Clara Mann was raised predominantly in a village in the south of France, where she developed an appreciation for choral music as well as the chanson tradition of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf. Although she doesn’t describe her family as strictly religious, the church was an important part of the community, and when they returned to England, Mann enrolled in a Quaker school in the southwest. But it wasn’t until she started going to DIY shows in Bristol, where she was exposed to more alternative and contemporary musical influences, that she experimented with songwriting. A few demos she uploaded on Bandcamp caught the attention of Sad Club Records, which released her debut EP, Consolations, last year. Earlier this month, Mann followed it up with Stay Open, a beautiful collection that dresses its plaintive, vulnerable compositions with graceful subtlety and poise. Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear produced and contributed to ‘Confessions’, a highlight that displays Mann’s knack for relaying personal stories with a mix of tender melancholy and self-assurance. “You want to hear confessions, well I’m twisted out of shape,” she sings, yet complicated emotions pour out. “Somehow we just keep crashing on and on, and through each broken day.”
We caught up with Clara Mann for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about how her musical background, the inspirations behind Stay Open, working with Daniel Rossen, and more.
You’ve said that ‘Go Steady’, the song that accompanied the announcement of your new EP, is about leaving the past behind and the heaviness of constantly carrying your whole story. Do you feel like that’s a burden you have to carry as an artist, and what led to you wanting to let go of it?
I don’t always feel it as a burden, often it’s something that really enriches my writing – I’m a very visual person, so a lot of my songs come from visual memories of places or pictures in my past. The stories we tell ourselves about our own lives, whether real or partially fictionalised by nostalgia and the passing of time, can be so powerful. I suddenly felt like I needed to start being present in the now, and feeling joy when opening new chapters, rather than dragging all of my past with me all the time, and letting it define my present. I felt a certain amount of grief and darkness from my past were affecting my ability to feel light and free, and young, and I just wanted to put some of that behind me. That’s not to say it’s not in me still, of course it is, we can’t just vanish these things, and they will always be a part of me and of my songs, but I wanted to have it as a definite backdrop to my life and to my writing rather than having it in the foreground, through which everything I lived and saw was filtered through. ‘Go Steady’ was a celebration of that, a song about moving forward, about hope.
You studied classical piano and were encouraged to express yourself creatively from an early age, but you didn’t pursue songwriting until you were exposed to the DIY world. How do you think these different sides of your musical background allowed you to grow?
I am so grateful for my classical background. I love classical music, choral music, purely instrumental music, and my (still fairly basic!) understanding of harmony and theory has definitely influenced my writing, but probably in a mostly unconscious way. The DIY world that I discovered when I first started writing songs just made me feel a whole lot less precious about making things: as much as the classical music world and the choral world are incredibly rich, inspiring worlds, I never felt that I fitted in to them socially or creatively – both can feel quite dry, and pressurised, and old fashioned. Seeing friends get up on stage and sing beautiful songs that they’d written in their room made me want to try it, just for fun. I found so much joy in just making things. In learning to play the piano, I learned about things like control and discipline, and how those things can actually lead to greater understanding of the feeling in a piece of music, and greater depth to your expression. I guess all of those things helped when I started writing music myself. I also just loved playing duets with my mum, who’s a brilliant pianist, singing songs with her… Music always brought comfort.
You grew up around different faith communities, both in England and in France. Is spirituality something that still informs your life and art in some way? How do you relate to it now?
I definitely wouldn’t consider myself religious, but probably spiritual, if that’s not too pretentious! I hope that I have a healthy awareness of the fact that there are things beyond our understanding in this world – that maybe there might even be other worlds, too. In my songs, I talk a lot about light, and silence – I think those are things I learned to notice partly in places of worship. The two faith communities that I grew up with – first the French Catholic church, full of gold and colour and words, and then the Quaker community, where silence and peace are a means to access a spiritual state- are so different, but the one thing most religions have in common is stories, and I love stories.
The titles of both your EPs are framed almost like notes to yourself; Consolations suggests finding comfort in difficult times, while Stay Open is itself a reminder. How different were the circumstances in which you wrote the two EPs, and how did “stay open” become an important phrase as you were making it?
Honestly I think the main difference between the two EPS, for me, is confidence. The songs on Consolations are some of the first songs I ever wrote – I love them, but looking back, I think how unsure of myself I was. I also wrote it in isolation, in the countryside, and a lot of that open space and loneliness are present in the music. Stay Open feels more self-assured, at least to me, and more expansive.
In terms of the actual name of the EP, a lot of my lyrics and song begin as drawings: I keep notebooks where I illustrate fragments of text that come out of my head, a bit like graphic novels. I pour all of that out on to the page, and then pick out lines- that’s where Stay Open came from. I looked at it and thought, “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel.” I think a lot of us spend our early twenties chasing things (people, experiences, thrills) and I just didn’t feel I wanted to do that, or that it was actually effective. Its’ like when the you’re out there looking for love and you just don’t meet anyone at all, and you give up all hope and suddenly bump into someone wonderful in the queue at the supermarket, and that’s that! I felt the only thing I could do was be open, and look after myself, and then I’d be ready to receive whatever came my way.
There’s a vulnerability to this kind of music, but it’s interesting how you weave different feelings out of it: there’s love on ‘Confessions’, a bit of hope on ‘Go Steady’, grief on ‘Thread’. Is that range something you were conscious of while you were putting together the EP?
No, I wasn’t conscious of it, but when I look back at the EP it feels like a picture of that year I spent writing it. I’m not someone who uses writing to purge emotionally, I can’t write from a place of turbulence – I have to distance myself from whatever’s going on my life, let time pass, and then whatever I’ve been through will crop up in a song. I’ll get halfway through writing it and think, “Oh, that’s what that lyric’s about.” That said, I knew as soon as I wrote the first line of ‘Confessions’ that, insofar as any song is about any one thing, that song was about love.
You recorded ‘Confessions’ with Daniel Rossen. Can you talk about the story behind that song?
I wrote ‘Confessions’ in a very dark period at the beginning of 2021, in January or so. It was about the pain and joy of loving someone in hard times. The person I wrote it for – we’d been through so much together, weathered so many storms, and I felt a mixture of grief that we’d not just been able to love each other easily and in a carefree way, and pride that we’d come through it all, together, and that we could move forward, finally.
When I was on tour supporting Daniel Rossen in May, he suggested we play a song on my set together. I was thrilled, and suggested ‘Confessions’, which at the time was my favourite one to play live. We first played it together on the first UK show, in Leeds, and I was just beaming the whole way through the performance. We came off stage and I was literally ecstatic, and asked him if he’d play on the recorded version. He said yes. When we both got home after the tour, we had a few Zoom calls, exchanged a few emails, and he produced the track remotely. Daniel understood the darkness in the song – although it’s about love, it’s not just a love song, it’s about transition and change. Recently, we had a conversation about the way that songs change meaning throughout their life and an artist’s life. As the person performing that song, you have to find a way to bring it into your present, even if you wrote it a long time ago. Sometimes that feels like a burden, and for a while, I found it painful to sing this song live. But it’s changing as I change too, and I’m learning to accept that.
What do you want to remember when you look back on Stay Open, and what do you hope listeners take from it?
I hear a lot of hope and strength on this EP – two things that I sometimes forget to recognise in myself. I am happy this EP is out, I’m proud of the songs, but it’s nice to put it down. Writing and releasing music is like placing a very precious thing in a box and putting in on the bookshelf in your bedroom, and thinking, “I’m glad that’s there, and sometimes I’ll look up at it and remember it warmly, but I don’t need to open it up again for a little while.”
Are there any musical or lyrical ideas you’re curious about exploring going into the future?
I’m writing a record – I just want to keep growing and becoming more confident, particularly on the production side of things. My writing process is still evolving, which is exciting, and I surprise myself sometimes (the other day I wrote a fast song!) so I’d just like to keep exploring that really.