At this juncture in his career, Mando Saenz ought to be comfortable with the “journeyman” tag—though you couldn’t fault the guy for craving a bit more recognition. Perhaps it will come with his fourth solo LP, All My Shame, out today via Carnival Recording Company. For Saenz newbies, “The Deep End” is a great place to start. A yearning distillation of his Texas songwriting roots, the track plays like an instant classic.
“I wrote it with my friend Shannon Wright a few years ago,” says Saenz. “It’s about putting away childish things and taking responsibility. The opening line has a gun metaphor that might be the source of some controversy in these sensitive times.”
Saenz’s secret weapon on All My Shame is Wilco co-founder Ken Coomer, who produces the album and also plays drums. “He’s such a creative drummer—he has a different mindset,” says Saenz of working with Coomer. “We were just gonna do an EP, but I was so happy with what we were doing that I said, ‘Man, let’s make a full-length.’ We had hundreds of songs to go through—thank god for voice memos.”
Born in Mexico and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, Saenz found fertile creative ground in Houston’s alt-country scene in the early 2000s before taking his considerable skills as a songwriter to Nashville, where he’s made a comfortable living penning tunes for the likes of Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack and Aubrie Sellers.
“There’s always that thing about drawing the line between a songwriter who happens to be an artist and an artist who happens to be a songwriter,” he says. “I might be an island unto myself here in Nashville, but I’ve always tried my hardest to write for myself. If someone cuts one of my songs, I like to think that it’s just happenstance.”
Saenz lays out the vagaries of a Nashville songwriter’s life pretty neatly on All My Shame’s “Cautionary Tale,” which he co-wrote with Zach DuBois. “I’m just another part of a big machine, where lights are bright, the streets are mean and the talk is smooth when it wants to be,” he sings with the wounded sincerity of someone who knows.
All My Shame’s oddball surprise is the subdued rendition of Ronnie James Dio’s 1983 hit “Rainbow In The Dark,” which closes the album. That one was Coomer’s idea, who describes it as “a heavy-metal song that reads like Townes Van Zandt”—one of Saenz’s heroes.
“Mando was the perfect artist to be pushed out of his comfort zone,” says Coomer. “He’s a great writer who was receptive to the journey while easily tapping into his musical life. We went exploring, which is my favorite way to make a record.”