MisterWives’ Mandy Lee Makes Her Own Happiness

Orange as far as the eye can see — this is the annual scene in one picturesque corner of Antelope Valley, where flowers sprout wild and free through the dust of California’s Mojave Desert. The fields shine brightest in late winter through early spring, and in March 2019, MisterWives’ frontwoman Mandy Lee had to see the colors for herself. When she stood among the poppies, growing in the most unexpected of places, an album was born: SUPERBLOOM.

Videos by American Songwriter

The indie-pop band’s third LP, out now, takes you inside Lee’s head as she breaks through her own pain to blossom. Over the course of 19 songs, you listen to her life unfold in vivid detail, from an excruciating breakup to its promising aftermath.

“In order to get to the ‘SUPERBLOOM,’ you have to go through the pain and recognizing and abandoning yourself and self-love,” Lee told American Songwriter over video chat. The album’s title track and closing song blends tap-your-toe piano beats with a sprinkle of saxophone, all to congratulate you for surviving the worst.

MisterWives got their scrappy start in 2012, working their way up from gigs at beloved Manhattan venues like Canal Room and Pianos. They’ve since released three albums and headlined multiple tours, plus opened for bands like Panic! At The Disco and Twenty One Pilots. SUPERBLOOM is their first LP since signing with Fueled by Ramen in 2019, and it stands out as their most ambitious body of work since 2015’s Our Own House and 2017’s Connect the Dots.

Lee’s powerful voice carries song after song, while her bandmates turn each tune into an earworm: Etienne Bowler on drums; William Hehir on bass; Marc Campbell on guitar; Mike Murphy on sax; and Jesse Blum on keys, trumpet, and accordion. With so many instruments in the mix, there’s a lot of room to experiment. This is the first time Lee’s co-written songs with artists like Sir Sly’s Landon Jacobs, Timeflies’ Cal Shapiro, and Grammy-nominated K.Flay. Sugarcult’s Tim Pagnotta and flor’s Dylan Bauld also joined Bowler as producers for much of the tracklist.

The band needed fresh collaborations to mark their new beginning after that aforementioned breakup. There’s no sugarcoating the real-life story behind SUPERBLOOM: Lee and Bowler were together for eight years before calling it quits in 2019, and the album chronicles the twists and turns of Lee’s healing process. It would’ve felt “like torture,” she said, to write certain songs with her ex, so she teamed up with new musicians to pen lyrics about the split.

“It’s really, really hard to let people on the outside see everything on the inside… Me and Etienne kept our breakup under wraps for a very long time because we wanted the band to be okay,” Lee revealed. “Our families are really close. We didn’t want to disappoint others, so in turn, we really disappointed ourselves by not being able to be open about what was going on.”

The first song she wrote for the LP — “whywhywhy,” a desperate plead for closure — was terrifying to share, because sending it to her manager and friends made the breakup feel that much more real. And “valentine’s day,” a gutting play-by-play of the day everything changed forever, is so raw it’s “impossible not to cry,” Lee said.

The song’s final line — “It’s only half the truth but it’s still true / Nobody walks away the way you do” — is perhaps the LP’s most vulnerable moment. “This is what I’ve experienced, but there’s also another side of things for Etienne,” Lee explained. “I was very conscious of, like, I don’t want to villainize Etienne, because Etienne is an amazing guy… but it’s still true even if it’s just the half of the story.”

It’s this type of brutal honesty that’s “fundamental” in songwriting, Lee added. Her advice to anyone making music is to lead with their truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be: “I really let how I was feeling and my intuition and my gut and everything going on inside be the compass for this album, so I think if you’re letting that guide you, you can go wherever the heck you want with music.”

Lee’s openness continues in “decide to be happy,” a motivational anthem that lights the way when it’s too dark to see. The vibrant music video opens with her waking up under a blanket of California poppies, SUPERBLOOM’s enduring symbol of resilience. You watch her go through the motions of eating cereal and brushing her teeth and hair — everyday tasks that sometimes feel impossible to complete.

All along, her alter ego from MisterWives’ “rock bottom” video cheers her on for trying her best. “[It’s] me trying to run away from myself,” Lee said, “but my happy conscience [keeps] being like, ‘Hey you got this. We can do this… You are stronger than you think you are.’”

The visuals, filmed at the Los Angeles apartment Lee quarantined at, came to life in less than a week thanks in part to photographers Matty Vogel and Tim Toda. Lee compared the shoot to cooking a meal with whatever leftovers you have in the fridge; under lockdown, you may not have all the ingredients for a cinematic masterpiece, but you make the most out of what you’ve got.

“I wanted this video to feel empowering to people who were all feeling that way right now,” Lee continued, “that we can get up and live our best day even when every bit of ourselves [is] fighting that.”
That sense of hope glows brighter with each of SUPERBLOOM’s songs. It’s not easy being a work in progress, but MisterWives remind you that the journey is always worth it.

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