Manda Mosher on California Country

Manda Mosher - Photo by John Halpern
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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 11 – Spring 2020 – Southern California

I recently had a chance to chat with the eloquent and refreshingly self-aware Manda Mosher, whose unique brand of “California Country” — which also inspired her to create her own clothing label of the same name — has landed her placements on major TV shows like The Ranch with Ashton Kutcher, numerous LA Music Awards, SXSW and AMERICANAFEST showcase slots, and a coveted performance opportunity on the Late Late Show.

Hailed by one critic as the “female Tom Petty,” who also happens to be her idol, the throaty-voiced multi-instrumentalist is running her own studio and label with her musical partner-in-crime, Eric Craig, and continuing to craft the honest, diary-like songs for which she’s become known. Read on to learn more about this well-traveled Americana artist, and also why, as she explains, California is actually more steeped in country music history than one may realize.

I often think —
what would Dolly do?

Your music has been likened to Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. However, I do hear some possible Loretta Lynn and Dolly influence in there too if I may be so bold.  Are there any female country icons that you grew up listening to or draw inspiration from?

My parents’ record collection was my first exposure to rock, folk, blues, classical — however, what was missing was country. My first exposure beyond hearing Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson on the radio was listening to my mom rehearse for a country band she was in when I was around 12. I remember her bring home rehearsal cassette tapes and practicing singing Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy” around the house. I ended up singing with her a few times at their American Legion Hall gigs. Beyond hearing what my mom was up to with her band, my exploration of country music was something I arrived at a bit later on my own. My friends in school were all listening to rock and pop, and my own bands as a teenager were rock bands. There was this notion among the kids that country music was for our parents’ generation or grandparents’ generation. We were somewhat disassociated with it as kids in the middle of our own rock and roll angst.

Once I came across Lucinda Williams, she changed everything for me. I believed every word she sang, every lyric she wrote, and still do. Her honesty in songwriting and vocal delivery helped open my heart to Americana and country in a new way. It was this mix of grit and rock and realness that I related to. When I was college-aged, I started studying Gillian Welsh’s songwriting.

Dolly Parton is awe-inspiring to me. I remember seeing her on television programs, marveling at her outfits, and wondering how she was playing guitar with those long fingernails. Beyond all the well put together glitz and glam, her songs are heartfelt, beautiful works, and her overall spirit just shines with positivity, beauty, and sass. When obstacles show up along my path, I often think — what would Dolly do?

Sheryl Crow was a huge inspiration to me growing up starting with Tuesday Night Music Club. Sheryl can do it all — incredible vocal abilities, songwriting, and she’s inspiringly prolific on guitar, bass, piano. It was interesting to see Sheryl’s full turn towards country music. My first clue into her country leanings was a listen to her rendition of “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” on the Timeless: Hank Williams Tribute. When she moved from Los Angeles to Nashville, I had a feeling her sound would change, and it sure did, although she’s coming back full circle now.

You’re a native Californian. California isn’t necessarily the first state you think of when you think country music, though obviously, you can be a fan and a player of it no matter where you live. What drew you to that genre in particular, and do you think your Californian roots give your music somewhat of a different or unique perspective?

California isn’t the first area people connect country music with, but California does have a very important role in country music primarily because artists have been coming out here to live and make records since the ’50s and ’60s. Los Angeles became one of the world’s most successful recording studio and record label hubs drawing in the greats from all genres. Growing up loving Tom Petty’s music, his sound had this southern rock thing going on. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were to me a rock and roll band first, but southern country influences came through in the most beautiful ways. I got really into Petty’s own influences diving into the Byrds and Roger McGuinn, which then brought my attention to Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Parson’s own solo records. Much of this work was created here in Los Angeles. To me, that kind of psychedelic country direction Gram embodied sounds very Californian, and then you add in Gram’s forever mystical tie to Joshua Tree.

Prior to Gram making his mark on the country scene, the Bakersfield sound emerged in the mid to late ’50s with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard successfully breaking out with that sound. It was a sound that brought in more edge and rock and roll, which challenged the slick Nashville sounds of the time. Many claim the Bakersfield sound was the catalyst for the genre of country rock, which informed the sound of artists like Dwight Yoakam.

Then there was The Palomino Club here in North Hollywood which hosted country’s biggest stars — national touring acts, The Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, and artists who came to call Los Angeles their home even if just for a time like Ricky Nelson and Linda Ronstadt, Lucinda Williams and Jim Lauderdale. Sadly, The Palomino closed before I was old enough to experience that scene. Ronnie Mack’s Barndance continued on to other venues settling at Joe’s American Bar & Grill. Mark Christian’s Ranch Party has been running for over 15 years and The Grand Ole Echo has established a foothold with the younger indie country and Americana crowd. Lukas Nelson is making a huge mark out there now emanating from California.

Listening to all of these artists has informed my own music. We are musically a combination of what we listen to the most.

RELATED:  Tone Talk with Manda Mosher

You have a song entitled “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore.” What is it that you think truly makes a song stand the test of time?

“Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore” is a song written by the great John Moreland, which he released on his In The Throes record in 2013. For anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to dive into John’s catalog of work or see him perform live, it’s a powerful experience. While CALICO the band was active, one of our good friends, J.C. August who occasionally played with us, turned us all onto John’s music. We had one opportunity to open for John at Harvard & Stone in Hollywood. Seeing the impact of what he does live with just an acoustic guitar is humbling. This particular song of his, “Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore” resonated with me as a songwriter, so much so that I wanted to cover the song with CALICO. It didn’t happen at the time, so I decided to record it myself and release it as a first single prior to my next solo record.

Songs are like compacted philosophical images to me, and when one is completely relatable or offers a new perspective that teaches me, then it lasts forever in its importance.

Expanding upon that, do you think it’s even possible for a song to stand the test of time now — even if it had all the perfect elements — because of how accelerated and fast-paced our society has become?

For people who strongly love music, I think great songs will stand the test of time for them individually, but the days of everyone loving the same songs across the board seems to be over. The sheer amount of material being made has created an abundance of music and ensuing confusion about how to find and discover it. Everyone’s listening on a different platform and discovering music in unique ways, so one song rising out of that and connecting with the masses to make a lasting impression now that’s time tested would take a miracle of elements hitting at the same time. Winning an Oscar for Best Original Song may be the closest thing I can think of as that’s likely a song that’s been heard through the larger medium of film. The fast pace of consumption isn’t helping either. As an artist, it can be very discouraging to know that you could take years to conceptualize an album and have it consumed within a matter of weeks before people are on to the next thing. I think that does two things; puts pressure on artists to create faster and release more, which can decrease the quality of what they’re making, or it can cause an artist to stop putting out albums altogether. You hear about many of the great artists from prior generations who have given up on making albums because they either don’t seem to make a difference within the noise or the albums are consumed so quickly without appreciation. Personally, I think it’s best to ignore all of this in the creation phase of music but then address it in the way you release music.

Do you have a particular guitar that is your go-to when you first start conceptualizing a song?

My favorite acoustics to write on are my 1966 Gibson Hummingbird and my 1968 Gibson B-25. They both have a narrow nut, which is more comfortable for me.

You formed and fronted the successful all-female country group, CALICO, a few years back. Will you be performing with them again, or are you primarily focusing on your solo endeavors right now?

CALICO the band was a very special band that took on more of a life of its own than any of us expected. It was born out of a songwriting project between me, Kirsten Proffit (K.P. Hawthorn), and Jaime Wyatt. Once we realized what we could create as a songwriting team and heard our harmonies come together, we knew we had something special. The indie level success of the band brought a new excitement to all of us, and it kept going for about five years through several key member changes. Ultimately, the band was comprised of solo artist thought processes trying to make music together. Leaving your own solo work on the side for that long eventually takes its toll and brought everyone to the point of going their own ways. I’m fully back into my own solo work now, but am grateful for what I learned in that band. I don’t foresee a CALICO reunion anytime soon, but if the Black Crowes are back together, then well, you just never know what’s coming down the pike.

You’ve had quite a few licensing successes, with placements in NCIS: Los Angeles and The Nightshift, for example. Are there any words of advice or wisdom that you or your partner/collaborator, Eric Craig (who is a successful music supervisor), can offer to artists who are also looking to place their music into film and TV?

From Eric’s point of view, some syncs are inexplicable as personal artistic choices pursued by the director or producer. Beyond that, music supervisors look for songs that embody universal themes or songs that catch a mood — sadness, happiness.

In my own experience, my songs that have been synched were directly supporting or enhancing the feeling of the scene, a match of feelings.

I’m really into all the facets of music packaging, artwork, distribution, timing of releases, publicity, radio, and marketing.

How do you juggle being a touring artist, record label CEO, studio owner, and now a clothing label owner?

I enjoy splitting my time between these connected businesses. They all support each other. I came up through a record label background and have a great love and nostalgia for labels. To me, releasing music is an art in and of itself that, if structured well, can make the difference between people hearing what you create or having your music be the proverbial tree that falls in the forest. I’m really into all the facets of music packaging, artwork, distribution, timing of releases, publicity, radio, and marketing. I’ve seen firsthand time and time again how misstepping on any of these aspects can tank a great record. You certainly can’t control everything, but what you can control is worth paying a lot of attention to. Jack White’s operation at Third Man Records is THE most inspiring label to look at for all of these aspects. Because of my love for and experience with labels, I’m running Blackbird Record Label with Eric’s partnership. Eric’s on the front line every day with Lakeshore Records, and between us, we come up with concepts and release plans for artists we’re working with.

Building a home studio is a project that Eric spear-headed for me and has been a lifelong dream for both of us. Having our own space to record at will, rehearse in, and make available to our artist friends has come at a good time while we’re raising our little daughter. Having everything in close proximity saves us valuable time.

The clothing label idea came from a California Country design I put together as a merch item for CALICO the band. We were selling CDs, vinyl, cassettes, but I noticed our California Country tees did really well. They were more universal in appeal. As time went on, CDs fell in popularity, which put more emphasis on specialty items like vinyl and the tees. Eric and I decided it was time to start up California Country Apparel due to its broader appeal, and it’s been so cool to see the tees and shirts being worn by artists friends, fans, and by folks who have no connection to our music but just love the design. We sell out of everything we make, which I love to see happen.

The one aspect that I’ve pulled back on is touring. After spending about eight years on the road, it’s felt incredible to take a break from it. I’m focusing on local shows, specialty shows, and short tour runs now. Part of it is I don’t want to miss big parts of my daughter’s youngest years, part of it is the level of touring I’ve been involved in is the toughest indie kind one can do. Some nights are magic, and some are humbling beyond recognition in the sense that you arrive at a venue and the sports game on the TV takes precedence. When you’re driving hundreds of miles a day and working your ass off out there, it’s got to feel a certain level of good to keep pushing on, especially if you’re missing out on something as important at home as your own child’s development. I look forward to revisiting touring after the launch of my next record, but for now, I’m enjoying the peacefulness.

Who do you think are some other alt-country artists to watch right now?

Lucinda Williams, Jeff Tweedy, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Neko Case, Nikki Lane, John Moreland, Jenny Lewis, The Mastersons, I See Hawks In LA.

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