Clare Manchon embraces idiosyncrasies. With her band, Clare and the Reasons—essentially her and husband Olivier Manchon—she lends her feather-light voice, which somehow emerged from an upbringing heavy on blues and jazz, to space-age chamber pop melodies. On Arrow, the band’s second album (out now), new brass notes add welcome weight to the Manchon’s cinematic arrangements and a refined flair for storytelling—and despite its foundation on unexpected elements, the record feels like a natural progression from 2007 debut The Movie. Paste recently chatted with the singer/songwriter/bandleader about making records, rebelling with Phil Collins and the odd allure of Sweden.
Paste: What aims did you have with Arrow?
Clare Manchon: Totally aimless. (Laughs) This record is part of, I guess our own—hopefully— artistic evolution of sorts. Simply put, I wanted to try to make a little more of an up, possibly a little bit more fun, a little bit less precious kind of record. I know there’s still sort of a lot going on, but it was often times the act of not adding stuff, even when you have ideas to add stuff. For example, the opening track [“All the Wine”]— I mean, we could have put so much on that song, but I really just had this idea to have the string quartet just strum, kinda like they’re ukuleles. Strum their instruments like that, and just leave openness and space and breath around the music, rather than filling up every little crevice; although there is some tracks with a lot going on. We also got involved with brass on this record, horns, which was really, really fun and presents its own sort of challenges. It’s always a real challenge to overdub brass. It’s sort of the nature of the way. There’s pitch, and there’s a note, and there’s all the different sides of the note, and so sometimes brass tends to be on the sharp side of things. So it was just a really—we had great, great players of course—but it was a really interesting learning experience, adding that layer of things and finding that magical medium ground between things. So we had to do some things over once the brass was there that we didn’t think we were going to have to do, just different, interesting things that come up when you’re recording, different families of instruments. But that was a really exciting element that was added to this album for me, the horns. And actually that element’s gonna be continuing live, which is really fun.
Paste: That is really fun. When I was listening to Arrow, those were the two things that stuck out to me most. Sound-wise, there’s this incredibly light touch, not that it feels restrained. It’s just like you were saying, that you didn’t feel the need to fill up the entire space. And with the brass, I just thought, How are they accomplishing this, with those elements added on to there? Was there a particular reason behind this change in direction?
Manchon: For me personally, if you do the same thing twice, that’s not really growing or moving. It’s not accomplishing more by doing the same thing twice. When I hear The Movie, I truly enjoy that record. I think for the time and the place and what we were trying to do, I think we did it well and I am quite proud of it. But also as an artist and a songwriter and a thinker, you have to continue to expand and change slightly at least, or for me, I’d be bored doing the same thing over and over. I think the brass was just Olivier. I have to give him lots and loads of credit. He’s an extraordinary sort of arranger, orchestrator, and that was something we were both really excited to work with, that sort of other element. It’s such a strong force of sound, that brass sound, and it was just something we really wanted to play with.
Paste: While I was listening to the entire thing from beginning to end, I actually got kinda startled when it got to “You Getting Me,” because there’s that really weird “womp” sound and these kids are yelling, and it kinda shook me up a little bit. I don’t know if you intended for that to happen.
Manchon: You mean, “You are getting me,” that screaming? I think it’s actually “Perdue in Paris” that you’re thinking of… Actually, that’s really funny. That’s my voice, not kids. That’s what shook you up. It’s just many layers of my voice proclaiming that statement. We actually had a really fun time rehearsing that song for the tour. It’s like a seemingly simple pop ditty, but it gets kinda robust and sort of complicated and kinda out towards the end. I was actually quite inspired by my idea of my grandmother and my grandfather meeting, and the sort of social pressures of what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to feel, and you just put on the happy face. It sort of mentions those kinds of things. So for me it’s kinda like a lightish pop song but with really heavy meaning.
Paste: So is the story of your grandmother and grandfather meeting a common story that you tell throughout the album? I couldn’t help but to notice these notes about a girl and a boy and relationship issues.
Manchon: No, but there’s definitely another one song inspired by my grandmother, which is called “Photograph.” She’s 91 and she thinks and acts and seems younger than most 50-year-olds. She just has lived this gigantic life of really exciting proportions, and she’s just absolutely not done yet. It’s sort of a simple little ditty about that. I’m just very taken with her—I just adore her. So it’s snapshot images of her life, but there’s sort of interwoven scenes throughout the record—of time, and time in a musical sense, and time like having a certain time, and then it being a certain time, or perceiving time to be something. Time is something that I think about a lot. I actually went to the Guggenheim last spring—they were having 48 hours of panels and discussions, and different people talking about time and all different aspects of time. It was really, really interesting. I guess that’s why New York is so great, because you get to go hang out at the Guggenheim at two in the morning and hear Michael Pollan talk about slow-cooked, slow food movements. There was some great physicists and all these amazing people. So “You Got Time” is very much about that idea of the perception of somebody thinking that there isn’t enough time to make something right or undo something, when really there probably is.
Paste: You talking about going to the Guggenheim at two in the morning is a relief to me. I’ve never lived in New York, but I’ve heard from a lot of my friends who just moved there recently that they can’t really go around and see the city. A lot of times they feel overly stimulated by everything, at least when they initially move there.
Manchon: I think it just depends on what your daily routine is here and the life you’re living and the profession you’re in, if it allows that time to wander and time to do spontaneous things. I guess if people have little kids it would be a different New York, or if somebody was getting up at six in the morning to go to work. I guess there’s different experiences. But I think no matter what your daily routine is here, there’s so much to take in and absorb. There’s just stuff every day that you see that you only see in New York. There’s a certain kind of crazy person that only lives in New York, and they just make it New York. It’s incredible. I guess the energy would be overwhelming for some people, but I really love it still.
Paste: I have to comment on that cover medley that you did at Paste with Shara Worden of “Moon River” and “Ice Ice Baby.” What in the world inspired that?
Manchon: Okay, forgive us. We had been on tour for four months, and I’m not exaggerating. We actually had been on tour, Clare and the Reasons, for four months and My Brightest Diamond, I think, for three months. We were all to that really crazy, loopy stage, but we’re also very close to each other. I think we were just driving in the van, and we just started to, I dare say, rap “Ice Ice Baby,” and it happened to be that Shara and I both knew it—that, sadly, we both knew it. So it just became a big joke. And “Moon River,” I think we had just done a show in Dallas, and this harp player came and she wanted us to do “Moon River” with her, so we sort of spontaneously did it. I love Mancini of course, so that was just a really fun, easy, but very fulfilling number. The “Ice Ice Baby” thing was probably just born out of delirium and just having fun. You know, a new spin on “Moon River” that I’m sure nobody has done before.
Paste: I can’t say I’ve heard of it either
Manchon: Or nobody will do after, either.
Paste: Speaking of nice surprises and covers, on Arrow there’s that cover of Genesis’ “That’s All.” Tell me about what inspired that.
Manchon: I’ve had this little crush on that song ever since I was about four years old. I think it was one of the few popular music songs that I knew about when I was a little kid. I grew up listening to black American music from the ‘20s through ‘50s, and “That’s All” was actually my little punk rock rebellion, even though it was not punk rock at all. It was sort of me feeling different within the family, listening to something different. So whenever I’ve heard the song over the years randomly, I’ve just completely loved it. I just think it’s a very good song. It’s this very sort of classic, great pop song. Then when we decided we were going to do this brass stuff, I just thought the tuba carrying it and playing the bass line would be really fun, and Olivier wrote a really, really fun arrangement, and we did it. We did it, hopefully put a new spin on it. But still, it’s a great melody, and simple yet true lyrics without being cheesy is good.
Paste: Going back to the start of your punk rock rebellion—
Manchon: The wimpiest punk rock rebellion in the history of man. I guess I mean more like rebellion, like breaking off from the norm of what’s on the record player. Like, “Take that, Dad! Genesis!”
Paste: I had to ask, because I know you have quite the musical upbringing, with your father and studying jazz composition. Why did it feel like rebellion? Did he not take it that well?
Manchon: No no, I’m over-exaggerating a little bit. Literally, I feel like growing up, it was truly like this black American, soul, blues, jazz kind of upbringing. so we didn’t have popular music of the times, in the ‘80s. There just wasn’t any popular music around in my life. I was sort of living in the 20s and 30s. As a seven-year-old I was listening to Bessie Smith on my Walkman, so it was just this really strange bubble of kinda sonic musical upbringing. I think it feeds into a little bit why we’re slightly, terminally unique, meaning I never really studied how people do production or really specific ways that popular music is done. So we don’t directly pull from really familiar places necessarily. Olivier has a background that’s quite classical and jazz, and then mine is sort blues, although I don’t consider myself bluesy at all, but sort of American songbook. We both got very, very into The Beatles, Beach Boys and all that when we were teenagers. But [in] those early, early musical years where you’re very inspired and I think quite affected for your whole life, Olivier was listening to Beethoven and I was listening to Bessie Smith and Sam Cooke. So I think it’s just odd ingredients that make the foundation.
Paste: Going back to Arrow’s lyrical content, “Murder, They Want Murder” came across as kinda anthemic. It’s as if you’re encouraging someone to escape a comfort zone, as you say in the chorus, “They will talk about you over breakfast / They will talk about you.” What’s the inspiration behind that song?
Manchon: That song is sort of a perfect example of my fictional stories, if you will. It’s very, very, very loosely based on the sort of feeling or sometimes look of our neighborhood, which is in this park in Brooklyn. There’s all these beautiful Victorian homes all around, and it all really seems quite beautiful and perfect. And so I devised this story in my head of just this small-town, gossipy environment that makes this character wind up going insane and swear she’s heard a murder. She starts to kinda lose her marbles, and then everybody is, of course, talking about her. It’s absolutely fictional. I really love coming up with fictional scenarios and approaching songwriting like they’re little short stories, creating characters that probably do things that have nothing to do with me. I enjoy that freedom. I think when I first started writing songs, it was a little more, “This is my diary, this is how I feel.” Now I’m trying to entertain myself just as much as our listeners, meaning you kinda want to be lost in a world too, especially when you have to sing it every night. The sky’s the limit when you approach songwriting that way. I find it fun to then draw vaguely from different experiences or different perceptions that I have on the world, but to ultimately just say whatever I want and have people do. (In a mocking voice) “Whatever I want, ‘cause I’m the songwriter!”... “Alphabet City” is a good example of that, and that was on The Movie. It’s just like, absolutely fictional. It’s sort of this nostalgic romance of when-we-were-young kind of story. No personal stories really in that one. But it’s funny, ‘cause people comment, “You know, that’s my story! I feel like you’re singing my life!” I guess that’s because a lot of people have been waitresses and had that experience or whatever. So it’s fun. Hopefully I’m still affecting some listeners, but it’s made up.
Paste: You’ve been talking about how you presented all these different challenges to yourself: creating these fictional short stories, introducing that brass, and keeping that light hand throughout. Is there a particular challenge the band wants to tackle in future albums?
Manchon: Oh my goodness, I don’t know if we’ve had that conversation. Once we’re out on the road and doing our thing, I’m sure—I have this sort of, I would really, really, really like to make an album in Sweden.
Paste: Why in Sweden?
Manchon: I feel like if I lived in Stockholm that I would have really good ideas. There’s so much great music that comes from there, and I don’t know, it’s sort of a new obsession of mine. So I guess I’ll be able to, in a couple of years, let you know if that happens.
Paste: What are some favorites?
Manchon: Loney Dear I absolutely love love love. I love this new girl who’s just sorta hitting America now called Anna Turnheim—I actually did some singing with her. Oh, there’s that Bear Quartet. There’s so much good music from there. It’s really wild. Ane Brun, she’s great. Yeah, I don’t know. There must be something in the water or in the fish or something. They have just a great sensibility in music, I feel, across the board. I just feel they’re very good musicians. They don’t over-complicate things. They just have a great sensibility and I don’t know why. I don’t understand why it’s so concentrated.
Paste: How does Brooklyn compare to Stockholm?
Manchon: I think that there are some wildly talented people running around here, for sure. I’m just sort of fascinated with the fact that in Sweden, they all sing in English, and they have this sort of really beautiful grasp of our language. I wonder how that happens so seemingly effortlessly. I don’t know. They seem very at home with English, and it’s quite amazing.