brandi Carlile is my next hope for Säje.
Amanda Taylor: I would say Esperanza Spalding, just because it feels so natural and right. It just feels like that would be a very easy melding of the minds, and it’s like the next natural step to me.
Kendrick: So, mine would be Lizzo and Beyonce and Madison Cunningham. That’s what I want, a hodgepodge of people that are like, “Why are they all on stage at the same time?” Then I would want us to arrange something that made it all make sense.
Baltin: When you have those benefits, you have the big all-star finale. To me, Bob Marley, “Redemption Song” is the best all-star finale song. But what is the song you are all doing together?
Kendrick: The confidence that I have in us as arrangers is such that we could take the “Go Potty” song and arrange it in a way that Beyonce and Lizzo and Madison Cunningham and whoever else would be like, “This is everything, I love it! Everyone’s going to go potty now.” There’s no song in mind. But Erin, you still need to go.
Bentlage: I’m going to say Maria Schneider, Björk and Laura Mvula. Add them to the super group.
Bava: Your arrangements are so imaginative. How much does this surrender to something else play in your arrangements across the board and those decisions that you have to make as far as where you’re going?
Taylor: That’s a great question. I think that we are pretty good about surrendering in the way that we write constantly. I think that we are always just tuned into the practical side and the technical side of whose voice sounds like what, whose voice does what? How can we write practically in a way that’s going to make us feel our best? And I think ultimately, it is always a surrender to whatever the music needs. And I think ultimately, the way that the arrangements are crafted and the way that they end up, the shape that they end up in, is purely in service of whatever the music needs. But that is something that feels hard to talk about because it’s not a specific set of principles or anything. It’s just when it feels right and when you know you’ve arrived, you know that you’ve arrived and you’ve done the thing right and you’ve done it justice.
Bentlage: But when you know, you know.
Bava: From what I’ve read, you’re coming together and initially working on something seems like it just happened, like this kismet moment of creation. Would you say that was accurate and it just flowed out of you at the right moment and things just went rolling from there?
Kendrick: I’ll just say that I didn’t see this coming. We stepped into a space together and were kind of like, “Let’s check it out.” And then we wrote a song and it ended up being something where we all were like, “Whoa, this is really special and intentional.” Then we got a gig by mistake [laughter]. And then we started scrambling to write arrangements for this gig. Mind you, two of us live in Seattle, two of us live in L.A. So, we were in our own little pockets, working on material to have something to present. It just like snowballed into this thing. We weren’t like, “Okay, here’s the plan. The four of us are going to get together. We each have a special-colored ring, we put it in the center, and then we activate.” We just have gone with the flow and things have made themselves available to us.
Bava: I love how the video brings together those two worlds that you spoke on earlier. We are in reality and seeing a relatable human, but there’s also this immense magic, mystery and otherness that you and Jacob are so connected to.
Gazarek: With a stroke of great luck, we found an incredible female animator from New York City named Hoda Ramy. She’s an artist as well, she’s always thinking of symbolism. And I think everything means something in the same way, whether we intend for that to be the case. It’s that way with our music as well. So it just felt like a really good unification because the value systems are the same. And from the gate, she had a strong vision in her mind for what scene would appear when and what colors she wanted to use. And it was minimal contributions on our end, of like notes and feedback beyond some kind of technical things that needed to happen. But yeah, it’s an exercise in trusting the collaborators that you’ve brought into your circle and making sure that the collaborators that you’ve brought in have a similar thing, artistic thing that they ride with.
Bava: Going off that, I think it’s fascinating to think about the collaborators that you bring in, but also the material that you bring in. And this is such an iconic song with so much history. I’m curious what the decision was to arrive at that song.
Gazarek: I think the song was a Jacob recommendation. He was like, “I could do ‘Fields of Gold,’ or I could do ‘Wee Small Hours of the Morning.’ And I remember feeling strongly that we should start with ‘Wee Small Hours.’ And then when we were in our arranging session, we were pretty adamant that we wanted to have certain moments that felt like Säje focus, where we handed things off to Jacob and then Jacob handed it back to us. And Johnaye said, “I think it would be really cool if we had the verse.” And I remember saying out loud, “Yeah, but I don’t want it to just sound like, here’s this jazz intro to the song that takes us to a different place.” And Amanda was like, “Hold my drink,” [laughter] and came back with this totally reimagined, re-harmonized, contemporary, ethereal thing that fit with the rest of the vibe. And I think more than anything, I’ll just finish the thought that it just feels like there’s a trust and willingness to explore things without saying no. And there’s a high level of skill in being able to say, “I hear your vision, I hear what you’re looking for. I can make that work,” which is pretty cool.