Wednesday, October 27th, 2021
La Luz – Shana Cleveland on the Band’s New Self-Titled Album
Grounded and Grateful
Oct 27, 2021
By Carlo Thomas
Photography by Hamilton Boyce
Browsing Zillow has become something of a pastime for Shana Cleveland, guitarist and songwriter of La Luz. The band was based for several years in Seattle, the home of their label Hardly Art and a place where home prices have jumped over 13% from last year (the average mid-tier home value is currently over $850,000). “I would consider living in the Northwest again, Seattle is just too expensive,” she explained to me as we talked via Zoom last month about the band’s self-titled album La Luz, out now.
Moving isn’t anything new for Cleveland. Her previous addresses include Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles. “I feel like I always get inspired by big changes, which is why I’ve moved so many times in my life,” she says. “I feel like I’m always seeking that feeling of discomfort, in a way.”
Yet her latest move was something different altogether. Three years ago, Cleveland moved to a more rural Northern California from Los Angeles. It was there that she waited out the pandemic while raising her now two-year-old son, Ozzy. This time, she admits, brought some positives.
“My partner is a touring musician too,” she explains. “He plays in Shannon and the Clams, so we’ve both been home, which is so rare. We haven’t even been able to have a garden before now because we were both always leaving. It was just kind of a treat to both be home while Ozzy was just a baby and being able to spend so much time together as a new family has been incredible.”
Cleveland pointed out that the country has always been a place for her to write: her approach is literally expressed on album opener “In the Country.”
“I find it easiest to just sing out loud into nature I think because there’s all these other noises at play, it helps to feel like I’m a little outside of my head. I feel like I can get to a headspace that feels less critical and more real somehow.”
La Luz’s previous album, 2018’s Floating Features, took that name to heart: songs like “Loose Teeth” and “The Creature” swirl with dreamlike imagery and hazy atmospherics. La Luz, however, relies more on observations of natural beauty and the immediacy of Cleveland’s world. “While Floating Features was sort of a floaty album—it was an album about Los Angeles and dreams, and it was kind of, it felt to me very ethereal in a way—I think this album feels very grounded and focused by the fact that my world has shrunk so much in the last couple of years.”
As with so many upcoming projects this fall, La Luz has its roots in pre-pandemic times. The band—which includes bassist Lena Simon and keyboardist Alice Sandahl—got together in December 2019 and recorded about half of the demos for the record. “And then our plan was to get together, I think, a few months later and do the rest and then we couldn’t do that because COVID started,” Cleveland says. “Gosh, yeah, I don’t think we got together again until about a year later when we went to the studio. We had to try to work out the rest of the demo remotely over email and Zoom calls.”
When asked how working remotely was, Cleveland laughs. “It was hard, yeah, I wouldn’t recommend it,” she replies. “But it worked just because we knew each other so well.”
One experience in particular she recalled was during the recording of the psychedelic single “Metal Man.” In many ways, the song calls back to the La Luz of previous albums: vocal harmonies are sung over hazy guitars and distant yet insistent drum rhythms. “When I hear that [song] with those three vocals singing on the same volume—so there’s no lead and no backup vocals—it feels like a great moment for the band because there’s so much togetherness, we’re all getting together at the same time,” says Cleveland.
The song ends with a yearning guitar solo played by Cleveland. “I always write my guitar solos and then, when I play them live, a lot of times I’ll improvise them. For that one, I wrote about half of it, and then [the band] just kept on playing. I just thought in my head they were going to fade this out so [I thought] ‘It’s cool, I’ll just do whatever.’ And then no one wanted to fade it out. Now I love it. It’s really fun to play. I feel like [I’m] outside of the church in the ‘November Rain’ video.”
Indeed, human connection is a theme that runs throughout La Luz; the album’s first words—“If I were far far away I’d run to you”—solidify this.
“You know there’s nothing like a brush with death or a global pandemic to kind of sharpen your focus on what’s really important to you,” Cleveland reflects. “I think that giving birth is also sort of a brush with death, definitely like a part of you dies. I feel like a part of me died, like sort of a more selfish part. It’s just the way the pandemic has shrunken life down to the people that are closest to you, the places and things that are in your immediate, everyday world. It just made me appreciate all of that more, and that includes my bandmates. Even though we were far away, we were always calling and Zooming and, we were always working closely and intimately together.”
Photo by Pooneh Ghana
La Luz also had the opportunity of being the first band to work with musician, producer, and composer Adrian Younge. Cleveland described the experience as collaborative right off the bat, especially compared to the band’s previous experiences with producers. “He was just a great listener,” she says. “He wasn’t afraid to come in and say, ‘Oh, I think you should do that guitar solo again,’ you know? I don’t feel like many producers have done that, have said, ‘Hey, I know that you think that was a good take, but I think you should do it over again, and do it over again and again and again.’” For Younge, the end goal wasn’t necessarily perfection but capturing a raw feeling.
Feeling is certainly captured in the album single and standout “Watching Cartoons,” which Cleveland explains started as a folk song. “When we were working on demos for La Luz, I picked it back up and I started just thinking about that idea of feeling apart from the rest of the world. I just kind of wanted to isolate and go into a little cocoon, into something comforting. I was just reminded of my birth experience, which felt like actually going to hell and coming back. I felt like I just emerged from hell. Yeah, I was just like, ‘You know, I’m going to change the song to be more about the hellish experience of giving birth,’ but I don’t know if anyone would ever catch that. It’s a pretty psychedelic song lyrically but in some ways is extremely literal.”
“Watching Cartoons” really came to life with the help of Younge, who visited La Luz for the first time while they were rehearsing the song. “He was like ‘Okay, yeah that sounds cool. Hey, let’s change something around here.’ And he wanted to change all of these chords and I was like, ‘Whoa dude, this is not what I thought was going to happen,’” Cleveland remembers. “It was kind of scary, but the part in the song when it just gets a lot more jazzy out of nowhere, those were his changes. We worked on [the song] for like an hour or something, changing the cords. But then after it was all done, we were all just like, ‘That was a really good idea.’ This was a really good, really strange moment and it kind of felt right to be in this weird psychedelic song.”
Nevertheless, for all its naturalistic atmospherics, La Luz is also decorated in sonic, almost extraterrestrial, effects. “Towering tinsel, palms shining up in the sky,” goes the lyrics in “The Pines” while synth-created buzzing threads through the song, for example.
“I think that has a lot to do with Adrian and his amazing studio,” Cleveland explains. “He just had such great stuff and he knows what to do with it and he knows everything, he’s very scholarly about his studio. It was cool, a lot of the instruments, he didn’t necessarily play them, like the weird synths, but he would bring something out and say, ‘I think you should try this’ for [‘The Pines’]. The texture was just what the song needed at that time. It was really fun.”
Cleveland spoke of a similar experience with “In the Country,” the first song Younge played back for the band. “I was just blown away. I don’t know how we did this, but this feels more like being in the middle of nature than I could’ve ever done with just traditional instruments,” she says. “I just felt like all the weird stuff actually felt so real and natural in a way that was exciting to me. Out here in the country, you hear bugs and you hear just crazy sounds all the time and you never really know what they are all the time. So they might as well be synthesizers, haha.”
La Luz was recorded and mixed in about two weeks, and for Cleveland, those two weeks were a welcome return to something like normal. “It was so great to just be able to hang out with my bandmates. I think I even cried on the last day, I was like, ‘I don’t want to leave!’ Especially after all that time isolated I was like, ‘Ah! Human connection!’”
The togetherness and appreciation of those in her life—her family, her band—only make the album title feel not just appropriate, but inevitable. “I think we’re as in the beginning, there was a lot of ‘we are a band that does this, we’re a band that sounds like this.’ It feels like every album we get a little closer to just being self-referential in a way that I think is cool. I’m excited to see where it goes.”