Rudolfo Anaya once wrote of the legendary Mexican river ghost La Llorana, “The Weeping Woman? All mothers are the weeping women.” On the banks of the Yuba River, another mother proves it with the deep, haunting cries of banjo, dulcimer and many other unexpectedly atmospheric instruments, combined with poignant lyrics about becoming a mother and finding your home among the Manzanitas.
On May 17 at the Haunted Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, you can hear this modern day legend admit, “I’m a ghost and I’m trying to show you what I’m doing.”
The ghost in question is Shana Cleveland. Best known for the rock band La Luz, which she co-founded, the singer is now on a solo tour alongside one of her favorite bands, Shannon & the Clams.
Cleveland is not from California originally.
Raised in Michigan, she was bitten by the dream of California from a young age, although it took her a while to move to the Golden State.
“I just felt like I was where I needed to be,” she said.
Now a bona fide local, she just released her second solo album, Manzanita, titled after that ubiquitous California tree.
When asked if it’s true that she chose the title because of her love of the letter “Z,” Cleveland laughs.
“I said that, but I just love the manzanita that grows in my yard,” she explained, adding that part of her move to California was about a need for nature.
“There’s a natural darkness to my art,” she allowed. “I needed that year-round access to nature for balance.”
La Luz fans will recognize the truth of this statement. The surf noir rock band plays music tinged with a resolute gray that speaks of an approaching storm in the ocean. As a solo artist, Cleveland has let the full storm into her songs, and like all good storms, it brings with it the birth of something beautiful, an album that, as Cleveland describes it, is full of “Love That Loves Love.”
The album is truly a love letter.
A love letter to her son, to her partner, to the concept of motherhood, and to California itself.
“No one asks about the texts,” she confides.
This is a huge loss as the songwriter is also an accomplished poet. After graduating with a degree in poetry from Columbia University, she has been published in numerous poetry journals and magazines.
Citing some of her favorite lyrics and how they relate to her journey into motherhood, she says, “It’s almost science fiction about pregnancy. The things that remained. Weird Facts and Thoughts.”
Cleveland cited the song “Gold Tower” and the lyrics she wrote when she learned that a fetus has transparent skin until the third trimester.
The words “Quiet little one made of transparent skin” make her think of her son every time she sings it. Mixed in are reverent lyrics that speak not only to human motherhood, but also to the beauty of Mother Nature with lines like “Everything is dazzling in bloom,” about the California spring and how everything, in her words, “blooms aggressively.” .
Of course, like all good poetry, her lyrics are nuanced and layered.
Adding to Cleveland’s poetry is the ethereally haunting music she composed. Together, they form a body of work that, while anathema to Cleveland’s love of the sunny and nature-filled aspects of her adopted home, is still quintessentially Californian. The way a Steinbeck story can transport you directly to the sun-baked Salinas Valley, or a Ginsberg poem transports you to a smoky bar in North Beach, Cleveland has taken the secret places of California and given them voice.
The instrumental “Sherriff of the Salton Sea” seems to echo from the old hardened game that lies beneath the dying water, bringing back the ghosts of those who have done the dangerous trips, arduous journeys through a deadly stretch of desert. “Quick Winter Sun” is an intuitive experience for those who grew up in one of the many deep valleys of our crushed earth. An entirely different visceral impact is the danger of the line “I can see the flames over Shasta” from the song “Ten Hour Drive in a West Coast Disaster.” The string work in “The Evil Eye” instantly transports one to a labor camp somewhere in the almond orchards of old Tule Lake, with Spanish, Moorish and Romany influenced string instruments still singing despite a hard day’s work.
Clearly, any interpretations of what the album is and isn’t will be skewed by the listener’s own experience, and that’s okay.
“I wanted to create an atmosphere,” Cleveland said, “where the listener can get lost in their own journey.”