tracy manuel makes outsider dream pop and soothing drone soups from the recesses of Northern California
Tracy Manuel is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and composer. Born and raised in the “other California” — Far NorCal, where the rivers run faster and the Internet runs slower — Manuel has always embodied an outsider ethos. Gigging professionally as a drummer by the age of 15, she blew out both elbows providing backing beats for local jazz and folk rock outfits (and for the occasional sideman of regional hero Merle Haggard). Melding her traditional training as a percussionist with an ad hoc approach to guitar and an insatiable penchant for electronic flourishes, Manuel’s music is as down-to-earth as it is otherworldly — blending lyric-driven roots sensibilities with ethereal sounds that tilt much more skyward. Postmodern and post-rural, yet not sleek enough to pass for pop, it strikes a natural balance for someone most at home feeling not at home.
Cheekily described as “genre-fluid,” Manuel restlessly draws on traditions from traditional folk to experimental electronica, picking apart off-kilter rhythms and excavating melancholic veins before smelting everything back down to song form. Her widespread influences are matched by her associations — she’s shared the stage with roots luminaries Jolie Holland and Joe Pug, and has had her handmade electroacoustics featured on Adafruit’s Wearable Wednesday blog. Equally at home in a song or a soundscape, she plucks the lyrical wryness and unflinching entendres of pop and country and drops them into frothing, glimmering arrangements to fend for themselves. But Manuel’s work is not so much a study in contrast as it is one in convergence, as she navigates those pop poetics with a distinctly DIY sensibility — without sacrificing her sweet tooth for the occasional catchy chorus.
Manuel’s short-yet-expansive discography spans heartbreak at all scales, from the cosmic twang of a one-man-band / fire-season elegy (Purgatory, CA, 2018) to the digital shimmer of a bedroom-pop-implosion / isolation breakup record (Emergency Contacts, 2020). Her most recent work, Affections (2021), is a series of ambient experimental pieces sampled and stitched together over a long pandemic winter. From stark to symphonic, discursive to wordless, humdrum to holy, Manuel’s music offers something to anyone who isn’t quite sure where they fall on any spectrum.