Austin Manuel has one of the most unique sounds I’ve ever heard. He brings together two styles that I had previously thought were on opposite ends of the musical spectrum and blends them together beautifully into what he calls, ‘Dream Country’. It’s a euphoric and emotional listening experience that leaves you questioning what exactly you’re hearing and loving it at the same time.
We discussed how Austin discovered his awesome sound, the role Nashville has played in shaping him, and his emotional journey to Los Angeles.
Kyle Warner: “Woah”. That was the thought that came to mind when I first heard your track, ‘I Just Want You To Love Me’. This might be my LA native naivety, but I’ve never heard a sound quite like yours, mixing together ethereal elements of modern dream pop with country. How’d you develop this incredibly unique sound?
Austin Manuel: About five or six years ago I took a trip out to California to San Francisco and drove down the coast on the 1 to Los Angeles with a friend who was really into some hip bands at the time: Beach House, Future Islands, Purity Ring and the like. Out there in such beauty with this vast sound that enveloped the scenery so well made us feel high (or higher than we were) and I was drawn very much to the sound. I wanted to hear more of it. A few months later I found myself driving through the wide open plains of East Texas and still wanted elements of that sound because the sky out there is so huge and beautiful especially at sunset, but I was kind of bored with the lack of story that Beach House provided. I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and all of the country greats and so the element of story is very important to me in the creation of a song. My goal in making music has always been to make something that is beautiful and true. I decided I’d try to combine the two elements in the next record I created. I envisioned the sound to be a cinematic sunset at the end of a country highway, where a vast sound takes you into the sky, but where the vocal and lyrics bring you back to earth. So we aimed for it and landed at Dream Country.
KW: It’s almost impossible to have a conversation about music without Nashville being brought up. Can you talk a little bit about what the scene in Nashville has become and what you think the future holds for it?
AM: I’m slightly hesitant to speak about what the scene in Nashville has become and its future. It is hard for me to speak about it because it is so much a part of me. I was born and raised in Nashville and I lived there for twenty-nine years. My family, most of my friends, and my favorite cheeseburger are still in Nashville. Since coming out to Los Angeles I feel like I’ve spent most of my time trying to compare the two scenes or to define the differences. But for the past twenty-nine years, I’ve existed so much inside the bubble that I cannot and could not really see Nashville for what it is, and that is partially why I left. And the way I see LA is probably a direct reflection of the way I see myself now and probably the whole world is your oyster if you are open and kind and know sort of what you want. But back in Nashville, I was in a bit of a rut and sort of directionless and not taking advantage of the city’s infrastructure because I couldn’t see how relevant or important it was to the outside world. Also, my father, who was one of the greatest men to walk the earth, was sick and dying for the past couple of years so most things felt inconsequential to me, and thus had slightly detached myself from the scene.
I’m also hesitant to speak about it because a lot of my friends in Nashville have grown cynical about all the change and the new buildings and the influx of douche bags (and “traffic” lol). But hating people and being territorial and against change is pretty lame. There is good and bad with change (Americanafest versus CMA Fest), but there is good and bad in everything this side of heaven if there is such a place. I think there is a lot of good in the music scene now and it is super rad to see some of my friends doing really cool shit. And it is cool to hear a co-worker in LA mention a musician in Nashville who you’ve played shows with back home as one of her fave new artists, and it is cool to be at a music venue and hear your friend singing over the house speakers after a show. I’m learning how relevant the scene actually is to the outside world. I’ve heard Johnny Cash every day since being here and I haven’t put him on myself once.
As far as the future is concerned, when I tell people that I moved here from Nashville they say they always hear it the other way around – their friends are going the other way. Seems like the future is onward and upward.
KW: What prompted your move to LA?
AM: Earlier this summer I was invited to go on a West Coast tour opening for the Nashville-based band, Birdtalker. They were doing well, and I knew the tour would be good. Touring as an opener on a good tour was something I needed and hoped for a while. Simultaneously, though, my father’s health was drastically deteriorating (fuck cancer) and I didn’t care about much AND I was offered a management job at the restaurant where I was working AND mysteriously my Voice Memos app on my iPhone where I’d stored countless demos and song ideas was deleted. Part of me thought I wasn’t meant to pursue music, but that I was supposed to be a hospitality professional for the rest of my life and that I should hang back with my dad. As the time drew nearer for the start of the tour, my father was getting sicker, and I considered canceling. I was really torn up about it. But I had a few conversations with my dad. And the last came after I’d spent the morning praying and meditating and writing, during which time I was interrupted by my father’s best friend, my mother’s best friend, my best friend, and my dad’s doctor – all of whom said they knew he was proud of me and would want me to go, but that I needed to get the word directly from him and that I needed to have my goodbye and feel good about it just in case. So later that evening I worked up the courage and went back to his bedroom and had a short conversation.
I laid next to him in his bed and held his hand.
“Dad, do you really think I should go?”
“Why wouldn’t you want to go?”
“Because I want to be with you.”
“Oh, well then you should go. And come back if you need to.”
I went on the tour. He died a couple of days in. I flew back and forth that next week crisscrossing the country to play the shows that I could while planning and attending the funeral. The shows were good. Nothing felt real, I felt like I was floating, but they were the best shows I’ve ever played. The tour ended in Phoenix. I sent my bandmate back home to Nashville with Birdtalker and drove back to Los Angeles. I needed to be alone and I felt a pull to LA. I planned to stay a week. During that week the pull grew stronger. I also had a hard conversation that week with my soon to be ex-fiance who was in Nashville and we broke up. Nashville was not a place I wanted to be. A good friend offered me a place to stay in LA if I wanted to make the move. I decided it’d be good. Instead of driving home, I booked a flight to Nashville to get some ducks in a row and to grab some belongings. I left my car in LA and booked a show at Hotel Cafe so I’d have to return.
Basically, the move was prompted by a need to get out of Nashville for some space and a change of scenery and a chance to face all of this shit without the distraction of comfort and familiarity back home. The move is also a direct response to my dad’s affirmation to run down a dream.