As an in-demand songwriter for hire, Mando Saenz hasn’t been lacking for work. But he has taken a bit of a hiatus from releasing his own records. Eight years on since his last album, 2013’s Studebaker, Saenz, the artist, is back. The good news is that his new record, All My Shame, is coming out this week, and it’s more than worth the wait.
Saenz hooked up with producer Ken Coomer to help expand the boundaries of his sound well beyond the roots-rock and folk of previous releases. In addition, he collaborated with some ace co-writers, all in service of songs that cut pretty deep with tales of self-destruction, regret and fractured love. On top of that, there’s an out-of-left field cover of Dio’s “Rainbow In The Dark” to put a bow on the album.
In a recent conversation with American Songwriter, Saenz talked about recharging his solo career, utilizing different songwriting techniques, and finding his way as an artist. Here are the highlights of that conversation:
American Songwriter: It’s been awhile since your last record. Were the songs on All My Shame written over that long stretch or was it a case of bunch of them coming in a hurry?
Mando Saenz: I didn’t realize how much time had gone by since I’d done a record. And with COVID and everything, it took even longer to get it out. We dug into old songs I’ve been writing since my last record. We went through a hundred songs or so at least.
AS: Even though the songs were written over that long period, the record holds together as a cohesive whole. Did thematic concerns have any effect on the songs you chose?
MS: I don’t think we had a common theme in mind. Coming up with the name of the record was harder than anything (laughs.) Because I didn’t really have any theme in mind other than songs that we dug and thought would be cool, maybe something that I hadn’t done before, but still true to what I do. There is some kind of cohesiveness. I think it’s been that way on my records in the past, where everything is a little all over the place, but still there’s something that binds them together, whether it’s my voice or the production or the recording. Recordings are special that way. They just capture a moment, even if the songs have been written over a span of many years.
AS: What drew you to Ken Coomer as a producer?
MS: I’d worked with him in the past. We did some sides years ago before I moved to Houston. My manager at the time, who knows Coomer, thought it would be a good idea to just get some content out there, because I hadn’t had anything out. We were originally just going to do an EP. I love Coomer, he’s just so creative. I thought it would be nice to just do an EP at first. Once we had five or songs done, we just thought, man, this was fun, let’s just do a whole full-length record. And I’m glad we did. It probably took longer to get the stuff out there, but I’m happy doing a full-length.
AS: People sometimes think of singer-songwriter records as being an acoustic guitar or piano and a voice. But this album really touches all the bases musically, from blues to hard rock even to psychedelia. Did you have a notion in your head before making the record about the diversity of the sound?
MS: We had three or four pre-production meetings. I just trust Ken’s creative mind. In the studio, he has access to a lot of different sounds and noises. And he knows so many of the players to call. As we dug in, he came up with some of those new sounds that I hadn’t used. And I’m always up for that. I loved the way that you could have a singer-songwriter still doing his thing, but there’s so many ways that production can take the song somewhere even different. I think these songs were different enough to lend themselves to it as well.
AS: You’re one of these guys who can say a lot with very little verbiage in a song. Is that something you’ve always had or have you worked on that over the years?
MS: I think that’s something that I always had. I just think sometimes it better to get to the point. That’s why I like country music and punk music. Neither of them really waste a lot of time getting to the point.
AS: You’re also great with metaphors. I think about a song like “Shadow Boxing,” where the metaphor is carried throughout the song. What is it about metaphors that appeal to you as you’re writing?
MS: Once you find it, it gives you a better road map to what you’re saying and ways to say it in the verses and even in the chorus. Good titles like that are great because you can use them as metaphors. They are precious in that sense. But once you get them, it sure makes the song a lot easier to write and more fun and creative. The more I look at my writing, metaphor is my friend.
AS: What drew you to “Rainbow In The Dark” as cover material?
MS: In one of those pre-production meetings, we were talking about how I’d never done a cover song before on any of my records. And Coomer said, ‘Hey, man I got this idea, but you’re going to have to go with me on it before you complete shut it down. How about ‘Rainbow In The Dark?’ And I said, ‘Wait, you mean the Dio song? Man, that was my first concert. Are you kidding me? I love that song.’ Right away, I was like, ‘hell yeah, I want to do that.’ And my next thought was how are we going to pull it off? (Laughs.) He said, ‘Do it more in a Townes Van Zandt vein.’ And I can do that with about anything. So I said, ‘sure, let’s try it that way.’ It really allowed me to revisit the song. And now I know why it even spoke to me when I was a kid. It’s just incredibly well-written lyrics. It was a joy to really dig into that and interpret in my kind of way, a Texas folk angle.
AS: A lot of these songs seem to deal with narrators or characters who are really honest about the mistakes they’ve made. How much of that is autobiographical, and how important is to write with that kind of honesty?
MS: Some of it may be autobiographical in an indirect way. And a lot of it is emotions I have. ‘The More I Need’ might be me talking about myself, kind of in a scary way really. But in a truthful way that’s kind of therapeutic. And ‘The Deep End,” once again a lot of metaphors, but maybe having to do with putting away childish things. The opening line is using a gun as a metaphor which might scare some people. But it’s basically just saying, look, this is not a toy and it needs to be used responsibly, basically a love song.
AS: You’ve been so successful as a co-writer for others. But do you feel with this record that you’ve hit your stride as a performer, maybe more than ever before?
MS: I’m growing as an artist and a writer. When I first started, songs just kind of came out of me, because I was doing it for the first time and I think I had a lot of stuff inside. I’m not a very talkative person. Songs just kind of flowed out of me back then. Now I just think that I just keep trying to grow as a writer, take all my influences over the years and incorporate them in my writing. I don’t think I’m coming into my own so much as just doing it more and growing and having fun.
AS: And how excited are you for people to hear All My Shame?
MS: It’s been a while and I’m very proud of the record. It’s unlike anything I’ve done but still very true to me, so I’m very excited for people to hear it. There are a lot more co-writes on this record and I’m completely fine with that, because that’s just what I’ve been doing. I’m glad I get to celebrate this record with other people I wrote with.