Only Love Will Set You Free: An Interview with Mike Mangione

With a new band and a new approach to his craft, seasoned singer-songwriter Mike Mangione is preparing to release a new record, titled But I’ve Seen the Stars, on October 20th.

Since the dissolution of his last band, Mike Mangione & The Union, he’s returned with a supergroup of sorts, dubbed Mike Mangione & The Kin. This incarnation features his brother Thomas Mangione on lead guitar, Seth Ford-Young of Edward Sharp & The Magnetic Zeroes on bass, and Josh Collazo on drums. Violinist Chauntee Ross and cellist Monique Ross of classical string duo Sistastrings round out the lineup on strings and backup vocals.

These classical elements have led some to describe their style as orchestral folk, but no such label does their output justice. The record’s lead single “Riding Down” rides high on the tension between the Ross sisters’ clean bowing and a down-and-dirty blues guitar riff. The record thrives on juxtaposition, using its diverse ingredients to flit between moments of clarity and grit, transcendence and unrest.

In a brief phone interview, Mangione spoke to The All Scene Eye about the unique process of making the record, and how other projects have informed his perspective as an artist.


I read that you spent time in the Northwoods of Wisconsin writing these songs. Can you tell me more about how that setting influenced the way you ended up writing the record?

I live in southeastern Wisconsin now with my family, and when I was writing this record my wife was pregnant with a third child, so not only is it loud in the house, but it’s also hard to be loud in the house. My grandparents left the family a cabin up in the Northwoods, probably about four hours from the house, and my wife would be kind enough to let me get away and record up there. Usually I would bring ideas there and hammer them out. It’s an old house, and there’s a beautiful room overlooking a lake, and I would set up my drums, amps, and guitars, and start recording.

This record, for me, was different. I knew the feeling I wanted it to have, and because I’m originally a drummer, I started pretty much every song by thinking of the rhythm, thinking of the drums first. I would record that, just really rough, and then try to layer stuff over the rhythm. It was just a neat way for me, because I’ve always been a rhythmic person, even my guitar-playing is very rhythmic. If you ever see me live, I use percussion with the guitar–I don’t hit the guitar, but just the way I strum. It was neat to think that way and be very intentional about how the song would start.

I saw an interview with Paul Simon once where he discussed Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints. With those records, he said that’s pretty much how he would start writing each song. So that idea was in my head, because I love that idea. So many times you can just write a song on guitar, which is great, but I thought it’d be fun to try something different. That’s how it started, and what’s funny too is that eventually it was in that process that I met Chauntee and Monique Ross, the sisters that sing harmony and play violin and cello with me. They are so melodic, so it’s cool that I took an aggressive rhythmic approach, but then also found such a strong melodic force to balance it out.

It’s really interesting, this idea of putting the rhythm first, because I find when you write songs on guitar, you can get to the end of an album and realize all the songs have the same rhythm. 

That’s exactly right, and even in performance, there’s a tendency to have something in your head, and then when you’re playing guitar, to play it and not be aware that what’s coming out is not the same as what’s in your head. With that, there come a lot of nuances that can be cliche–the way things start, the way things sound. What I wanted to do was, I’ve always loved Levon Helm’s music, whether it’s with The Band, or anything he’s been working on. I love his stuff, and I love Brian Blade, who’s the drummer for Daniel Lanois. Brian Blade’s done a lot of session work for Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan. I would be inspired by these songs, but I realized I love how they make me feel, and what’s making me feel a certain way is the way it’s laid out, and the way it’s laid out is dictated by the rhythm. So, I was like, “if I can just focus on the rhythm.”

Literally, there was one song called “Lay Down” that I knew I wanted Levon Helm’s drums on, so I pressed record on an area mic in the room, and I used my headphones, played along to Levon Helm, recorded his beat, and then wrote over it. It’s a simple beat, but just the idea of, “hey, I love this beat, I love this feel, and I love this tempo, I’m just going to completely duplicate it and then write over it.” So “Lay Down,” the second track, is pretty much a straight Levon Helm rip-off, which I don’t mind saying. We’re all inspired by other people, so the key is making it your own.

I also read that this was the first time you’d written vocal harmonies. What was that like, working with the group?

Toward the end of my last band, The Union, we started messing around with vocal harmonies. I’ve always written string parts, so I enjoy the idea of writing harmonies and building different chord structures with the instrumentation. I loved that The Union was starting to get more harmonies, so when that dissipated and I came across the Ross sisters, I wanted them to sing parts that the old band was doing. But when I heard them sing, I realized that not only were they completely capable of singing anything, but their vocal abilities were such a strong force that I needed to intentionally use it as an instrument and write more of it. It was really fun.

This record was done before I had my new band, so it was an opportunity for me to pretty much do everything. I think the last time I did that was my first release in 2005. It wasn’t narcissistic, or an ego trip, it was just an opportunity to say “I don’t have anybody, so I might as well write all this stuff, and if it stinks, it’s completely my fault, but why not, I’ll go for it.” When I found the girls, I was still in the writing process, which might have been good, because otherwise all my songs would have harmonies on them. And they don’t, which is nice, to get to hear a break once in a while.

It was a fun little exciting toy, especially when I’m not very good at guitar. I’m not great at anything, I’m decent at some things, so it was fun to add a new instrument to the mix and see where it took me. In this case, that was the rhythm and the harmonies.

The band you’re with now is called The Kin, because it’s you and your brother, and you’ve got this set of sisters as well. What is the dynamic like, and how does it compare to other groups you’ve played with?

The other people I’ve played with in the past have been good, but every one of the people that I’m playing with now is so talented at their instrument. Bands in the past that I’ve played with have always played to the song–which I would always say is simple, but well–but the band I’m playing with now, they do what’s necessary, but when given the opportunity to flourish, they go into expert levels of playing.

There have been bands I’ve been in that are so complicated because not everybody is on the same page, and you’re only as strong as your weakest player. In this new formation, everyone is so talented that I feel like the songs aren’t even good enough for the band. [laughs] It’s like, I need to make them more complicated or something.

“Only Love,” which is this bluesy narrative song, stood out to me lyrically. “She said you can run but you’ll never move on / if your heart’s deaf dumb and blind.” Can you tell me about the inspiration for that track and the story of it?

I never really write songs with the whole narrative in mind. They’re usually based off an idea or a concept, which in this case would be unrest, until we find what truly satisfies, which this song is proclaiming to be love, like true love. Not counterfeit love, not objectification, not abuse, but actual sacrificial love where somebody sacrifices for you, and you’d sacrifice for them. Until you encounter that, your heart will be restless.

The premise then is what informs the chorus, which is “Only love, love will set you free.” That’s the thesis, and then–this is a general overview of how I do songs–I picture the thesis to be the telephone poles, and the verses would be the wire that connects them. It’s the narrative that gets you to the thesis. Each verse then doesn’t necessarily have to be in a chronological narrative, it can be a vignette. Some people are confused by some of the songs I’ve written, because the context shifts from characters, and it’s not a full chronological story. The premise and the thesis are there, it’s just that now I’m showing you different versions that support it.

This song though, it is a narrative. It’s a guy and a girl who are searching for the thing. They’re searching for the place to call home in a metaphorical way. Until they find it, they will be restless. The way to truly encounter that authentic love is to become vulnerable and open your heart, and if your heart is deaf, dumb, and blind, you’ll always be on that treadmill. 

I hadn’t picked it up as I was listening, but now that you say it, that’s an album-wide theme, with tracks like “If You Let Me,” or “Nothing Lasts Forever.”

For me, the common thread in my life is trying to figure that one out. Some days I’m close, and some days I’m far, and that’s the ebb and flow of the human experience.

I also wanted to ask about your podcast, Time and the Mystery. How did you get started with that?

Traveling so much, there’s a lot of downtime, and in my travels, I’d listen to podcasts. I’ve gotten to meet so many interesting, talented people, and we get in these conversations, just because we have time before shows, or wherever I am. As I was traveling one day and listening to a podcast, I was like, “I should do this, I should just bring my recording stuff and record these conversations I’m having anyway.”

It hit me so hard, like a ton of bricks, like I’ve definitely got to do it. I was playing a festival in like two weeks, and I was like, “I’ve got to start interviewing people at this festival, I’ve got to start right away if I’m going to do it.” What was neat was, I have no problem talking on stage, I have no problem organically falling into a conversation, but with people I don’t know, when put on the spot, I get stage fright, I get anxiety.

Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that.

[laughs] Yeah, exactly, you know what I’m saying. It’s always bothered me that I had that, so I thought, “well, shit, if I can pull this off, and if I can get myself in some situations that are going to make me nervous, and I get through it, I’ll be a better person for it.” I started reaching out to everybody I know I thought was interesting, and to be honest, some celebrities that I know. I wanted to get their names in it so I can start off running with some big names, and play off their fan base too. That’s how it started, and it’s been really fun. I took a little break recently because I’ve been working on the release, and it’s so hard to balance them, but I actually have an interview tomorrow when I go to LA, so I’m jumping back in. 

Who’s the interviewee?

Tomorrow it’s a guy named Christian Letts. He’s a guitarist in Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes, but he also has his own solo thing, and he also does sculpting and painting. He’s this renaissance man who’s very fascinating. Then an actor friend of mine who’s been on my podcast, he’s got some friends that I’m trying to hook up with, so hopefully I’ll get the text later today that something works out.

Having interviewed other artists, what’s the biggest takeaway?

The one thing it did show me is that everybody is doing well only because they’re focused on doing a good job at their craft. Nobody that I’ve sat down with had an ego or was looking over their shoulder at the person next to them and feeling competitive. Everybody I’ve sat down with, the similarity is they all work really hard at what they do because they want to make good art.

If anything, doing this for a while has shown me that when you start off, you’re always like, “the grass is always greener in somebody else’s field,” and you get in conversations, but you really just want them to help you. As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable with my level of success in what I’m doing, the podcast conversations have supported that making quality art you can stand behind is more important than anything else. As long as you’re trying to make a living at it, and you are making a living, you’re set. If you can stand behind it, and it’s your best effort, then you’re a success. That’s been the most affirming thing that I’ve learned, and that’s really influenced how I perceive what I’m doing.


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