A journey into the heart: Singer-songwriter Jake Manzi explores uncertain emotional territory on his debut album

  • Singer-songwriter Jake Manzi’s debut album, “Whatever My Heart Allows,” offers an unabashedly romantic collection of songs. Photo by Taylor Thompson/courtesy Jake Manzi

  • Jake Manzi, who grew up in the Springfield area, recorded most of his debut album in Williamsburg, with mastering in Northampton. Photo by Taylor Thompson/courtesy Jake Manzi

  • On “Whatever My Heart Allows,” Jake Manzi is joined by members of LuxDeluxe, Dawes, and a number of other notable musicians.

Staff Writer
Published: 6/24/2021 3:49:13 PM

As his first marriage was failing, Bruce Springsteen released his 1987 album “Tunnel of Love,” a record full of introspective, mostly self-produced songs about love gone wrong. It was perhaps Springsteen’s most personal album, and one reviewer suggested The Boss might have posed for the album cover with a bolo tie and tight-collared shirt “to conceal the lump in his throat.”

Jake Manzi might not have a lump in his throat, but on his debut album, “Whatever My Heart Allows,” the Valley singer-songwriter also looks at the rocky, emotional landscape of love: the uncertainty and self-doubt, the fear of loss or commitment, but also the sweetness and hope of things going right.

And Manzi, who grew up in Longmeadow and now lives in Easthampton, has coupled his heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics with appealing melodies and a soft, folk-pop instrumental backing that can vary from intimate to lush. Strings come into play in some songs, harp on a few others, while piano and other keyboards mix with acoustic and electric guitars to create a contemplative, dreamy mood.

Manzi, who’s 25, grew up in a musical family. His father, Frank Manzi, has been a longtime singer and performer in the area, and there was a tradition at home for years after dinner was over in which members of the extended family — uncles, grandparents and cousins — would break out their acoustic guitars and join Frank to sing.

In a recent phone interview, Jake Manzi said he caught the bug himself and began playing guitar and then writing songs “pretty seriously” starting several years ago. He began playing gigs as well, sometimes solo and sometimes backed up by his friends from LuxDeluxe, the Valley rock band, and he also released an EP.

In fall 2018, Manzi sat down with Caleb Rosazza, LuxDeluxe’s guitarist, to begin figuring out how they would record some of the songs Manzi had been performing live over the past few years. Those first forays in the studio, in Williamsburg, proved a fruitful time, as the two friends — they co-produced the album — bounced ideas off each other and steadily built the arrangements for the songs.

“I had a pretty good sense of what I wanted to do with them, since I’d been playing them solo and with the [backing] band, and Caleb knew them, too,” Manzi says. “So we just kept working on what we could do with them in the studio. I didn’t want to make something slick, but I did want to bring a kind of lushness to it, and we both wanted it to sound good.”

The album was actually largely recorded by March 2020 when COVID-19 arrived — “The timing wasn’t great,” Manzi noted with a rueful laugh — and final mixing was done last year. Luckily Manzi and Rosazza, who plays keyboards, guitar and vibraphone on the record, were able to enlist a number of key musicians for the recording sessions before the pandemic hit.

Former Valley guitarist Ryan Hommel, who now lives in California, contributed some elegant pedal steel guitar to two tracks, including the title song, and Hommel in turn got Manzi and Rosazza connected to Griffin Goldsmith, the drummer of the folk-rock group Dawes, also based in California. Manzi says he and Rosazza flew Goldsmith out to Williamsburg for three days to record drums and percussion on eight of the album’s 10 tracks.

Also making an appearance as a backing vocalist on one cut is Taylor Goldsmith, Griffin’s brother and the lead singer and chief songwriter of Dawes; Manzi says he went down a couple years ago to a Dawes show in Delaware “with my laptop, and we got Taylor to do his vocals for us backstage.”

These backing players (noted producer Don Was plays bass on one track) frame Manzi’s appealing vocals and acoustic guitar as he sings about the vagaries of love. The opening track, “One To,” has him doubting he’s the right person for the woman he’s singing to; the tune’s gentle pace and muted percussion shifts gears at the end to a more upbeat pop-rock sound, with a hook-laden guitar solo.

In “Whatever My Heart Allows,” Manzi sounds a more hopeful note, acknowledging some uncertainty about a relationship but also singing “So when I turn to you please don’t turn away / Though I’m still not sure if I can even stay / But go on and turn the light right out / I’ll give all the love I’m allowed / Whatever my heart allows.”

But in “Bad in You,” one of the most up-tempo tunes on the record, with tightly strummed acoustic guitar and strong electric guitar lines, he’s back to doubting himself and the state of his heart: “You know it scares me too / that I only see the bad in you.”

“I’ve always been drawn to singer-songwriters who can tell stories and can sing pretty honestly about themselves, about being vulnerable, in a way that makes you think about yourself,” said Manzi, who cites Springsteen and Jackson Browne as a couple of key inspirations.

In fact, he calls “Tunnel of Love” a particular favorite, and on the solo track “No Place is Home,” on which he plays guitar and piano, he adds a distinctly Springsteen-like harmonica riff to the end of the song.

A particular standout is “You Can’t Hear Me,” a pop-soul number that offers a nice interplay between violin and cello and a simple but melodic electric guitar riff. “That song just kind of evolved in the studio, and we got Dave Trenholm [of King Radio] to arrange the strings,” said Manzi. “It took a long time to get it right, but it worked in the end.”

And lyrically, a line in “Let Her Sway” will probably sound familiar to anyone who’s trying to tell someone how they truly feel, only to turn to liquid courage to do it: “Things don’t get any clearer down here / I’m still sitting, pulling tangles from my hair / Drinking so I can tell you what you mean to me.”

Manzi, like so many other musicians, struggled with lost gigs in the past year during the pandemic, after previously opening for Lori McKenna, Ryan Montbleau, Chris Collingwood and others. He says he moved to Los Angeles before COVID-19 arrived, hoping to make some music connections, then had to come back to the Valley; he’s currently working as a house painter while he looks to set up gigs for summer and fall (he’ll play Pulaski Park in Northampton July 16 as part of the city’s summer concert series).

He’s also hoping the new album will help open some more doors for him. “I’m really looking forward to playing live again,” he said.

For more information on downloading “Whatever My Heart Allows,” visit jakemanzi.com. The album is expected to be available as a CD in July.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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