Drew McManus / Satsang photo by Greyson Plate
Satsang’s Drew McManus Strips Down Flowers From The Fray
A new album from Satsang, Flowers from the Fray, arrived on September 9th, 2022, and lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter Drew McManus gave the world fair warning that this album would be quite different from the big sounds and energy of previous release All. Right. Now. Something that the two albums have in common, however, is a feeling of including McManus’ Montana life and traditions in the sound and subject-matter. What Flowers from the Fray does differently is that it allows for more confessional lyrics, at times documenting struggle and difficulties, and also goes for a remarkable, stripped-down approach in terms of sound and recording.
That sound was almost entirely created by McManus and bandmate and multi-instrumentalist Parker Brown while staying in a friend’s cabin in midwinter. The whole story behind the creation of the album turns on McManus ’ songwriting direction at the time leading up to recording and finding this incredibly earnest way of capturing sound served the outcome that he and Brown were looking for. I spoke with Drew McManus about the situation that gave rise to the album, the songs, and more, below.
Americana Highways: Do you write songs regardless of what might be going on in life, or do you tend to write towards an album?
Drew McManus: I don’t really get a say in when that happens. The songs just kind of come. I’ve always had an aversion to writing sad songs, and a lot of these songs on Flowers From The Fray are not happy, so I was self-conscious about attaching the band name to it. I had some trepidation about recording songs like that because I think our fanbase has grown to expect positivity from us. But it hadn’t been a positive year for me at all.
When we made the plan to make the record, and decided, “We’re doing this!”, then I got really excited about it. It was really actually therapeutic to just dive right in and say, “Yep, I’m sharing this!”
AH: I’m glad you found a way to reconcile that. Of course, lyrics aren’t the only things that convey emotions to fans, and on this album the music also shifts. I noticed a lot of Soul elements in the music, for instance.
DMcM: I think the song “What I Am” does a really good job of that because it sounds like it feels. The other thing that was weird about these songs, and one of the reasons that I set them aside at first, is that I heard what you hear on the record. I heard a dobro, a banjo, and an upright bass, for instance. I thought, “Well, that’s not the band that we tour with, so that would be weird.”
So it was kind of giving myself permission and doing what we had to do. Parker [Brown] plays all of those instruments extremely proficiently, so it was literally just him and I. He plays everything but the acoustic guitar on the record. Our drummer Ben played two songs, but Parker even played the drums on almost every song. He played drums, upright bass, slide, banjo, and I played the mandolin.
AH: That must have made it even more possible to record together in a non-studio situation, which I’ve heard is what happened here.
DMcM: It was pretty wild because our friend Phil has this cabin in a place where, in the winter, not a lot of people want to spend time up there. It’s real cold and snowy. We went out there and it was just so quiet. We had a fire going the whole time. Parker and just have this magic thing, musically, spiritually, friendship-wise. He’s just my bro.
We made an agreement going in that we wouldn’t force anything. If we had an idea and we weren’t sure about it or it was taking too long, we decided we wouldn’t spend more than 45 seconds discussing anything. That would be thinking too much. So many of those songs just came to life like, “Boom, boom, boom.” I usually have my fixated ideas when I’m Producing, but I made a deal with Parker that I wanted to let him in on it. I wanted to hear any ideas that he had. He’s the best musician I know. It just worked out and was so natural. There was no friction at all the whole time.
AH: Was there a set period of time, with a beginning and end, to this session together?
DMcM: Yes, I think we gave ourselves eight days, but a couple of those days were pretty chill. I remember that we had three days in a row where we did twelve hours, but it didn’t feel stressful. It wasn’t like being in a studio where you’re spending so much money each day to be there. We’d take a break, eat some food, eat some mushrooms, and get back in there. It was pretty mellow.
AH: How were you capturing sound to a level that you would be happy with? I know that you produced All. Right. Now, so you had experience there.
DMcM: For years, Parker and I have been recording music. He has a bunch of solo stuff that he was doing before he joined the band and he’s worked on so many projects. This is record number seven for me, six that have been released. Parker was definitely leading the charge in terms of engineering, but we had really good microphones, and a cabin. It was also a thing of not reinventing the wheel. I thought an acoustic guitar in a cabin, with a fire going, and a good mic will probably sound good. We didn’t have to get super-weird and hang one from the rafters or angle them at the neck.
AH: You didn’t have to worry about traffic noise, that’s for sure.
DMcM: No! The only noise issue that we had, which I decided to keep in there, was that the fire pops on a couple of the songs.
AH: How much of the music writing happened beforehand? Did you demo these, or did you just bring them into Parker and you all recorded it that day?
DMcM: I demoed them for Parker but in a really funny way. I’d record it on my iPhone and send it to him. My favorite song on the record is “Earlywood” and it kind of what started this whole process. I told Parker that I’d been writing a bunch, but things felt a little flat with the chords. He’d scored songs for a documentary about local Montana businesses and one of the songs that didn’t end up getting used in the documentary was that guitar riff. I just wrote directly to that, which I’ve never done before. Normally I weird about it, and say, “I have to to everything. I have to write it.” For this song, it was perfect.
Another funny thing is that “Coming Together” used to be this very moody, sad, finger-picking, woe-is-me song. And he literally didn’t say anything to me about it until I was sitting in the chair, then he handed me a thin pick, and said, “Play this really fast, like ‘Learning To Fly’ by Tom Petty.” I said, “Dude, that’s not really the song.” He said, “Just trust me. Just try it.” Then he turned it into this epic Yacht Rock song!
AH: That song is definitely more rock and pop sounding and has that energy to it. How did that end up being the song where you partnered with Unlikely Heroes?
DMcM: Unlikely Heroes just means more to me than any other charity that we’ve partnered with. I knew that I wanted to release “All on Me” with Backline because it’s about me struggling with mental health, and they are a mental health service, but “Coming Together” is one that my manager suggested was a single and we decided to pair with them. We wanted them to be involved in this release process because Unlikely Heroes is so amazing. They liked the song, so it all worked.
AH: “Think of You” is a song that feels almost like a mission statement for this album. It seems to state pretty clearly the direction that you were heading in here.
DMcM: Musically, for sure, that’s true. It was actually a very early song in the process. When we went on Fall tour last year, I was so excited to get back on the road and be with my buds. But I forgot about the homesick element of that. I also live in Southwest rural Montana, so my life there revolves around being on the river and in the mountains. I live in a small, little mountain town, and I underestimated the culture shock.
For a guy like me to be at home for two years and then be plopped in LA, or the Bay, it really affected me. I felt like an alien most of last Fall tour and I wasn’t ready for that. All that kind of hit and I actually wrote that song at the beginning of the Fall tour and started playing it as an acoustic encore. When Parker saw me play it every night, he’d say, “I have this idea for a bridge.” But I never got to hear it until we made the record.
You can hear this, when the bridge gets epic on that song, I do my vocal take and I go, “whoo!” It was the first time I had heard it. Any logical person would have taken that part, but I said, “Keep it, dude! That was real. That was an authentic celebration.
AH: What is this little “Intro” on the album that plays some voice messages? How did that come about?
DMcM: [Laughs] I was going through shit, and everyone wants to talk when you’re going through shit. But I didn’t feel like talking, I felt like writing. The great story there is that the main voice on there is my buddy Brady [McLean]. He’s someone who I usually do stay in touch with, but he’s always saying that he wants to be on one of my records, so when he left that voicemail, I said, “Here it is. Here’s your moment.” That was kind of the tone I was trying to set for the album, that I didn’t feel like talking, I felt like singing.
AH: He’s got a great, crackly voice.
DMcM: I like the joke he makes, “I thought that you might need someone to talk to. Well, until he shows up…” He runs a company called Go Fast Don’t Die and we ride motorcycles together a good bit.
AH: That includes details from life, and so do your songs, so that all goes together. I feel like a lot of these songs go a little further and include more details than many songwriters might. On the song, “Alone with You,” it feels pretty sweet and upbeat, but it goes darker than a poppy love song, talking about this inner journey comparison of falling into graves and crawling out again, etc.
DMcM: I think that’s my favorite song that I’ve ever written. I was pretty proud of it as a songwriter and the words that came out of my face that day.
AH: There are a lot of word plays in it, which reminds me of country music tradition.
DMcM: I want people to see the thing behind the thing. You have to listen or you don’t get it. That might be a detriment, but I’d rather be seen as a clever songwriter than a basic one with a bunch of money. I’ve been on a big John Mayer deep dive. He’s so huge, but I listen to some of the couplets that the man writes, and I wonder if everyone is really catching what he just said.
Some of the most heart-wrenching stuff comes up in, “Half of My Heart.” He says, “Half of my heart is a shotgun wedding to a bride with a paper ring, and half of my heart is the heart of a man who’s never truly loved anything.” It sounds like this super-upbeat, happy poppy song, and it was a single. That line hit me the other day, and I just wanted to hug him. There seems to be a middle to that Ven diagram, to convey these things, but keep it light.
AH: I noticed that you did a lot of podcasting with guests from all kinds of fields during the pandemic. Are you going to be keeping that up in the future?
DMcM: I just renewed my contract to do three a month. One thing I want to start doing more, though, is solo podcasting, especially from the road. It’s such a weird environment. I grew up going to shows, but it never really dawned on me what those musicians were doing coming to Des Moines, Iowa, to play a show for us. I didn’t know what was going on, that it was probably a month-long endeavor of playing a show every day.
I think I’m going to do one every week on our day off on tour, especially now that we have a bus. The podcasting started as something during Covid because I knew all my neat friends were at home and couldn’t say, “No!” It started as a fun thing and actually has become pretty amazing and mind-blowing. It’s fostered some really cool friendships.
AH: I know a number of people who started podcasts during the pandemic and are not looking back. It’s become a way to speak with fans beyond the music. The human side of touring would be a great topic.
DMcM: My friend brought something up the other day that I thought was wild, that I hadn’t thought about, is that so many people leave just their records behind, but that’s such a small emotional snapshot of a person. Parker said, “Now there are hours of deep conversation with you in the ether for anyone to get to know you.” That made me happy thinking of that the other day.
Thank you, Drew McManus, for talking with us.
Find more Satsang information and tour dates here: https://www.satsangmovement.com