Exclusive Interview: Orchestral Folk-Rock Group, Mike Mangione & The Kin, Talk New Record
Mike Mangione is a traveling troubadour. He's taken his passion for music across the states, from Chicago to Wisconsin to Los Angeles to Louisville and then some. Wherever he goes, he leaves a piece of him; some sonic gem to stun the senses. Now fronting the new orchestral folk-rock sextet Mike Mangione & The Kin, he and his band aim to surprise and intrigue listeners on But I've Seen The Stars, their newest full-length record released last month.
But I've Seen The Stars opens with "Three Days," a harmony-fueled Americana anthem toeing the line between vibrant singalong and poignant reflection. Swells of strings rise in holy splendor above howling vocal lines, each element coming together for a haunting, decadent arrangement. Following this is "Lay Down," beginning with a steady rock rhythm of shimmering, slapping percussion before merging with warm strings for an instrumental introduction. Here, Mangione's voice is strong, moving from a stable croon to soulful cries in expert fashion. The record's standout track is "Promised Land," nearly six minutes of rich sonic evolution. The song lingers beautifully with vibrating violin and soft strumming for two minutes, tender and unassuming, before erupting into a surge of classical orchestration. Mangione stretches his voice, delivering an impassioned rock-opera performance amid distant harmony and ghostly rhythms.
Next comes "If You Let Me," a desperate confession told through frenzied vocals, crescendos of alt-folk arrangements, and profound lyrics like "You can knock me down but I live down there." "Riding Down" comes next, a rollicking outlaw country tune that thumps and creeps with wailing guitar riffs and moaning strings. Things get heavy on "Better Gone Today," a slow song led by sluggish percussion and subtle rhythms that tiptoe beneath Mangione's resigned vocals. After a melancholy two minutes, suddenly the song explodes into a dazzling orchestral arrangement of wild lament, a call-to-action that awakens the sleeping beast of instrumentation. But I've Seen The Stars ends with "Nothing Lasts Forever," a gentle conclusion in which soft strums of guitar take center stage beneath groggy vocals. The song is a bittersweet ode to the inevitability of endings; a mighty subject made easier by the band's beautiful retelling.
On But I've Seen The Stars, Mike Mangione & The Kin offer superb talent across the board. Rich, wailing strings provide substance, percussion joins in with perfect time, understated rock rhythms make appearences, and powerful vocals act as a worthy vehicle for poignant lessons of humanity. The album is packed with unbearably gorgeous moments that ring in your ear and practically knock you down with their weight. The result is a stunning collection of orchestral folk-rock anthems for the soul.
Listen to But I've Seen The Stars below and read on for an exclusive interview with frontman Mike Mangione:
The Music Mermaid: First, can you tell The Music Mermaid a little about yourselves and your music?
Mike Mangione: Sure! I was born in Chicago and happily live in Wisconsin. I started my career while living in LA once I decided to leave LA. I was lucky enough to get cast as the “Mail Boy” for the movie Anchorman which financed my first tour out of LA. I bought a van, lived in it, and started a band. That band became The Union and now is called Mike Mangione & The Kin. Our sound has been called "orchestral folk" and we all like eating... a lot! Two families make up the core members of the group: My brother Tom and I play guitar and Monique and Chauntee Ross play cello and violin. This is where we get the name The Kin.
TMM: Describe each member of Mike Mangione & The Kin in just three words each. MM: Tom Mangione – Humble. Too quiet. Chauntee Ross – Backs it up. Monique Ross – Mother, ready, killer. Michael Stewart - Grove, grounded, jitters. Mark Yencheske - Even, elevated, zen. Mike Mangione – Short, hairy, tired.
TMM: You’re a bit of a traveling troubadour, having lived and recorded in Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and more. How have these music scenes influenced your own work? Where does your music feel most at home?
MM: Two of our records were in Louisville too! And one in Iowa City... I have never thought about the places we have recorded, so good question. I always look at the project in the light of the producer rather than city. The city, for me, is just an extension of the person we record with. Honestly, traveling as much as I do, I have developed a small forcefield view of my world. I am really aware of what is right in front of me because I can control it and make it comfortable. Everything on the outside is just... out there. So when recording, I establish a world I am familiar and comfortable with so that I won't be distracted by the little nuances each place brings... this is so I can just focus on recording the song from a natural place from within. Makes sense?
TMM: You previously fronted The Union until the band dissolved in 2013. How did Mike Mangione & The Kin come about?
MM: I was playing with other string players, trying to find who would make up the next band. I wasn’t totally sold on the strings I was playing with and as far as they were concerned, they were just playing gigs. They couldn’t make a couple shows and recommended these sisters. We met and when I heard their playing combined with their voices, I knew I had found them. It was a writing period for me as I prepared for the new record and knew I wanted to start writing on harmonies. The other guys I was playing with were great, but I wanted the Ross sisters “thing” on the record so I had to let the others go. I think they understood.
TMM: What was the production process like for your newest record, But I’ve Seen The Stars?
MM: I had a great team with me -- some of the best. We had some of the Edward Sharpe guys with us playing and recording, so everyone was A+ caliber. With that level of talent in the room, there was also a high level of patience and musical understanding, so there were never any “stuck” moments. We could work though any creative clog. The studio was untouchable. We recorded at United Recording, which used to be Ocean Way, in Los Angeles. Frank Sinatra started this studio back in the day and it has been the roof for so many legendary records. The process was fairly painless. I tend to get lost towards the end in post-production and have to take more breaks to stay focused, but all in all I think it was the best experience so far. I am very proud of it.
TMM: Is the songwriting a collaborative process? What are some central themes to your work?
MM: Not really. I have always been the primary songwriter in the groups I'm with. My old band, The Union, was a little more collaborative in the sense that the guys would throw in their ideas for their parts and we would put it all together in a circle. This latest effort was pretty much head-to-paper only because I didn’t have a band when I was writing. On every record there is at least one song that is spearheaded by my brother Tom. On this record that song is the single, "Riding Down."There is no way I could write that lead guitar -- it's just not how I think. All my songs are thematically orbiting the human mystery... who am I, what am I, and where am I going.
TMM: Which song off But I’ve Seen The Stars is most special to you and why?
MM: It changes over time but I think the one I am always fascinated by is the song "Promised Land." The writing and recording of that song was special for me and the lyrics still surprise me. When recording, I did probably 5 different vocal harmonies which fascinates me when I listen back to it -- not in any kind of self-absorbed way... I just think it was an ambitious song and I guess I am always listening to it, wondering if we pulled it off!
TMM: Who are your biggest influences, both musically and personally?
MM: Musically would be Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, The Band, Daniel Lanois, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison, and Tom Waits. Personally would be my wife, Stacy.
TMM: What has been your most memorable musical moment so far?
MM: There was a time, I can’t remember where, I was playing a room that was super distracted. The people seemed semi-engaged and I kept telling myself they didn’t care. When I was scanning the room, I spotted one woman with her eyes closed completely focused on every word. I felt so humbled and vulnerable in that moment. Then I was struck by the beauty of the platonic pure intimacy being shared between performer and attendee and I felt completely honored. That moment changed my performing life and my idea of performance potential.
The Music Mermaid: Finally, what’s next for Mike Mangione & The Kin?
Mike Mangione: Play shows and promote [the new record]. Release a few more video projects. Then start writing the next! It’s the circle of music life... How about you?
Photo by Joe Kang.