Songwriter Spotlight: Mando Saenz

For most people, something mumbled doesn’t bear repeating – an incomplete thought or a throwaway. For Mando Saenz, it’s a source of lyrical gems.

“A lot of times the melody and music kind of dictate something that mumbles out of your mouth that sounds like something and tends to work,” Saenz explains. The artist and songwriter likes to write melody first – it’s the first thing that grabs you when listening, and what initially drew him to his favorites. He lets melody take the lead, and often will mumble a filler lyric while he’s working it out.

Sometimes, those fillers are gold: “That’s my favorite – when you sing the melody and then something comes out and it’s like, woah, cool.” For Saenz, this happens a lot. “I guess people I’ve written with tell me, ‘I like it when you mumble stuff,'” he muses. “When I first started writing I’d just mumble through something and record it and then I’d listen and start writing what I think it sounds like. Sometimes that worked pretty good, actually,” he laughs. 

One such song was “Good As Gold,” which Frankie Ballard recorded on his most recent release. “[Co-writer Justin Bogard and I] just stared playing and came up with the melody and good as gold kind of came out of my mouth I think,” he says. The idea grew quickly from there, eventually gracing Ballard’s El Rio. 

Saenz grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, and then lived Lubbock for college and San Antonio for graduate school (aside from his songwriting accolades, Saenz also holds an MBA). His parents listened to a wide variety of music: jazz, traditional Mexican music, folk, rock. Saenz’s sound now reflects that rich sonic upbringing, plus the influences of the sound and geography of Texas.

“Having gone to school in Lubbock, which is very sparse and desert-like but always had a good music history … I wasn’t writing there, but I was still playing and soaking it in,” he says. “Then where I was living in Houston was kind of crude and a real city but in a cool artistic way; humid, sweaty, not the prettiest but to me I thought it was awesome.” That character and specificity is something that shows up in Saenz’s music, which is full of rich imagery and specific tone. “[I] carry everything everywhere I’ve been with me, even in a writer’s room I think about it all the time,” he says. “I try to go back to that place, that shitty apartment in Houston.”

“Good As Gold,” for instance, exemplifies Saenz’s strength of specificity. The character is relatable, a man who may not be rich but is worth more than the money in his pocket. It’s also an example of another Saenz signature: capturing an emotion and synthesizing that experience in song.

“I’ve always said state-of-mind songs seem to be what I write as opposed to story,” he says. “It’s just how you’re feeling or dealing with stuff, kind of the bigger picture, and say it in a way that’s simple but cool.” 

His strength also lies in being able to return to what something felt like in that moment, whether he’s channeling the apartment in Houston or imagery like the Studebaker in “Pocket Change.”

“[When] you’re young, you’re going through so much stuff for the first time, from relationships to friends to work to everything else and I try not to lose that,” he says. “I try to still be that age in writing now ’cause I think that’s the best place songs come from is the young going through stuff for the first time.”

Hear for yourself this weekend as Saenz plays the 30A Festival:
January 12, 5:00 PM — Vue on 30A Dining Room
January 13 / 6:30 PM — Boathouse
January 14 / 9:30 PM — Seaside Mtg Hall Theatre