Mando Saenz titled his first album in eight years All My Shame. But the veteran Nashville songwriter who’s had his songs recorded by Miranda Lambert, Midland, and Lee Ann Womack has nothing to regret. Despite the heaviness of the record’s title, Saenz isn’t repenting for past sins. Instead, he’s celebrating the empowerment that comes with finally knowing oneself.
“You might think it’s a shameful thing, but it’s about being yourself and knowing your flaws,” Saenz says. “Sometimes you just got to put it out there and not consider them flaws — it’s just who you are.”
Saenz, a native of Corpus Christi, Texas, cut his teeth in the Houston clubs before moving to Nashville. For All My Shame, he worked with producer Ken Coomer (Wilco), who helped him tap into dream-pop sounds and vibes on the album. There are elements of both Big Star and Radiohead in tracks like “In All My Shame” and “Talk Is Cheap.”
“I knew I had those influences just because I loved all different kinds of music over the years, including those two bands, but I didn’t realize how much infused into my writing until Ken’s production brought it out,” Saenz says. “It was good to let these songs breathe in that direction.”
While he has a hand in writing radio hits for Music Row, Saenz identifies more with Nashville’s potent indie scene. In his words, he’s a loner. “I’ve always been kind of an oddball,” he says. “When it comes to the industry part, I’ve kind of consciously put blinders on. I really don’t want to know what goes on behind the curtain. I don’t even listen to a lot of country radio.”
It’s surprising then to hear him describe All My Shame as “the most Nashville record I’ve ever made.”
“I say that because they’re mostly co-writes on this record. I’ve always written for myself, even if the song happens to get cut [by someone else]. But this was all written pretty much on Music Row with a lot of writers I’d never even met before,” he says. “But we were just trying to write songs; we’re not really chasing tails.”
But Saenz did chase, and successfully catch, something from his childhood for the album. At Coomer’s suggestion, he recorded a cover of “Rainbow in the Dark,” by Dio — Saenz’s first concert experience as a kid.
On paper, a Texas-born quasi-country singer covering a 1983 heavy-metal standard reads like a trainwreck. But by stripping down the song to just a guitar and Saenz’s haunting voice, “Rainbow in the Dark” emerges as a devastating folk ballad. Saenz has described his version as one in line with a Townes Van Zandt performance.
“It was pretty much kismet because that was my first concert ever. I was in the fifth grade,” Saenz says of cutting “Rainbow in the Dark.” “I just knew that that’s a song I had to make special — I have too many metal friends.”
He needn’t have worried. Even the late Ronnie James Dio would have given Saenz’s cover the metal-horns salute. “I was happy to see a lot of people I really trusted [liked it],” he says. “That was a big relief.”