How I wrote ‘Save Tonight’ by Eagle-Eye Cherry
When this pop-rock classic landed on both sides of the Atlantic it became a self-fulfilling prophecy for its creator
A debut single which storms the charts across the world, propels its parent album to similar success and is played on the radio for decades to come must be the stuff of songwriting dreams for most artists, and it’s a dream which Swedish singer-songwriter Eagle-Eye Cherry realised in 1997 with his song Save Tonight; a pop-rock classic which remains instantly recognisable to this day.
We know it would be doing a disservice to the hours of practice and hard work that any musician puts into his craft to suggest that Eagle-Eye was always destined for such success but, as the son of jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and the half-brother of 90s star Neneh Cherry, he certainly had music coursing through his veins from the off. In fact, it was the transient lifestyle of his father which inspired his most famous release, as he recalls here…
“Some songs are hard to write, they can take a couple of days, but I wrote this in just a couple of hours. Once I could see what the story was, it seemed like it almost wrote itself and I just caught the song. The guitar was a new instrument to me. I grew up drumming as a kid, with my dad and drumming in bands in New York. I then started getting into writing but hadn’t discovered the acoustic guitar until I got to Stockholm and borrowed an apartment that had one. That’s why Save Tonight only has four chords. I didn’t even think about putting a middle eight in there. Limitations can help songwriting. Especially when it comes to pop music, I think simplicity is gold.
“It was one of the last songs that I wrote for the album. Desireless is actually quite a laidback album and the tempo on most of the songs is pretty low. I felt like the album needed something a bit more uptempo, so that’s Save Tonight – which isn’t even that high tempo itself. By the end of making my first album, I had figured out who I really was, musically. I had played rock music in different bands and had listened to everything, so I wasn’t specifically like, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’ but by the end, when Save Tonight came along, I had realised, ‘Okay, I am working in more of the Americana pop-rock tradition and that’s what really turns me on.’ Save Tonight encapsulates that discovery of who I am, musically.
“The vibe that I heard in my head is pretty much exactly where we took it. The feel of the guitarist rhythm we changed up a bit, but the vision that I had laid down in the demo, the whole acoustic guitar-driven concept, the melody and lyrics were all mainly there from the beginning. I think I might have finished the last verse later. The main thing Adam Kviman the producer gave us is that it was his idea to do the drop-down verse at the end which I think is genius, and then we bring the drums in for the last chorus. That really gave the song a lot.
“Lyrically, it’s my childhood… Growing up with a father who was a musician and him always going on the road and my mum would cook a seriously good dinner and just create good vibes at home that last night before he left. I guess the concept was to make sure he came back. But that whole thing was something I grew up with and then used to do myself. Then the chorus is really about that feeling of not wanting the night to end. If you’re at a party or in a club or at home having dinner with your girlfriend, you get that feeling of, ‘This is so perfect, I don’t want this to ever end. I wish I could fight the break of dawn.’ That’s really where I got to with the song.
“I felt that I’d written a really good song and when it came time to pick a single it was a no-brainer, everybody agreed. But when it comes to getting a massive worldwide hit there are so many other factors – timing is really important and I think we had the right song at the right time. Radio at that time was quite eclectic in many ways, pop music was so mixed. You could have the Fugees, The Verve, Beck and Busta Rhymes all being played on the same radio station and that’s where Save Tonight did that crossover. Getting played on pop radio as well as rock radio, that’s just luck.
“That the song would hit on that level so quickly was very unexpected on all fronts but the label situation had helped. I had signed to an independent label in Sweden, so we started in Sweden and it was a hit back there, then we went to the UK and signed to Polydor. There was already confidence in the song, which meant they went all the way when it came to pushing all the buttons and throwing a lot of money in there. Then we went to the US, to a label linked with Sony. So I had the support from the labels which I might not have had if it hadn’t proven itself already… and then Save Tonight did its thing.
“The irony is that the song brought all of this success and the more it took me around the world, the more my life became the song. I was constantly leaving my home and the girlfriend I had at the time, who eventually left me because I was gone all the time. We were doing an unbelievable amount of touring; play in Europe, finish, go straight back to the US, then straight back to Europe. It was nonstop. My girlfriend was back home, she was an actress and going to rehearsals – we weren’t seeing each other at all. That song just became my life in more ways than one. But it was a good problem to have.
“Save Tonight is like a great friend, it’s taken such good care of me. At the end of the day, I really do think it’s a good song. I’m really proud of having written it. Lyrically, it’s a song that people can relate to and it’s one of those tunes that, once people have discovered it, they know every line. I think every songwriter hopes to write a song that stands the test of time, that I’ve done that is so fucking great.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell