“You Never Know What’s Around the Corner”: An Interview with Mando Saenz
After a five-year break between albums, songwriter Mando Saenz returned with his third album, Studebaker, in 2013. While one could argue about the length of time between albums, it’s hard to argue with the result. Studebaker is excellent from start to finish, with plenty of highlights along the way. From the opening “Breakaway Speed,” written with Kim Richey, to “Bottle Into Gold,” which was already a hit for co-writer Wade Bowen on Texas radio, Saenz has put together the best album of his career.
Saenz took some time from his travel schedule to talk with Engine 145 about the new album and his goal to capture his live sound.
It’s been 5 years since your last release, Bucket. I know you’ve been very busy with your songwriting, but was that a planned downtime?
It kind of worked out that way, more than anything. I was ready to make another record about two and a half years ago, but I started writing on other people’s projects. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry; I just wanted everything to fall in line creatively and on the business end. I think it worked out fine the way it was. I had plenty of songs to go in with this time, and I still have plenty of songs left over that I might just put on an EP or another record. So, it won’t take so long the next time hopefully.
I had been playing many of those songs live for a few years, so I had a pretty good idea of the direction the record was going in, which was cool, because it helped me pick who was going to produce it, how we went about recording it and the players who played on it. It might have been a little easier for this one, as opposed to the other ones where I wasn’t quite sure where I was going to end up. I’ve been playing a lot of these songs live, so I knew what worked for them. After all these years, it feels good to get one out there.
To me, this has a very different feel than your previous albums, How would you describe this album as compared to Watertown and Bucket?
The thing that I was going for was to make it sound as much as I do live, with a tight band that I’ve been playing with for a long time. I wanted it to have more of a live sound than the other two. My first record was more laid back, ballad driven, very ambient, which was very cool. My second one was much more produced, which is also really cool. This one, I really wanted to split the difference with the first record and the second record and have more of a reflection of what I sound like live, and how the songs originally sounded in my head when I was writing them. Of course, in the studio you have stuff that you’re not always able to recreate live, but I think it’s without a lot of bells and whistles. That’s basically what I was going for, something a lot more raw than my last record but maybe a little more upbeat than my first record.
It’s also a very diverse record. “Tall Grass” has some pretty fiddle on it, and “Pocket Change” is more of a rocker. Is that how your songwriting has evolved, to incorporate more varied sounds?
I’ve always liked more eclectic-sounding records. I know that’s not always the most popular thing, especially in Nashville where you have to have a more uniform sound. I think you can still have a project that’s cohesive yet eclectic at the same time. I like the fact that you’ve got “Tall Grass,” which reminds me more of a bluegrass, Texas sound recording. Then, you have other rocker songs. I like eclectic records, even when I was growing up. You never knew what was coming up next, yet it still had a cohesive sound through all the tracks.
Looking through the liner notes, you’ve got more co-writes on this album than you’ve had in the past. Is the co-writing a process that you have to get used to in order to do well with it?
I think so. It took me a little while to get comfortable with it, but once you do, a lot of good things can happen. It doesn’t always work, of course, but I think it’s helped me a lot. Writing alone is still my primary thing, but a lot of times I’ll write on my own and have ideas that I’ll bring to other people. It’s definitely something I’ve gotten more comfortable with as I’ve done it more.
I think about half the songs on this album are co-writes on this new one. But I’m still happy to have the good amount that I’ve written on my own.
One of your more frequent collaborators is Kim Richey. (“Breakaway Speed,” the opener to Studebaker, is one of their newest songs.) What is it about that relationship that results in such good songs?
She’s one of the first people I ever wrote with. I was such a huge fan of hers, it made it a little bit stressful, but she was so fun to work with. She’s such a melody-driven songwriter and performer, and I think it works well with what I do. We just made a really good match. I guess the first song we ever wrote was “Pocket of Red,” which was off my last record.
We really haven’t gotten the chance to write as much as you might think, as she’s out of the country or on the road a lot, and I’m on the road a lot too, but whenever we do have the chance to get together, we usually get something pretty cool out of it.
The last time I was in Austin, every station I turned to seemed to have “Pocket Change” in heavy rotation. Could you talk about how that song came together?
I wrote that song with a girl named Shelly Colvin. We met at a side project, when I was in between publishing deals and a record deal, so I had time to delve into other things. We wrote a handful of songs together, and that was one of them. We wrote most of it together, and then I wrote part of it on my own. That was one we tried live, and right away we knew there was something pretty cool with it. That was one that people in the audience always seemed to like, so I tried to record it the way we did it live, and I think it turned out pretty cool.
You’ve had time to live in both the Texas and Nashville communities, and you’ve had success in both. I know they are at odds sometime, but are they really all that different, from your experience?
I guess yes and no. I get inspiration from both. In Nashville, you’re surrounded by so many great musicians and songwriters, and you’re in the thick of the business. But when I was living in Houston and started writing songs, it had its own source of inspiration for me creatively. A lot of cool musicians were there too – maybe more rough around the edges, would be one way to put it. A lot of the best people get their start down where I was at. I was hanging out with Hayes Carll and John Evans, getting our stuff going. It was great to be around them at that raw point in our careers.
I think I moved at the right time to Nashville, and it’s been a great experience so far. Being around all those talented people, it raised the bar as far as my performances and things like that.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I’m helping my friend Stoney LaRue write for his new record. I helped him with his last record, and it looks like he’s going to go into the studio in the next few months. We’ve written a bunch of songs, so we’re going to get those songs together. And like I said, I still have a lot of leftover songs from this past project. I might go in and finish those, maybe throw in some more and have another record ready to go sooner rather than later. Then I still have shows to support Studebaker, and I’m still writing away. A lot of times, you never know what’s around the corner.
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