La Luz on embracing change and overcoming adversity

La Luz on embracing change and overcoming adversity

La Luz emerged in Seattle, the heartland of America’s indie music scene, in 2012 with a sound that could be summed up as ‘the Shangri-Las get high and go surfing’. Kicking off with EP Damp Face in 2012, then their debut album It’s Alive in 2013, their signature sound is crafted from woozy guitar, throbbing basslines, hyper-feminine multi-harmonies and the almost-kitsch addition of keyboard and organ.

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In 2012, Shana Cleveland had originally recruited her former bandmate in The Curious Mystery, Marian Li Pino, to form La Luz (“the light” in Spanish) with Sandahl and bassist Abbey Blackwell. Their trippy, nostalgic surfer rock attracted label Seattle label Hardly Art, which released the band’s three following albums: Weirdo Shrine in 2015, produced by experimental wunderkind Ty Segall, Floating Features in 2017, and the lush, darkly beautiful self-titled LP in 2021.
La Pino left the band in 2019, leaving Cleveland and Alice Sandahl as the only original members on new album, News of the Universe, but it hardly shows. News of The Universe has the same intimacy present on La Luz, but this time bristling with a tentative prodding at the edges of their sound, pushing the synths into bleeping, droning rhythms and embracing rollicking, thunderous drums, especially on the title track.
On News of the Universe, Cleveland dreamily sings “I was in a dream, but now I can see that change is the only law” while revelling in the otherworldly effect of her Stratocaster through EQD Hoof Fuzz. Throughout the record, a virtual orchestra of signature La Luz instruments kick into chorus: most notably the Thai phin three-string instrument.
“Lena [Simon, bassist] brought that back from Thailand and said ‘maybe we can do something with this’,” Cleveland recalls. “I played that on Moon In Reverse, it’s such a cool sound. It’s just like a standard guitar but with open tuning, and you couldn’t hit a bad note. I could play anything, and it sounded good.”
La Luz, 2024. Image: Ginger Fierstein
Changing Outlooks
This new album documents a historic transition for La Luz, just over a decade since another major event for the band made the news. In 2013, a road accident mid-tour in which the band’s touring van was struck by a semi-trailer left the band injured and their instruments destroyed. Months later, Blackwell left the band to be replaced by Simon.
This time the bittersweetness of longtime members, Simon and keyboardist Alice Sandahl, confirming this is their last outing with the band is somewhat tempered by the introduction of Audrey Johnson on drums.
La Luz, now as ever, pulsates with feminine energy. Not just for the obvious reason that it’s a band of women, and this album has been recorded, produced (by Maryam Qudus aka Spacemoth), engineered and mastered by women, but because of the band’s vulnerable, courageous embrace of upper-register vocals, revelations of the joys of birth and motherhood, and Cleveland’s preoccupation with the cycles of nature and seasons as they bloom forth with fertility and death in equal measure. In Cleveland, there is also a heartfelt, generous honesty in wanting to sing about panic attacks, fear and loss, disconnection from society, and a sense of both possibility and the ease with which that can be rescinded.
Cleveland knows this to be true. Two years after her solo album Manzanita in 2021, which relished in the birth of her son Osceola (with fellow musician Will Sprott), she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, resulting in a mastectomy. It was in the quiet surrounds of her Grass Valley, California home that she took solace in the remoteness, working out how to exist in a world that offers so much danger and death while also being so mysteriously gorgeous.

All the questions that bubbled up in 2023, and all the fears and minor fascinations Cleveland scribbled down during that time, helped her find a way to return from the shock of her diagnosis to wholeheartedly embrace being a survivor, a mother and a musician.
“We decided to get together and write the album during the time when we’d had to cancel a bunch of tours due to my diagnosis,” she reflects. “The mood was pretty dark, and our manager at the time said, ‘You should get together to do some demos’. Around that time, Lena had made the decision to leave the band. I felt defeatist and bummed out about everything that was happening, but then everyone decided, ‘No, let’s just do it!’ so we had no idea what we’d do with the demos, but they turned out so well, we were all just so excited about it.”
When the band took the demos to their record label, the response was swift and unanimous – they needed a full-length album: “We went back into the studio with Maryam, who was our producer at the time and is now the keyboardist,” she says, “It was a really vulnerable time for me. I felt like my world had been ripped open and in retrospect, it was a great time to write songs.”
Cleveland reflects that it was a time of flux, both during and after recording the album.
“A few months after recording the album, Alice decided to leave. We were talking about touring, and she didn’t want to tour at the pace we’d need to keep, which is when Maryam joined the band.”
La Luz
Road To Recovery
News of The Universe may have played a part in Cleveland’s emotional recovery, and in so doing, provides a sonic balm for frazzled listeners. The songs, short and packed with juicy, fuzzed out riffs, pattering drum patterns, indulge in psyched-out, doomy, kaleidoscopic wonderfulness. Cleveland brought all of her tools to the studio: her beloved Stratocaster, Fender Strat “Donald Duck”, Nash Telecaster, Harmony Electric, Epiphone Acoustic, Nashville high-strung acoustic, a 12-string Fender acoustic, and of course, the phin.
“The Nashville high-strung was in the studio and Maryam recommended it. I’d never heard of it before,” says Cleveland. “It’s just a regular guitar but the tuning is what makes it a Nashville high strung. It gives everything a little twinkle, a bit of glitter.”
She explains, “I usually write on guitar. This session was different because I tried not to write too much before we got together. We wanted to build the songs as a band, from the start. I’m a control freak so I did a bit of writing beforehand. The guitar parts are not strummed apart from one or two songs, but in the past that’s how I wrote, by strumming on chords to find a melody. This time, I wanted to keep it minimal to create space to see what would happen when we all got together, which is when we played with different chord progressions in the room.”
Cleveland says, “It felt like we were on the same page from the beginning, which was a nice surprise because we’d never met Maryam before. We may not have taken the chance if we’d thought we were making an album, but since we were under the mindset that we were making demos, we took a chance on someone we didn’t know much about. It was the best decision we could have made.”

Solo Journeys
After the critically praised Manzanita, Cleveland could feasibly have made a second solo album. She admits, “I did make demos for a solo album around the same time [as News of The Universe], and I haven’t recorded those yet. I like going back and forth between La Luz and solo albums, that rhythm feels balanced to me right now.”
That solo album won’t be her focus until next year at the earliest. It will inevitably be much simpler than the multilayered complexity of the latest La Luz album.
“We recorded a lot of the backbone of the songs live: bass, drums, keyboard and guitar, then we went back and did a lot of overdubs. On some songs I played both acoustic and a couple of different electrics, then we added vibraphone, synth and percussion tracks.”
The adventurous, harmonic beauty of News of The Universe may have had roots in sorrow but it feels celebratory, or – as Cleveland puts it – triumphant. The recording process came after Cleveland had opted for a mastectomy.
“Losing a part of your body,” she begins, then takes a pause. “That experience? You come out feeling like a different person. Being diagnosed with cancer and the fear and uncertainty forced me to become a different person to get through the stress. Coming out of that with my body physically changed felt ‘correct’. I’m not the same person and I don’t want to forget that. The emotional work of getting through that traumatic time was intense. I love singing, but playing guitar feels so cathartic sometimes. Especially playing guitar solos in the studio, I would put the chords down and go back and play whatever came to my mind. Those are the most powerful moments for me when I listen to the album. Those moments were like an emergence from fear, to play loudly and freely.”

She refers to the second solo on track Always In Love. “I can’t listen to that song without tearing up. I really exorcised my demons on that solo, and it makes me so happy to hear it every time because I feel like I’m triumphing. I used a lot of Fuzz and Wah on this record – to get into some guitar geekery! But those effects to me deliver loud, dirty guitar riffs that come up out of nowhere then vanish. Both Dandelions and News of the Universe have these ripping-through riffs to open, then you get to the vocal harmonies and melodies.”
As the document of a time that exists midway between the past and future of La Luz, and a triumphant return to the band she loves, News of The Universe is something special. It’s a balm, perhaps, for the constant bleakness of the actual news we’re exposed to 24/7: tune in and bathe in all the triumph, catharsis and dreaminess only La Luz can provide.
‘News of the Universe’ is out 24 May
The post La Luz on embracing change and overcoming adversity appeared first on | All Things Guitar.

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