Sub Pop, Hardly Art, Saddle Creek, and Bamm Bamm Engage In “A Clear Conflict of Interest,” A SXSW Showcase at the Mohawk in Austin, Texas on Thursday, March 16th, 2023
Thu, Mar 9, 2023 at 9:00 AM
WHO: Shana Cleveland
WHAT: Manzanita (all major formats, plus streaming)
RIYL: Robert Wyatt, Opal, Nilsson, Kevin Ayers and his Whole Wide World, Norma Tanega, Jessica Pratt, Julie Driscoll, Michael Nesmith, Sibylle Baier
WHERE: California, USA
WHEN: Mar. 10, 2023
WHY: Because you need it
HOW: Hardly Art Records
WARNING: Don’t listen for the first time in public; you might cry a little (it’s really that beautiful)
ALSO: While pedal steel does appear here and there (notably on the absolutely flotational “Gold Tower”), this isn’t “Americana”
Manzanita is the common name for a kind of small evergreen tree endemic to California which has strong medicinal properties. It’s also the name of the brand new full length by songwriter, musician, visual artist, and writer Shana Cleveland. Subtle, powerful, and unafraid. We can’t actually tell you how much we love this record because you’d never believe us, so we’ll just say that it is her strongest and most personal album to date.
These songs are as strong as the bricks in the Brill building, and seem destined to be covered by others in years to come. Where her previous record, 2019’s Night of the Worm Moon (Hardly Art) functions as a collection of speculative fictions equally inspired by Afro-futurist pioneers Herman “Sun Ra” Blount and Octavia Butler, Manzanita concerns the love that loves to love. “This is a supernatural love album set in the California wilderness,” Cleveland explains.
The combinations of words and song structure are so strong throughout that one hardly notices Cleveland’s nimble fingerpicking on first listen, or how much is packed into the arrangements. The lyrics are satisfyingly direct, with the buoyantly whimsical descriptions typical of the 1960s New York School of poetry. It’s peppered with the kind of unexpected turns that make the words more modern, and in their spookiness they are more West Coast, as in “Mystic Mine,” with its “Mystic Mine Lane, cars rotting away/ I feel so relieved to be/ Back in the country.”
The Album starts off so strongly with the gorgeous, Mellotron-backed, angelic dirge “A Ghost,” and we’re off from there. These are domestic scenes, and bliss abounds, but it’s more about the utter weirdness of being a creature than anything, as in “Walking Through Morning Dew” with its “Little Ozzy crawling up my lap/ To claw my playing mute/ Sometimes in his face I think/ I’m seeing you.” In “Mayonnaise,” a paean to the writer Richard Brautigan who she adores for his “sweet and gently psychedelic California nature scenes,” the song’s protagonist sings “Now I am a Californian/ I never wanna leave the state again… I’ll write a thousand songs before I’m done.” Hopefully Cleveland will write at least that many.
This is a love album that’s somehow populated with the insect world, ghosts, and evil spirits. Sonically, Manzanita sits in a meadow similar to her previous solo records, set back and away from the genre-recombinant garage pop of her band La Luz. This is part due to the fact that there’s a different sonic palette in use here.
While Shana Cleveland continues to play guitar and vocals; Johnny Goss, who has recorded all of Shana’s solo material and early La Luz recordings, and Abbey Blackwell (Alvvays, La Luz) play the bass; Olie Eshleman is on pedal steel; Chris Icasiano (Fleet Foxes) is on Drums; and Will Sprott plays the keyboards, dulcimer, glockenspiel, and harpsichord—little of which would have been out of place on her previous two solo records—Sprott also adds layers of synthesizer. And while synthesizers have a reputation for being “unnatural” instruments, Cleveland contends that “they are actually the best vehicle for conveying the sounds of nature (bugs, wind, birds, chainsaws–rural white noise); we used synthesizers as a way of recreating the atmosphere of being outside in the natural world while in the studio.”
The natural world continues to inspire, in part because that’s her workplace. “Part of moving to California for me was living somewhere where writing outside was possible all year,” Cleveland says. The record was recorded around the time of having her first child, an experience which made her realize that she is not separate from nature, that none of us are. “I think of this as a Springtime record,” Cleveland says. “In California, Spring is the season when nature comes inside. The house is suddenly full of weird bugs. Everything is blindingly in bloom.”
So much of the pop music we love is propelled by those first blushes of infatuation and lust, but Manzanita concerns the kind of love that one can only experience with time, work, and devotion. “The songs were all written while I was pregnant (side A) or shortly after my son’s birth in that weird everything-has-quietly-but-monumentally-shifted state (side B),” she says. Moving to the country, starting a family, laughing for real at the same joke the thirteenth time you’ve heard it, surviving heavy shit (this is the first release since Cleveland’s successful treatment for a diagnosis of breast cancer at the start of 2022).
A song like the fluttering orchestral pop number “Faces in the Firelight” delivers little gifts with each listen. At first it sounds like the singer says “Faces in the firelight/ A blooming room inside the night/ Do you love me like I do?” Which she does sing, but there’s a dramatic pause before Cleveland does add “youuuu.” And that is such a great and intentional riff on the usual love song, to intentionally posit self-love before also expressing devotion for the other. It’s a little thing, but it’s real. And in that, it’s a big thing.
“Faces in the Firelight” is addressed to both her son in utero and her life partner (the also ridiculously talented guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, producer and longtime member of Shannon and the Clams, Will Sprott). “The song is about watching Will tend to a huge burn pile that was still going long after dark and realizing that out there in the dark field he looked like the ultrasound image we had on our fridge,” she says. “I was thinking that the greatest act of love might be to wait for someone. To say, I’ll be here whenever you’re done, whenever you’re ready.”