Songwriter Shana Cleveland writes some of the most beautiful tunes in music today. With a dreamy, lilting sound, she offers a blend of quiet, introspective songwriting with a glistening, gleaming, nuanced pop sensibility at times.
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Known these days as the frontwoman for the California-based band, La Luz, Cleveland has a new solo album, Manzanita, set for release on Friday (March 10). It’s a magnificent work for the artist, who has deep roots in the music world, from her own blues musician mother to her former K Records band, Curious Mystery.
[RELATED: La Luz Songwriter Shana Cleveland Details Where Inspiration Comes From]
American Songwriter caught up with Cleveland to talk about her early days as an artist, how the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest shaped her ear, and how motherhood has affected her writing style, too.
American Songwriter: When did you first find music—when did music first enter your world in a significant way as a young person?
Shana Cleveland: My parents are both musicians so music was a big part of my life for as far back as I can remember. They met through music, they played music together, then they played it apart. Their whole social scene revolved around music as well so it just seemed to me that music was the point of life.
AS: What about it made you want to invest in it early on and what did that look like—strumming guitar in your bedroom, collaborating with friends, learning from folks around you?
SC: I always knew I would be a musician so I wasn’t in a big hurry to get there. I wrote songs all my life and started playing guitars around 13 or so but I didn’t start playing in bands until I moved to Seattle when I was about 25.
AS: You moved around a lot as a young person. What were some important stops along the way (Chicago, Michigan) and how did the moves influence your orientation to the music, your ear?
SC: I grew up in Michigan and went to school in Chicago, and I was playing music here and there but I was more focused on writing in school. I majored in poetry in college. I was inspired by a lot of the music I learned about while I was in the Midwest but more often than not it wasn’t generally the music that was happening there at the time. I was more drawn to west coast bands and bands from different eras and countries. But I got a great music education living in punk houses in Chicago, lots of true music geeks there.
AS: You eventually landed in Seattle. How did the city influence you, from starting a past band Curious Mystery, signing to K Record, starting La Luz, and working with Hardly Art?
SC: The DIY spirit of the underground music scene in the Pacific Northwest was so foundational to who I am now as an artist. Going to house shows, I saw clearly how it was possible to forge your own path as an artist and musician whether or not you had the support of a label, and whether or not the work you were making was marketable or even likable [laughs]. So when I started my first band there I felt empowered to do everything myself, I screen printed t-shirts, dubbed tapes, and CDs and designed the artwork, booked mega tours across the country, and more.
If I didn’t know how to do something I knew a dozen or so people I could ask. There was a great sense of community in that scene. When I started La Luz, I already had several years of touring and doing everything myself under my belt so we were off and running right away, and I think that’s something that people noticed and responded to.
[RELATED: Shana Cleveland (La Luz) Announces New Solo LP ‘Manzanita’]
AS: You moved to California more recently. How has the area and your home there influenced your songwriting and musical sensibility?
SC: I love it because I write outside and it’s just so easy to be outside here. I think there’s a lot more natural imagery in my songs now because I’m so surrounded by nature. I’m interested in the peace as well as the brutality of being immersed in the natural world and away from the controlled organization of cities.
AS: How and when did you find/land on your Shana Cleveland “sound”—your lilting voice and dreamy, psychedelic lyricism?
SC: I feel like the fingerpicking guitar has something to do with the dreaminess. Fingerpicking, especially in an open tuning, feels very meditative to me. For this project, I like writing and playing songs that make me feel relaxed.
AS: What are the differences in your mind between a solo album and a La Luz album—are there major differences?
SC: La Luz is more about connection, the songs are reaching out, whereas the songs on my solo albums are reaching in. Introspective songwriting is also a good way of connecting to other people, it’s just a different kind of connection, sometimes it feels like a deeper kind because I’m sharing more about myself and trusting that there is some common ground there.
AS: What was the genesis of your new solo album? Did you write it, and record it at home? It’s filled with beautiful songs like “Faces in the Firelight” and “A Ghost,” both of which have almost vaudevillian music videos.
SC: [Laughs] That’s true isn’t it, there is a vaudeville vibe that I hadn’t really noticed before. I just finished another one that could also be described that way. I wrote the songs at home, Side A was written while I was pregnant, and Side B was written in the early months of my son’s life in that strange time when everything has quietly but massively changed. I recorded it with my friend Johnny Goss at his studio in Seattle called Dandelion Gold.
AS: As we talked about recently, you’re a new mother. How has this life change influenced the way you think about music and songwriting—from your connection with nature to your sense of mystery?
SC: Pregnancy was an awakening to the idea that I am not separate from nature. Your body and mind are constantly changing and there’s a nice surrender involved there. Being a mom has made me a more open person. I’ve always been a loner and it felt like a relief in a way to have something demand that I come out of myself and be part of the larger world. I think that’s what I love about performing too. There’s a line in my song “Gold Tower”:
I have been alone as long as I have been / I want to tell you now if I let you down, if I let you down, bury me in the ground / I want to be yours.
I wrote that while I was pregnant and I was already preparing to lose myself, I was looking forward to not being so self-centered. I think being self-centered has served me well in a lot of ways as an artist but I’ve written so many albums from that perspective that it’s a relief to have my world blown apart and my consciousness shift.
AS: How has your own mom, who is an accomplished blues musician with a real sense of history, impacted how you think about music?
SC: Growing up, I got to see how much my parents loved music. My mom uses music to celebrate, grieve, connect with people, and even make sense of the world and our history. She has a program where she teaches children about African American history through the lens of Blues music, and I’ve learned a lot from her.
AS: What’s on the horizon for you, personally or professionally? How are you thinking about the future? You have this solo release—is a tour coming, anything else you want to mention?
SC: I’ll be announcing some tours for Manzanita soon. Also a tour with La Luz. I have a half dozen album ideas running around my head so we’ll see which ones make it out.
AS: What do you love most about music?
SC: I just think it’s a beautiful way of communicating.
Photo by Suzi Pratt/WireImage