Monday 8 May 2023

Interview with Shana Cleveland


(This feature first appeared in issue #137 of Shindig! magazine. For the full unpublished interview click over the jump below.)


The creation of Shana Cleveland's new album was bookended by life-changing experiences. “It's been a wild ride” she tells Duncan Fletcher

“I was into old blues pickers like Geeshie Wiley, Skip James and Lightnin' Hopkins. I’ve always been a big Fahey fan. There’s a guy who played open mics in Seattle when I lived there named Rick Sabo. I never knew when he would show up, but I would go to places I thought he might and wait. Then when he did stumble in, always in an old trench coat and a bit drunk, and he began playing it felt like I had won the night.” So says Shana Cleveland when asked about early influences. Traces of all these players can be heard on Shana's new album Manzanita, but its dominant shaping forces are her life experiences.

“I wrote all the songs on this album while I was pregnant and in the early months of my son’s life. It was such a psychedelic time! My head was in such a weird place, all flooded with hormones and wonder at the mystery of life. I liked where the songs were going so, I figured it would be cool to see what a whole album written in that surreal state would sound like.” With her husband Will and several musician friends from Seattle, Shana recorded Manzanita in less than a week. The unrehearsed, intuitive arrangements blend with Shana's open-tuned guitar to give the songs an otherworldly watercolour-like quality. It reveals a different side to Shana, who readers may know as vocalist/guitarist in surf band La Luz.

Shortly after completing the album Shana received shock news. “It’s been a wild ride. Around this time last year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and for a few months following that shocker I really couldn’t create much of anything” she says. Thankfully her treatment proved successful. “This album was done before I got the diagnosis, but I’ve written two albums since then. The intensity and horror of that time led to a lot of contemplation which, in turn, led to a lot of songs.”

While we wait to hear those songs, Manzanita yields an abundance of riches, all imbued with early parenthood's peculiar sense of wonder, and an appreciation of the natural world, inspired in part by Shana and Will moving to rural California. “I write outside most of the time” she says. “I like being immersed in all the little noises - insects, birds, cars, wind, chainsaws ... I feel like I’m able to tap into my subconscious mind without the judgment I might fall into if I was alone with my thoughts in a quiet room. It feels like a collaboration in a way.”

Manzanita is out on March 10 on Hardly Art

Sunday 7 May 2023

Hayden Besswood - Colors & Vows


Synth-led psychedelic pop from France? Yes please!

If there are any regular readers out there, they’ll know that that we thrive on eclecticism here at Harmonic Distortion. Any genre is welcome, be it jazz, pop, any rock offshoots, improv, afrobeat, or indeed anything that’s totally unclassifiable. The only prerequisite for the music we cover here is that it’s made with passion and can move you. My own tastes have broadened in ways I would never have expected since I first became hooked on listening to music as a young boy. One constant passion throughout the intervening years has been my love of folk music – the stories, education it offers, its often-direct presentation. It’s a touchstone that I keep returning to when I need any kind of renewal.

I mention this because I’ve been enjoying the debut album by Hayden Besswood recently. Besswood (AKA French musician Quentin Le Gorrec) started out making folk music, and it’s from this spark that his music has exploded and expanded into new sonic territory. Colors & Vows is far from a folk record, apart from the song ‘But Not You Anymore’ where Quentin shows he’s also a skilled finger-style guitarist in addition to the talent for arranging and layering synths he displays on the album’s other tracks. If forced to pin it down I’d say Colors & Vows is more of psychedelic synth-pop record, though trying to pin out down to a genre does it a disservice.

Quentin started his musical journey playing in the folk scene in his hometown, the port city of Saint Nazaire, before moving to nearby Nantes. It was here that his music became more kaleidoscopic, using a wealth of vintage synth sounds, and really getting to grips with studio and tape manipulation. For all its experimental aspects Colors & Vows maintains a homespun DIY charm and has a brace of ultra-catchy tunes with lyrics that have human contact and emotion at their core. It’s brought to you by the good people at the Requiem Pour Un Twister record label who have previously released music by HD favourites such as Triptides and The Young Sinclairs. I recommend you give it a good listen, it’s sure to move you.


Click here for Hayden Besswood on Instagram.
Click here for Hayden Besswood on Facebook.
Click here for the Requiem Pour Un Twister on Bandcamp 

Sunday 19 February 2023

Papernut Cambridge - Channel Suite

Humour, emotion, introspection, music biz musings, and a ton of good tunes. Could this be the finest Papernut Cambridge album yet?


There’s a track on Papernut Cambridge’s latest album with lyrics that are basically a list of home recording tips. It reminds me of The Timelords’ (KLF) seminal book The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way). While The Manual focussed on artistic approach and finances, Papernut Cambridge’s song ‘Grimston Green Hustle’ zones in on how to achieve a strong coherent sound while making an album – volume levels, limiting, EQ, gain, continuity of sound, mastering, reducing “s” and “t” sounds, track sequencing, keeping happy accidents. It’s invaluable, demystifying advice.

“The Cambridge” has had a changing line-up over its ten-year existence. For this album it’s something of an all-star affair which includes Robert Rotifer, Robert Halcrow, Darren Hayman, Jack Hayter, and of course bandleader/vocalist Ian Button. Not only does band leader Ian Button possess the know-how of navigating a studio, but he also puts it to good use. Channel Suite was released on New Year’s Day and is packed with songs that in a justful world would be clogging up the charts and radio playlists. While the modern world may not always be fair and just, it does allow us to access a wealth of music on a physical format or streaming service of our choosing. With that in mind I urge you to check out Channel Suite. You’ll be in for a treat.

The record kicks off with ‘End of The Downs’, a heartfelt homage to the landscape and countryside near Button’s Folkestone base. Soft wind chimes give way to strident superpop not heard since the likes of Edison Lighthouse were regulars on Top Of The Pops. The track’s joy and optimism are rendered via an uplifting melody and series of key changes. ‘La Cucina’ is a similarly upbeat paean to the joys and trials of creativity. Ostensibly about cooking, it’s really about any creative endeavour, and addresses the rewards along with the constant re-evaluation and dedication they require.

There’s an opportunity to learn something here too - ‘Cassiopeia’ is about the star constellation in the northern sky named after vain queen Cassiopeia, mother of Andromeda, in Greek mythology, who boasted about her unrivalled beauty. (Yes, I did need to look that up on Wikipedia!)

My current favourite song on the album, however, is ‘Trip to America’. Such a journey, (undertaken for pleasure as opposed to business Button tells us in its lyrics), should be a joyful, exciting prospect, but here it’s sung about with a tinge of melancholia. Why that should be we don’t find out, but it’s this unexplained mystery that gives the song its strange power. “I can’t go there now wide-eyed like I did before” sings Button. Maybe it’s about loss of innocence, or loss of wonder. Whatever its subject matter, the song is curiously beguiling.

There are plenty more songs jostling for top spot though - ‘Chez Pascal’ showcases Button knack for sketching out characters. It’s a side of his writing that was given full flight on the recent Toni Tubna album. ‘Cobwebs’ is The Modern Lovers taking a drum machine for a short rejuvenating trip to the sea front. Then there’s ‘Jump in Your Heart’ – the closing catchy pop number complete with whistling. That song alone is enough to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step.

Pop music – just when you think it’s burnt itself out and can no longer inspire or move you, a record comes along to reaffirm your faith in its powers. Channel Suite is one such record. Humour, emotion, meta-music biz musings, atmospherics, some sadness, some introspection, and a ton of bloody good tunes. It may well be the finest Papernut Cambridge album yet.

For this release Papernut Cambridge are... 

Ian Button - vocals, guitar, bass, programming, percussion
Robert Halcrow - bass, baritone horn
Robert Rotifer - guitar, backing vocals
Darren Hayman - electric piano, synths, percussion
Jack Hayter - viola
Click here for Papernut Cambridge on Facebook. 
Click here for Papernut Cambridge on Twitter. 
Click here for Gare Du Nord Records.