Choose Your Own Reality: Shana Cleveland on the Subconscious Surrealism Behind Her New Solo Album Night of the Worm

Interviews, KEXP Premiere
03/19/2019
Dusty Henry
photo by Eleanor Petry

The world can be a strange place, but there may be no realm stranger than our own subconscious. It’s an idea that fascinates La Luz lead vocalist/guitarist Shana Cleveland. Throughout La Luz’s discography, she’s sung about black holes and weirdo shrines, soundtracked by vivacious surf rock riffs. Now she’s preparing to go even further into the peculiar unknown with her upcoming solo record Night of the Worm Moon, out April 5 via Hardly Art.

It’s an album full of surrealistic visions of UFOs, fireballs soaring across the sky, and alternate dimensions – backed with serene fingerpicking and low ambient drones. Cleveland says she doesn’t actually believe in aliens – though she says she wants to believe she saw a UFO in Los Angeles, she just can’t get over her own logical mind. But she admires people who have beliefs bigger than themselves.

It’s a record that pays homage to the power of the subconscious, a brimming well of inspiration inside everyone that sometimes only comes out in dreams. While she no longer lives in Los Angeles after moving there from Seattle with La Luz in 2016 – she now resides “in the middle of nowhere” in Northern California – the vivacity and audacity of the city of angels shine through the album’s twisted visions.

The album’s title track, which KEXP is premiering below, aptly captures the tone of Night of the Worm Moon. It’s a song built off of fears, inspired by her own anxieties with being alone in her home for the first time in months after a lengthy tour. She sings from the perspective of a villain, living inside the walls, preying on her unspoken nightmares. It’s a testament to the stories and visions residing within our own minds – something that fascinates Cleveland herself.

 

In a conversation with KEXP, Cleveland opens up about her fascination with cosmic imagery and her admiration for people who “create their own realities.” She tells us about watching alien cult documentaries at swanky hotels, using her acoustic guitar as a meditative process to awaken the creativity lurking in her mind, and the music she’s looking forward to making next with an “alien” living inside her now that’s she’s pregnant.


KEXP: When did Night of the Worm Moon start taking shape for you?

Shana Cleveland: I think I started writing songs for that when I was waiting for the last La Luz album to get figured out. We had recorded it and it was a really long wait between the time we recorded it and the time when it came out. So I had a lot of time, it just kind of kept getting pushed back further and further and so there was just a lot of time where I wasn't on tour and I felt like I didn't really have to think about La Luz – or I didn't really want to think about La Luz music for a while. I just picked up the acoustic guitar again and started writing new songs.

Is that something where you feel like you needed space for other projects? Is part of your creative process to get some distance from that?

Yeah, for sure. I tend to really thrive on contrast. It's nice to just go in really deep on the electric stuff and then just veer in the opposite direction for a while and really get in deep with acoustic and go back and forth like that. I feel like that's where has been at for, I don't know, the last decade or something [laughs].

Well, it sounds like it's working for you.

Yeah, I don't know. I feel like I haven't ever really wanted to do... It's always around the guitar. I've never been like, "Okay, now it's time to make some electronic music." So I don't know if I'm really doing opposites or anything, but it feels like enough of a contrast to keep me excited.

What made you want to record the album in Seattle as opposed to Los Angeles? It seems like L.A. was a pretty big inspiration for you on this one.

It is, but I've just really recently been realizing how important Seattle was to me creatively. I guess when I moved there I hadn't really played. I always figured I was gonna be a musician and that's all I really wanted to do in life. But I hadn't played a lot before I moved there. I just sort of played alone and I just met so many people that were putting on house shows and just doing everything themselves. Booking tours, putting out their own records. The first record label that I got in touch with was K Records and that's got a real DIY ethic.

I think I've just been really creatively inspired there, as far as collaboration with other musicians that I've met. I feel like if I need somebody to work with, I always end up wanting to go back to Seattle even though I haven't lived there for a while. There's just something about that spirit of just thinking that you can kinda do anything that you want with the help of your friends that just keep drawing me back. I feel like that probably happens in L.A., but not to the same degree. And now I live in the middle of nowhere, so there's nobody to play with here [laughs].

 

Cosmos and cults play heavily into this record and they seem like subjects you've touched on in past La luz records like 'Weirdo Shrines.' Are these topics you've had a longtime fascination with?

Yeah, I think on some level I just like the idea of people creating their own realities. I guess as an artist idea, that really appeals to me. I feel like you do a little bit of that whenever you create something from nothing. People who have big beliefs and see the world in a different way than other people.

Even if I don't believe necessarily in aliens myself, I feel like people that do hold really strong beliefs like that are really inspiring to me and just those ideas. I guess it just goes along with the California spirit to me, in a way. What I like about California is just this idea that you could come here and sort of imagine that anything could happen.

Do you interact with a lot of sci-fi and fantasy? UFOs especially seem like an image that comes up for you on this album.

I saw a comet when I was in L.A. and it was really exciting. There's a song [on the album] called "The Fireball" on the record that's kind of just a play-by-play of seeing this fireball go through the sky and that was really cool [laughs].

But yeah, I don't know, I don't think I've seen any UFOs. I did think I saw a UFO once in L.A. but I feel like too practical. I like to believe it but I don't really believe it. I think that there is probably a rational explanation for what I saw. It was probably just like a ride at Universal Studios or something.

Even if you that inkling toward critical thinking with those types of scenarios, do you find it helps you creatively to open up your mind to possibilities – at least for a bit?

Yeah, I guess what I believe in is just... I'm just fascinated by the subconscious where things can be surreal. I was having a lot of really strange dreams and I felt like living in L.A. itself was sort of a strange dream. I guess I just believe in sort of the subconscious more magical occurrences, necessarily. But yeah I was having a lot of dreams about supernatural occurrences.

I feel like being in a new place all the time, whether it's on tour or moving around a lot like I've done in the last few years, has sort of a disorienting effect. And so it feels like the lines blur a little bit and it's sort of like, well, our dreams feel more real I guess when you don't have a routine or know where you are on the time.

I think that's super fascinating. Most everyone has dreams at some point and they can get really weird and freaky and super out there, even if you're the most logical minded people. It's kind of an interesting portal of creativity in your subconscious.

In college, I studied a lot of the Dadaists and Surrealists and this whole emphasis on tapping the unconscious as a creative method. I'm really interested in that and just finding ways to leave reality mentally. I feel like acoustic guitar and specifically fingerpicking acoustic guitar is sort of a method of that for me. I find it really meditative and I feel like I can go outside of myself when I play acoustic guitar; when I play a rhythm that just sort of goes on and on and on.

 

A lot of the lyrics delve into surrealism and the subconscious we're talking about and there's a lot of ways that artists approached that over time. What's cool with your record is that the acoustic guitar really makes him feel grounded as opposed to more psychedelic – though you do have psychedelic moments for sure. I'm curious what kind of atmosphere you were trying to create to coincide with these themes and ideas you're speaking about.

I was listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane at the time and initially this record Journey in Satchidananda. And a lot of other instrumental music I find, I really like how you can get lost in the repetitiveness and just this place where there are no words and there's nothing to sort of jolt you out of it... I wanted it to feel meditative. Music that feels meditative like Alice Coltrane is what sort of kicks me out of my reality in an interesting way.

When I'm working on a record, I try to write songs all in one short period of time and, like I was talking about, really kind of focusing on one sound and one feel for a while and not jump back and forth between doing a rock song and doing a folk song or whatever. I feel like when I do that, it kinda comes across as meditative in a way because it's all from this one moment in time.

There's a Bob Dylan album Blood On The Tracks and somebody told me that all the songs were in the same key once and I never really noticed that, but it made a lot of sense. The whole album just sort of feels like one long song that's broken up into different songs. To me, there's something really immersive about that. You're not dragged from one feeling to another, it's sort of a continuous mood in a way. And so I guess that that's one thing that I wanted to have happened with this album.

I think that makes a lot of sense, especially you talking about the subconscious. Something meditative really can help you tap into that and it sounds like that worked for you.

I also kind of was thinking of it as a book, I guess. When I worked at this bookstore in Seattle – which I won't name because I don't want to give them any business because they fired me for going on tour [laughs] – and when I would shelve the science fiction section, I would always bring a notebook with me because the titles were so amazing. I always felt like I could write a whole album with one of these titles.

So that was kind of the idea behind this too. I had this title written down for a year before I ever wrote the album. And then when I had this break, I was like, "OK I'm going to write 'Night of the Worm Moon,' whatever that is."

Did that title come from a book or was it something that just came to you?

It came from a Sun Ra record title. It's really only one word different. He's got a record called Night of the Purple Moon, which the first time I heard it I just started laughing because it just seemed... it's just got some really wacky synth tones. It just feels like a totally different planet. And I just loved the idea of this record Night of the Purple Moon, and just the fact that it sounded like this other universe. The title's totally ripped off from that Sun Ra album.

And what about the song “Night of the Worm Moon” specifically? I'm curious about the inspiration behind the track.

I wanted to write a horror song. I didn't feel like I'd ever heard any horror folk songs before and so this is where this came from. At the time I was living in L.A. and I was home, I wasn't on tour very much. It's a really weird feeling when you go on tour a lot and then all of a sudden you're home and you're alone in the house.

It's just like the biggest contrast. Because when you're on tour you're surrounded by people all the time and you can never really catch a moment of solitude and then being in this house in the hills and L.A. alone at night, I just started getting really creeped out. So I thought I would try to write what I was afraid of into a song but from the perspective of the villain and the victim. But I don't want to get into too much detail about it, but that's kinda the idea.

 

We've touched a little bit about being in L.A., but it sounds like the city itself has had a pretty big creative impact on you. How do you think L.A. has affected your writing process?

I just found it really inspiring because it was such a different place from day to day and from block to block. It's just a city of contrasts. It's got the desert and the ocean and mountains and the valley. It's kind of got everything. And it's this hub for the creative industry, which is such a weird juxtaposition in and of itself, like "the creative industry." It just seems like such a strange place to me and such a strange place to be new to. I just thought it was really inspiring in that way, just to feel that sense of mystery all the time. But in the end, it's just too expensive.

Previously you've mentioned this defining moment of going to this documentary screening by an alien-worshipping cult and there was a bunch of celebrities there and a woman in a glass box in the lobby.

Yeah! Classic L.A.

That whole situation seems pretty wild.

The weirdest thing about that is it's totally like a Tuesday in L.A. [laughs]. Yeah, that's kind of the story. I was lucky enough to have a friend that I had met, she interviewed us for La Luz a long time ago and she grew up in that area, so I moved in with her when I moved to L.A. She knew about a lot of stuff going on, so I followed her around. One of the events we went to when I first got there was a screening of this documentary about the Unarius cult. They're in California, a small religious sect. They don't call themselves a cult. But somebody made a documentary about them and they are really amazing and like a really typical Los Angeles cult in that they had their own TV show and they had like a TV studio and a big part of what they did was make videos about their religion. You can look it up and you can watch like hundreds of videos online that they made with really awesome in-camera VHS effects and stuff.

So there's this documentary about the cult and the cult was there and it was in this hotel. It's called The Resident in Hollywood [Ed. Note: this appears to actually be The Standard] and that's the place where they pay somebody to just do normal things inside of a glass box behind the hotel check-in. So there's just like a girl reading a book... Just doing totally normal things. And that's a job. That's a job that you can have.

But yeah, there were people getting drunk by the pool and the cult was wearing all their regalia which kind of looks... Actually it kind of like something Sun Ra and his band would wear. Lots of like sequins and like shiny fabrics that you could find at Michael's or something and make into capes. Kim Gordon was there and Chloe Sevigny and there were autograph hounds outside. There was this car shaped like a space ship that released 30 doves into the air for some reason [laughs]. It was just a really glorious Los Angeles moment. And there'd be a lot more like in just the two years that I lived there. I really do love the idea of a place where that can happen. I feel like that's a real quality of life thing. If magical moments of strangeness happened like that in every city, I think we'd be better off.

And that feeling of being there, was that something you wanted to bring into the record or helped get your inspiration going?

It just goes back to like... so many things that were going on were people just following their own version of reality, despite what anybody else... I mean even just a trendy hotel is just this really absurd version of reality to me. It just felt like this really cool collision... Something about autograph hounds too, it's just kind of like, "What's that about?" That kind of vibe I think I was inspired by for sure, just following some weird things that maybe most people don't understand and following it fully. I feel like maybe that's kind of what it's like to make an album.

After making this record, did you have any major takeaways for how you want to approach music going forward, whether that's solo or with La Luz?

I've have been working on another solo record and trying to get it done in the next... Well, I guess in the next few months. I'm pregnant right now. I'm having a baby in June, so I've been writing a bunch of songs that I feel like are sort of strange lullabies. I'd like to finish it before the baby comes because I feel like I just think it would be interesting to hear an entire record that I made when I was living with this alien inside my body, which is what it kind of feels like to be pregnant [laughs].

It's hard to believe there's a human in there, but there's definitely something in there. I kind of want it to be nothing except for acoustic guitar and vocals, just strip it down all the way. I kinda realized that a lot of my favorite folk records are like that, but I've never really considered making a record like that. It's always been kind of scary, but I've been alone in the country and pregnant for a while and I feel like this is the time to do that. That's my new idea after the next solo record.

That sounds like a really fascinating approach and a really cool document of that time.

Yeah, I don't know if people like albums like that. It feels really scary. Playing this music is scarier than playing La Luz music because it's just more intimate and more stripped down. And I just want to follow that all the way and see how that feels to just play – to play with the bare minimum. Kinda like Nick Drake, that Pink Moon record is. That's weird, it seems like I'm going to make another record influenced by a moon record [laughs]. Just the sparsity of that and some of Will Oldham's records where it's just him and a guitar. I've just been realizing how important that music is to me and that I've never tried it before.

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