A Michigan native now based in rural Northern California, Shana Cleveland is a singer-songwriter, guitarist and visual artist. A founding member and lead vocalist of all-woman surf rock band La Luz with whom she has released five albums to date for the Seattle-based Hardly Art label since 2012, Shana Cleveland also pursues a parallel solo career. A timeless collection of gothic folk songs informed by the beauty of the surrounding countryside, a serene lyricism and the “psychedelia of pregnancy”, Manzanita (Hardly Art – 10 March 2023) is the singer’s third solo album.
As an all-woman rock band blending 1960s West Coast surf-rock and Doo Wop with psychedelia, La Luz also revel in the beauty of sophisticated vocal harmonies as pioneered by many sometimes forgotten 1950s and 1960s all-girl R&B, pop or soul bands such as the Chiffons, the Marvelettes, the Supremes, the Bluebelles, the Angels, the Chantels, the Dixie Cups, the Shirelles, the Velvelettes or the Tammys.
But if the music of La Luz is electric and drenched in Fender vibrato and reverb, Shana Cleveland’s solo work is acoustic and dominated by a trademark finger-picking style, leading to much slower-paced songs and a more meditative approach. At that point, it is interesting to highlight the musician’s obsession with guitar players. Back in 2012, Shana Cleveland released The Obscure Giants of Acoustic Guitar, a set of 37 trading cards available from the Tompkins Square label. Manzanita features two guitar instrumentals, “Bonanza Freeze” and “Sheriff of the Salton Sea”, both reminiscent of the bluesy and minimalist primitive guitar style of John Fahey.
I feel so relieved to be
Back in the country
Now I am a Californian
I never want to leave the state again
For too long, I’ll write a thousand songs
I’ll write a thousand songs before I’m done
With the songs on Side A “conceived” during “the psychedelia of pregnancy” as the singer puts it while side B was written after the birth of her son, Manzanita follows on from her previous album Night of the Worm Moon (2019). It also continues to chart the singer’s move from urban LA to rural Nevada County in Northern California where “Everything is blindingly in bloom”. Nature is omnipresent, from the album’s name – Manzanita refers to a small evergreen shrub native to California – to songs like “Walking Through Morning Dew”, “Quick Winter Sun” or “Mystic Mine”, the latter an acknowledged nod to a song like “Heart of the Country”, from Paul & Linda McCartney’s 1971 second post-Beatles album “Ram”. “We used synthesizers as a way of recreating the atmosphere of being outside in the natural world while in the studio”, suggests the singer, “they are actually the best vehicle for conveying the sounds of nature (bugs, wind, birds, chainsaws – rural white noise)”.
For all its contemplative qualities underpinned by the constant drone of reverberating vocals, vintage synthesisers, bowed double bass and pedal steel guitar, the album is also imbued with a darker side, a latent tension elicited by the constant threat of drought and devastating forest fires in songs such as “Faces in the Firelight” or “Ten Hour Drive Through West Coast Disaster”.
From the outset, La Luz have staged many of their songs using a brand of DIY surrealism reminiscent of the 1960s era psychedelic collage art with constant references to vintage films or cartoons and even tapping into the afro-futurism and sci-fi spirit of Sun Ra.
Shana Cleveland’s previous album Night of the Worm Moon for instance derived its title from Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra’s 1970 Night of the Purple Moon, and the science fiction and outer space vibe of the video for “Don’t Let Me Sleep” was captured in her back garden. On Manzanita, the video for “Walking Through Morning Dew” was filmed in her kitchen in front of a hand painted backdrop and entirely animated with home-made props and cut-out cardboard drawings. The video for “Faces in the Firelight” features human flowers, a colourful picnic and oversized bugs. This deep surrealist dive into a parallel domestic reality illustrates to perfection the nature-induced magic already permeating the entire album.