A Light That Will Never Go Out:
La Luz Shines Despite Tragedy
When Shana Cleveland met Abbey Blackwell at a Seattle coffee shop, they hit it off right away. It was at an improv jam night, and Blackwell, who was studying upright bass, was one of the few females who’d frequently get onstage. Cleveland had long-since wanted to form a surf band, and Blackwell was on board for what would soon become La Luz.
But on May 30th of last year, just after the two met, that same spot – the Café Racer Espresso – was the unfortunate epicenter of an unfathomable mass shooting. Four people died and one was injured. The shooter, who killed a fifth person about 30 minutes after and committed suicide hours later, had been a regular at the Washington University area hangout.
“A couple of [the victims], in particular, were friends of mine,” Cleveland says. “It was just this insane time, and it just kind of put everything into a different perspective for me.”
The disaster didn’t really halt her plans, though it obviously affected them. Cleveland moved forward with La Luz, with Blackwell on bass.
“The next few weeks I was just seeing [Blackwell] at memorials and stuff. It was pretty surreal,” she recalls. “It was like, ‘Hey, let’s jam tomorrow night.’ It was kind of weird, but it’s cool. It felt cool that she was kind of going through the same thing with dealing with that.”
Cleveland wrote a lot of material for La Luz around that time. The results, however, are not wholly woeful. Both the Damp Face EP, released last September, and It’s Alive, their recently issued full-length, are rife with midtempo numbers made eerie by ghostly four-part harmonies. The vocals are chilling, like a ‘50s girl group comprised of Hope Sandoval doppelgangers. La Luz adheres to the surf-rock blueprint of wobbly riffs and wavy, gently dissipating reverb, but there’s a drowsiness to the girls’ high-octave vocals, both when grouped and alone.
“I was just really haunted by [the shooting] for a long time, but it also made me feel kind of inspired in a way – because I just realized that life is short, and I wanted to be doing exactly what I wanted to be doing all the time, and not sort of waste time doing things that I didn’t want to do,” she says.
The juxtaposition of dreary doo wop against the sunny but sluggish surf is sad and spooky. For anyone who finds the macabre to be moving, La Luz can be immensely stirring.
“I was…sort of dealing with feeling, like, so hopeless that I was just like, fuck everything. I just want to have a good time and party. I feel like the whole album is kind of going back and forth between those two feelings,” she says.
Considering they’ve crafted such a well-defined vibe – and the event that could have significantly interrupted their momentum – it’s hard to believe that the group came together only about a year ago.
“I think part of it was that me and Marian [Le Pino, drummer] had been playing together for like a couple years in a different band before that, so it was kind of like we were already really familiar with each other,” Cleveland explains.
Among Cleveland and Le Pino’s shared bands is The Curious Mystery, an avant-garde kind of garage-psych outfit with a handful of recent works out on K Records. She also has a sleepy, folky collaborative project, Shana Cleveland and the Sandcastles, which she spearheaded around 2011. One of the players on Oh Man, Cover the Ground, presumably their only collection of recordings, was Johnny Goss of the now-defunct Pica Beats. It was in a concrete bunker adjacent to his laundry room that both La Luz releases were recorded.
“Seattle doesn’t get very hot usually. So the day that we recorded Damp Face it was probably in the ‘90s, which was kind of insane, especially I think for my bandmates that are [originally] from this area. It was unbearable heat. We were sweating a lot. And it was in this little trailer park bunker, so that’s kind of where the Damp Face name came from. We went back there to record the full-length too because we just really liked working with Johnny. And it wasn’t as hot. It was spring or something,” she laughs.
Cleveland’s creative repertoire extends even beyond music – she’s also an excellent artist. The roots revivalists at Tompkins Square Records recently commissioned her as the portraitist for Obscure Giants of Acoustic Guitar, a set of trading cards. More surprisingly, she’s published several poems and short stories. She doesn’t seem to realize what a feat that is, but it’s likely because that kind of creative writing was never really her thing. Cleveland says she only studied poetry in college after photography became too costly.
“Music’s always just come first for me. I don’t even know why I didn’t study music in college,” she admits. “I was so sure that what I was going to do was play music that I was like, ‘I should use this time to study something else, and then I’ll play music.’ It was always what I knew I would do. My parents are both musicians too, so I just always figured I’d go to college and then do music, which is what I ended up doing.”
Her various artistic endeavors, at least those made public, are all quite admirable. Cleveland seems to be one of those all-around talented people – the kind who, regardless of medium, can turn artistic imagination to tasteful fruition with ease.
But it’s with La Luz that Cleveland most obviously thrives. Under the veil of the echoing effect are poignant lyrics. “Sure as Spring,” the opener on It’s Alive, boasts an especially cunning yet morbid dose of profound: “When you were mine/ I didn’t have the time/ When you were mine/ Now I kinda want to die/ And that’s the truest way to know that I’m alive.” As primary songwriter, Cleveland is frequently dreary and melancholy with her lyrical content. Her voice is naturally akin to a honeyed exhalation; it’s even sweeter when synced with Le Pino, Blackwell and keyboardist Alice Sandahl.
There’s a dryness to Cleveland’s personality, and it’s audible in the near deadpan vocal delivery of La Luz. It’s a somewhat stony attitude; whether that was adopted after the shooting or she’s always been stoic is hard to tell. Regardless, it’s a demeanor that exudes resilience. Not of the valiant variety, but rather in an everything-rolls-off-the-shoulders, perpetually unaffected way. Earlier this year, a slew of incredibly misogynistic posts littered the comments section of a Brooklyn Vegan post about La Luz. Cleveland was – and remains – completely unfazed.
“I think it happens a lot,” she says. “And that kind of stuff happens a lot in comment sections, which I don’t usually read. That’s where all the trolls come out. I just feel sorry for people who waste their time thinking about stuff like that.”
Clearly, Cleveland isn’t the kind to dwell on that kind of moronic minutiae. And the outlook she embraced after last year’s events seems to have bolstered that quality – the quickness with which La Luz progressed is truly impressive.
“I’d been wanting to make this kind of music for so long that when I actually sat down to write songs, I just wrote a ton of them in a couple weeks. It just came really easily because I’d been kinda chomping at the bit to do it for a while, I guess,” she says nonchalantly.
While what Cleveland wrote for La Luz is not a literal tribute to the lives lost that day, there’s no denying that her songwriting was significantly affected by what happened. Rarely does a reviewer of the debut LP, It’s Alive, fail to dub them “surf-noir,” a tag that’s mostly justified. The album lives under generally overcast skies; a couple tracks are actually achingly somber and dispiriting in mood. But it’s not entirely melancholy. It’s more like melodic apathy, really.
“There’s a lot of optimism along with the darkness. Because I felt like, fuck it, okay, I’m not afraid of anything anymore. I’m just going to go forth with…this music, which is what I really wanted to be doing, and… touring, and trying to make every show a party,” Cleveland says.