Tiwa Savage‘s life could have taken a very different track. Just a few years ago, the vocalist was working at the Royal Bank of Scotland, after graduating from the University of Kent with a degree in business administration. But music had always been her first love, and when she got the call to sing backup for Mary J. Blige—for a European tour that was beginning in just three days—Savage decided to chuck accounting and focus on her music full-time.
Savage had done backup since the age of 17, when she sang for George Michael. Since then she’d gone on to work for Blue Cantrell and Kelly Clarkson, but she didn’t want to be a backup singer forever. So she decided to come to Berklee to focus on her solo career.
At 27, Savage is older than most students, but their enthusiasm was infectious. ‘When I came to Berklee and saw a lot of the younger students, their drive and their passion, it recharged my batteries,’ says Savage. ‘[They’re] not thinking, ‘I’m going to save about $10,000 before I move,’ no, ‘I’m just going to get my backpack and move.’ I needed that fresh air, that atmosphere. I kind of felt like a 19-year-old.’
The relationships she’s made here extend beyond than the college experience. As she lists off the producers of the album she’s currently recording—Black Eyed Peas drummer Keith Harris, Derek Pate, Scott Coleman, Radar Ellis, and Darien Dorsey—she notes, ‘All of them are from Berklee.’
Making the leap from backup to lead isn’t without its pressures. As a backup singer, she could focus completely on her performance. Now, there’re interviews with media, songwriting, and every eye on her onstage. ‘It’s a whole different ballgame. Doing backgrounds, you just turn up at the gig and if it gets a bad review, it had nothing to do with you. If you’re the artist, you take a lot of stuff personally,’ says Savage.
Savage has an advantage that many singers don’t—her business background. And she’s capitalised on that by majoring in professional music here at Berklee and focusing on the music business, songwriting, and music production classes. ‘It’s helping me now with my band when we get contracts when we have to pay people, when we have to be professional in dealing with people,’ says Savage. ‘Sometimes when people see that you’re educated and you know what you’re talking about, they don’t really want to mess with you, swindle you or something.’
Savage has already had a glimpse of the pressures of fame. Last year she participated in X Factor—the British competition that spawned American Idol—and made it to the top 24. The press was trying so hard to find out the results of the competition before it was televised that they were camped out in front of the hotel hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the finalists. ‘As soon as you wake up there’s a camera crew in front of the hotel, people trying to snap pictures of you in the bathroom,’ says Savage. ‘So we had to disguise our names when we were checking into hotels and restaurants, use Mickey Mouse or Tinker Bell.’
The limelight was difficult to deal with at the time, but Savage thinks it’s prepared her for the realities of the career she’s aiming for. ‘You have to always realise that people are watching. When I got the bad news that I wasn’t getting through [to the final 12] it was a really painful time. But you still have to learn how to hold that until you get home. Because you don’t want to just let everything out. People admire you and want to see that you’re strong; they don’t want to see you breaking down.’
Savage’s family immigrated to England from Nigeria when she was 11, and the things she experienced in Nigeria have an impact on her life to this day. ‘Living in all three places in Africa, in Europe, and now the United States-it’s really opened my eyes. I’m really accepting of a lot of cultures. . . . I feel a lot older than I am, because I’ve seen a lot. A lot of poverty in Nigeria, but people still smiling when they don’t even have water,’ says Savage. ‘I kept saying to myself that when I made it I was going to invest millions and I just realised I have to do stuff now. People always say, when I make it. . . . If you don’t discipline yourself now, you’re never going to do it, even if you do get millions.’
To that end, Savage is travelling to Africa in December to help raise money for an organisation that builds schools. This summer, she’s performing in Berklee’s summer concert series, giving free shows in outdoor locations all over the city, from the Boston Center for the Arts, to the Institute of Contemporary Art, to Kendall Square, before moving to L.A. in the fall to work on her first album. She’s learned that having a full life means fusing all aspects of it-from music to business to charity.
Tiwa’s Top Five Artists
- Sarah Vaughan
- Donny Hathaway
- Frank McComb
- Anita Baker
By Brenda Pike