As the self-styled “Country Punk”, MANNY BLU favours pink studded jackets and nail varnish over plaid shirts and cowboy hats. The former MMA fighter and self-confessed lover of fashion is determined not to be pigeonholed into a box, and says his dream team would be going on stage at the Opry with HARDY and rapper Mod Sun.
This Friday (August 20) Manny releases his latest EP DEViL, featuring five songs written by some of Nashville’s most esteemed writers, Ryan Beaver, Jessi Alexander, JT Harding, Brinley Addington, Anthony Smith, Michael Hardy, Craig Wiseman, Aaron Eshuis, Joe Clemmons, and Logan Wall.
After being robbed of the chance to tour over the last 18 months, Manny has been making sure he stays front of mind with fans with his TikTok videos and his Live & Turned Up YouTube channel. It’s given him an opportunity to try out new music, showcase his videos and perform plenty of covers to keep his name out there.
Canadian-born Manny has been in Nashville since 2018, releasing debut album Leave It Like It Is in 2019, promoting it with a year’s worth of shows on both sides of the US/Canadian border. Back in Nashville and working with producer Aaron Eshuis, the result was first New Ink (2020) and now DEViL, on which Eshuis is both a co-writer and producer.
Ahead of the launch of DEViL, Six Shooter Country’s ALISON DEWAR caught up with Manny to ask about the origins of his Country Punk moniker, why he prefers singing to songwriting and the fashion conversations he had with his Mum.
AD: Manny, thanks for making time to talk to us and congrats on the new music. You’ve been on speed dial with cracking out EPs at the moment. Tell me what that’s been like and how you feel your music has evolved over the last 2 years in particular.
MB: I came down to Nashville to record my first EP, which just sounded a lot like a bunch of stuff that I had started listening to in country, it was a lot more from the top 40 kind of pop stuff.
I played a tour and wanted a little bit more edge, a little more something to it. Going into recording our second EP New Ink, that was my main focus and it sounded exactly how I wanted, which was really cool. The pandemic changed our game plan a little bit, we waited to see what was going to happen and while we were sitting on that album, we started on a second one, which is DEViL.
It was just a different and interesting sort of experience, being able to sit back a little bit and really dive into all kinds of music that I’m influenced by and like. There were constant conversations with my manager, who’s gotta a wealth of knowledge as far as music goes, about styles and bands and things. There was a lot of listening during the pandemic and when we decided to make DEViL, that was a whole unique process on its own.
I was up in Canada in quarantine, Covid cancelled our tour and we were in Toronto. Being from Montreal, I wasn’t too far from family so I said well, if everything’s going shut down for a while, let me just go and hang out with my family and when everything opens up I’ll head back to Nashville.
That took a few months, but they sent me some songs and we were able to discuss what we wanted to do. Recording it was interesting, I have a small studio back home where I was able to record my vocals but I had two computers going – I had my management and producer and sound tech on Google Meets on one computer and my production manager, who’s our sound tech, took over my laptop, and was running the programming for the recording of the songs.
It was a lot of communication with my manager, who was sending us over the tracks, all of the guys were recording their parts at home and sending it to him, and he was putting it together and sending it to us. If we wanted to fix some things, he’d send it back to whatever musician…once we had a decent base I put my vocals on it.
Recording DEViL was a very unique process, it was fun to do – but I hope I never have to do it like that again – I’ve got such a great team that helps me out with all that stuff, because myself with technology…I don’t have a high level of knowledge and it was cool that I had people around me who did and said ‘go and get that mic’ or ‘plug that in here, plug that in there’. I was just trying to figure it out and we were able to come up with something that was decent.
AD: Is it fair to say this the one you’re most proud of so far?
MB: That’s interesting. I think New Ink was the changing of the guard for me, it’s in the space where I want to be, our baseline as far as where we’re heading next. Country punk is a derivative of country rock, and I really wanted to make a country rock EP, which ended up being New Ink. DEViL is probably more of a mix tape, I think there’s different colours and different flavours of things that I want to do. There is some stuff that is very, very heavy and some that is more straight up country music.
Country Punk was birthed because I didn’t want to put myself in a specific box, saying I’m going be out here doing all sorts of stuff, but at the end of the day, I’m still a country artist and I’m still making country music, whichever way we want to put the instrumentation around the song.
AD: Punk is all about breaking the rules, standing up against authority and that sort of thing. Give me a couple of examples of how you live up to that country punk name.
MB: Well, I’ve never really been into being told how it has to be and how I have to do things. When I got to Nashville, coming from a city, I already felt somewhat out of place. Everybody was ‘this is how you have to do country’ and ‘do this and that’.
A lot of things I liked, I put aside because I really wanted to participate in this world and it just got a little bit murky.
I changed management and they were saying (you have) to be happy with what you’re doing, at the end of the day, you’re the artist, you’re running the thing and we’re just following your lead.
I love pop punk and it’s more pop punk than it is a punk rock against the establishment, it’s more about not wanting to be put in the box – I guess that’s my rebellious thing…and I love fashion.
AD: I’m glad you said that…I was rocking your pink jacket and the boots and everything. How do you choose what to wear, do you get stuff made?
MB: Sometimes I do…or sometimes I’ll have an idea of something I’m looking for and I’ll google and something in that variety will show up.
My Mum always said that as a kid, when I started dressing myself, she’d say ‘No you can’t…’ and I’d have to lay it out on the bed to get her approval. They were pretty cool, but I would put stuff out and she would be ‘Those things don’t go together, how are you going to do that…’. I’m like, let me put it on and you’ll see, and she’d be ‘Yeah, that works…do that if you want’.
A lot of that stuff had gone away because country doesn’t have pink or studs or whatever you want to call it. When I started realising that I wanted to be so authentically country, I wasn’t being authentic to myself, that switch went off. I was like ‘Hey I can still make country music and look and dress and say and sound however I want’, so that was really cool.
I’m a big fan of Mötley Crüe as well, and Steven Tyler is one of my favourite front men because of his aura and his rock ‘n’ rollness – I guess if you want to call it that – so I just grab some things that I like and we’re making fun music with it.
AD: In those early days, when you were going into bars and saying give me a gig, were you getting double takes because of how you were dressed?
MB: Yeah, I think double takes just happens. I’m not going to say I dress tone down, I was on vacation and I got matching shirts and bathing suit, like a suit combo thing…and I had one for every day.
I was wearing my Country Punk cap and people were like, ‘What’s Country Punk? We’ve seen you walking around here for three days and you’ve got a different get-up on and a different Country Punk hat’…I think that’s just been me, I just like playing with clothes and I think you can tell a story that way.
Country Punk really came because trying to get gigs and stuff, they were ‘you’re too loud for country’, so I’m like let’s do rock, and they’re like, ‘you’re too country for rock’ and all this kind of stuff. I thought putting country and punk in the same title would kind of allow for a bigger variety of expectations, which is what I really like.
AD: You’ve attracted some pretty awe-inspiring writers to work with you, how did you get in with them at that level so quickly.
MB: I met our producer Aaron (Eshuis) and he took on the project. With him being a producer and a writer for SMACKSongs, which is a publishing house here, they just said well if Aaron is producing it, we trust him so here are some songs.
I don’t really know who writes the songs until, if I have interest in it, then we get the lyric sheet and it has the writers. I just get the demos and I either like it or I don’t.
If there’s something in there that’s cool, then I’ll explore it some more by really reading the lyrics, listening to make sure it makes sense to me. If it’s something I want to say, something I want to sing and it’s something I want to bring to my world and bring to country with my voice.
So yeah, when I saw those names on some of those lyric sheets I was blown away. I called my manager, I was like ‘these are the guys I’m thinking of’ and he was like ‘yep’ and it was really, really cool to experience that.
AD: Do you do much writing yourself?
MB: I tried and I’m not a fan really. There’s just something about writing, I hit a roadblock – my manager was like, ‘we’re doing country punk, we need you to get involved a little bit, it’s your thing – we need to follow your lead…’
He set up some writing sessions for me and I think I did four before I went back to him and said I’m not into this at all, I prefer the arranging. There may be some future in co-producing up ahead and that’s something I’m super into, but the long story, short answer to your question is I’ve tried it and I don’t like it, so I don’t write very much.
AD: Your EPs have all been released independently, have you got any big labels sniffing around or do you prefer to maintain your independence so you set your own agenda?
MB: A bit of both, I would love to participate in a community of people on a label, I think that’s really cool, but we’re happy with the set-up we have right now, we might be starting to talk to a label at some point before the end of the year. We have always said from day one when I came to Nashville, we’re not going to jump at any sort of deal.
I have a really strong team and if we go on another year without a label that works too. I have a lot of people around me that are super-knowledgeable and that I trust a lot. If the right one comes around then we’re all ears but until then we’re happy with where we are.
AD: You’ll play hard to get?
MB: (laughter) Yeah, I guess in a certain way, but it’s more of what we have is working and I think that it’s been going really well. We have some opportunities that have presented themselves now for end of the year and into next year, so yeah, it’s gotta make sense otherwise we keep doing what we’re doing.
AD: Sure, and in terms of those opportunities, does that involve a tour?
AD: …to Europe and England?
MB: We would love Europe and the UK as soon as we can get over there, everything’s starting to open up. We’re looking at doing a tour in September and there’s still some festivals that we’re on that haven’t cancelled yet, predominantly one up in Canada, so we’ll tour way up there but yeah, there might be some cool things coming in 2022.
AD: That sounds very intriguing! You have made some interesting covers, Miley Cyrus, Ed Sheeran, Machine Gun Kelly. Do I see any collaborations coming along?
MB: I’m always open for collaborations, there’s two songs on this new EP, collaborations with some really good friends of mine, they’re both doing country but they’re doing it in a different way than I am and differently of each other. I just thought it added some cool dynamics and different colours and flavours to the project.
One of them is a buddy (Blaine Holcomb) who I wanted on a previous song (Girls and Beer from the Leave It Like It Is album). It got a little bit muddy with my old manager, he made the decision for me without me knowing, so that was not cool. I said (to Blaine) whenever a song comes up that I can get you back on it, I will and he’s featured on Circle Up.
I think it’s really cool, we’ve played shows together, I’ve brought him up to do Girls and Beer live, the way I wanted it recorded, and I think both our styles are very, very different which I think makes the whole thing really fun.
AD: And Brittany Kennell is the other person you’re collaborating with on DEViL.
MB: Yeah, I absolutely love her voice. I think her music is incredible and there is a song on there – Valet – we released July 9 that is a bit more of an acoustic ballad. Sonically, it’s right in her wheelhouse.
I wasn’t sure how it would fit on the EP and my manager was like ‘what do you need to do to make you feel this song would fit because it’s a really good song’. He challenged me with finding a way to make it fit, two days later I texted him and said “Valet – Brittany Kennell?”
He said “Great idea”, so I hit her up and said ‘Hey, do you want to sing on this song?’ and she said absolutely, and it came out really, really great, I absolutely love her voice and she’s a great person too.
AD: Music aside, you’ve been keeping everyone up to speed with your YouTube channel, such a great way to keep your name out there.
MB: Yeah, that came along as a way to showcase our live show in an era when we couldn’t be out on the road. The flip side is there’s a lot of things that I’m vocally able to do or styles of songs I wanted to do, that don’t always come along in a project. I thought it was also a really fun way to showcase, through covers, different things and different abilities that I have and the band has.
Doing things like Blow, by Ed Sheeran; covers of hard rock band The Pretty Reckless; Miley Cyrus and Machine Gun Kelly; is just a cool way to also be creative in a time where it feels like we’re talking about new music, we’re talking about a new record and all that kinda stuff. When you end up in the room with the band and you get to recreate a song for a cover differently than it’s been recorded, you get that creativity going again and it’s really cool…and it’s kind of one step to making a record too.
Then, when we go in studio and start with new songs that have just been written and there’s no instrumentation, we get to play around. We’ve been working this whole time so we have tonnes of stuff coming.
AD: That’s exciting – will there be a full-length album at some stage as well?
MB: At some point yeah, not right now. We’re working on perhaps another EP. It’s on the back burner but it’s still very present, there will be a full-length at some point, I don’t just know exactly when.
I think EPs are a really cool way…I would say DEViL is a mix tape of a bunch of different things that I like, where I think New Ink was a point maker…of like we’re going down this route, this is exactly what we’re doing. There’s things on DEViL that probably could have been on New Ink had they collided at the same time and there’s stuff that’s a little bit different. We’re having fun with it and we got to work on a new EP and there’s 5 songs that you get to just keep. It’s just fun.
AD: In a way it’s more like a moment in time, rather than taking up a year or so to put a full-length album together.
MB: Yeah exactly.
AD: You chose black and white (with pink of course) for the Might As Well Lead video and I loved the very cinematic style. (For those who haven’t seen it check the video out here insert link). How much did you get involved in the craft of telling the story and making the video?
MB: It started when we did the video for Old Money, because I really loved that song and the juxtaposition between the storyline and the beautiful melody versus the sort of loud-sounding instrumentation is an interesting way to do that. You think such a deep love story would be a little prettier and nicer, the song’s gritty because, in a relationship there’s ups and downs, and I really wanted the idea of that song to come through.
In that process, I really started liking taking a bit more of a position on how I wanted the music videos to go. When we started Country Punk, my manager challenged me with leading the way, and I thought we don’t have a black and white video that is a storyline video. I thought running in that pink that I love, the jacket, the studs – I had that idea, I got the jacket – and I’m like this is exactly what I wanted for the storyline to be told. There’s obviously a bit of dramatics to it, but that’s what make it cool.
Year 7, the production team, they had a really creative way of using the entire building of Franklin Theatre to make it tell the story. My point and my ideas mixed with their professionalism and their knowledge really made that video come together and I’m glad you enjoyed it.
AD: Looking ahead, what’s your end goal? You’ve talked about certain people who have inspired you – Steven Tyler, Hank Williams III and others – how do you want people to look at Manny Blu and when will you feel ‘yeah, they’re taking me seriously now’?
MB: I think being able to regularly tour globally would be the ‘hey, we’re here, we did it’. I’m a Canadian, living in Nashville, so obviously Canada and the US, but I’d love to be able to tour as a recognisable name and artist in the UK and Australia as well.
That’s the goal…it’s ambitious but it makes it all the more fun and exciting, stressful at times but I’ve dedicated my life to this and there’s no reason that the goals shouldn’t be dramatic.
AD: And who would you like to share a stage with?
MB: Man, there’s tonnes of people. Just for the sheer fun of what a tour would be, I think HARDY would be a guy who would be super-cool to align myself with. There’s a dude in LA, Mod Sun, who’s part of the Machine Gun Kelly pop-punk revival. He looks like an unbelievable dude so it’d be cool if we could do a tour with HARDY and one with Mod Sun.
AD: Walking out on stage at the Ryman or the Opry?
MB: If you get HARDY or Mod Sun walking out at the Ryman, that would be quite an interesting visual (laughter) I’d love it.
I look the way I look singing country songs, I don’t know too many male artists that have their fingers painted and tonnes of studs and whatever on them…but music is fun and it’s an expression of self, so getting put in a box is such a counterproductive way of doing that.
If I can make a collaboration with Mod Sun and HARDY, singing at the Opry, the three of us – that would be the weirdest looking show probably the Opry has even seen but it would be one of the coolest.
AD: What a brilliant thought to end on. Thank you Manny, it’s been great chatting and good luck with the new EP, we can’t wait until you come over here.
MB: We’d love to, UK is on the top of our list once things start to open, so hopefully we can get over there.
DEViL Track List:
1. Train (Ryan Beaver, Jessi Alexander, and JT Harding)
2. Might As Well Lead (Aaron Eshuis, Joe Clemmons, and Logan Wall)
3. Valet – Ft. Brittany Kennell (Aaron Eshuis, Ryan Beaver, Ryan Hurd, and Joe Clemmons)
4. Rusty Things (Ryan Beaver, Brinley Addington, and Anthony Smith)
5. Circle Up – Ft. Blaine Holcomb (Ryan Beaver, Michael Hardy, and Craig Wiseman)
(Producer: Aaron Eshuis)