Review Fix chats with Amy Mantis and Eric Marshall discuss their origin in music, creative process and standout work.
Review Fix: How did the project start?
Amy: The shortest version is that in 2016, after recording my first EP, where I was the singer as well as the songwriter and guitarist, I was looking to put a band together. I missed the camaraderie of a band. I had been playing around Boston as a solo artist after my previous band dissolved, and then I turned to Craigslist, which turned out to be surprisingly fruitful. I met our former bassist and keys player there. Then we needed a drummer, and we found Eric in the spring of 2016.
Eric is now the only remaining member of that original quartet. Our keys player/other singer-songwriter moved to LA in 2018 and we became a power trio, which is what you hear on A Place to Land. Then earlier this year our bassist bowed out, leaving just Eric and me to carry the torch. It’s been an interesting evolution. It started off as “Space Between,” and then when we became a trio I stuck my name in front for the sake of continuity. And because I’m very searchable on the interwebs.
Review Fix: What’s your creative process like?
Amy: I write pretty much all the time. I wrote a song that we released earlier this year as a single called “I Don’t Know How To Stop” and it’s about how I literally do not know how to stop being a songwriter and musician. If I don’t play or write for a few days I start to feel weird and I’m like, “What haven’t I done? Oh yeah! Write a song!”
I tend to write lyrics just before I go to sleep which is both great and terrible. It’s great because it helps me organize my thoughts before I go to sleep, but I also get very into writing and then I end up staying up far later than is good for me. I’ve gotten better about writing when it won’t be detrimental to me the following morning.
The harmonic component comes about by sitting down with my guitar and throwing chords together and accidentally stumbling upon something I like, or if I have a riff I love to play I’ll see what I can do with that. We have a song called “Ring The Bell” that’s gonna be on our next EP that is very riff-centric. Eric and Jeff (our former bassist) had asked me to bring in more riff-based songs after we had success with “I Don’t Know How To Stop.” I remember sitting at my desk and recording myself messing around with what turned into “Ring The Bell.” We think it’s a cool tune – it’s kinda like ZZ Top meets Jenny Lewis.
And these days things are different in the best way because Eric and I have teamed up on this batch of songs (and all songs going forward). It has been phenomenal to have a partner on the back half of the creative process. Especially Eric, as he is thoughtful. He really tries to get down to the heart of the matter. He’s a true lover of words and keeps my metaphors consistent.
Eric: Amy calls our songwriting sessions office hours. I used to be a rhetoric and composition professor, so I’m used to kind of being a mediator between a creator/communicator, their work, and their audience. Usually, Amy brings a mostly finished song to me. I don’t have very much music theory background, so I just ask Amy questions about the song until I feel like I have a good idea of what it is she wants to get across. From there, I might suggest a setting or narrative framework or set of images that we can use to give the lyrics more overall coherence, and then we play all the melodies out on the piano so we can talk through different melodic choices for the vocal arrangement.
Review Fix: What’s your standout song? How was it written?
Amy: This is a tough one. I think the standout song on A Place to Land is “Spinning Black And Blue.” I think it’s objectively the best song I had written to date. It might still be the best song I have written to date. Ask me about this again after our next release.
I started writing it after I found myself in an existential anxiety spiral. Writing songs is one way for me to process and see what’s really going on in my head, and this one was exactly that. I wrote it from the point of view of someone who knows me well and understands my idiosyncrasies in these situations, and also knows how to bring me back to myself. The core of the song is about acknowledging my reality and what I need to do to feel better – to bring myself back to myself.
Oftentimes I write lyrics for a song all in one sitting, but this one took me a solid week of dedication to get it to where it felt right. I knew I had something special here and I wanted to do it justice. The chords, melody, and arrangement came naturally. Our early rehearsals were strong, and I knew the sounds I wanted on it from the get go. And we nailed it on the record. It only took us 17 tries. (For real. It’s tough as nails to play because of its complexity and nuance. It also took me two days to get the vocals right.)
Eric: I think Amy’s right in terms of the album. “Spinning Black and Blue” is a highly thoughtful, nuanced song, from the writing to the performances and production.
But so that I’m not just repeating what she’s said, I also want to give some shine to “Next Time We Talk,” just because that song went through so many iterations over the years before appearing on A Place to Land.
Initially, it was kind of a sprawling, minimalist indie ballad that got more dynamic as it went, but then we kind of flattened it out with a groove-oriented arrangement. The idea caught on, so we put it on the record, but I was critical of my performance in the first half of the song. It didn’t work for me. We tried a loop, instead, but that didn’t work, either. Eventually, we tested the idea of kind of melding the two arrangements by removing almost all of the drums from the first half of the song. That way, it’d be stripped-back and minimalist in the first half and bombastic and dynamic in the second half. I think it took a few listens for it to click for everybody, myself included, but now when I listen, it sounds so natural, like we just played it that way. It’s one of my favorite moments on the record.
Amy: Let me just say that I initially HATED what is now the final version of “Next Time We Talk.” HATED IT. And now I absolutely love it. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it and was like, “ERIC, WHAT DID YOU DO TO MY SONG!” I was walking to 30th Street Guitars in New York City and had to turn it off. I couldn’t stand it. And then after a couple of actual listens, it made perfect sense to me and I thought it was a genius move on Eric’s part.
Eric: I think that reaction is so great. I feel like you’re really walking a tightrope when a collaborator is reacting that way to something you’ve suggested or done with their work, but it’s kind of the reaction I always want, because usually the music I love most is the music that takes a few listens to really click. I’m glad Amy is open as a collaborator and willing to give an idea some time before making a hard decision on it. I also like that she’s so invested in her work that if I do offer something that brings a song off-track, she’ll let me know. Everything is just very clear and open, which is why I felt like I could make that kind of a drastic suggestion to begin with.
Review Fix: What are your goals for 2020?
Amy: To be able to solve a Rubik’s cube without the tutorial video.
And to keep doing what we’re doing with the band. I’m really proud of A Place to Land. I think it captures exactly who we were as a band and who I was as a writer. I needed to do that, but I’m so thrilled about what Eric and I have cooking up now and I can’t wait to share that with people.
I love the team that we’ve become, and I’d love for someone who loves what we’re doing and who’s really adept at navigating the music industry to want to come on this journey with us. I love being a part of a team, and I consider music and the music industry to be a team sport.
Eric: I need to eat fewer cheeseburgers this year, but I think you probably mean the band.
At this point, we’re alive, we’re healthy, we’re able to go to the studio and make and release music. We just want a lot of people to hear the music and get excited about it and come see us when we can play gigs again.
I think we’re also excited about the material we’re putting together now, too. This was our first proper album release, and in terms of the press, we kind of threw it together in a couple of weeks. This time, we’re taking things on more directly in the planning stage, and I think we’re going to end up with a really cool finished product. If we could get a label to want to back that product and help us get it into more hands and ears, that’d be great, too.
Review Fix: How do you want your music to affect people?
Amy: Music shaped my world in more ways than I can count. I remember sitting up bolt upright in bed after hearing “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin for the first time and thinking, “Music can do THIS!?” I’ve cried at more concerts than not, and I’d be beyond honored if my songs moved people the way other people’s songs have moved me. I just want to pay it forward.
I’m looking to make people feel something. That’s it. My songs mean one thing to me, but they become the listener’s as soon as they make a connection with it and it means something entirely different to them. I don’t know who Laura Marling is singing about in “How Can I,” but I know how that song makes me feel.
Eric: I’d like for people to find it exciting. I’d like for people to want to dance to our music. The idea of dancing to rock music has become this kind of weird taboo. I don’t know why. I guess because moshing kind of subverted the idea of rock as dance music, and then ironic, self-aware moshing kind of subverted the idea of moshing. Now everyone just stands around with their arms crossed, looking self-conscious. Myself included. But I feel like we go out of our way to make sure our songs have a kind of groove that will make you want to move your body. Tap your foot. Nod your head.
That, and I think Amy’s lyrics deal with important ideas about mental health and self-care. We have this song for our upcoming record called “Boundless/Boundaries” that has a great chorus about setting and keeping boundaries with people you love, which is such an important idea that so many of us overlook in our relationships. The idea we have right now, and we’ll see how it goes, is to do a kind of gang vocal on it, a sing-along kind of vibe. If that song could help someone understand how to articulate their boundaries or better protect and care for themselves or just make someone feel more empowered to protect or care for themselves, and if they sang along, that’d be pretty f’in’ cool.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Amy: At some point in the next year, we’ll be releasing two EPs that we’ve started working on already. Each is five songs long, and each song on each EP kind of correlates to its respective song on the other EP, so they’re kind of paired together. We’re starting to get an idea of what they’ll be called and how we’ll release them, but we won’t say too much just yet.
Eric: I’m gonna go get a cheeseburger.