On the Edge: Mando Saenz

photo courtesy Think Press

“I like one-word titles in records, apparently, because the three records I have are all one-word titles,” says singer/songwriter Mando Saenz with a laugh as he reflects on his body of work. True enough, from 2004’s Watertown to 2008’s Bucket and now the 2013 release Studebaker, Mando (it rhymes with “condo”) has handily employed some simple, evocative titles.

Studebaker, a nod to that great defunct automobile company, conjures up a spirit of restlessness that appears all over the new album. Tracks like “Break Away Speed,” “The Road I’m On” and “Colorado” even sound tailor-made for time on long stretches of asphalt.

The car name comes from the rough-edged, up-tempo tune “Pocket Change,” where Mando sings the thorny line, Where’s my Studebaker? I’m nobody’s pocket change. He had been playing the tune live before he ever recorded it. “Everybody kept asking—they called it ‘The Studebaker Song,’” he says, grinning. “That’s why I named the record Studebaker, just so they would know what record to get that song on.”

“Pocket Change” is one of a few songs Mando actually penned with outside writers, something he doesn’t usually do but finds beneficial. “It helps me finish songs, maybe ideas I’ve had,” he says, acknowledging that he still prefers to write alone. “I’ve embraced the co-writing a lot more than I thought I would.” 

Mando shifts gears and calls on his Texas roots in “Tall Grass,” a jaunty two-stepper laced with fiddle that tells of an outcast—possibly criminal—who waits for his more chaste love interest to come meet him. “That was the one like, OK, this is me back when I first started writing songs,” says Mando, who makes his home in Nashville these days. “It fits a lot of what people are doing now, not even in Texas, but in the Americana world, too.”

It was the musical scene in Houston, where Mando was a contemporary of Americana fave Hayes Carll, that he first started getting traction as an artist. He recalls Lyle Lovett’s Texas tribute Step Inside This House being a big influence on his sound, and though he may sound different than many Texas artists, he still feels a special kinship with his home state. “I feel very much a part of it even though I’m not the one selling out Gruene Hall at the moment,” he says. “I still feel very much a part of that world.”

These days, he stays busy playing shows all over the country to greet his fans and make some new ones. “We all want success from what we do, but I just want people to hear it,” he muses. “Hopefully [we can] build a market that’s into listening to it and have a band that is a fully functioning machine that sounds great. A well-oiled show that will hopefully make people happy when they leave.”

Sounds simple enough.

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