Fabrizio and his twin brother Flavio, 22, are Barbara Manning's new bandmates. She's had a slew of them across a career that's spanned over 15 years. With World of Pooh, 28th Day, SF Seals, and as a solo artist, she's never managed to stay in one place for very long, be it musically -- she's ranged from folk to punk to wry children's songs -- or geographically.
Which is where Germany comes in. After being evicted from her San Francisco apartment in the fall of 1998, Manning hit the road to tour on her understated album In New Zealand (where the album was recorded), and try to figure out where she belonged. After about three months of living on the cheap on the road -- stopping between gigs at "the closest national park than you can get from your AAA manual" -- she still suffered from a sense of being cast adrift. "After touring America, I thought I would find a city I liked and stay there," she says. "And I didn't. So, OK, that means America isn't happening for me. So I thought I'd go where the audiences are generally more appreciative, which is Europe."
Manning had known Fabrizio and Flavio in the '90s during her European tours -- their parents ran a club in central Germany called the Mill that drew a lot of indie rock acts. Manning took a job as an au pair and shortly afterward was invited to play in France at "a women's limp-wristed quiet music festival." She solicited Fabrizio to play bass and Flavio on drums, had a lot of six-hour practice sessions, and wound up coming up with something they called "violent," at least in terms of the so-called limp-wristed acts they were scheduled with.
Being shunted into the women-in-folk-rock ghetto is a problem Manning's had a lot throughout her career, and most of the blame can be laid firmly on her first solo album, 1988's Lately I Keep Scissors. A minor classic beloved by those who know it, it's a tuneful, haunting, and gorgeous record of breakups and dark secrets that broke the sulky mold of confessional rock albums. Since that break -- critically, if not commercially -- Manning's rummaged through a slew of genres that reflect her obsession with rock's underrated greats: Covers of the Pretty Things, Bevis Frond, the Bats, and other also-rans populate her albums like lost relatives sleeping on her couch, and fit into her albums so neatly they work not as cover fodder but added emphasis.
While Manning has consistently bristled at comparisons to the likes of Liz Phair, it's easy to imagine Phair paying close attention to Manning's biting lyrical approach when she was searching for a strong voice. And if Manning wasn't getting the women-in-rock tag, she was getting the confessional-folkie one. "I still play [Scissors'] songs quite often -- a third of those album's songs are in my live set," she says. "But the funny thing is, when I made that record -- and I actually recorded it in '86 -- I didn't think it was folk at all. I thought it was edgy pop. And so when the whole folk rock thing started to take over the San Francisco scene, I was very resistant to being a part of it. I have a very low tolerance for a lot of female, cry-in-their-beer-type music. I step into that sometimes, but I don't think I do it wholeheartedly."
Being from Germany, the Steinbachs had enough distance from the local scene and the national press' approach to Manning's music to have some perspective. "I've always been fascinated with San Francisco and its indie rock scene," says Flavio, who argues that folksiness is "one part of [Manning], but that's not what she is." Indeed the brothers had been fastidious collectors of Manning's recordings; when she asked them what songs they'd be interested in playing, they came up with a list that included songs she hadn't touched in years. Last April, the trio dubbed themselves the Go-Luckys and recorded a six-song EP, Homeless Where the Heart Is. The confessionalism is still there -- "No permanence, no going back," she sings on "Life/Luck" -- but there's a visceral charm to the Steinbachs' loose-limbed battery, and a small ray of optimism in a group of songs that are mainly about closing up shop emotionally. Manning also revisits one of her older songs, "Isn't Lonely Lovely?" (originally on her 1997 album 1212), explicitly to give it a harder edge that its previous treatment lacked.
The album -- which has sold over 2,000 copies in limited release -- was put out by the Naiv label in Germany, but Manning is currently working without a label after her contract with big-indie Matador lapsed after 1212. "Matador treated me fairly -- financially," she says. "Probably more so than I should've had. They'd probably would've been more satisfied with my record sales if they hadn't given me such fair advances. But they didn't go for the same crowd as they were going for with some other bands. All my ads were in fanzines, not magazines. I'm not sexy enough to have a video that becomes successful, but I'm not tame enough to be invited on Lilith Fair. Whatever it is, there's some kind of niche that I've fallen into."
Manning's brief return to San Francisco and her series of shows with the Steinbachs is as much a matter of getting her personal life in order as her musical one. She'll be moving soon to a trailer near the Sierra Nevada mountains, where she'll begin a two-year study program to become a forest ranger. She's also finishing work on Under One Roof: Singles and Oddities, which compiles 18 singles, compilation tracks, and unreleased ephemera from different bands dating back to the late '80s; set for release July 25 on Innerstate Records (which is distributing Homeless Where the Heart Is stateside), Manning's writing the liner notes herself. Later this summer, the Go-Luckys will do more recording in San Francisco and then go label-shopping; Flavio's enthusiasm led him to send a letter to Elektra Records, but Manning's a little bit less ambitious, even if she thinks "if you write great songs, you should automatically be given a house."
To be sure, Manning's expressing a bit of bitterness here -- there's a hint of resentment in her voice about her career stalling, and especially about the fact that she can't afford to live in the city that she called home and in which she built her career. But if Germany gave her anything, it's a sense of perspective. "OK," she asserts. "I don't have money, I don't have a secure living space necessarily, a car that runs, or a sweetheart, or a record label. But I have my music, and I can do it well, and that's invaluable. That cheers me up. I'm still destitute, but I feel like I have a lot of worth."