La Luz: Staring Out Into the Mystery

The more people I speak to, the more evident it is that the periods of isolation we have collectively experienced over the last year and a half took us all to the strangest places. Some of us discovered new things about ourselves, immersed ourselves in new pastimes, or possibly just had the most unpleasant of times. For La Luz’ vocalist, guitarist and principal songwriter Shana Cleveland, she’d already begun her retreat into this way of living long before it became an enforced lifestyle.

Shortly after the release of the band’s third album, 2018’s Floating Features, Cleveland made the decision to relocate from the heart of LA into rural California, a move that had a marked effect on the sound of their forthcoming eponymous follow-up record. The high-octane moments of their earlier work have been traded in for a more introspective approach; the city and surf replaced with nature and earth. Their decision to recruit Adrian Younge to produce the record also showed a desire to broaden the band’s musical palette, adopting some of his jazz, funk and hip-hop influences to create their most adventurous and psychedelic work to date.

As La Luz approach a decade together as a band, the current trio of Cleveland, keyboard player Alice Sandahl and bassist Lena Simon appear to be thriving more than ever. The change of pace to both surroundings, personal lives and sonic approach has not transformed the band per se, but assisted them in evolving to a more refined state. The breezy singles ‘In the Country’ and ‘Here on Earth’ demonstrate this previously mentioned connection to the surroundings, and the more charged moments such as ‘Metal Man’ hark back to the fuzzier sounds of earlier records like It’s Alive and Weirdo Shrine.

There’s a true beauty to La Luz’ fourth outing, and that’s something Shana Cleveland expressed she is eager for fans to be able to appreciate in full when she sat down with Wax Music, while also discussing the unlikely partnership formed with Adrian Younge and coming closer together as a unit to create an album of intimate, luscious moments.

First things first, I want to ask you about the new record. I’m not sure how long ago you finished it, but obviously, we’re very close to it coming out. What are the general feelings about it now that it’s in the can and ready to be out in the world?

I’m excited. It’s been a long time coming. I think like a lot of bands right now, we delayed the release date because of the pandemic because you really want to travel around the time that your record comes out. We were like, maybe by this time, it’ll be safe to travel. Our first idea for release date was in the summer, and then you push it off a couple more months. Now it feels like we could have pushed this off a little further because it still doesn’t really feel like a great idea to go on tour, but we are doing it. I’m excited to get back on the road, and I’m just excited to play new songs because it’s been a little while.

I kind of get the feeling that a lot of bands are taking that decision to just go for it because otherwise, it’s going to get to a point where it’s four and a half years since the last thing came out. You can’t keep people waiting that long, even if it doesn’t feel like an appropriate time. The songs that have come out so far have been well received from what I’ve seen, and the rest of the album sounds incredible. How have people been responding to it to you personally?

I mean, I don’t really I don’t see anyone, and I try to stay offline as much as possible, so I am a little in the dark, I think. It seems like the response has been good. The few people that I’ve talked to have seemed to like the progression of the albums. It’s a bit different than the last one, although it feels like it’s changing on a straight line. It feels similar to Floating Features, in the same way that Floating Features felt similar but more evolved than Weirdo Shrine, and so on. It feels like a natural evolution, and I’m just glad that that people seem stoked about it. I’m excited for people to hear the whole thing because I think that it’s a pretty diverse collection of songs. It changes a lot from song to song, so I’m looking forward to it when people can actually hold it in their hands and play the whole record.

As intended, I suppose. I wanted to ask you about the fact that you’ve opted to call it La Luz, a self-titled album, which I find is usually reserved for debut records, and bands use it as an excuse to say ‘this is our mission statement’. Would you say that this is you coming out and saying ‘this is the most like we’ve always wanted to sound in our career’? Is this something that you’ve been building towards creating and that it sums you up as a band?

I think more that it feels immediately like us. I don’t think that it’s something that I have been striving toward or wanting to capture and haven’t before; I feel like every album has been kind of like exactly where we’re at that time. I think that the pandemic has made everyone dig a little deeper into what’s really close and immediate in their lives in a new way. At least that’s what it’s done for me, and I feel like that’s what it offers. If we’re going to get anything positive out of this, it’s that we are able to really look, even though it’s uncomfortable sometimes, at the things that are closest to us. With the band, time has gone by, we’ve lost a member, I’ve had a baby – all this stuff happened in the time since our last record. It was just a really good time to sit back and really examine what we want to do and what message we want to put out into the world, and this record felt like a good expression of that. So yeah, La Luz? I don’t know. It’s almost our 10 year anniversary as a band, which is pretty wild, so it feels like a good time for a self-titled album.

I sort of sense the feeling that this is the three of you feeling quite united on the album, and the closeness that you talked about definitely seems true for you. I wanted to ask about the choice of production as well – what was your thought process behind getting Adrian Younge involved, and what do you feel he brought to the table in terms of the album’s sound?

We’re stoked that he wanted to do it. It was kind of a surprise, I think, to both of us. I’m sure he hadn’t heard of us beforehand, but I think that he could tell that we shared a lot of the same influences and we were coming from a similar place. He’s never recorded a rock band before, or really a band at all; he works with a lot of solo artists in the jazz and hip-hop world, and obviously spends the bulk of his time on his own music. Working with a group of people who were already part of something together was a new experience for him, and I think that he was excited to try it out. For us, we hadn’t really worked with a producer before in a super collaborative way. It’s kind of been the producer and us having some amount of collaboration every time no matter what, but we hadn’t really worked together on arrangements collaboratively before. It was exciting to get a fourth band member in Adrian in the studio, and really make aesthetic decisions together, and even sometimes chord progression decisions. We really dug into the songs together with somebody from outside of our little insular world, who had just a whole different set of ways of approaching music. We were excited about that idea of just kind of getting out of our finely tuned world and expanding it in that way.

Do you feel like you pushed each other outside of your comfort zones?

Definitely, he was really into that. There was a lot of, “oh, you think you can’t do this? Why don’t you just try it?”, so we’d try it and we could do it. It was great. I remember on the guitar solo for ‘Oh Blue’, he stopped and said, “when you go for this guitar solo, just go as crazy as possible”. It doesn’t sound that crazy when you listen back to it, but to me, I think that he heard that I wasn’t gonna go that crazy. I needed to hear that for it to get as loose as it should have been. I don’t know, he had a good way of just intuiting ways to push us out of our comfort zone and get us to come up with takes that felt really alive.

But I guess on the flipside, you were offering him something that he was unfamiliar with by being a rock band, compared to the world he is involved in. How quick was the mutual understanding between you?

Really quick – I think the first day that we were there, we were all a little intimidated by him, but it was strange how quickly we became really good friends. By the second or third day, after the recording session he’d be like, “hey, what are you guys eating for dinner?” – you know, we’re just kind of like hanging out. It just felt like it felt like we were old friends really fast. I guess instinctively, we must have all known that we would be good collaborators.

Was the plan always to opt for this sort of sound for this record, or was it just because of the environment that you were in? Did you want to always push towards the slightly more psychedelic end of things?

Not necessarily, I don’t think we had a plan really for production. I just don’t have an ear for production. I just don’t know. I feel like I can like write the songs and then I can’t really think about the other details. My brain just can’t hold it all. I don’t know if my bandmates did, but I think the plan was just to follow the inspiration.

How about in terms of the songwriting effort on the record? You say that this has been done for quite a while so I wondered how soon after Floating Features you made a start on it and how you saw your ideas for songs develop over the period.

I think some of the songs I started writing pretty early, I think the chord progression for ‘Lazy Eyes and Dune’ was something I was just playing with while I was waiting for Floating Features to come out, and then a couple other things like that. The songs really formed in the months right before COVID, and the early months of the pandemic is when I took all these fragments that I had had floating around and said “let me see what this collection wants to be”, and started giving them more of a foundation that they have now.

Is the writing mostly you or do the rest of the band come in with suggestions?

Yeah, there’s a few steps there. I’ll start writing the songs and I’ll make demos, and sometimes those will change over a period of time. When I feel like I’ve got a whole collection is when I’ll start sending out the demos to my bandmates. Then we’ll get together and they’ll change based on their ideas or what they’re hearing in the songs, and we trust each other. That’s the stage where we let them open up and grow together.

What would you say is your most unexpected source of inspiration for the record?

I feel like I’m pretty open with my influences. I spend a lot of time just staring at trees. [laughs] You know, like nature poetry, I guess. I used to think it was really boring when I was in college and when I was younger, and I didn’t really see how it related to us as humans. Since moving to the country, I’ve just been really, really interested in nature poetry and appreciating how mysterious and psychedelic it is. I don’t understand what’s going on out there. With humans, you’re like, “oh, I think they did this because they wanted attention; I think they did this because they were trying to be cute”, you know, and I look outside and I don’t know what’s happening. I feel something about just staring out into the mystery is inspiring to me and lets my mind wander enough to deeply hone into what’s going on inside my own mind.

You’ve said in the past around the time of Floating Features that that sounded distinctly like an LA record, which is where you were based at the time. Now being in a more rural area of California, do you feel like once again, that has been the main source of inspiration, and do you feel like your location guides you?

Definitely, and in a similar way to other things that have been happening around the same time, like becoming a mother, living rurally, and also just getting older and being more in my own world. I’ve always been kind of a loner, lost in my own fantasies, but I feel like now I’m leaning into my desire to be in my own universe. I think that COVID, rural life and being a mum – it’s kind of like a triple whammy. I’m just going to fully embrace something that feels self-referential, as opposed to looking outside to society for inspiration.

Obviously, with a with a slight change of personnel, going down to a three piece as far as the studio recording is concerned, do you have any idea of how you’re going to go about turning the songs from this record into a live experience? Are you planning on trying anything different?

I feel like I’m gonna find out soon. We haven’t had a chance to actually get together and play with Audrey, our new drummer. Because of the nature of the pandemic and all living in different places means that we haven’t been able to really dig into the live performance aspect, but we’re getting together soon to do that. I’m excited to see what that means.

How was it going through losing someone that was not only the drummer from the beginning of the band, but someone that you’d worked with prior to the existence of La Luz? Was it difficult to adapt to being a smaller unit?

I mean, in some ways it was easier with three people instead of four. It’s easier to make decisions, it’s easier to break a tie. We’ve all been together for so long, but it felt pretty similar.

I guess that is a testament to your relationship as a band and knowing that you will work well together, that going through change is not going to really affect it.

I mean, we still have yet to play a show, so I’m sure that’s gonna be strange. We were so used to playing with Marian, but so much time has gone by I feel like it’s nice to have a change every now and then to keep things fresh. I’m stoked to see what it’s like. New record, new drummer.

Considering how you started out as a band, seemingly having quite a set idea of how you wanted to sound and a certain aesthetic about you, how do you ever go about moving forward as a band and do you ever have any indication in advance where you’re going to head next?

It’s not something we’ve talked about yet, but I would love if we just took it further with spending even more time in the studio. I don’t want to stop playing live shows, but I think it would be awesome to really dig into layers and just make our Pet Sounds – you know, go buck wild on the vocal harmonies and strange sounds. I always make a playlist of inspiration for every new record when I start trying to imagine what it’s going to be, and I’ve really just been digging into the Beach Boys. I don’t want to make an album that sounds like the Beach Boys necessarily, but there’s just so much in there that I think a La Luz album that sounded this textured and layered would be pretty sick.

I guess now is the point in many artists’ careers where you would move away from doing so much live because as you’ve pointed out, you’ve got a family around you, so naturally you spend more time in the studio and work on that side of things. I guess there’s no better time for it.

More based on the state of the world than my family. I think my family’s pretty chill. My partner is also a touring musician, and we’re kind of down for wherever that leads. But yeah, it definitely feels like it’s maybe time to think about how we can not be on the road all the time. I feel like we’re all just gonna be a little more cautious and paranoid about each other after this. Who knows?

Words: Reuben Cross // Photos: Pooneh Ghana

La Luz’ self-titled fourth album is out on October 22nd via Hardly Art. Stream the singles and pre-order the record plus their back catalogue via Bandcamp.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: