If you read the liner notes on Nashville’s biggest albums, you’ll come across a name that is impossible to mistake: Mando Saenz. He’s become one of the most notable songwriters in country music and is establishing a sound uniquely his own. Hailing from Texas, Saenz is able to balance outlaw influences with melodic harmonies that are destined to be stuck in your head. There’s no question as to why he has over 50 cuts from some of today’s biggest artists (like Lee Ann Womack and Miranda Lambert). If there’s one thing that is definite about Mando Saenz, it’s his ability to be completely versatile, yet uniquely Mando.
From the age of three months old, Saenz lived the nomadic life of a self-described ‘army brat’. After his father joined the military, his family moved from his birthplace of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, to Fort Bragg, North Carolina; shortly after, to San Francisco, and lastly, to a small town in Oklahoma, before finally settling in Corpus Christi — all before the beginning of his fourth grade year. Around the same age, he began taking guitar lessons but didn’t stick with it. However, after a decade-long hiatus, Saenz picked the instrument back up again as a teen with a much different mindset. “I was kind of an MTV kid, so I was influenced by anything that was popular at the time. But my dad was always playing The Eagles, Bob Dylan, a bunch of the classics. I didn’t start getting into Texas music until college.”
It was then, while studying for an MBA in San Antonio, Texas, that a shy Saenz finally started playing in front of his peers. After college, he moved to Houston where his brother Marco owned a recording studio, AZTLAN studios. Soon after, he met his mentor (and future producer of his debut record, Watertown) John Egan, who convinced him to ditch his job at Whole Foods to focus on his music. “It was a good time to be a musician in Houston. A lot of us, like Hayes Carll and John Evans, were there together. I was in inner-city Houston, and it was just so cool—huge and unlike anywhere I’d ever lived.” The city would also become the place where Saenz would be discovered by Frank Liddell, award-winning producer and owner of Carnival Music.
After signing on as one of Carnival’s first musicians to possess both a publishing and recording deal, Saenz began writing full-time and eventually released Watertown. The 2005 album marked a pivotal time in Saenz’ life, “The first record was influenced by Texas and made in Texas, by a Texas producer, all of which you can definitely hear.” However, even as a deep-rooted Texan, Saenz started to feel the pull between work and home. So in 2006, he decided to pack up and move closer to Carnival headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee — where he started working on his sophomore album with Grammy-nominated producer R.S. Field, Bucket. While the album supported the sound of Watertown that was unmistakably Mando, the move naturally gave the album a more engineered sound, “The second record was more heavily produced, and being in Nashville, I had completely different songwriting influences.”
Saenz’ last release, 2013’s Studebaker, took notes from both. The album was named as one of Chron’s “50 Great Texas Singer-Songwriter Albums”, alongside classics like Guy Clark’s Old No. 1 and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. The 12-track album, produced by Mark Nevers (Lambchop, Bobby Bare, Jr., Andrew Bird), is Saenz most lengthy project to date in his words, “the most band-driven record”.
Since the release of Studebaker, Saenz has focused on writing and adding to his list of cuts, one of the most recent being “Bad Boy” from Miranda Lambert’s newest album, The Weight of These Wings. He also co-wrote Jack Ingram’s “Midnight Motel”, Aubrie Sellers’ title track from her newest record, “People Talking”, and Frankie Ballard’s “Good as Gold”. He’s also co-written and associate produced two Stoney LaRue projects with Frank Liddell, Velvet (2011) and Aviator (2014). Recently, his song “Brand New Star” was featured on The Oak Ridge Boys’ comeback record, 17th Avenue Revival, produced by Dave Cobb.
Currently, Mando is gearing up to release his fourth full-length studio album, produced by Grammy-nominated (and original founding member of Wilco) Ken Coomer. “The new record is different, just like the others all differ from each other. I’m drawing from everything I’ve done and everything I’ve learned — but expanding it,” Saenz says, adding that the project has more co-writes than any album he’s made. Although he writes the majority of his songs at Carnival’s headquarters on Music Row, he set out on this record to truly immerse himself in the Nashville songwriting community by embracing and collaborating with strangers, including a handful of up-and-coming songwriters. In addition to co-writes, the album features a cover of metal legend Ronnie James Dio’s, “Rainbow in the Dark”, an idea that sparked from Coomer, who said, “It’s a heavy metal song, but also reads Townes Van Zandt.”