Clara Mann: Strength In Softness

The songs of Clara Mann already feel like folk standards; the kind you would find a dusty songbook passed down from generations prior. They’re self-assured, fully formed, and almost classical, while simultaneously reflective of the isolation and the mild-to-moderate-to-very-severe claustrophobia of modern living. They express the new and the urban in a voice layered with wisdom and grace, seemingly plucked from the past.

Clara has said that she writes music to keep herself calm in a busy world, and each song is possessed with a flavour of serenity that ranges from mournful to defiant. This is illustrated perhaps most clearly in the dynamic between the two singles she has released so far with Sad Club Records, ‘Thoughtless’ and ‘I Didn’t Know You Were Leaving Today’. The former traces trespassed boundaries – “I open up and you help yourself” – but toys with a decision to leave throughout, finally settling on the defiant realisation that no matter how long it takes, it is always possible to turn your life around. The latter presents a vision of longing – almost pastoral in its composition, as a delicate fiddle cushions a gentle waltz while Clara sings of a vacant rocking chair on the porch and how she’ll “stand at the corner, ready to wave” when its occupant returns. Almost audible are the chirping of insects in long grass and almost visible are the specks that dance in the sunbeams of late summer.

We had a chat ahead of her debut EP, Consolations, which through her unique and almost arcane chemistry explores the resonant image of a young person alone in the city. Hopper-esque in their colours and scenes and gentle in their musical language, Clara’s songs are delicate, sure – but delicacy should not be confused with fragility, as each one expresses a deep and hard-learned strength through their softness.

You’ve had a really good couple of months – this is your debut and you’re already generating quite a lot of buzz. How’s that been for you? 

I had very low expectations – not because of undervaluing my work, but just because it felt like a really strange time to be releasing music and like you say, I was a newcomer. But it’s been amazing! I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the response to the two singles so far. Sad Club Records have done an incredible job. I think my head’s kind of in a spin! It’s been frustrating obviously not being able to play live shows and meet people but I’ve just been really, really happy and excited. 

How did you get involved with Sad Club Records? 

About two years ago I was going to a lot of DIY gigs in Bristol with friends who were writing music and putting stuff out on Bandcamp, and I was like “oh this is really fun, maybe I should try writing my own stuff” so I just put out some demos on Bandcamp. I met a couple of people at gigs who had seen my social media and they liked what I was doing and showed an interest in me in that way. I was, I think, quite surprised because it’s not something that had ever occurred to me, although I grew up with music in my family and I’m a classically trained musician, but Sad Club Records just messaged me one day on Instagram and asked if I wanted to put something out with them! I was like “oh my god, so exciting, oh wow, I’m famous”, and then put out a track with them on one of their compilations and it just sort of started like that. It was honestly just through meeting lovely people who were working with Sad Club already. 

And they’re a cassette only label – it’s quite niche. 

I know! Very trendy. People ask me why it’s coming out on cassette and not vinyl, but they just don’t understand how on trend I now am. 

The process of rewinding, it’s a spiritual bond between you and the cassette

I certainly feel overwhelmed by how fast everything is now, and how immediate everything is. Actually, I think there’s a real joy in slowing down and the analog and the physical feel, so I think maybe that’s partly where the cassette comes from – but yeah, it’s gorgeous and I’m really excited.

It’s something you can hold as well. It’s a physical thing and it’s not as big and delicate as a vinyl. You could chuck a cassette all the way across the room and it won’t break

That’s what I’m going to be doing with my own cassettes.

Talking about your classical background, could you tell me a bit more about where you’ve come from?

My mum is a piano teacher and I started playing the piano when I was four or five and loved it, but like any child I refused to practice. I got quite serious with it though – I did all my grades and stuff. I was also doing a lot of choral music, so I was doing like summer courses and choral singing in lovely choirs at school and that’s been very influential. I grew up in a village in the south of France, where the church was quite important – we weren’t religious but it was just a big part of the community – and that would bring a lot of religious music, a lot of which is incredible and is still a part of me. And now I teach piano myself as well.

On the point of piano – this project is mostly guitar based. Are you going to start working some more piano into your music in the future?

I think one of the reasons it took me so long to actually start writing this kind of music was because I tried to write on piano and it felt too easy. It felt like, because I knew the instrument so well, that my hands were moving in very predictable patterns. There was nothing exploratory about it. But when I picked up a guitar, which I genuinely only did about two and half years ago, it felt like something new. It felt like I was discovering patterns on the guitar. The music I was writing was maybe much less cheesy, and more unexpected. I actually am trying to work more on keys – I think now I’ve got over that a little bit and kind of branched out, I feel more comfortable writing on piano. So I expect I will at some point, but I definitely feel like my music at the moment is guitar. 

There’s a lot to be said for that kind of that sort of mystery of a new instrument – I don’t know whether it’s just the way that your hands move, but it feels like it hits differently

It’s a fresher feeling, a more unknown instrument – I still think I’m approaching guitar in kind of a naive way but it’s not actually something I want to change though I’d like to become more confident. I want to keep that freshness.

The EP was mixed and recorded remotely. How was that process for you?

I think I always wanted a slightly lo-fi approach – I wanted it to sound natural and intimate because that was how my experience of making music has always been. It was tricky though – I had planned to record it as a kind of home recording, but with mixing from lovely Ben [Spike Saunders], but it didn’t work out like that, obviously. 

So what I did was I recorded it on my own at home and with my boyfriend who I was living with at the time. He’s also a musician, and we worked together on the demos and worked out the arrangements together. Then I sent it over to Ben and he mixed it for me, and kind of just made things make a bit more sense recording-wise. 

I felt slightly robbed – I was really looking forward to recording with him in person and working with him on that kind of slightly more intimate musical level but in the end, I’m really happy with how it turned out. It was a very natural organic process, but I think I would have liked to have the focus that comes with recording in a recording studio environment. 

What sort of challenges would you say that you’ve had to overcome so far in bringing this out and working on it over the past year?

I think it was letting go of perfectionism and reaching an acceptance that there is something really special about the intimacy that comes with lo-fi home recording. Working with other people, even at a distance, I had to let go of my control. It was so important for me to accept that other people actually did know better than me when it came to recording because like, I can barely use Garageband! That was a really valuable experience. 

I think it was mostly just that it was lonely. I would have liked to have been playing live – I would have liked to be getting that energy from musicians. I was lucky that my boyfriend is a musician and that Ben was so supportive the whole way through, so I think that was the main thing was feeling slightly robbed of that experience.

Perfectionism is a killer, especially when it comes to this sort of thing. I get what you mean about letting go – your songs are your babies aren’t they, they are incredibly personal to you

Yeah! They’re vulnerable songs, there’s strength in that, but I think I found it difficult at first to let go of control. I wanted to know best, and at the same time I knew that I didn’t.

There’s a lot to be gained from that sort of dialectic with working with people, but it’s not often said that collaboration doesn’t necessarily come naturally. It’s quite often a learned process.

Exactly. Especially when it’s a quite improvised dynamic. I know how it works when you’re singing with other people, and I knew how it works when you’re gigging, but I didn’t know how to record with people because I’d always done my demos on my own – so it was very new. And I’m so lucky to work with two people who were so sensitive and listened so well to me. 

I had a bit of a dive on your social media just to do this data gathering. You mentioned you spent the autumn in a cabin, and I was always very taken with that because that looked amazing. 

That was mad! It was to do with the fact that basically my boyfriend and I needed our own space so my friend Mari, who played fiddle on this, lent me a one room cabin on Dartmoor. 

Oh, wow! The wilds of Dartmoor

It was just extraordinary. I can’t really think about it now without getting quite emotional. We spent a couple of months there, and it was feeding geese and walking and recording. I mean, it was obviously quite isolating and it was an unusual experience but just something I will never forget. Creatively really special because although we had our own space and it was a question of finding inspiration from maybe new things. Maybe I felt influenced by the landscape there, because there was nothing else. 

And like getting up pretty early in the mornings and going out into the fields and things. It was beautiful. 

Dartmoor is quite a unique environment. Did that percolate into your writing process at all? 

It was this overwhelming sense of emptiness from this huge sky and the open plain. It’s a very, very barren landscape in a lot of places –  it’s quite alien. I’ve never been anywhere like it. The one image that sticks with me really from that time in Dartmoor, that I have written about more recently since coming back – because it was quite immersive, so it’s quite difficult to be objective about it in my writing – was this one road that goes from where we were right over the moor to the sea. And it’s just extraordinary. There’s this huge sky and strange light that comes down and a lot of cattle that wander on and off the road. And it’s just one pretty much straight road. So it’s very strange. And that image has really stayed with me. And I think it’s about loneliness, moving towards the sea, and white light. I think in my most recent writing that has probably come through, but in the EP there’s definitely more of a claustrophobic feeling. 

You’ve said that you write songs to keep yourself calm in a busy world. Would you say that the state of the world at the moment has put more internal demand on you to write? 

I think so. A lot of these songs were written in the spring of 2019, so in a way they span my moving to Bristol and then being quite lonely, and then this weird vacant period, just at the beginning of COVID when it was starting to happen. 

I think I have put more pressure on myself because of the way the world is. There is no stimulus, there’s nothing going on except this weird void and ‘void’ is quite difficult to express in a way that’s not just really abstract and airy-fairy. I don’t want to do that – it has to be more perceptive than that, I’m not satisfied with just expressing nothingness. So I think I’ve put more pressure on myself and I have had to let go of that, because actually it was blocking me creatively. Once I stopped putting pressure on myself and things opened up a bit more. 

You have to look in other directions, because you can’t just try and turn ‘nothing’ into songs because the songs will be nothing as well. They’ll be nothing because you’re writing about nothing. 

Exactly, and no one will connect because they’ll be nothing to connect to. Once this is over I want to forget it ever happened. I don’t want to remember this ‘nothing’ period of time. I just want to move on really fast. Like – I haven’t got a train since last year, and I’m so excited.

You have a deep love of books and poetry and art, and you describe these influences as disparate strands that you’re trying to tie together. What were your sort of main touchstones when you were writing these songs in 2019? 

In Hopper’s paintings there is this sense of this lone figure and I think being lonely in the city is such a universal thing for a young person. I think a lot of people connect with that even if it’s reflected in quite an abstract way in my music. 

I don’t know if I particularly drew on literary references, but I spent my childhood in this wonderful world of books and words and appreciation for those kinds of things. It felt like this was my way of emerging from it because I was being pulled forward by these strands. And perhaps it wasn’t the strand that I’d expected to dominate. Maybe I thought I was going to be more of a literary person or an artistic person, and actually suddenly music pulled me forward. It was quite unexpected in a way – like I said, I’ve been kind of dizzy from all of this. I think it wasn’t a conscious choice on my part, and I didn’t consciously draw on the other influences in my life. But this suddenly was what emerged from that environment I was in. 

To cap it all off with a very esoteric and quite abyssal question, where do you hope to go?

I hope that I will be moving back to Bristol, but I know that I will be heading to London this year which is quite exciting. I’m aware that I will probably go through the whole being lonely in the city thing again.

Well, if you get another well received EP out of it that’s two for your money. 

What comes next for ‘Clara Mann, the artist’ is unclear to me, it just depends how things unfold after lockdown but I know that I have a compulsion to keep writing and making and sharing that. I desperately would like to play live to more than two people – that would be wonderful. Honestly, it just feels like a real gift that I’ve been able to share my music with this many people and whatever comes from that is just a bonus from my point of view. And I’m thrilled that people are doing it and hearing it at all.

Words: Ed Hambly // Photos: Chiara Gambuto

Clara Mann’s debut EP ‘Consolations’ is out on February 24th via Sad Club Records. Pre-order the album and listen to singles ‘Thoughtless’ and ‘I Didn’t Know You Were Leaving Today’ via Bandcamp.

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