Manley is the queer, indie artist you’ve been looking for

Manley is strumming a guitar and singing into a microphone. They are wearing a white sweatshirt and a stripped turtleneck.
Manley is a rising indie rock artist and a 2020 graduate. (Photo courtesy of Jon Del Real.)

Indie singer-songwriter and 2020 graduate Nat Lee, also known as Manley, has been hard at work; just a few weeks ago, they released their second EP, “I Picked My Scab and Now There’s a Scar.”

“This is an EP that I’m really proud of,” Manley said. “I feel like you can really hear my evolution in it.”

Manley, a music industry major, started writing and playing music their freshman year of college after taking a songwriting class. But their musical journey started much earlier; when they were younger, Manley says their passion was for drumming.

“My parents wanted me to learn piano and violin … I just wanted to rock out and hit stuff, just bang out on the drum kit, so that’s where I started,” they said.

Manley didn’t get fully into songwriting until their first year at USC when they had to write and perform songs in front of other students. 

“I did not know how to play guitar very well. I had never written a full song or anything. That class really pushed me out of my comfort zone,”Manley said. “That’s when I decided I can keep writing songs, like beyond the class … it really just comes down to how you feel where the song should go.”

Since then, they started giving themself more room to write and create music outside of academic settings. They said their process is slower now since they like to sit with music and give themself time to revisit it rather than setting hard deadlines. Manley says it’s a more productive way of expressing themself, and they’re now able to set time aside to look back at what they’ve written.

“I have to be in a very particular mood to write music, and a lot of my songs are really emo and sad, so typically … playing guitar and singing what’s on my mind is my coping mechanism. It’s my way of life, my creative outlet when I’m sad,” they said.

Manley describes their music as “indie, gay, kind of rock,” and that took inspiration from many indie artists, such as Soccer Mommy and Phoebe Bridgers, as well as from their own platonic and romantic relationships. 

Over the last year, Manley wrote and produced “I Picked My Scab and Now there’s a Scar” with the help of Andrew Perrea, a fellow music industry alumnus.

“I just thought the songs were so charming. The guitars and the melodies and the soft-spoken lyricism was really cool and shown through the very extreme low-fi-ness of the demos,” Perrea said. “I love their music but it is very … it’s dark, it’s emotional. So personally, I found as I was working on the EP, I personally was kind of really going through all the emotions that Nat went through.”

Manley mentioned that their ability to produce the EP was limited because they originally recorded and mixed it in their garage while living in Los Angeles. Their equipment was limited, and when they started, Manley said they had to “hunker down in [their] garage and lay down a lot of tracks.” They also had to take some creative liberties to get the sounds they wanted such as transposing a guitar down enough to sound like a bass and working with only one audio interface. 

“I would spend hours in there super late at night re-recording the same thing over and over again until I was happy,” they said. “And then my getting really frustrated because I don’t know how the fancy software works, and it’s a lot of Googling, a lot of self-teaching, a lot of trial and error. And I’ve been able to find the way to do things the way I like it.”

Perrea said the limited equipment made it a challenge to mix, especially because he wanted to make everything shine.

“They sent me demos for the four songs, sort of one-by-one. Not all together at once, which is kind of how I got started with it. It was just a song-by-song basis,” Perrea said. “They sent me over their Ableton sessions, and I just started kind of imagining what it could be. I definitely got a lot of like Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy vibes off of it and really wanted to try to take it in that direction sonically, kind of taking the covers off the music [and] letting it get brighter and shine.”

Fellow USC alumnus and indie artist, flora, says Manley’s style was one of the reasons they were attracted to their music in the first place. Manley says the two of them traded songs back and forth after they first met through Manley’s organization of shows for queer artists and artists of color.

“I feel like sometimes it’s hard to find smaller artists that have music released that sounds really clean and really polished, so when they send me demos I was like, ‘what do you mean [you’re] an organizer … this stuff is really good,’” flora said. 

They mentioned Manley’s song “Mooncakes” holds a special place in their heart because the music video was sent to them for Do Over Fest, and it especially stands out because of the sweet, emotional, familial vibe the song has.

Both flora and Manley said their favorite song on the EP was “How To Love Again.” They said the song is about being in a traumatic relationship and “being unsure how to navigate future relationships.” They said they’re able to look back and see the things they still have to learn, which they say makes the song special to them, especially in their current relationship.

“When I look at it I see a lot of growth,” Manley said. “Now I get to be really much more vulnerable and raw and honest with my music.”

Manley’s music, including “I Picked My Scab and Now There’s a Scar,” is available to listen to on all streaming platforms.