Interview: Barbara Manning returns to the live music scene

A much missed “cult” artist, Barbara Manning has announced her first live tour of the UK in almost three decades.

When the news broke that Barbara Manning was to tour in the UK for the first time in almost 30 years there was a palpable frisson of delight to be found amongst what we might call the cognoscenti, those movers and shakers who have long championed the pioneers and outliers of American music. Think of the fanzines and websites which kept their finger on the pulse of the likes of The Paisley Underground, the New Zealand scene, desert rock and what I suppose we might call “cult” artists such as The Flamin’ Groovies, Roky Erickson and indeed Barbara Manning.

Manning is one of those artists who are almost impossible to define. She’s been described as the missing link between John Cale and Brian Wilson with Sandy Denny and Neil Young added to the mix. Starting off with the neo-psychedelic band 28th Day in the early 1980’s she’s delved into folk, anti–folk, pop, rock and krautrock over a heap of releases under her own name and with various band lineups and collaborations.  Her song ‘Scissors’ is infamous for using the sound of a pair of scissors as its percussion track and her album ‘1212′ found her playing with the Calexico duo of Joey Burns and John Convertino. While she’s a noted songwriter she’s also an inveterate performer of cover songs, informed by an encyclopedic knowledge of and love of all manner of music, the list of artists she’s covered is endless, from Amon Dull to Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson and Tom Lehrer and so much more.

Despite being a darling of the rock press (Rolling Stone calling her one of 1992’s most important new artists) Manning never broke through and makes her daily bread these days as a teacher. She’s continued to record however and is now poised to return to the live arena. The tale behind this is both serendipitous and tragic. Manning was invited by a long time friend/fan to come to London to play a gig and a UK tour grew out of that. Touring with her is bass player Buck Campbell who met Manning a few years back at a memorial concert for Buck’s late cousin Lane Campbell. Lane Campbell was a Chicago attorney who was also a highly regarded champion (and critic) of what we might call Americana music, a lynchpin of the online Postcard From Hell community and a fierce fan of Barbara Manning. Sadly, Campbell took his own life in 2021 but friends, family and musicians keep his flame alive.

Americana UK’s Paul Kerr had the opportunity to talk with Barbara and Buck prior to them jetting over.

When was the last time you played in the UK?

Barbara: I’ve only played twice in the UK. The first time I was with my sister way back in 1992. We were touring with The Silos and we broke away from this really long tour and played on our own, I played the Mean Fiddler then. And then I came over with Robert Pollard from Guided By Voices, we did a Matador label press thing and that’s it. I think that was in 1996 when I was promoting ‘1212′ and that’s the last time I was over there. But on that earlier trip with my sister I travelled around a bit, we went to Stonehenge and we just followed the leylines.

It’s kind of hard to pigeon hole you, tack to down to one genre. How would you describe your career?

Barbara: I was living in a small town called Chico in California and started a band called 28th Day and then I moved to San Francisco and I was very involved in the art scene and played in a couple of bands including The World Of Pooh and then SF Seals. I was at the edge of the baby boomers so I was kind of hanging on to the coat tails of The Dream Syndicate and the Rain Parade and they were my heroes. 28th Day were youngsters compared to them and I could tell you some funny stories about how we were not treated very nicely by some of the bands on that scene, we got kicked off the stage one time, we were opening up for a band and I’m not going to tell you who they were because everybody likes them too much and I’m trying to be nice. So we were kind of in the Paisley Underground but we were on the edge of getting more sonic, thinking about post punk music. I mean, I was raised by a hippy mom so I already knew all that psychedelic music and I was more interested in English music from 1977 and also the Scottish scene around Postcard records, that’s the kind of sound I was interested in capturing. Somebody asked me the other day about how I go from one thing to the next and I thought, yes, how did I go from adoring the Bee Gees to absolutely adoring the Swell Maps and in such a short space of time. As for my songs, first off, the way I interpret music and the way I write music, it comes from an emotional, authentic place and yet, my mind is always telling me, just be that sad sap guitar player and I hate that kind of music. So I always try to give my songs twists and turns, make them a little edgy but also beautiful and poppy with the kind of beat that people will want to jump around with. Fundamentally my songs are fun.

You’ve taken a bit of a back step from music over the recent past, working as a teacher. What’s encouraged you to do this tour?

Barbara: Yes, for a while I was very discouraged regarding my music. I was at the point where I was just doing it for myself and ultimately it’s like therapy, like everything I do musically usually comes from some incredibly deep gut feeling that I need to express. The main issue was that I didn’t have an outlet. The main impetus for touring in the UK came about due to Clive Jones, a long time friend who edited the book, ‘Tell Me When It’s Over: Notes From the Paisley Underground’, who invited me to come over to play at the Betsey Trotwood. I really haven’t been playing live much but now and again I get the opportunity and when it does happen it’s usually something humungous. For example, a few years back Faust wanted me to play with them as a guest when they appeared in California and then they took me to a studio to record so that I’m on their album ‘Fresh Air’. I adore Faust but that just seemed such an improbable thing to happen. It’s just that things seem to me to go in cycles, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. In fact I was just talking to this cigar seller today about this, honestly, and we both agreed that when the weather vane is pointing in the right direction you got to love every minute because you know it’s going to change.

You’ll have Buck playing with you on the tour. Can you tell us how you met up?

Barbara: Buck’s cousin Lane Campbell was always a champion of my music and also a champion of me as a person, he would check in on me which meant the world to me when I was living on my own. He was strong, like a general in my army, he had my back. He would give me good advice and he always made me feel good about my music. He would come to my shows and he even came to my wedding. I miss him so much, everybody does, he touched so many people in so many good ways. Anyhow, I went to Lane’s memorial and that’s where I met Buck.

Buck: Yes, we held a memorial for Lane in Chicago and Barbara was kind enough to come out and headline a show we had put together. We had a great line up with Brent Best from Slobberbone and Lydia Loveless also playing and Barbara and I immediately hit it off. We talked about music, she let me play her guitar, a beautiful Gretsch and I told her I played bass. For the next memorial a year later Barbara asked if I would play with her and of course I agreed. We had a few practices via zoom and then I flew out to her place and we practised together before playing at Lane’s memorial in Chicago back in February. It was so much fun, lots of friends from all over the country came to see us. Then, when Barbara got this chance to play in the UK she asked if I wanted to join her and of course I said yes. I played in bands years ago, starting with Minneapolis band Urban Guerrillas when I was only 15, but then I got married and had kids and I just enjoyed being a poppa, best thing I’ve ever done in my life. But I’m very pleased to be playing music again because it’s something I’m very passionate about. Although  I wasn’t in any bands anymore I’ve always played music for my children, we have instruments all over the house and the kids all love music, playing records or going to see live shows, Covid was such a bummer as it stopped us doing that and that made meeting Barbara right after Covid even more special.

Barbara & Buck
Aside from your own songs, you seem to love doing cover versions. How do you pick what songs to cover?

Barbara: It’s so easy. Back then I’d get mix tapes and one song would just take off or I’d wake up to something in my head and want to sing it. There’s a zillion songs I’d love to do, for instance, there’s a John Cale song ‘The Endless Plain Of Fortune’, it’s on his ‘Paris 1919′ record, and every time I hear it I want to do a cover of it but I don’t know how to do it, how to approach it, but then with other songs I just know immediately how to do it. Also, I’m incredibly lucky to have been around great collaborators. The people I’ve played with, right up to Buck here who pushes me along, he keeps an edge for me and he memorises things, something I’m not good at even with my own songs. But I’ve worked with a lot of people and I’ve just been so lucky, if I wanted to name drop I could but I won’t, there’s just too many.

What can we expect to hear on the tour?

Barbara: I’m leaning towards the faster songs, the more pop element of what I do but can I tell you that we’re doing one really cool show, not open to the public. We’ll have a set list for the other shows but for this one we’ll have a different set from the others. It’s for a care home for the elderly in the highlands and we’ll be playing songs from the 70’s AM era, the hits from back then in the hope that they’ll recognise the songs and not be like, “awe, you’re interrupting our pudding time” or something like that and instead saying, “oh, I remember that song.” I don’t want to say too much as I don’t want people to wish they could be there to hear us play something different as this will be purely private.

The latest song I’ve heard from you, ‘Cantor’s Mind (Was Rocking)’ is quite astonishing. How did you manage to write such an infectious song based on an obscure German mathematician?

Barbara: Well, when I wrote the lyrics “his mind was rocking” I realised that this song was a rocker. I had started it off as a sad mellow number about a math guy and I was concentrating on the lyrics because I was trying to interpret something, I wanted to be saying the right things about him but I didn’t want it to sound like I knew all about him and then throwing in some crazy stuff so I tried to keep it as simple as I could and then, as I said, the lyrics told me it was a rocking song so that’s how it turned out. It’s not out yet. I haven’t been able to release any records for some time now so most of what I’ve done is on Bandcamp. A couple of recent songs are free MP3 releases while there are digital copies of some of my older albums. I really would like to release some vinyl but it’s expensive.

Last we checked tickets for Barbara’s shows were selling out so grab one while you can.

Tour dates:

Saturday 22 July – London Betsey Trotwood afternoon show, with Sairie
Monday 24 July – London Cafe Oto, with Jowe Head
Tuesday 25 July – Sheffield Bishop’s House
Wednesday 26 July – Manchester Old Library Levenshulme, with Jowe Head
Thursday 27 July – Edinburgh Fruit Market Gallery (as Glands of External Secretion)
Saturday 29 July – Inverness Highview Home Care (Private show)
Sunday 30 July – Glasgow Glad Cafe, with Gerard Love


About Paul Kerr 430 Articles
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