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La Luz Let The Mystery In

The cosmic trio are channeling foreign sounds from a new perspective.

by Maggie McPhee

Photo by Pooneh Ghana

There’s not much that can instantly shove a person’s life into a smaller box than they’re used to quicker than caring for a newborn baby. Add a move from Los Angeles to rural California and a global pandemic on top and you’ll get the shell-shockingly dramatic change that La Luz guitarist and songwriter Shana Cleveland underwent. After slowing down and taking stock of her life, writing a new album seemed like the most responsible way to process it. “All those things have a way of really shrinking your world,” she tells Range, appearing over Zoom from a room painted garden green. “For them all to coincide was very dramatic. This record feels very intimate because of those things.”

La Luz’s fourth release and first self-titled album is born out of love—love between Cleveland and herself, her family, her rustic surroundings, and her bandmates, bassist Lena Simon and keyboardist Alice Sandahl. When Cleveland’s world shrank, her appreciation for the small things expanded, and her bonds were quickly strengthened with a newly tight-knit group of friends and creative co-conspirators. “I got real lucky with Alice and Lena, it feels like a family. We’re all just hopelessly devoted to playing music and we’re nerdy in similar ways,” she laughs. “We’re huge Beatles nerds in a way that’s isolating.” 

Over the course of a decade as a band, the trio has cultivated the kind of confidence and chemistry that makes their new offering both distinct from their oeuvre yet decidedly La Luz. “We didn’t necessarily need to look to outside influences as much anymore,” Cleveland says. “Because of who we were, it felt like we could be more self-referential than looking for guidance from things that had happened before us or things that were happening outside of us.” 

In the early days, Cleveland had to pick and choose disparate elements—guitar tones from late 60s Indonesian pop music, vocal styles from lowrider doo-wop—out of necessity to craft a sound that didn’t quite exist yet. As they’ve continued to hone their craft, La Luz has been able to build upon their own output in a positive feedback loop. “With every album that goes by, that kind of stuff tends to fade away in favour of us as individuals,” she says.

In the process of slowing down over the last few years, Cleveland offloaded her side-hustle managerial duties to an actual bonafide manager. With their assistance, La Luz was able to realize a longtime dream of working with producer and composer Adrian Younge. Despite having worked predominantly in the hip-hop and jazz worlds with the likes of Ghostface Killah and Kendrick Lamar, Younge made enough of a connection with Cleveland, Sandahl and Simon to enthusiastically tackle a whole new genre.

Younge led Cleveland’s demos into strange sonic territory, abuzz with unexpected and unidentifiable sounds. Within a few days, they had already completed basic tracking at his Linear Labs Studio in Los Angeles. Afterwards, the group spent their time taking a deep dive into the details and playing with what Cleveland calls the “vast array of cool gadgets and instruments” which Younge had lying around the studio. Younge would set any number of his gizmos at their hands and encourage experimentation. “Even if at times we’d be like ‘I don’t know what to do with this’ he’d be like, ‘just do something!’” she says. “He knew what was going to work and trusted we’d figure it out. It was a lot of feeling out of our element in a way that felt really inspiring.”

When Cleveland first listened back to the songs in their final form, she was shocked and delighted to discover how much they perfectly mirrored the environments she seeks out for creativity. “They sounded just like the country to me. They sounded like birds and insects—those mysterious sounds you hear in the country but don’t see, she says. “I write all of my songs outside because of the invisible cool sounds that are out of your control. When I first heard “In the Country” I was like, ‘that’s it, that’s the environment that’s in my head.’ But we couldn’t have gotten there with just a guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums. We got there with all of this other stuff that I never would have thought of.”

Cleveland embodies an open-hearted philosophy in her artmaking process. Ever since majoring in poetry at college, she’s been on what she calls “a never-ending quest to not overthink things and let the mystery in.” When writing lyrics, she relaxes, lets her mind wander, and tries not to criticize her thoughts as they arise. For her, the more intention at the outset, the more trite the finished result eventually becomes. “If I was like ‘I’m gonna write a song about how much I love that tree over there,’ I don’t know if I could,” she says. “I just have to write and then I’ll understand it later. I’ve always wanted to write a protest song; there are so many things that I care so deeply about. But if I know what I’m writing, I just can’t do it.”

Luckily, Cleveland’s life has been overflowing with inspiration, and La Luz is always ready to channel that inspiration into lush compositions, sparkly guitar riffs, and haunting harmonies. If your world is feeling small too, La Luz will be your friend.