That's what a Barbara Manning album is like. Lyrical and abstractly autobiographical, her 11-album career has earned the admiration of musical peers, a devoted European following, and critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Alas, commercial success has been more elusive. We caught up with her on the road (in the driver's seat once again), hanging with family in San Diego before crossing the desert for this Friday's show at 7 Black Cats, to debut with a new band and a new seven-track EP, Homeless Where the Heart Is.
A multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, the 35-year-old Manning has had an eclectic career that's both inspiring and heartbreaking to watch. Her 1988 solo debut, Lately I Keep Scissors, was a word-of-mouth classic recorded fast and cheap in two days. "I thought it was a demo," Manning recalls. "I thought I'd go back and re-record it, but it just carried itself."
In 1992, Rolling Stone picked Manning as one of the year's most important new artists, and not long after that Spin magazine devoted an entire chapter to her in its alternative record guide. In 1993, she toured and recorded with Stuart Moxham (Young Marble Giants) and Jon Langford (of the Mekons). She became tourmates and friends with Tucson's Giant Sand while being courted by the Subpop label. She eventually signed a three-album deal with Matador, but would end up taking Joey Burns and John Convertino with her to Europe, as her backing band.
"We toured Europe in 1996, and Joey and John opened as Calexico. I was headlining, which is ironic nowadays. Calexico is just huge in Europe--they're in the Top 40 over there. But anyway, we recorded an album (1212) right after that in Tucson, at Wavelab. A couple of months later I brought them to New Zealand."
Around December of 1997, things started to fall apart. After the New Zealand recording, which also included collaborations with members from bands like The Clean, The Bats, The Verlaines and The Tall Dwarfs, the five-year relationship with Matador came to an end. "That was a blow, but not such a surprise after one EP and three albums," she says. "It was a good relationship. They'd been very generous and I'd lived off that, so I didn't know what I was going to do."
That proved only the beginning. Manning cites an almost Dickensian list of ensuing tragedies and disappointments, so complete it winds up sounding like the script for a black comedy. With her quiet humor and relaxed retelling, it still takes the better part of an hour to inventory: no job, two deaths, a grave disease, eviction, a fiancé leaves for another woman, a desperate stint as a delivery driver for a Bay Area burrito company, an IRS audit, a fall road trip playing empty clubs all across America.
"One night in Pittsburgh, the only people watching were the opening band," she laughs. "When it was over, my ex-boyfriend--we'd broken up, but he was still touring with me before moving back to New Zealand--told me that was one of the best shows he'd ever heard me play."
Could things get any worse? Well, sure. They hadn't hit Tucson yet.
"It was near the end of the tour," Manning recalls. "The Austin show had been canceled. The van broke down in some bizarre little Texas town, where we were stranded for two days. We were totally taken in by the locals at the Good Times bar, where they drink, you know, 75-cent Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the sheriff's in there getting drunk.
"We finally got the car fixed, but we had to spend every penny of merchandise money that we had, which wasn't mine. Anyway, it was just really a heartbreaker because we ended up driving 15 hours straight to make up the time to Tucson. So I go in and say hi and ask where to unload, and the manager says, 'Just sign up here.'
"I say, 'Sign up?' And she says, 'Yeah, it's open mic night.' I bring out the contract, and she says she doesn't know who I am, who that booking agent is, etc., etc. I went looking for the guy, who had apparently skipped town, and I ended up at a friend's house with an ice-cold bottle of tequila in front of me. I poured a shot, and then just started to cry. It was just too hard."
SO LIKE ANY plucky heroine, she got on a plane, and got the hell out of Dodge. That's where the Black Forest fairy tale begins.
Manning spent eight months in Germany, working and writing songs. In the small town of Suessen ("That means 'sweet,' and it really is," she says), she reconnected with a family she'd met years before on her first German tour.
The boys, German-Italian twins now age 23, had followed her music since they were 14. "They're like my archivists," Manning says. "They had every record, and knew songs I couldn't even remember anymore." The brothers, Flavio and Fabrizio, had started their own band, and like she'd done for Calexico in 1996, Manning asked them to come on tour with her in France, to open for her and then be her backup band.
"The first show we played was in Paris, and that was the farthest from home they'd ever been." By the time they got back to Germany, a new band was formed: Barbara Manning and the Go-Luckys.
The music from this trio is tighter, harder and faster than the solo Manning experience. "'More punk,' that's what they like to say," laughs Manning. "They whipped me into shape, playing faster, and through practices that would go on for six hours, day after day. They've made me more serious about my music...and I really got better."
Homeless Where the Heart Is, an EP recorded in two days and a mere two months after the band came together, is a testament to those practices. Spare and solid, this concise collection of radio-friendly rock ballads makes for a beautifully composed, artfully executed introduction to the new Go-Lucky sound.
Manning's lyrics again plumb the tumultuous sea of life experience with artful abstraction, with tracks like "Life/Luck," "Soundtracks," "Old Woman" and "Isn't Lonely Lovely?" that present fragments of the facts, many of them tragic. But the music gives everything a double meaning: It has a different mood, and it changes the lyrics entirely. Manning's smooth vocals detail the losses while her guitar, augmented by Fabrizio's insistent electric bass and Flavio's frenetic drums, make it clear this is a tale of triumph, not tragedy.
"I think 'Life/Luck' is a perfect example of that," Manning agrees. "I was trying to think of the meanest lyrics I could. The lyrics are saying everything beautiful is gone, everything is going to be boring, luck won't even exist. And at the same time, we made this happy song you can sing along to while you're driving, and feel really good. We tried to make something super mean sound so appealing, you wouldn't even realize it...so it can sneak up behind and grab you, like a subliminal trick."
Empowered, hopeful and irresistibly catchy, this could be the elusive winning formula.
"I'm the kind of artist who's been word of mouth my whole career," she says evenly. "I'm not putting myself down. Being an underdog, in a way you're more precious to the people who love your music. My own record collection is full of obscure artists who were never discovered. I love that kind of music. The flip side is that at other times, it's like you're hanging from your fingernails on a ledge.
"I have a whole bunch of new songs, and I've reserved three days in a cheap studio in August. I don't know how I'm going to pay for it, or who's going to put it out. But I have to do it. My band members are here, the songs are ready, and now is the right time."
The live show draws from a repertoire of about 40 songs, new, old and obscure enough to sound new to the songwriter herself. "People used to call out a song, and I'd have to say, 'Oh, I don't remember that.' Thanks to my band, I can admit I've been lazy. I know my own songs again, and they sound even better."
In a study of contrasts, a rogue band calling themselves The Giant Pantsworms will open the Tucson show. Well aware of Manning's ties to Giant Sand (back in the day known as the Giant Sandworms), these cheeky cockabilly upstarts are using the occasion and the alias for their local debut. Asked about the music, lead singer Fish Karma cryptically responded they were "a Tribulators cover band." The Gelb-obsessed vocalist will be joined by some familiar faces in strange places: former Al Perry cattleman Dave Roads on bass and Sinatra stylist Paul Elia on drums, with Gordon "don't mess with Texas" Groves on guitar.
You won't be invited to a greater love fest of rock music this summer, so check your apathy at the door.