Interview by Jason Gross (Sept. 1997)
I always had a hell of time trying to peg Barbara Manning until I realized that was probably the reason I liked her so much. She's thought of as 'alternative' (whatever that means) though she sounds like a sweet-voiced folkie who plays a dizzying range of rock covers and then writes even better songs on her own. I guess it was out of laziness that she was lumped with the 'grrl' movement (Courtney, Liz Phair, L7) but she's too smart and thoughtful to fall into categories that easy. A baseball fan who sings of sour relationships and toasts her favorite bands through covers and name checks, she didn't make it easy to say what she was. Manning is definitely an original- 1212 (on Matador) opens with an eighteen minute story about a fire bug and goes through impressive covers of Amon Duul, the Deviants, Richard Thompson and Tom Leher all topped off with a krautrock groove filled with crowd noises and other samples. Folkie? Rocker? Incorrigible music fan? Ambitious story teller? All and none of 'em.
PSF: Could you talk about how you started out with music?
I had a dream about Pete Townshend. He said 'pick up thy guitar and march up to the world.' That's the truth. I started out doing Bee Gee songs around '78/'79 when I was 13. My first band (28th Day) was in '83 and that was kind of a punk rock, new wave band but it turned into more of a psychedelic band. I mostly wrote songs about relationships but previous to that I did really stupid, hokey songs. (laughs)
PSF: What happened to the group?
We put out an album on Engima and broke up. I decided to get away from where I was living in North California. I came out to San Francisco, the dream city of America.
PSF: Why's it so great?
It's so beautiful and diverse. People are very open. Everybody can be themselves here. It draws a lot of different types of people here. There's lots of good restaruants and parks and the ocean. I really love it here.
PSF: What was the music scene like?
It sucked. It was really bad. People would say 'if you go to San Francisco, you're going to end up sounding like it.' I wasn't too worried though. I hooked up with a bunch of friends who had just moved here too.
PSF: Did your music change a lot then?
No, I think all my songwriting has been a natural growth and progression. I don't think I've been overly inundated with influences that wouldn't have naturally happened anyway.
PSF: Could you talk about your first record, Lately I Keep Scissors?
It was recorded in 1986, the first month I was here and it came out in 1988. It was definitely based on the break-up of the band that I was in and a relationship that I was in. It was strongly influenced by that. I didn't get a lot of response from that- they only pressed 500 copies of the record. But it did get me some critical acclaim by some people I respected greatly. Particularly, the guys from Forced Exposure, who I thought would HATE me even though I loved them from a distance. I expected them to slam it because really Scissors was recorded quickly on 8-track and it was a demo. Then it just got released that way.
PSF: What do you think of it today?
I just think I'm brilliant.
PSF: Modest too.
Right! (laughs) If you're always writing from your gut and your heart, and you're writing for yourself, the song will come out really good. That's true even if only you and one other person understand it. You really have to strip it down and know where you're coming from with your writing.
PSF: I really love 'Sympathy Wreath.' How did you write that?
It was about when I broke up with someone and I felt really sorry for myself. Looking at myself in the mirror saying 'you pathetic piece of nothing.' I decided to write a song about that. Not just sending yourself a bouquet but a wreath, which probably cost a whole lot of money.
PSF: You didn't do that, did you?
Oh, no way. (laughs)
PSF: What about One Perfect Green Blanket (1990)? How was that different?
I recorded it in little bits. I'd done one song there and then a few months later, I'd record another song. That was kind of a frustrating way of recording. But at least I'd get to record when a song was written- I'd record it right there and then. I kind of prefer the process where you have a batch of songs and you go in with one focused session. I think it's much better.
PSF: Before you came out with your next record, you worked in SF Seals for a while. Why did you decide not to do solo work?
I always looked down on people who were solo artists with a band. I just thought it was totally stupid if it was just their name and here they have people playing behind them. I had to go through that process of deciding that it wasn't so bad after all. Now I don't have a problem with it really. (With SF Seals) I was trying to be more democratic and opening it up so that it would be other influences and input in the music.
PSF: You think that was successful?
I loved every album when it was finished. As far as success goes, it depends on what you're talking about.
PSF: OK, did you think they were artistically successful?
Oh yeah, I was always happy with what happened. I can go back and listen to an album and know the flaws that I wish I had redone. But ultimately I felt that I was always proud of every record. They're all my little babies that came out. Certainly not successful in the sense of notoriety or money. (laughs)
PSF: How did you next record come about (Barbara Manning Sings with the Original Artists)?
That was a total fluke. I was asked to go to Chicago for two weeks to record in the studio with a bunch of musicians. I didn't know what the material was going to be at all. I had one song I'd written and one song I wanted to do, which was 'Cry Me A River.' That was it. So we just went and stayed at a friend's house. Every day we would meet at the recording studio and I was surrounded by all these British guys. It was really fun. I didn't know what was going to happen. At the end of the day, they'd have a song recorded and they'd give me the lyrics and said 'sing your heart out' and I would. It was kind of fun. I liked to try different styles of music that I normally wouldn't do on my own. I had no idea that it was going to come out as a Barbara Manning record though. I thought of myself as being one of the session musicians rather than it being my project.
PSF: Between that record and the latest one (1212), what were you doing?
I put out a couple of (SF) Seal records in that time. Truth Walks With Sleepy Shadows in '95, Nowhere was '94 and Baseball Triology was '93.
PSF: On your latest CD, how did 'The Arsonist's Story' come about?
I'm not sure what initially inspired it but I just had this idea of what it would be like to be the mother of a troubled teenager. Then I started to think about what it would be like to be a troubled teenager and then the story unfoled without much mental effort on my part. I just kept going with it. You know, how things like that happen sometimes.
PSF: What about 'Stammtisch'?
I'm a big fan of a lot of the Krautrock music. The people I was working with, John (Convertino) and Joey (Burns, both of Giant Sand), weren't very familar with it at all. We were in Germany playing together and I had brought a bunch of CD's. I was able to be a DJ for one night at a club in Vienna. I put on Neu! and they said 'wow, that's cool!' So, during soundcheck, they started doing that groove and I was really excited about the fact that they could pick it up so fast. So when we did the record, we had a bunch of tape on the reel left over, which means that you go and make up something and goof off. So I said 'why don't you play that groove and we'll make something up and make it into our own thing.' We had such a nice experience playing for the German audience that I was inspired to write lyrics about that experience. Joey knows German so he translated it and sang.
PSF: You're a big Neu! fan?
Yeah! They probably don't like me very much (laughs)
PSF: They're putting together a tribute album.
I heard that Neu! are really uptight about other people putting together sound-a-like bands.
PSF: Rother is actually doing a song for it.
I'd kind of expect them to get mad at me if they ever heard it but I feel like you can't copyright a one-noted riff.
PSF: You do an interesting range of covers on the latest CD.
I listen to a lot of different types of music. I think that's why there's such a diverse bunch of covers. Usually I kind of get obsessed with a song and listen to it again and again. I'm very much a fan of music. If I fall in love with a song, I'll make a tape of that one song and hear it fifty times in a row without having to rewind. Usually, all the covers I've done are songs that I've obsessed on.
PSF: How do you see your latest work as different from your earlier music?
It's changed in the sense that before nobody knew me from a bar of soap. Now, I'm not known hugely but I feel like if I put something out, they'll be a certain amount of recognition or acceptance. I'm also really glad that I'm not starting up right now because the indie rock thing is really different (now). When I first started out, I didn't feel there was this huge amount of coverage for upstart bands. Before, it used to be that you put a record out and MAYBE it would get distributed. Now, it seems like the industry is more eager to find out what the newest band is. Before, you had to be on a major label to get that kind of interest. I feel like I'm glad that I did start out a while back when it was a little harder. Now, it's a little easier because I think people have a certain amount of respect for me. It makes it easier to put something out without being terrified about being put down.
PSF: How you get ideas for your songs?
Inspriation is everywhere. I get inspried events that are going on with me. I have to be hit emotionally with something to be writing about it. It doesn't have to be a sad emotion. It can be a happy emotion. It could be a book that inspires me or spending an evening listening to good records. I'll feel really inspired to write after that. Not that I want to rip anybody off. It's just being turned on by good music.
PSF: Any personal favorites of songs you've done?
I'm really fond of a Carpenters cover that World of Pooh did ('Drusila Penny'). It's one of my favorite recordings. That came out REALLY good. A bunch of records that I just did in New Zealand are really close to my heart right now. It'll come out as EP somewhere. It's really beautiful. It was all written on the spot with the people I was around so it's very inspired. It sounds like New Zealand to me.
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