Mando Saenz

Song Biz: Mando Saenz

When he first arrived in Nashville over a decade ago, Mando Saenz was already a signed songwriter. “I backed into a publishing deal before I knew what a publishing deal was,” he laughs. Inked by heavyweight producer Frank Liddell to Carnival Music, he was concurrently signed as an artist to Liddell’s Carnival Recording Company.

Saenz avows that Nashville was fundamentally different than Corpus Christi, where he had spent most of his life, or Houston, where he moved shortly after college. “I’ve never lived in a city that became that place everyone came to. I always lived in cities that were outside.”

While Austin is a well-known Texas musical destination, Saenz says that Houston was a fertile incubator for his artistry. “It was really rich and that’s what inspired me to write; the inner city of Houston and Anderson Fair, which was a legendary venue where Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams and Eric Taylor all played. Everybody talks about Austin as the music capital of Texas, but Houston has its own kind of place in the history of Texas songwriting.”

Now based in Nashville, a city famous for co-writing sessions, Saenz does his share. “Not every day, but two times a week maybe. But I write on my own when I’m not writing with other people.” This solo writing is one of the key factors that gives Saenz his distinctive lyrical focus. “Writing on my own is important to me. It’s good for my head, and good to keep the writing muscles strong. And writing on my own is good for coming up with ideas that might maybe be right for someone else.”

Among his prominent cuts is “When I Come Around,” recorded by Lee Ann Womack on her recent collection The Way I’m Living. The song, written solo, was included on his debut CD release, Watertown, in 2004. “It’s from the first batch of songs that I ever wrote. It’s one thing to get a song that you co-wrote cut, but to have a song that’s close to you performed by someone who sings like Lee Ann does…she’s all about the music, which is so refreshing.”

The song “Breakaway Speed,” was co-written with, and performed by, Kim Richey on her release Thorn in My Heart with backing vocals from Jason Isbell and Trisha Yearwood. It was named No. 20 of American Songwriter magazine’s Top 50 songs of 2013. “Kim Richey is one of the first people I co-wrote with. I was a fan, which was kind of nerve wracking. We met up in Austin. We’ve become good friends. And we work and hang and sing together. We’re doing a show at the Americana event in Nashville. Any chance we get to play and sing together is a good time.”

While Saenz’s solo releases maybe haven’t sold millions of copies, they offer an effective showcase for his catalog. “That’s a cool way of having a song cut, to have someone discover something that I wrote for myself. Even though I co-write as much as I do, I try not to write with other people in mind. Not to sound self-absorbed, but that’s what made me start writing in the first place, creating something I would like to play or record. It’s a different thing, but it’s the first thing I ever did as far as writing goes, and I think most people would say the same.”

Noting that it has been a few years since his last solo release, Saenz will be heading into the studio to work on his next project. “At the end of the day I’m a working Nashville songwriter, but I’ve got to keep the artist thing going for my head or I wouldn’t feel complete.”

And Saenz doesn’t sit down to create with hits on his mind. “I don’t write from titles, although a lot of people in Nashville do that. I tend to start with music and hopefully a lyric and title comes out. Titles and hooks––I didn’t think about those when I started writing, and I try not to think about them now.”

Contact Sarah Frost, The Press House, sarah@thepresshouse.com