A Family Affair: Manuela interviewed
Manuela are wife and husband duo Manuela Gernedel and Nick McCarthy. We talk to the couple about their intimate and eccentric debut album, recorded following McCarthy's departure from Franz Ferdinand and in between raising their kids
'Good things come from nowhere,' is a line that exemplifies the quiet but persistent optimism of Manuela, the new album and collaborative venture from London-based artist Manuela Gernedel and her husband, ex-Franz Ferdinand guitarist Nick McCarthy. The line comes from Invincible, a tribute to the couple’s young son, and it sums up Gernedel’s knack for finding emotional sustenance in the most innocuous details of everyday life. 'There are crumbs between your fingers and milk on your tongue,' she sings. 'There is grass and there is milk, and love, you’ve made me invincible.'
That Manuela’s debut should reflect on parenthood is unsurprising given that it was partly out of their becoming parents that the project came about. Last summer, Franz Ferdinand announced McCarthy’s decision to leave the band, citing his desire to spend more time at home with Gernedel and their children as his reason for calling it a day. A quiet life as a stay-at-home dad wasn’t exactly what he had in mind however.
Since then he and Gernedel have been hard at work on new material together at his own Sausage Studios, which he recently set up with longtime pal Sebastian Kellig. “That was like a teenage dream of mine,” he admits, “I always wanted to have a room full of instruments where you can just jump around and go off on one.” He, Gernedel and Kellig, who helped produce the record, all grew up in Bavaria and have known each other for some time, so in a sense Manuela’s been decades in the making. It certainly has some precedence in Box Codax, the band McCarthy and Gernedel formed with Alexander Ragnew after the pair moved to Glasgow so Gernedel could pursue painting at the Glasgow School of Art.
As the name suggests however, Gernedel is the chief creative force behind Manuela. McCarthy still handles most musical duties, like he did with Codax, but the project centres on her perspective. “We've got a bit of a weird way of writing,” Gernedel explains. “I don't actually play music so I just write text or lyrics and basically just try and sing them like melodies.” For inspiration, she turns to her everyday experiences, assembling thoughtful collages from stray thoughts and observations. “I’m trying to describe an atmosphere of going through just ordinary days,” she says.
Take Supermarket, which follows Gernedel on weekly trips to the shops. You’d struggle to imagine a more banal premise for a song, but her attentive telling reveals unexpected emotional depth in a chore we all take for granted. Gernedel says she wanted to be “quite realistic about there being loads of stuff and crap that you surround yourself with” while also paying heed to the notion of “consumerism as a sort of remedy.” Sure enough, the song has a kind of woozy ambience that seems to convey the hypnotic, almost soothing repetitiveness of grocery shopping, reflecting the way in which such routines both wear us down and can be strangely comforting.
This same kind of ambivalence shows up time and again on Manuela, but the overall mood is positive. Where anxieties or complications do appear, they’re either worked out or simply acknowledged and accepted as a small part of the bigger picture. It all sounds very healthy, especially when you hear the pair singing about what is presumably their own relationship – like a kind of mock couple’s therapy. “It's a weird album,” McCarthy admits. “I sing songs with my wife about a break-up which is quite bizarre but [it] still feels optimistic and nice. It's something everyone thinks about but you don't actually say it. Just through song and dance!”
The two certainly have a unique dynamic, resulting in music that’s often as odd as it is moving. Nowhere is that more true than on Silent Dome, which finds Gernedel lying awake at night, coming to terms with the idea that she might be over the proverbial hill: 'The light on the floor it reminds me / That I’ve already had my best ideas,' she muses soberly to herself. But then the drums hit, and just as she transitions into a heart-on-sleeve chorus about love overcoming self-doubt, McCarthy drops the dopiest, most unabashedly tacky synth line that somehow makes the whole thing sound even more earnest and endearing.
“I think it's got something magical about it,” he agrees. “I quite like a cheesy line – a cheesy, quite straight ahead melody – [Manuela's] far [less] guarded but maybe doesn't show too much emotion in her music or in her art.” It’s hearing that tension play out in real time, he suggests, that makes it so effective. “I reckon it's the combination of our two personalities, the fight between us – or the love!”
That’s not to say Gernedel can’t be just as silly. Yes there’s Invincible, the candid and affectionate ode to motherhood mentioned above, but there’s also the opening line to Easy, in which she recounts the moment when it all began as such: 'You fell from my crotch with your eyes closed'. Ah, the miracle of childbirth!
Speaking of which, how do you go about recording an album when you’ve got tiny versions of yourself to keep an eye on? “You just have to organise yourself a little bit more than you used to, that's all it is really,” McCarthy explains. “And then [the kids] don't have to take centre stage all the time you know, it's totally fine. Anyway, they come round the studio all the time, I've got them soldering things and stuff, you know.”
Even without turning Sausage Studios into a makeshift nursery, it sounds like the recording booth was plenty busy during the making of Manuela. Also involved besides Kellig were Jim Dixon (“We used to live with him in Glasgow for ages and he's started playing with Django Django now”), ex-Veronica Falls singer and recent Night School signee Roxanne Clifford, and William Reese of the Mystery Jets (“One of those annoying people that can just play everything, you know, picks something up and makes it sound amazing”) – and those were just the musicians they’d planned to take part.
Amazingly, Gernedel and McCarthy also recruited their neighbour to play sax on an instrumental track after overhearing him practise. “I just knocked on his door and he was like, ‘Yeah, I'll do it’,” explains McCarthy. “He's an older guy and he came to studio with a whole bottle of whiskey and it was gone in about two hours. But his playing didn't get any worse, it was quite amazing! He was absolutely fucked by the end of it but he could still play. Funny guy and he's an amazing saxophonist – I still hear him twittering away.”
Having sax on the record was something Gernedel had been secretly hoping for for some time. “I just really thought we should have a piece with saxophone in it because I've always thought it was such an odd instrument," enthuses Gernedel. "I used to hate it and I've really come round to it. I don't know, it just seems to produce certain sounds that are quite offensive.” Accordingly, they chose to deploy the sax on what they’re calling their protest song, March Against It, their own take on the kind of jazz marches that soundtracked the civil rights movement.
“Obviously from that era there was a massive protest movement and now it feels like we're getting…” McCarthy trails off. “Well I grew up being very unpolitical, I didn't know what to be political about weirdly. I don't know why. But now it seems a completely different era and there's a lot of anger.” Gernedel agrees: “I think it's a general sense at the moment that everything’s all potentially just going to shit politically in our part of the world, where we've had 80 years of peace around us and then suddenly everyone flips back.”
But Manuela aren’t the kind to give in to despair. Yes, good things might come from nowhere, but the unspoken part of that line – and the quality the duo exude in spades – is that you have to go looking for it; to take a hard, patient look at the world around you and then find and share its positive sides. “I mean we can talk about these things,” Gernedel states, “but at the end of the day you want to send out some love.”
Manuela is released on 31 Mar via Lost Map; Manuela play Field Day at Victoria Park, London on 3 Jun