Finding the ‘Good in the Heart of Life’
The COVID pandemic has been an ongoing career if not a personal crisis for a lot of musicians around the world. But for Drew McManus, the shutdown actually afforded him a chance to slow down, regroup and, most importantly, reconnect with his roots in the mountains of Montana. Although he was born in the western state, McManus grew up in the Midwest urban areas of Des Moines and Chicago. And even though he’d relocated back to Montana, his newfound success blending country music and skateboard rock into his own brand of Americana had kept him away from home much of the time.
“My life before music was very full of fishing and skiing, rock climbing and ice climbing, but I’d been grinding really, really hard for about seven years straight. Music sort of stole me away in the most ideal times of the year to be in the mountains,” explained McManus, the singer-songwriter who named his band Satsang, a Sanskrit word meaning “a spiritual discourse” or “sacred gathering together for the truth.” “So when the pandemic hit, I didn’t panic at all. I reveled in having some time to be left alone and not have to think about offers and which festivals to play. I just figured I’d ski and then when the snow melts, I’d go fishing. The break let me get back in touch with the land.”
Meandering in the mountains – both in Montana and the Himalayas in Nepal – had been his salvation from an abusive childhood and troubled teenage years that led to bouts with addiction and fears that he’d follow his brother in winding up in jail, or worse. The time off due to the pandemic also let McManus dive deeper into therapy he’d started just prior to the shutdown, seeking healing for early wounds that still ruled much of his world.
The result of both of those pursuits is Satsang’s latest album, All. Right. Now., whose closest cousin might be the Ram Dass book Be Here Now as opposed to the ‘60s rock hit by Free. From a title that also has more than one meaning – McManus is most partial to the notion that everything is happening in the present moment – to the scope of the songs, it’s a record McManus reckons he’s been destined to make ever since he picked up a guitar as a kid.
“I worked through a whole bunch of stuff during the break, and lyrically the record represents me processing my life,” he said. “It found me at the most authentic place that I think I’ve ever landed.”
On the other hand, the music, which represents Satsang’s return to McManus’ country roots, was molded by the mountains.
“It’s so easy for us to get caught up in our stories and the stress of being a human, which is pretty intense,” said McManus, who admitted his music has always been dictated by his environment and the phases of his life, from punk rock’s anger to quasi-reggae’s inclusiveness. “But the mountains don’t care about any of that. When you’re out there, it’s what it is and has always been. There’s nothing fabricated in any way. That allows for introspection rather than all of the external processing that we typically do. So the album was me just trying to make a soundscape tribute to Montana, an audio map of this place that I love.”
The songs cover a large swath of the breadth of human experience, from fear and bittersweet moments to ones of sheer joy and gratitude, including not in the least the experience of fatherhood. McManus wrote “Malachi” for his newborn son, who was born with a liver issue that doctors said meant he needed to spend his first night under blue lights to break down bilirubin. Instead, he and his wife took turns holding the infant against their own bare skin, with McManus writing in his notebook phrases that formed the basis of the song.
McManus choked up a bit just repeating the story, which he said he often does on stage in his solo shows, which is how he’ll appear at SOhO on January 26. “We rage pretty hard when I play with the band, but solo it feels like I’m in somebody’s living room, so I get to talking and usually overshare. Sometimes I say stuff on the microphone that’s probably more than I meant. But it’s really cathartic.”
The record, the music, loving his family and his band, and communing with nature in the Montana mountains is all just part of living in the moment and “the good in the heart of life,” part of walking what he calls “the tightrope between the ethereal and the physical.”
“Between combat sports, doing psychedelics, and riding motorcycles and horses, I try to do things that keep me connected to that feeling in my tummy and expediting the work of living in the moment. So with my songwriting, I just try to stay out of the way and not think at all, but just allow whatever I’m feeling to come out.”
The answer: not yet. Nearly two years after the pandemic brought the arts world to a sudden halt, and more than seven months since California allowed theaters and clubs to reopen with proper protocols, Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre Company has yet to open its doors to any events at all. There’s still no official word on a season or specials, but at least the website has been updated to proclaim: “New schedule to be announced soon!”
But RTC has taken some steps to secure its future once plays and audiences return as the 24-year-old company has received a sizeable donation and a commitment for a future legacy gift that allowed the Rubicon to purchase a four-unit property on Poli Street, which will be used to house visiting artists near the theater while its historic venue in downtown Ventura’s cultural district will be renamed Rubicon Theatre Company at The Karyn Jackson Theatre in honor of the benefactor who made the largest single gift in Rubicon’s history.