Food. Wine. Amour. France is known for many things, but folk music is not one of them. However, when French native Morgan Manifacier started playing guitar at the age of 14, it was American folk music that he wanted to play. He particularly felt a connection to American songwriters like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell.
Growing up in southern France, he found that not only was it tough for him to find other people interested in folk music, there just weren’t a lot of people interested in music in general.
“Everyone I knew was more focused on playing soccer,” Manifacier says. “Soccer is really big in the south of France. As much as I love soccer, I was more interested in music.”
Even in a cultural center like Paris, few musicians play American folk music. The music scene is dominated by pop and electronic music. But there was something Manifacier loved about folk more than any other genre.
“Folk music is deeply personal and intimate,” he says. “There is nowhere to hide with this music, especially during a performance, and it becomes very easy to connect with others.”
Manifacier moved to Oakland four years ago, and he’s found more musicians to play with. However, his approach to folk isn’t traditional. His songs are gentle ballads, sometimes peaceful and at other times haunting, but the music is arranged and textured in atypical ways, with lush, sometimes eerie harmonies. Sarah Hawley-Snow adds gorgeous cello parts and Matt Camgros accents the songs with his light jazz drumming style.
There is even a bit of classical influence in Manifacier’s music. In fact, before he discovered the guitar (and folk) at 14, he studied the piano—and loved all the classical composers. One of his recent songs “Faithful and Brave,” in which he plays the piano, suggests a combination of a sweeping Beethoven composition and a soft lounge piece.
Manifacier’s fascination with American songwriters was in part due to the influence of his grandfather, who had an obsession with old Western films and cowboys. Even as a child, Manifacier always wanted to travel to America.
At 17, after completing high school in France, Manifacier had the opportunity to be an exchange student in the states, doing a second senior year at Sierra High School in Manteca, Calif.
“The reason I left southern France in the first place was because I wanted to be in a place where music was important,” Manifacier says. “I wanted to meet people that could inspire me and change my views on music.”
Even in the Central Valley, Manifacier met a lot more songwriters than he was used to, but what really inspired him were his occasional trips to the Bay Area.
“I was so intrigued by how eclectic the music scene was,” he says. “Funk, folk, hip-hop, you name it. I really wanted to fully experience the area and the art scene.”
After living in Manteca for a year, he went back to France, but couldn’t stop thinking about the Bay Area. One year later he moved to Oakland, with a scholarship to study music at Holy Names University.
Initially, Manifacier’s music was much more overtly influenced by folk. This is evident on his first album Grande, which was released on Tape Club Records in 2011. The album is dark in tone and sparse, and expresses a feeling of solitude with songs like “Moncale” (“Whispers are cold/rain touched my face/like my mother’s hand/we will despair”).
The longer Manifacier has lived in Oakland—and worked with other musicians—the more he has stretched his notions of what he could play, and how far out he could take his music.
“I learned so much here. You think that you’re OK, but then you realize that there’s this huge universe that’s yet to be discovered. That’s the beauty of music, we can create everything. It’s kind of limitless. It’s really hard to comprehend what world is next, which is why we always strive to be more experimental with the sound that we have available to us,” Manifacier says.
His second album, Hues and Calm, which he will release at his Jan. 11 show at the Art Boutiki, pushes his style into new directions. He adds more instrumentation, plays more with mood, tone and dynamics. The songs have more fleshed-out arrangements, using folk as a blueprint but drawing on classical compositions to make truly nuanced pieces.
Hues and Calm has a lighter tone, with themes of traveling and self-discovery, as in songs like “Cold Countries” (“As truth will turn him grand/drifting afar from his homeland/to seek his true intent”).
Unlike Grande, which Manifacier wrote and recorded by himself, Hues and Calm was written and recorded with his band.
“I considered myself a solo artist before, but not anymore. Now it’s more of a collaborative effort to compose music. On the record, every song, there’s a very distinct influence with each band member,” Manifacier says. “It’s an interesting exercise to bring them to an acoustic setting but I like it better with a full band. They really bring it to life in a better way.”
SLG Art Boutiki & Gallery, San Jose
Sat, 7:30pm, $10