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Shana Cleveland MOTHER Mag
Mother Stories

Shana Cleveland—Musician, Mama, & Breast Cancer Survivor

Shana Cleveland MOTHER Mag

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Maria Del Rio

Motherhood—and a breast cancer diagnosis—have changed La Luz front woman Shana Cleveland in huge ways over the past three years. It's all reflected in her latest project, the solo album Manzanita.

Tell us about your home.

“We’ve been in our house for almost 5 years. We moved to Grass Valley from Los Angeles, so it was a big adjustment settling into country life, but I love it now.”

Do you have a specific vibe you're going for with your space?

“Our house is always a work-in-progress. A lot of the things in our home are things we’ve found during our travels playing music. With most everything, if we didn’t make it ourselves, it’s second hand. We find a lot of things at estate sales, flea markets, and thrift stores. I think we’re both interested in objects that seem to have an interesting history and in art that is mostly on the folk art end of the spectrum, mass-produced prints, fake flowers, the giant saddle blanket with a glass-eyed dog that hangs in our living room. We’re always working on different ideas and you never know when something’s going to come in handy. We’ve got a cabinet full of lights and backdrops and a cupboard full of wigs.”

“A lot of the lessons I learned through becoming a mother were strengthened by my experience with cancer. Both have made me more empathetic and compassionate, and more interested in enjoying and fully living in the present moment.” 

Can you tell us about your career—leading up to La Luz—in a nutshell?

“I grew up in Michigan and went to art school in Chicago and studied poetry before eventually moving to Seattle to start playing in bands. My band La Luz started in Seattle and moved to L.A. together after recording our second album there, that’s how I ended up in California.”

“My dad was a repair man and my mom drove a bus, among other jobs. I never studied music, just learned on my own. My parents are both musicians and I always intended to play music, though my path has been quite different. They got day jobs and stopped touring when my mom became pregnant with me, but I’ve been lucky enough to make a living touring and releasing records and I didn’t see a need to give that up. I want Ozzy to grow up seeing his parents follow their dreams and doing work that they love.”

Were you always a musician and performer—even as a child?

“I was always making up songs as a kid and as a teen I taught myself guitar and bass and later banjo, but I didn’t start playing on stage very often until after college.”

How does the theme of motherhood show up within you new album, Manzanita?

“I think of this record as a very personal concept album about the strangeness of pregnancy and early motherhood. I wrote the songs on side A while I was pregnant and side B was written during the early months of Ozzy’s life. I loved the psychedelia of pregnancy; all the hormones flooding my brain, watching a tiny foot shoot out from my belly and slowly drift away, being together all the time with this invisible being who was changing my mind and body. I felt like the songs I was writing during pregnancy had an interesting and sort of haunted quality that I wanted to explore over the course of a whole album.”

How has becoming a mother impacted your creativity and career?

“The biggest change is just having to be more intentional with how I manage my work time. There’s just so much less free time so it requires more discipline to bring my ideas into shape.”

What sort of creative habits, routines, or practices do you lean on to get inspired?

“I love to just sit down outside with a guitar without any goal in mind and to just play and see what comes up. My favorite thing is to sit outside in the sun in an old office chair swiveling around while I play.”

Any advice you'd give to fellow creative or musician about juggling a business and a child?

“You don’t have to move at anyone’s pace but your own. You don’t have to be productive all the time, that’s one that I struggle with to be honest. Having Ozzy and then last year being diagnosed with breast cancer both forced me to reckon with my obsession with productivity and to realize the importance of knowing how to relax into the present moment. If you’re always scheming about your next project, you're not really there with the people you love. I have so many ideas and I just want to make things all the time, but I’m realizing the importance of rest. Becoming a parent is teaching me to slow down in a way that feels healthier.”

“I love the psychedelia of pregnancy. All the hormones flooding my brain, watching a tiny foot shoot out from my belly and slowly drift away, being together all the time with this invisible being who was changing my mind and body.”

How did you first discover you had breast cancer?

“I had a small lump in my breast that I had first noticed about 10 years ago. I had gotten it checked out here and there over the years and no one ever thought it looked troublesome, but doctors encouraged me to keep an eye on it. I nursed Ozzy for a little over 2 years and then I made an appointment to get the lump checked out again. This time the hospital recommended a mammogram instead of just an ultrasound and that revealed the cancer. I had one uncle who had cancer, but no other family history.”

What was your reaction like after receiving the diagnosis?

“It was devastating. I felt like I had been sucked into a different universe. I remember cooking dinner one night and listening to Will and Ozzy playing in the other room and just feeling like I wasn’t in the same world as them anymore, which just felt so sad. To top it off, I can’t begin to explain how difficult it was trying to navigate the American medical system to get the care I needed, all the while knowing that the longer I waited for surgery the worse my outcome could be.”

How did you juggle the intensity of your diagnosis with caring for a young child?

“I wanted so badly to shield Ozzy from the pain I was going through. Luckily, I had Will and my mom here to help me with him. Lots of friends stepped in and helped too. That time is sort of a blur really, just a whirlwind of pain. I started reading Buddhist books that were recommended to me by friends and I found that philosophy to be extremely helpful.”

Tell us about your decision to remove your breast.

“The cancerous area was so large that doing a lumpectomy and saving some of my breast wasn’t an option. When I was finally able to schedule the surgery, I only had a few days to decide whether I wanted to have a double mastectomy or save the unaffected side. I chose to have a single and am on a drug to lower my risk of recurrence on the other side. To be honest, it doesn’t bother me much having only one breast and so far I’m glad I kept the other one. I was given a prosthetic breast, but I haven’t wanted to wear it because it feels like a denial of what I’ve been through. Throughout the process of preparing for and recovering from surgery, I was encouraged by various medical professionals to either have a fake breast put in through plastic surgery or to use a prosthetic. I was told having a fake breast would improve my quality of life and make me look more normal and more like a woman. I’m not interested in pretending that I still have two breasts at this point in time, but it’s a personal decision and I understand why some people feel differently.”

What’s your prognosis like now?

“I’m in good health now as far as I know, but I’ll always be a cancer survivor, which means the threat of recurrence will always be lurking around. I’ve made a lot of changes to my diet, exercise daily, and continue to study Buddhism. A lot of the lessons I learned through becoming a mother were strengthened by my experience with cancer. Both experiences have made me more empathetic and compassionate, and more interested in enjoying and fully living in the present moment.”

Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?

“I didn’t know I wanted to be a mother until I became pregnant with Ozzy. I kind of thought I might, but I never felt certain. Working as a touring musician, it felt difficult to imagine how a kid would fit into that life. When I found out I was pregnant I was surprised by how excited I was and I didn’t have any doubts about whether I could make it work.”

What've been the highs and lows of raising a young child during a pandemic?

“The first year of the pandemic was such a sweet time for our little family. Before March 2020, Will was always on the road, and I was getting ready to go back on the road as well after a break of staying home with Ozzy. Live music was obviously one of the first things to shut down and all of our tours were canceled. We went for long walks in the meadows and woods around our house everyday. We never saw anyone and it felt like we were the last people on Earth. I was sad about all the library storytimes and playdates we were missing, but overall when I think of the last few years I’m thankful that we got to spend such a huge amount of time together at home.”

Tell us about Ozzy’s name.

“We gave Ozzy a long name because we wanted him to have some options to choose from. His name is Osceola Malcolm Dune Shakari Cleveland. Malcolm is one of his grandpa's names. Dune is a name that we liked and had considered for a first name. Shakari is the name of one of Will’s best friends from childhood who died too young.”

What excites you about raising a son?

“We found out his sex while I was pregnant. Before we found out, I had envisioned a daughter, but I was happy to have a son because that just seemed more mysterious to me. But you know, who’s to say how Ozzy will identify in the future?”

Has becoming a mother made you think differently about sex and gender?

“Becoming a mother, having a mastectomy, being an empathetic and curious person in the world...all of these things have shifted my ideas about gender in a big way. “

Do you feel changed as a person, after becoming a mother?

“I don’t think I look different from the outside, but inside I do feel like a totally different person. A better person, with a much greater capacity for love. I could never have foreseen the depth of love that I now know I am capable of and I’m on a mission to bring that compassion to every aspect of my life. When I am onstage, I see everyone in the crowd as people who started out as other mothers’ sweet little babes.”

What was your own upbringing like?

“I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan—a very nice place to grow up. I’m an only child and spent a lot of time alone exploring natural areas. I’d go to the lake or walk in the celery flats, find little paths and streams. I wrote poetry to trees and was sort of goth and moody. My mom always took me to art walks and galleries and put me in art classes from a young age and I’m thankful for that because it helped me make sense of the world.”

Are there things from your upbringing that you're consciously trying to incorporate (or not incorporate) into Ozzy’s upbringing?

“Will and I both grew up in communities that were very racially diverse and that’s quite different from where we live now, in the 2nd whitest county in California. I’m thankful that my mom lives next door to us because there aren’t many Black people around here and I really want Ozzy to have an understanding of race in America and how it affects people. My parents divorced when I was 8, so I grew up with a white family and a Black family and something I noticed is how at reunions with my white family, no one ever talked about race and at reunions with my Black family, the subject of race came up all the time. I don’t want Ozzy to grow up ignorant to the myriad of ways race functions in our society.”

What excites you most about motherhood right now?

“Parenting a toddler, sometimes it feels like we’re on this strict schedule of nap times and bedtimes and mealtimes, but in reality everything is so different from day to day. Ozzy just seems like a new person all the time and I love watching him make sense of the world in his own way. I love showing him things he’s never seen before.”

“Yesterday I had to get something from the mall and he had never been to a mall before and was obsessed with the escalators, so we walked around going up and down escalators for so long! He would stop in front of big lightbox advertisements for perfume and just stare at them in awe. It was so fun. It feels like such a wild luxury to be able to walk with him and look at the world through his eyes.”

What makes you most nervous?

“Computers, internet, and social media are the things that make me the most nervous at this point.”

We noticed you don't have any screens around the house.

“We try to raise Ozzy screen-free, but he does watch videos at his grandma’s house and every now and then (especially when Will is away on tour) I’ll set him up with some sort of vaguely educational show so I can have a minute to clean or cook. We try not to look at our phones when we are with him, so he doesn’t grow up with the idea that phones are SUPER important. Although of course they pretty much are, and probably will be to him one day too. Just trying to kick the can down the road in the hopes that it fosters a healthy skepticism of these potentially sinister devices.”

How important is it to you to have your own mother around to help raise Ozzy?

“It’s so awesome, and I feel so lucky to have my mom be such a big part of Ozzy’s life. I would love even more family and friends to live out here next to us, the closer the better.”

What advice would you give to other moms about to have their first child?

“I remember in the beginning, in the first months of Ozzy’s life, being shocked at how much time nursing took and I felt like I didn’t have any time of my own to work. I remember telling a friend I didn’t feel productive and she told me that of course feeding and caring for my baby was productive. And it was so obvious, but I think I needed someone to tell me that it was ok to spend all my time just watching him and feeding him, that it was a valuable way to spend time. What could be more important?”

Any big goals or happenings—professionally or personally—that you're excited about for the year ahead?

“I’ll be touring in support of Manzanita all spring and into the summer. This is an album about motherhood, about pregnancy, and Mother Nature. I’m excited to perform these songs with a band and bring the album to life night after night.”

Shop the Story

Manzanita LP

Shana Cleveland

Portrait T-Shirt

Shana Cleveland

Manzanita T-Shirt

Shana Cleveland

Famous Faces Calendar

Crawdad Cleveland

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