Clip: Barbara Manning
Once a darling on the indie music scene, Barbara Manning makes a rare
Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, June 7, 2007
Barbara Manning, once the golden girl of indie rock, is getting a
handle on impermanence. In the mid-to-late-1990s, she was riding
high-snagging gigs with little effort, touring internationally with
such peers as Calexico, Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth and enjoying
support from the influential indie label Matador. Today, while music
is more important than ever in her life, she's without a record deal
and struggling to find a job after going back to college to get a
degree and a "straight" career as lab technician.
"You can't assume that things last," Manning said in a recent Sunday
afternoon phone conversation from Chico, Calif., where she worked
toward her bachelor's of science, which she earned a year ago. "It's
awfully good to be reminded of that. If something is going well, I
just assume it's always going to be like that. If I'm losing weight,
I'm always going to be losing weight. It's the same with negative -- I
have to remind myself that the bad times are not always going to be
bad times. It's just hard to tell how large the wheel is when it's
Manning, who will make a relatively rare trip down to San Francisco to
perform solo, Sunday, June 10, at the Make-Out Room, is now in one of
those places where it's not so easy to remember that better days might
be just around the corner. "I'm having a hell of a time finding work
that has anything to do with my degree," she said. "It's kind of funny
to see all the graduation parties and remember the enormous amount of
optimism I had last year at this time."
She majored in biology "more with the idea of being able to get
gainful employment than out of love of studying math and science,"
Manning explained. "Now people are telling me that most people don't
end up working in their chosen fields. If that was the case, then why
didn't I take history or English or music? I didn't struggle all those
years through chemistry and physics and trigonometry just because I
was going to be a manager in a toy shop or something."
Currently, Manning is working as a security guard in front of a
hospital, having recently applied to be a DJ at a roller rink and a
classified ad proofreader at a local newspaper. Adding to her
frustration, she said, is "the fact that I never had trouble getting
jobs before I had a degree."
Indeed, everything seemed easier 10 years ago. "I don't mean to say,
'Oh, back in the old days ...,' but oh boy, do I love those times,"
she said of her "San Francisco period," when she worked in a record
store a couple days a week and felt "quite well funded" by her record
label. "I wasn't worried about money then," Manning recalled. "Things
seemed to come very easy, and my basic mistake in life is to assume
it's always going to continue that way. I never seemed to have to book
a show. I was always being called by the venues: 'Somebody's coming to
town, why don't you come play with them?' Most of the shows I played
in the '90s, I didn't pursue those shows, they just came to me."
The late 1980s and early '90s might be on Manning's mind at the moment
because Pat Thomas, her former producer at Heyday Records (and
drummer-mastermind for the prog-rock/jazz band Mushroom), has
conspired with diehard Manning fan Clive Jones at Rainfall Records to
release a box set, Super Scissors, which includes remastered versions
of Manning's first two solo CDs, Lately I Keep Scissors and One
Perfect Green Blanket, with eight bonus tracks for the latter and an
entire third CD of previously unreleased outtakes and demos.
"My very first reaction was, 'Why make a box set of something you can
get used at Amoeba?'" Manning said of Thomas' plans for Super
Scissors. I'm always really hesitant to jump onto Pat's ideas at
first, but then I always end up really grateful. I didn't think a box
set was something you do for someone who's alive. But at the same time
I'm delighted. I always feel that when you put something out, it's
like a lottery ticket, and just maybe having it in one more place
could be that place that will help make it break through somehow. Who
knows if now, having 1,000 more Barbara Manning discs out there, one
of them will fall into the lap of a movie director or something?
"I feel sentimental towards the Scissors album," she continued,
"because while we were recording it, the song 'Never Park' was the
only one that I thought might actually be released -- all the others I
considered demos that I thought I would re-records later. So, in a
way, it's a time capsule that is truly innocent, very pure.
"The first time I got attention was when those records came out, so
for listeners they're kind of an introduction to me, and for me they
were the introduction to making music on my own and being more
independent [after playing the band 28th Day], so I think of them as
an important part of my career. It was the first time I felt like I
could lead a band and have my vision recorded and translated in the
music onto record. It was a very creative period, and I play a lot of
those songs in solo sets."
That said, Manning noted that she wouldn't compare her early work --
including such staples as "Scissors," "Every Pretty Girl," "Straw Man"
and "Never Park" (a driving song that has been used on Click and
Clack's syndicated "Car Talk" radio show) -- to what she's been
writing lately. She is currently playing in three bands around Chico:
a country band and a punk band that play her material, and more
straight-ahead rock band in which she's the hired-gun bass player.
"I don't have a lot of friends here," she said, "so my musical
connections are how I make my friends. I would always rather play with
a band. It's so fun to have people with you, and I'm more of a team
person, I guess. But I can play solo really well. I know that. There's
no problem with me getting in touch with the core of the songs and
bringing it out, and I'm good at bringing out the vulnerable, scary
side of me in solo shows.
"I always use music as therapy," Manning explained, "and when I'm
frustrated or going through a really difficult time, music is the
thing that saves me. When I'm struggling along and getting rejection
notice after rejection notice in the job hunt and wondering, when I
make it through an interview but still don't get chosen, what is it
about me that was lacking? -- that's when I turn to my guitar more
than ever. Music is absolutely the most important part of my identity.
And maybe it's like you're rawer at this time, so you're more
perceptive, but right now everything is so meaningful -- lyrics are
meaningful, changes are meaningful, inspiration is everywhere."
Although she doesn't have any immediate plans to put out a new album
-- the last was an EP, Enjoy the Lonely Times, with her band the Go
Luckys! -- Manning has recently finished an "utterly, painfully
beautiful" traditional country song called "Better by Bounds," which
she says is "sort of a nod to George Jones." And she maintains her
close relationship to music by interviewing musicians for the Chico
News & Review and hosting an eclectic Saturday night music show,
"Radio Detour," on her local community station, KZFR-FM 90.1
(streaming live at www.kzfr.org).
Nonetheless, Manning is plagued by doubts. At 42, she feels she's
fallen behind her peers. "I didn't care about a 401(k) in 1986," she
said. "Now it sounds like a really good thing to do. Sometimes I tell
my friends, 'Oh, if only I could be responsible for myself in every
way, and feel that every single thing is taken care of by myself, that
I'm not a burden on anyone, that I'm not lacking, because I'm going to
a job like everyone else, and I can say I'm going to grow old in this
job,' they look at me and say, 'God, don't you know how much people
want to not have that? How people strive to have the opposite?'"
One can hardly begrudge Barbara Manning her quest for security and
self-determination. But the selfish fan -- who understands why Rolling
Stone named her one of 1992's most important new artists, why Spin
ranked her album with her terrific band S.F. Seals, Truth Walks in
Sleepy Shadows, in 1995's top 10 and why she built such a solid fan
base in Germany that she lived there from 1998 to 2001 ("to be where I
was loved") -- can only hope that she will experience just enough ups
and downs in her private life to keep her coming back to making music
Barbara Manning performs Sunday, June 10, at the Make-Out Room, 3225
22nd St., S.F., showtime 9 p.m., tickets $7. The Envelope Pleasant LTD
and Jed Brewer open. For more information call (415) 647-2888, or
click here. Visit Barbara Manning's MySpace page by clicking here.