Artist Spotlight: Shana Cleveland

    Shana Cleveland is a singer-songwriter, guitarist, and visual artist known both as the frontwoman of the surf rock band La Luz and for her softer, more haunted solo work. She grew up in Michigan and went to school in Chicago, but it wasn’t until she relocated to Seattle in her mid-20s that she started playing in bands. Since releasing her last solo album, 2019’s Night of the Worm Moon, Cleveland successfully underwent treatment for a breast cancer diagnosis and moved to rural California, where she lives with her partner, the multi-instrumentalist Will Sprott. On her mesmerizing third LP, Manzanita, which was written while Cleveland was pregnant and shortly following her son’s birth, we find her immersed in the almost psychedelic experience of new motherhood and the wilderness, keenly reflecting on their strange joys and mysteries. A springtime album of wondrous, surreal beauty, Manzanita anchors in Cleveland’s fingerpicked guitar style and hushed vocals, with layers of keyboards, upright bass, pedal steel, and drums wandering alongside her, at once ghostly and gentle. A sense of post-apocalyptic menace courses through the song ‘Gold Tower’, but it also reveals the album’s true nature, one of peaceful, loving surrender: “I want to be yours, totally.”

    We caught up with Shana Cleveland for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about the making of Manzanita, parenthood, her connection to the natural world, and more.

    In a statement accompanying the single ‘A Ghost’, you said that the album could be subtitled ‘What to Expect When You Are Open to the Mysteries of the Universe.’ Which is obviously meant to be cheeky, but the real irony is that you never know what to expect, and there’s no good way of packaging that.

    Yeah, that’s the joke, right? It’s like, the more open you are, the more you realize you don’t know what’s going on. Pregnancy was a big awakening in that way for me. As an artist, I’ve been really driven to create and to tour – I don’t have a boss, so I have to sort of be my own boss and always put a little pressure on myself to get things done. And when I was pregnant, it was the beginning of starting to realize that I wasn’t in control as much as I thought I was, starting to relinquish control, and also let go of the idea of what was going on or what was going to happen in the future. I found that, as an artist, to be really freeing and a real relief, in a way. With this album, I wanted to pay tribute to that openness and the feeling of being not just okay with uncertainty, but really enjoying the uncertainty.

    What implications did that freedom have, whether in your artistic life or more generally?

    I don’t know, I think I’m still figuring it out. I’ve always been interested in mystery – when I go to an art museum, I’m really attracted to paintings that I don’t understand. When I read poetry, I don’t want to try and understand it. I really enjoy just taking something in and seeing how it sits, not worrying about trying to figure it out. That’s why those particular lessons of pregnancy resonated with me so much; I think I was already interested in that. To actually experience it and not just have it be an idea, to actually be out of control, and to have this giant mystery – pregnancy is so interesting, because we can kind of say what’s going on with so many things that happen in our lives, and nobody knows what’s happening with pregnancy. Is it gonna be a boy or a girl? Is it gonna come out with all its fingers and toes? Is it gonna come out at all? Is it gonna work, you know? [laughs]And then, what’s that person going to be like?

    I was just excited by this feeling that I could exist in the mystery a little bit more. That’s reality – there’s this illusion that we’re in control of things, and the reality is that everything’s kind of like pregnancy. We don’t actually know where we’re going to be tomorrow and what’s going to happen. In a way, that was sort of comforting. It was a step towards feeling more comfortable with the idea of death, which makes it more exciting to be alive.

    Being confronted with the weight of that reality, did you find it challenging to then channel that into your creative process? Was it different from other things you’ve gravitated to songwriting-wise?

    I’m not sure if the process was different. I feel like my process has always been to sort of let go of control. When I was younger, I studied the Surrealists and was really interested in the way that they were trying to let go of their conscious mind, to tap into the unconscious as a source of inspiration. To me, that just made a lot of sense. I feel like I’ve been doing that for a long time, just trying to get to a state where I’m not as critical. I feel like I’ve never written a good song when I was in a critical mindset or overthinking mindset. I won’t labour over a song; it feels like if it’s being laboured over, it’s probably not working or not true.

    Manzanita revolves around the natural world, and you’ve also called it “a supernatural love album.” It seems like you were especially aware of the permeable boundaries between the natural and the supernatural.

    Yeah, I feel like the closer attention I pay to nature, the stranger and more mysterious – I mean, to me, it feels psychedelic, because I don’t know what’s going on out there. [laughs] I think if I watch one thing closely for a long time in nature, it will always do something surprising, and it will always show me something I haven’t seen before. Living in a city, you don’t really ever have much of a chance to pay that close attention, and that’s something I’ve enjoyed out here, having this slow pace where I’m able to look deeper at the natural world.

    There’s definitely a lot of watching and observing on this album. In an interview around the release of Night of the Worm Moon, you said you wanted your next solo record to be just guitar and vocals, but of course you do have a band playing with you on Manzanita. I feel like if it were a more traditional guitar-vocals album, one would get the sense that you’re more just an observer, but with the way that all the instruments weave together, it’s more like you’re a part of that beauty, participating in it. I don’t know if that was part of the intention.

    Yeah, it was. That’s great to hear. I still want to make a record like that, just because I love records like that, just vocals and guitar. But I think that these songs felt just so set in a natural environment because I wrote them outside, and they were so inspired by these surroundings that it didn’t feel right to not try to create that atmosphere in some way. We bought all these other instruments in, but it was always with the intention of painting that backdrop, having them be more abstract. Like, there’s a pedal steel, but I think that it’s more atmospheric than country-western. There’s an upright bass, and sometimes the upright bass is doing the exact same thing as the synthesizer.

    Sometimes it’s almost like the pedal steel, upright bass, and synths are all walking together, and one of my favorite songs in that respect is ‘Gold Tower’, which builds to this heartfelt declaration: “If I let you down, bury me to the ground.” What went into the making of that track?

    That song was one I wrote while I was pregnant, and I feel like there’s a lot of dynamic between the verses and the chorus of that song, because it’s this very gentle, almost like I’m singing to myself on the verses. I had just read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, which I’d never read before. It felt so interesting to me to read science fiction out here in the wilderness. It just felt like it could be real. I thought: This could be set here. Without any buildings or humans, you can sort of imagine anything happening. I was a bit haunted by that book while I was writing that song. The gold tower was sort of an imaginary science fiction thing in the distance of, like, my yard. [laughs] Singing to my son when he was still in utero, I wanted to chorus to kind of feel like science fiction, because that’s where my head was at. There’s a lot of buzzing, sizzling synth noises. I wanted this declaration of love in the face of total uncertainty, just saying “I’ll die for you” to this person that you’ve never seen before. I thought that that moment should feel strange and a bit surreal, because it felt like: Why do I feel like I’m ready to give everything to this invisible being? That, to me, seemed so in line with fantasy and science fiction.

    The songs on side A were written before your son was born, and the ones on side B were written shortly after, but that strange feeling doesn’t seem to go away.

    Yeah. I think of the song ‘Babe’. When I wrote that song, with the lyrics, I wanted it to feel almost like a horror film at first. Just talking about, you know, “I’m watching you.” But that feeling in the back of my head went from science fiction to horror, I think, after he was born. [laughs] I was like, This amount of love is actually terrifying. That was the genre switch in my mind.

    Side B also struck me as somewhat quieter and more solitary. Is that in line with your headspace at the time?

    It makes sense that it would sound like that. Those songs on side B, I mean, I was more alone, even though I was surrounded by people. It was such a strange time because me and my partner, Will, had just moved out to the country fairly recently, and I didn’t really know many people in town. He was on tour often outside of the country, all the time it felt like, while I was pregnant. That feeling of being alone and pregnant – it just really felt like I was able to connect with nature in a way that felt really meaningful to me. There was sort of this weird comfort in pregnancy of just walking around with this other person all the time. [laughs] I really did enjoy that. People on the street would be like, “Looking good!” People give this esteem to pregnant women sometimes. It almost felt like being taken out of society and put into this other place where I felt less lonely. I felt like I could be whoever I wanted to be and everybody was just like, “You’re doing great.” And then after you have your baby, you’re just kind of thrust back into the world of the individual again.

    It’s interesting that your partner, Will, who was away for a lot of the writing of the album, also plays throughout it. Even though the songs come from this place of aloneness, there is a sense of companionship in the music, and even moments that are directly about that companionship, like ‘Faces in the Firelight’.

    I feel like there’s always two stages to the writing process for me. I love to write alone, and then it’s great to take it to other people. And Will’s always the first person that I take my songs to when I’m ready. But I sort of have to get to the point where I feel like they’re done before I’ll even play them for him. There’s that solitary process, and then there’s the collaborative process, which is much shorter, because working with Will is so intuitive. We just know each other so well that he just understands the songs. And especially writing songs that are so personal – even though he wasn’t physically there for a lot of the time I was writing the songs, I was talking to him every day. We’ve just been together for so long that it’s just an easy collaboration. And with the other musicians, it’s similar – it’s not as intimate, but I’ve worked with everyone else who plays on the album for like a decade in various capacities. With Will I’ll work a little bit longer, but in the studio, everyone’s hearing the songs for the first time and playing really intuitively. I feel like that has always worked really well for this music.

    On ‘Ten Hour Drive Through West Coast Disaster’, you ask, “Will you find a way to love this world?” It’s one of those lines that’s addressed to your son, but I’m curious if, inevitably, you’re also asking that question for yourself.

    I feel like I ask myself that every day. I think that when you’re a parent, especially of a child so young – I’m sure that this relaxes at some point down the road – you’re completely focused on this kid. Like, there’s this delicious treat that you can have and there’s only one of them, you’re gonna give it to the kid. You’re not gonna eat it yourself. And that’s a really new experience in my life. I feel like I’ve been me-focused for my entire life. [laughs] I don’t have any siblings. I just have been really focused on myself. One of the great awakenings of having a kid was realizing that it was possible to feel that way about another human being. To think about their needs and their quality of life before mine. So, I don’t know if I thought about that for myself at that time. I really was just focused on him, but I do feel that way as well. I do have that same question.

    You must get asked about how your process differs from album to album, from working with a band to working solo. But with Manzanita, it’s impossible not to talk about a shift in your whole philosophy and lifestyle as a result of that experience.

    Yeah, that’s what this record is. That’s why I wanted to lean into it being almost a concept album about pregnancy and birth. There’s a couple songs on the record that aren’t about my son, but only a couple. It just felt like such a powerful time, and I was interested in what it would be like to really put my focus there and not cast as wide a net as I might usually do for a record’s source material.

    Having had some space from the album, what would you say are the secrets or lessons you took from this process?

    The realization that I am of nature, not just in nature. And that – I feel like it sounds so cheesy – but I’ve just been so obsessed with love since the time that I was writing these songs. Just feeling like that is the most important thing, and the place where I want to put my focus. I think I have a greater capacity for love, and not just love for my son, but for people – it just gives you so much more empathy, becoming a parent, if you’re open to it. I’m sure it doesn’t do that for everybody, but for me, it’s like an explosion of empathy.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Shana Cleveland’s Manzanita is out now via Hardly Art.

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