Finding Herself: A Conversation With Shortly

Alex Maniak (aka “Shortly”),  will release her debut EP, “Richmond,” on Sept. 14 via Triple Crown Records.

The Detroit-based artist possessing a signature melodic and melancholy styling in her music and delivery, hit the touring trail in advance of the release, teaming up with Mom Jeans and Just Friends on a trek through the midwest and west coast, including a stop at The Maintenance Shop in Ames, Iowa on Sept. 14. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $15 ($10 w/ ISU student ID) in advance.

ListenIowa caught up with Shortly in advance of her Ames date to discuss the reinvention of her career, the luxuries of co-writing, and embracing the notion of failure.

You’ve been an artist all of your life but have mentioned that you had become disillusioned with the commercial aspect of the music industry and how it was driven by the dollar instead of the art itself. Talk about this previous “incarnation” of you and how much different it was than what we see now.

I was timid. I’m still timid, but I was terrified to even admit that playing music was something I wanted to do. I was proud of the music I wrote, to an extent, and would upload videos to YouTube, but after an hour or so, I would delete them, or make them private. When it came to writing commercially, I was more involved with the writing process and enthused by “rock-music” than I let on. Singing my own lighthearted songs was a sort of labor, and I ended up singing and playing and writing singer/songwriter indie music that I didn’t necessarily connect with in an effort to compete with the talent industry surrounding me. I was subject to friends’ and mentors’ opinions deeply influencing the opinions I had of my music. Having someone curate the way that you sound to connect with their own audience is draining, and I lost a sense of myself, because I put myself into the music, even if I didn’t care for it, because it was the artwork I had that I could show to the world. I still care about what others think of me, as a lot of us do to an extent, but I play the music that I would have deleted from YouTube. I play new songs for my friends before they’re perfect, and I’m enthusiastic about that idea of failure. I’m proud of it, and I don’t feel like art is a competition.

At what point did red flags begin to show, and you began to think, “This isn’t what I had envisioned.”? My mom was a classical guitarist before she developed arthritis. She would sing and fingerpick and play shows on her own accord. She taught me to sing and she taught me to fingerpick one string at a time. I wanted to sing differently. The moment I think back on the most often as the red flag has everything to do with this. I was competing in a talent showcase (which I truly adored and still do) in Chicago, and I was practicing my song in my hotel room. It was just me and my mom, and she kept stopping me to make sure I was singing it properly. She was invested in it, but it upset me. I told her, “I don’t think you’ve even heard this song. I don’t think you’ve heard me play it straight-through. Can you do that?” But it was hard for her. She was worried it wouldn’t be good enough. The feeling of doubt crept into my soul and melted it. I spent a while in solitude before performing that night and thought, “I don’t know if I even like this song, and I don’t know if I even know what it sounds like.”

Are there any artists/friends/family you looked to at that point for advice or counsel? Or was this simply something you needed to do on your own.
I had a friend who loved playing piano, and he didn’t quite know how yet. We met because of our mutual love for Jack’s Mannequin, sang Regina Spektor, and talked about theatre (which I had been participating in my entire life). We found this kind of power in one another and started writing piano duets, buying sheet music, things like that, and we wanted to play with other people. We brought a friend of ours to a Steinway Piano Gallery and she played guitar and sang as he and I played a piano duet on two grand pianos. That was the first time I wrote with someone else, and I remember thinking, “It’s amazing what six hands can do.” I never asked for formal advice because that memory was so distinct to me that I didn’t need words for it. That memory was the foundation of the “yes” that burst out of me when I was asked to play in what turned out to be my first band.

Stepping back from something you love can be tumultuous. In that zone of reassessment, did you have any moment in which you thought, “Maybe this isn’t meant to be.”?
Yes. I didn’t think it was something I could ever do anything with, even after deciding to play in bands. It felt wrong, but it felt like something I should do, simultaneously, like going to college feels (sorry, everyone). I only felt right about it when I started playing my own music again and fleshed it out two years ago.

The melancholy, reflective nature of Shortly is interesting. Did you feel the need to strip things down to the essentials to show the world who you and your music really are
I don’t think it was ever about showing the world who I truly am, it was about making art without being afraid of it. It was at the same time that I stopped drawing photorealistic artwork and started doodling, and stopped following the grid structures and standard typefaces in design, and just a few months after moving out of my parents’ house. I felt the need to find that same joy and independence in my music, in all aspects of my art. My first roommate was a theatre major and she encouraged we play music together, singing late into the night. I made friends who liked pop music and started liking it, too, which sounds silly, but I had completely rejected it prior to then. I started thinking, “Oh, there are thousands of sounds in the world I can play with.” That’s where Shortly came from.

Talk about your signing with Triple Crown Records. Was there anything that drew you TCR in particular?
It just felt like home to me already. I loved, and still love, the TCR roster, which bred some of my favorite records. It was the exact opposite of the scene I felt so unenthused by. TCR’s roster was  exciting and independently operated by people passionate in the music itself, which was what I was looking for.

Talk about “Spare Time,” and “Finders Keepers,” your two most recent releases.
Both songs talk about the same kind of release, but in different ways, and with different kinds of resolutions that I found in the periods of time I grew through the feelings I had. I felt haunted by the people who left me, even if I was the one who left them. It was this feeling of abandonment coming out of codependency. In both “Spare Time” and “Finders Keepers,” I reflect on the bits and pieces of someone left inside of me. I had such faith in the friendships I had before leaving for college, such faith in the relationships I’d formed, and I thought to myself, “I’ve cared this much about someone before, and I don’t care about that person anymore. This person, these people in particular, I don’t want to forget like I did them.” Because of the way that I held onto broken relationships, I found myself haunted when they weren’t. They had moved on in a healthy way, and I hadn’t. In “Spare Time,” I wanted them to hold onto me and I want them to care like I did, even if our dynamic was toxic, and I realized in a sort of childlike fit that they wouldn’t, and that it wasn’t something I could change. In “Finders Keepers,” I talk about casting out those memories for self-preservation, and feeling these people radiating off of my surroundings as I tried to find inner peace.

You are on a midwest swing on this tour currently. What are your long-range touring plans?
We’re on two tours this fall. Upcoming is with Mom Jeans and Just Friends, and in November with The Wonder Years, Have Mercy and Oso Oso. We’ll be hitting most places in America, two tours considered, and even a bit of Canada. I’d like to go everywhere, but it will come with time and finances.

You’re releasing your debut EP “Richmond” this month (September). Is a full-scale album in the works at any point?
A full-scale album has been in the works since I was 15 years old. I have a large catalogue in the works that I have been modifying over and over, and writing is so important to me, it feels almost sacred. The music will keep coming, but it will come at a pace that is healthy for me and the artwork itself.

Are you finally at a place in which you have that artistic peace and freedom you’ve been searching for?
I’m finally at a place where I can accept that it was something I had all along.

Shortly Tour Dates:
Sept. 9 @ The Rebel Lounge in Phoenix, AZ*
Sept. 11 @ RBC Dallas in Dallas, TX*
Sept. 12 @ 89th Street OKC in Oklahoma City, OK*
Sept. 13 @ Rose Music Hall in Columbia, MO*
Sept. 14 @ The Maintenance Shop in Ames, IA*
Sept. 15 @ Fubar Lounge in St. Louis, MO*
Sept. 18 @ Woodlands Tavern in Columbus, OH*
Sept. 19 @ Southgate House in Newport, KY*
Sept. 20 @ The Loving Touch in Ferndale, MI*
Sept. 21 @ Mac’s Bar in Lansing, MI*
Sept. 22 @ The Rathskellar @ U of Wisconsin, WI*
Sept. 23 @ Amsterdam Bar & Hall in St. Paul, MN*
Sept. 25 @ The Waiting Room in Omaha, NE*
Sept. 26 @ Hodi’s Half Note in Fort Collins, CO*
Sept. 28 @ Java Downtown in Boise, ID*
Sept. 29 @ Paris Theatre in Portland, OR*
Sept. 30 @ Chop Suey in Seattle, WA*
Oct. 26 @ Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ#
Nov. 2 @ The Strand in Providence, RI#
Nov. 3 @ The Strand in Albany, NY#
Nov. 4 @ Paramount in Huntington, NY#
Nov. 6 @ Salle Multi in Quebec, QC#
Nov. 7 @ Brass Monkey in Ottawa, ON#
Nov. 8 @ London Music Hall in London, ON#
Nov. 11 @ Piere’s in Fort Wayne, IN#
Nov. 16 @ Granada Theater in Lawrence, KS#
Nov. 18 @ The Complex in Salt Lake City, UT#
Nov. 21 @ Sunshine Theater in Albuquerque, NM
Nov 23 @ Mohawk in Austin, TX#
Nov. 24 @ Brewster St. Ice House in Corpus Christi, TX#
Nov. 26 @ House of Blues in New Orleans, LA#
Nov. 27 @ 40 Watt in Athens, GA#
Nov. 28 @ Music Farm in Charleston, SC#
Nov. 30 @ The Queen in Wilmington, DE#

* w/ Mom Jeans & Just Friends
# w/ The Wonder Years, Have Mercy, and Oso Oso

For more information on Shortly: