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When it came to recording past albums, Mike Mangione and his five-piece band The Union were often left to their own devices. But when it came time to record their new album, Red-Winged Blackbird Man, they had Grammy-nominated producer Bo Ramsey on board.
The band first met and played with Ramsey and his wife Pieta Brown while on tour. Mangione found the confidence to ask if he would work with them, and upon hearing demos, Ramsey quickly signed on to produce. Ramsey didn’t wait long to get the band motivated, telling them on the first day of recording to take his lead and let him guide them along. Inspired by his pep talk and the recording environment he created, Mangione and company recorded the album of 10 songs in two and a half days.
Mangione says he highly respects Ramsey for what he’s done with artists like Lucinda Williams and Greg Brown, and that his talent lends itself to his own band’s orchestral and soulful Americana.
“[Ramsey] has a great acoustic sense of recording, and when he plays on the recording, he’s a very atmospheric, vibe-y guitar player, which is similar to my brother Tom,” Mangione says. “So I thought the combination of his acoustic wits and his guitar sense would make for a really good fit.”
The combo proved to be a good fit and more. Despite the quick recording time, it was one of Mangione’s most comfortable music experiences.
“Working with him was so comfortable because he’s a live performer and he was able to create a studio experience, which often times can be a high-pressure situation,” Mangione says. “But he created a studio for us that seemed like a live performance. We were able to play very naturally. We had scheduled five days to record, but did it in half just because he established such a comfortable and natural place for us to exist.”
As for the actual studio, in the words of Ramsey, it was a “funky little place,” far from being high-tech (“The most un-state-of-the-art place that we’ve been in,” Mangione says), with faults and failures and a mustiness to it. “In a certain sense, it fits who we are because all those things describe the band,” Mangione says.
As for the music, Red-Winged Blackbird Man showcases some of the band’s most dynamic work to date.
“Lyrically, [the songs] are a little more storytelling, a little more narrative,” Mangione says. “Sonically and musically, it’s a lot more involved with the individual instruments. It’s a band that has six members with distinct-sounding instruments: cello, upright bass, electric, acoustic, and drums. All the band members have moments on the record where they shine.”
Over the past few years, the band has kept a busy touring schedule around the country and world, and thanks to their melting pot Americana sound, they’ve played all kinds of festivals, venues, arenas, and house shows. Whatever the venue, Mangoine says “it’s important for us to be intimate with the audience and in return take in their gift of listening.”
“It becomes like a communal relationship between audience and performer,” Mangione adds. “The instruments have the ability to be incredibly dynamic, very big and lush, and very small. And writing songs that run that spectrum of big to small enables us to play the same songs in gigantic venues and the smallest rooms.”
Live, Mangione describes his band’s playing as “sonic bumper bowling.”
“In bumper bowling, the gutters are filled with bumpers that direct where the ball is going to go, but within the parameters the ball can bounce anywhere,” he says. “I like to think the way we perform is similar in that we know where we’re going, but we give ourselves a little space to bump around.”
The band plans to tour through the winter, and afterwards, work on another album.
“We like incorporating songs from the next one to help us flesh them out in front of an audience, so that when we go into the studio we have a foundation that’s settled,” Mangoine says. “We like the record to be a good representation who we are.”
Mike Mangione And The Union’s Red-Winged Blackbird Man, produced by Bo Ramsey, is available now.