The chalk sign by the door of The Old Bar is remorseful. “Sorry, No Bands Tonight,” it reads. “Just Slinging Booze Till 3am.”
The reason for this apologetic tone is it’s rare for the Fitzroy venue to have a night without live music. The Old Bar is that kind of joint - a dingy space with blood red walls, peeling band posters and toilets buried under an inch-thick layer of graffiti. But it’s also a Melbourne institution, an 180-capacity venue that’s proved a die-hard supporter of the local music scene. I’m here to see Cash Savage who’s sitting opposite the bar, dressed head-to-toe in black. And I’m burning to ask her one question: “Please, tell me that’s your real name?”
The reason I’m curious is that nominative determinism – the idea that our names can inspire our life choices - is a definite thing. Usain Bolt, William Wordsworth and Thomas Crapper (the innovator behind the modern toilet) are all noteworthy examples. As Jung wrote in his 1960 book Synchronicity, there is “sometimes quite grotesque coincidence between a man’s name and his peculiarities”.
“Cash Savage” may not be strictly function-specific name. But it couldn’t be any more rock’n’roll if it was wearing a battered leather jacket. For the front woman of a country-blues act that Beat once dubbed “the hottest rock band in Melbourne”, it seems suspiciously perfect. “That's my real name,” the 39-year-old says with a quiet smile.
“I wanted to change it when I was a kid because I always got picked on for it. But it’s a bit like in A Boy Named Sue - you have to wear your name for life. For better or worse, it sort of comes into its own eventually.”
Her offbeat name betrays the fact that Cash’s parents were musos while her late uncle, Conway Savage, was the keyboardist in Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. Growing up in Gippsland, she was surrounded by music and got her first guitar at the age of seven. “I smashed it on the wood pile when I was 14,” she says, “But I had another one by then.”
The soundtrack to her childhood was both eclectic and enriching. “Dad would be listening to Grandmaster Flash one day, some old Blues artist the next day, The Beatles, The Doors….” Consequently, Cash can’t remember ever not playing music. Given her background, I suggest, rebelling would’ve meant becoming an accountant. “An accountant called Cash,” she nods, considering this alternative career for, ooh, a good microsecond at least.
In fact, there was never a flicker of doubt. Even if she hadn’t enjoyed any success with her band - Cash Savage and the Last Drinks – she knows she’d still be playing music. “I'm miserable if I don't play live,” Cash says. “I think I'm addicted to it.”
More specifically, she’s obsessed with the visceral challenge of performance. Cash gets a special thrill out of winning over a hard crowd. There’s a real buzz, she explains, in walking onstage before an indifferent mob of punters and then blowing them away with the raw energy of the show.
She talks about playing gigs in regional Victoria where the pub crowd is expecting a covers band and initially resistant to the Last Drinks proposition. This, Cash admits, is understandable: “In those sorts of places a band like us would somewhat… standout.” It’s a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that, as an openly queer rock singer, Cash isn’t your standard country-pub fare. Not that this affects the eventual outcome. “By the end of the show, everybody would be buying me beers, and shaking my hand.”
For the band, it’s about channelling that adversity into motivation. The Last Drinks give everything to win over a crowd – they never play the same set-list twice, often finalising it just before taking the stage in order to gauge the mood and suss out the best order for that audience. “We always want every crowd to have the best time they can possibly have.”
Yet while the live shows are designed to win hearts and minds, Cash isn’t shy of feather-ruffling either. Her last album, Good Citizen, was a case in point. The title track is a protest song of sorts punctuated by the haunting refrain: “Saturday night is gonna be a big night / And Monday morning is gonna be rough.”
The line, Cash explains, reflected her frustration with the way that Australia’s pervasive “she’ll be right” mentality offers an easy way for people to shrug off their responsibilities. “I struggle with how complacent we all are,” she says. “We can see all this awful stuff happening and yet we just go, ‘Fuck it. Let's go and have a drink.”
Cash wrote the album while her partner was pregnant with the couple’s first child. Aware that her life was set to change forever with the onset of parenthood, she wanted to take a moment to clarify her outlook. “I wanted to really document for myself how I felt about the world before she (her daughter) got there.”
At the time, the social backdrop was unsettling. Drama was raging over the marriage-equality plebiscite and Cash found herself constantly being quizzed for her opinions. “ I didn't want to be political, but I was politicised,” she explains. “I don't feel I had any choice. In an instant, I went from being able to fly under the radar to being asked daily what I thought about the political situation.”
Perhaps the most confronting part of the debate was that it illuminated the stark divisions that underscore daily life. While 7.8m people voted in favour of marriage equality, 4.9m voted against - revealing the staunch opposition that lingered beneath the surface. Any suggestion of broader public unity was emphatically shot down. For Cash, the furore around the plebiscite was sadly indicative of the bigger picture, highlighting the ideological fault lines on which the country runs.
“It just made me question who we really are,” Cash says. “Can you be a good citizen if you think that it's someone's fault that they can't get a job? Are you a good citizen if you think that your religion makes your thoughts more important than anyone else's?
“The whole album is about questioning: do we understand that actually we're all in this society together? Are we acting as one? Or are we just acting as little microcosms that are all fighting against each other.”
As for Cash, well, she’s doing her bit for social relations by steadily winning over the world, one crowd at a time. She’s about to tour Europe once again, then the writing process on her fifth album will fire up and the music machine will crank back into life. The Last Drinks continue to flow and the bar isn’t closing for a good while yet. Slinging booze to 3am? We predict a lock-in.