Mando Saenz’s new album, All My Shame, plays like the best of soundtracks, pinballing from scene to scene with textured narratives, warm harmonies, and earnest guitars. After his family settled in Corpus Christi, TX, Saenz found his groove in college before landing in Houston where his brother, Marco, operated a recording studio. His 2002 debut, Watertown, put Mando on the radar of Carnival Music owner Frank Liddell, eventually earning him a publishing contract and move to Nashville where he’s written with and for Miranda Lambert, Whiskey Myers, Lee Ann Womack, The Oak Ridge Boys, Adam Hood, Jim Lauderdale, and oh-so-many more while becoming one of the most prolific and respected songwriters in country music. Saenz’s latest effort is a sonic candy store, gleefully mixing sweet and sour beats and rhythms that explore the full range of his tastes. Various impressions like the alt-country attitude of “The Deep End” and the Joe Walsh reach of the title track transition seamlessly to the resigned heartbreak of cuts like “As I Watch You Slowly Drift Away” and the fear of “Can’t Stay Alone For Long”. Produced by Ken Coomer (Wilco), All My Shame showcases Saenz as a student of the music he admires and the master craftsman who recognizes the perfect angle and tool for the job.
AI- I spent the last couple of days listenin’ to All My Shame. I’ve had “The Deep End” stuck in my head! I’ve been walkin’ around singin’ that one. You may or may not believe this, your name gets brought up quite a bit with people that I talk to, songwriters out of Nashville and all over. Most recently, I had a chance to talk to Adam Wright, and Joshua Ray Walker also shared that he spent some time writin’ with you. I am lookin’ forward to hearing whatever comes out of that collaboration.
MS- Yeah, those guys are great. Adam and I have known each other for years now. We write for the same publisher and he’s one of my favorites singer-songwriters period. You mentioned “The Deep End”. I wrote that song with his lovely wife, Shannon.
I was gonna ask you about that because when I was makin’ notes, diggin’ through, gettin’ ready, [I discovered] this album has been in the works for quite some time. Years, in fact. What finally brought everything to fruition?
We finished it well before the pandemic, of course, and some of these [songs] are years old just because I hadn’t put out anything in so long. I’ve been just doing a bunch of writing here in Nashville– like we do! We were just diggin’ through old songs and a lot of them were older than we realized. So yeah, in a lot of ways, this record’s been in the works for quite some time.
And you put this together before the pandemic? What was the timeframe looking like? When were you guys workin’?
I’d say we probably finished it a year and a half ago maybe. But we were still uncertain when we were gonna put it out. Definitely, when the pandemic hit, it put a hold on everything, gave us time to reset, and just get our ducks in a row. So now we’re super excited! Got a team together and pushin’ forward, gettin’ this thing out!
You’ve got quite a wide array of styles on this album. I read where you said that Ken Coomer was the guy that you knew could help you get the songs the way that you wanted them. Had you worked with him before? And tell me about that process.
Yeah, I’d worked with Ken years ago. We just cut some sides. It was even before I moved to Nashville, so I was still living in Houston when we first worked together. This is 16, 17 years ago. For this project, we were originally just thinkin’ of makin’ an EP just ’cause I hadn’t had anything in a while. We just wanted to get some content out there. I didn’t mind trying new things for something like that. And I knew I could trust Ken. We’ve had rapport for a while now and I trust his creative instincts. So once we started rollin’ on what was gonna be an EP, we just decided, “Hey, this is goin’ pretty good!” I liked the direction. It’s a little unlike what I’ve done before, but it’s still very true to my artistry. So we decided to do a full-length record, and I think the fact that me and Ken knew each other and I just trusted him helped out with the project.
I feel like if you’re searchin’ for that sweet spot between like alt-country and pop music, Ken’s got to be that guy.
Yeah. ‘Cause he’s very ambitious creatively just because his soul is to find something new and interesting and be in the moment as opposed to just doing something that’s already been done. As we were working, I was startin’ to realize that the songs I had been writing, some of ’em for this project especially, seemed to lean towards that. [They were] wide open for different production ideas. Versatile in that sense. I think it worked out great!
Did you do everything at Cartoon Moon, Ken’s studio?
Yeah! And what a great spot there on his property in East Nashville! It just felt really comfortable there. I like studios that aren’t so corporate feeling, you know? Just like a nice, cozy place you can dig in. And that’s exactly what that was. Very happy, would recommend that for people.
You mentioned Shannon Wright writing “The Deep End” with you. Do you have any other co-writes you shared that you can talk about?
Actually, most of these are co-writes just because that’s what I’ve been doing in Nashville all these years leading up. I think all but one’s a co-write. Of course, my friend, Kim Richey, I worked with on one of the songs. We’ve worked together quite a bit. And a few new people I had never worked with! Zach DuBois, Matt Szlachetka, a few other people that, actually, I just kinda got to know while writing with them. Which is kind of cool because you don’t really know someone very well until one day, you’re writing a song with ’em! The next thing you know, it’s on your record! That’s Nashville for ya’!
Tell me a little bit about that process for you– co-writing versus songwriting as a solitary pursuit. As you’ve mentioned, it’s what you’ve been doing in Nashville, for many years now. And there’s no arguing with the success that you’ve had with it. Tell me about that different dynamic when you are in a room with someone or several people at a time versus when it’s just you, a piece of paper, and a guitar.
It’s a different animal altogether and it’s something that I grew respect for. Coming from Texas, a proud Texan who wrote on his own, I wasn’t anti-Nashville, it was just strange to me. But once moving here, I really started to embrace collaborating with people, especially when you live in a town that’s just wealthy with talent. I think it’s great to have it all around you and it’s an inspiring thing to do. I still like to write on my own, in fact, my next record’s probably gonna be mostly solo writes, just because I was gettin’ back into that more, especially with the pandemic and everything. It’s a different animal, but it opens a lot of doors creatively. And it doesn’t always work for sure, but neither does writing with yourself. So I think it’s good to do a bit of both.
I’m glad you bring up creativity during the pandemic. How has that been for you? Because I get different stories from different folks. Some are like, “Oh, I’m just non-stop writing! It’s been the opportunity to do it! It’s just been great!” And others like, “Man, are you kidding? I couldn’t write anything if I tried!” How’s it been for you?
Well, it’s been good in the sense that I’ve had more time to focus on my own reset, my mind, a bit like everybody has, whether you’re in music or not. But it also allowed me to finish songs I had partially written that I might’ve just ended up gettin’ help to finish. I went ahead and finished ’em on my own in a lot of cases. To say my next record would be a pandemic record, I don’t think [that’s the case] ’cause a lot of these songs were in the works for a while. Someone asked me if, “the pandemic has given you some great songs and song ideas.” And I was like, “You know, I’ve kinda been writing about this for years in different ways.” So this just kinda justifies your art a little bit. But I’ve definitely been as productive as I could be during the pandemic.
I saw Chris Knight say the exact same thing recently. I’m not sure what the circumstances were, but somebody had said to him, looking around at the pandemic and the unemployment and all of that, “Somebody oughtta write a song about this,” and Chris was like, “Well, I’ve already written a bunch!”
Yeah (laughs)! That sounds like something Chris would say! So I’ll take that. I’m glad I could say something similar to Chris. That’s always a good thing. He’s one of my favorite people, and he always says the right thing at the right time (laughs)!
The series that you’ve been doing at Bobby’s Idle Hour with all the different songwriters comin’ in and sittin’ in with you– is that on hiatus? Is that coming back?
I think so. I might pick it back up. Bobby’s is a bar that’s been in Nashville for a long time and they had just closed down and were gonna relocate to a new location, but then the pandemic hit. Josh, one of the owners, asked me because I was already doing live streams from home if I wanted to use their stage ’cause it was already set up. And it just kinda grew into a thing where, like I was saying before, you have so much talent around you. And a lot of my favorite songwriters, I happen to know! So I just use it as a tool to play some shows with people I really respect. We got 10 shows, they’re all available on my YouTube. I got Hayes Carll, Waylon Payne, Brent Cobb, Adam Hood, people like that to join me. It was a lot of fun!
Did that also provide you with an opportunity to get in a room and write with some of those guys too?
No. I’ve written with most of those guys before. I didn’t really do any writing with them, per se, during the pandemic, but I’ve known those guys for years. I was tellin’ someone earlier, that whole Bobby’s thing was a celebration of people I’ve known, got to work with over the years. A lot of it is just us visiting. We happen to play a few songs in there, but just kinda catching up because we just hadn’t been able to talk to each other in so long.
We have to talk about “Rainbow In The Dark”. When I got the SoundCloud link to listen to the album, I was glancing down the song titles and got to the bottom and I was like, “Is Mando, doin’ Dio? What’s happenin’ here?” And sure enough, it was in fact Dio! Where did that come from?
This is funny. During pre-production meetings with Ken Coomer, we were just goin’ through all these piles of songs I had. We were narrowing down the pool of songs and then the notion of doing a cover song came up– ’cause I’d never done a cover song before– and Ken’s like, “Man, I got this idea, but you’re gonna have to go with me on this one. Before you completely shoot it down, you gotta go with it.” And I go, “Okay, what’s your idea?” He goes, “Rainbow In The Dark.” I looked at him and I go, “The Dio song?” He goes, “Yeah.” And I go, “Ken, that was my first concert! Are you kidding?”
That was literally the first rock show I’ve ever been to. I was in the fifth grade and I convinced my parents to let me and my brother go see Ronnie James Dio, which was to this day, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Anyway, basically, to answer your question, I’m a huge Dio fan, so that worked out perfectly. Digging into that song was really something awesome ’cause I fell in love with the song all over again.
It does give it a brand new life, the way that you and Ken have put it together.
Once we decided to do it, I asked him, “How are we gonna pull this off?” He’s like, “I was thinkin’ do it more in a Townes Van Zandt vein.” And I go, “Well, yeah, I can do that with just about anything!” But once I started relearning those lyrics and really digging in, I was like, “Wow, this is powerful!” I just had to learn to slow it down (laughs) and really take my time ’cause you’re so used to rocking it out or hearing it rockin’ out in your head. It took a while to get slow enough, but I think it worked out good!