photo by Chris Bickford
Songwriter and performer Mando Saenz is set to release a new solo album, All My Shame, on February 26th via Carnival Recording Company, a label where he’s a staff writer as well as a recording artist. Saenz writes many songs that end up being recorded by other artists and friends, and for this album, his collaborative songwriting projects have been brought together with Saenz performing all the vocals and Ken Coomer (Wilco co-founder and drummer) producing. Though this is Saenz’s fourth solo album, it’s his first solo effort in seven years, and carries many blisteringly confessional ideas along with some very finely crafted sonic layers.
From title track, “In All My Shame” to songs like “Shadow Boxing” and “Cautionary Tale,” Saenz works with his collaborators to craft a sense of reflection and of conversation that feels both highly relatable and musically memorable. Saenz took the time to speak with us about why the directness on the album is so important to him, how these songs evolved, and what it means to him to reflect such a wide range of genre-influences this time around.
Americana Highways: I understand that a feature of this album is that many of the songs are collaborations in terms of songwriting.
Mando Saenz: Yes, they are all pretty much co-writes except for one, “Thinking of.” They are a culmination of songs I’ve written with other people over the past few years, since I’ve been doing a lot of co-writing with my publisher.
AH: You mention that you’ve been working on these songs for a few years. Is that a normal process for you to gather songs over time and then release an album when you have enough rounded up?
MS: It wasn’t a conscious thing. We just went through all the songs that I’ve written, either by myself or with other people, since my last release, and it just turns out that the bulk of what we cut were co-writes. I’ve just done a lot of co-writing and writing for myself lately.
AH: Do you have any intentions, when you’re writing a song, about whether you’re writing something because you would like to perform it, or whether you’re writing for someone else to perform it?
MS: Not really. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of writing, you might think, “I’m writing this because I like it, but someone else might like it too.” It’s just circumstances, it’s not ever forced. Songwriters always compare their work, while they are writing, to the things it reminds them of. Sometimes that even helps you finish a song. I think the key for me has always been to write whatever I like to write.
AH: So it sounds like it’s all drawn from the same well in terms of songwriting, and then the outcome could go in various directions?
MS: Yes, absolutely. That’s the beauty of writing a lot with different people, too, because any given day, anything can happen. I never really have to chase anything in order to create.
AH: I’ve heard stories about bands being in the studio, ready to record their album, and a friend is there, and hears a song and says, “Oh, please can I have that one?!” And they agree.
MS: Yes! I think it used to be, from what I can tell, that people would sing each other’s songs all the time. The writer would put the song on their own record, but they didn’t mind sharing it. Now it’s more like, “That’s mine. That’s yours.” I’m just happy when other people do record one of my songs. That’s always nice. That’s always pretty gratifying. In Nashville, we’re in a town of demos. So I always thought the best way to get songs cut is someone either hearing you play a song live, or someone hearing it off of one of your records. That’s one of the most organic ways of getting songs cut.
AH: That makes sense to get a version of the song down for whatever life it may have afterwards. If you’re collaborating with someone on a song, does knowing how they might perform it influence you in your writing?
MS: Oh, sure, that happens, if you’re really familiar with them and they are an artist as well. They are in the room just like you, and a lot of times you’re imagining their voice and that can be very inspiration. I can think of a handful of people where that’s happened a number of times [for me].
AH: I imagine that it’s a good alternative that can get you out of your own head if you are feeling stuck.
MS: Definitely. Your voice is like an instrument, and everyone plays it differently, and everyone has different effects, naturally. You talk about being taken out of our own head, but it’s good to be taken out of your own voice, too.
AH: Some people are saying that this album represents the widest range of genre influences that you’ve ever shown. Did working with different people nudge you towards trying out different traditions?
MS: It’s hard to say. I look at these particular songs and I think for a lot of them I had some kind of melody in my head, and a progression maybe. Then maybe I took someone else’s lead. But there are some cases on this record where I didn’t know very much about the other songwriter. I can’t say that the collaborators pulled me too far into something I wouldn’t have done anyway. I do think the range of influence that comes through is stuff I’ve been listening to my whole life.
AH: I did get that sense in looking at your work, generally, that this album is very “you” in terms of your tastes and interests, anyway. It just happens to not be something you’ve done before.
MS: Yes, it’s certainly familiar. It’s just not something that I can look back to on any of my records as something I’ve done quite like this. I think what happens is that my voice is always going to be my voice, and that’s the common thread through different styles of music that I go through.
AH: With “Rainbow in the Dark”, people might have been surprised by your choice of Dio, but I also saw on Instagram that you put up something about Iron Maiden recently. So I was aware that your personal musical journey is very broad.
MS: When I was growing up as a kid in the 70s and 80s on up, I would listen to everything that was out there. Early 80’s Metal was a big part of what I could connect with. Down in South Texas at the time, that was something we loved. My first concert was Ronnie James Dio. People have been talking about first concerts later. When Coomer talked about wanting me to do that song, I loved it. And certainly, with the way we did it, it made me really dig into those lyrics and realize how great they are. You know it’s a great song when, after hearing it your whole life, you really dig into the lyrics and have a whole other level of appreciation.
AH: I had that weird experience lately. I heard a recording of Joan Jett covering “Love Hurts” from years ago. I was so surprised by how radically different the song felt. It was like encountering a different world. It was a very earnest delivery.
MS: That’s funny you mention that. I had never covered “Love Hurts” until a few months back, right before the pandemic, me and Kim Richie played a show together and we played that song. I had to learn those lyrics, and you know them in your head, but having to memorize them really made me feel like those lyrics are as simple and perfect as it gets.
AH: There’s no escaping those lyrics. They are so intense.
MS: That is absolutely true. And the song lends itself to many different forms of music, since it’s all about heartbreak at the end of the day.
AH: How has the past year affected your life, personally and professionally?
MS: It’s been interesting but it’s been a good exercise in a lot of things. I’ve definitely had time to press the “reset” button and manage to stay creative. I’ve done some cowriting on Zoom like a lot of people, and I’ve gotten in some rooms wearing a mask. I haven’t done a lot of recording yet. I did a series, Bobby’s Idle Hour, where I recorded a show with guests, so that kept my juices flowing. I never would have done that had I not been in this situation, so that was kind of a breakthrough for me.
We’re coming up on a year now, and we’re at the point where we can kind of see the light, but we’re still very much in it. So this might be harder now than it’s ever been. I’ve always wanted to be on the road more than I have been, but I think moving forward, I’m going to concentrate on being on the road and making records more regularly. I want to be an artist who happens to write songs. I want to be on the road half the week and spend the rest of the week buckling down and writing songs, either on my own or with other people. I think that’s my ultimate goal.
AH: This is definitely been a time to ask yourself, “What do I actually want to do?” And make decisions.
MS: Yes. Here in Nashville, which is songwriter world, there are a lot of great things that come out of writing a song every day with different people. But for me, I’m happier when I split that with being on the road and playing in front of people. I think that’s just as powerful as anything.
AH: The title track, “In All My Shame” has been released, along with a video. This song has a lot of layers. I don’t think this is a song that you can only take in one way and narrow it down to only one purpose or message. It’s confessional without self-pity or self-regard, really.
MS: I think you’re absolutely right. It’s like an unveiling, saying, “Look, this is who I am. I’m not perfect. I know I have flaws.” With me being a shy person, playing in front of other people has never been the most natural thing for me, even though I love it very much. It took a lot of mind over matter to break through on that. Also, I’m not someone who talks a lot generally, so my songs are my way of talking.
I was writing the song with Chris Coleman and that was kind of what we were thinking about when we wrote the title and the song. He’s the same way, since he’s a brilliant painter, too, who plays music. He kind of keeps to himself when he’s not. When you’re out there, doing what you do on stage, you’re practicing your creativity. You can’t hold back. Because a) No one wants to see that, and b) That’s not good for yourself. You’ve got to throw it all out there, whether it’s writing or performing. But like athletes talk about, once you’re on the field, you’re a different person. That’s what I look back on when I think of this song. It’s more of an empowering song than anything.
AH: If I took this song as one that supports the value of extreme directness and honesty, does that work?
MS: Absolutely, yes. And definitely of knowing that it’s okay to be shy and okay to not be perfect. You have to know who you are and know that’s something you can’t change.
AH: The video shows you performing the vocals on this song. Is that from the recording of the song?
MS: Yes and no. It’s in the same studio with the same mic and in the same room. I happen to be lip-synching over the track. It’s as close as you can get to the real thing. I was probably wearing the same clothes.
AH: It’s kind of unrelenting with the camera in your face and on you the whole time, which kind of ties in perfectly with the ethos of the song.
MS: Yes, and I tried to pretend I was singing. I know everyone says that, even on highly produced videos, but I really did try to do that. Because on a song like that, especially when there’s more going on than just acoustic performance, you really have to rise to the music. That key’s a little higher than what I’m used to, so I had to be animated without forcing it.
AH: Another song that really liked on this album that also had a lot of possible meanings is “Shadow Boxing”. The use of perspective in the song makes it unclear if someone is speaking to themselves or to someone else, and that changes the interpretation a lot, depending.
MS: That’s funny. I was just asked very recently if, when I write songs, I replace “you” with what I actually mean as me. Am I talking to myself? My answer was pretty much, “Yes, all the time. Even though I’m talking about myself, it sounds like I’m preaching to somebody else.” This song is one I wrote with Kim Ritchie. The “shadow boxing” is basically beating yourself up for no reason. That’s pretty much the bottom line. We can write all day about the problems we have with other people, but with a lot of people it’s easy to be too hard on yourself and never get anywhere. Because you’re basically fighting something that doesn’t exist.
AH: Yes, that’s a pretty intense idea. If you occupy yourself with these struggles, it’s time you can’t get back.
MS: Exactly, or it’s sleep you can’t get back.
AH: There’s an interesting gentleness to the way that song is composed and performed that’s a great contrast to the idea of boxing, too, which is about conflict.
MS: I think the recording came out really cool. It’s kind of musical and smooth, but strong at the same time. It has cool harmonies, but it’s not the theme to Rocky!
AH: I heard that you like Tom Petty’s music. Is that true?
MS: When I talk about my range of influences, I throw Tom Petty in there to remind me and others that Tom Petty’s always with most of us in the writer’s room. I just think it’s perfect American music. For a songwriter, I don’t think it gets a whole lot better.
AH: I mention it because “Shadow Boxing” reminds me a little of a Tom Petty song. Something about it reminded me of Wildflowers. “Cautionary Tale” feels a little more Country and over-the-plate in terms of Roots expectations, in a way. It includes a lot of real-life detail. I love it and I’m sure a lot people will, because it feels so real.
MS: That I wrote with Zach Dubois, who’s a doctor, I think. He was about to go into medical school. We didn’t really know each other well, but we seemed to jive. That song was something we just started playing, came up with the title, and wrote to the title. It just kind of happened. You never know what you’re going to find in your phone memo recordings until you listen to all the songs! That song was a nice surprise.
AH: Do you feel like it speaks to life in music?
MS: Yes, when you look at those lyrics. It’s about life in every aspect, but as we all know, the music life is not always what is seems. One day you’re up, the next day you’re face-planted in the ground, you know? But you just accept that’s the reality and you take the good when you can. https://www.mandosaenzmusic.com