An Interview With Becca Mancari

You know those times when you hear a song and you immediately want to hear everything by the singer? That’s what Becca Mancari’s song “Golden,” was like for me. Her album, Good Woman, was released a few weeks ago, and it is quickly becoming one of my favorites for this year. It easily hops genres, featuring lyrics that are both spare and evocative. We got to chat about her songwriting process, feelings of connection and disconnection, being part of a community, and the need to recognize how diverse roots music is and to reach a broad audience. Becca is in town next week at The Middle East and you should be there.

RLR: This album feels like it’s coming from a lot of different, but complementary places, musically speaking. Can you share a little bit about how you got started musically, and what your path has been like?

BM: I grew up playing music, since I was pretty young, at least writing songs as a little kid. I had a little training when I was maybe twelve. But most of it has been gut learning and experiential learning. And because I wasn’t trained as a musician, I feel like that’s kind of why it has so many different influences on it, and the record I wanted to make was just from the gut. I’ve always functioned that way as a writer and as a person. So I think that’s why it feels accessible to different listeners, because I’m not going about it trying to be something.

I surround myself with artists who play the same way. The band on the album is my live backing band. I live in Nashville and for a lot of records, you do have guest people come in; that’s wonderful, but for this first record, I didn’t even want too many guest vocalists, or other players, because I wanted it to be an extension of myself. I wanted you to feel involved in a story.

RLR: I’m always interested in how you help other musicians on the album think about what a song is trying to do and how they contribute to the work–how did that play out in the making of this record? I’m thinking especially of that slide guitar on “Good Woman,” which hits some really wonderfully dissonant notes that complement the lyric really well.

BM: Why it works for me and my guys is, you know, Blake [Reams] and I have known each other for 10 years, since we were nineteen, since we were kids. When we play together, he understands a little bit of why I wrote those words. It’s very personal, but he’s just a very attuned person too, and I don’t like to play with players who aren’t kind of emotional players. So, I’ll bring a song to them, like: here it is, and they’ll think, how do we invoke what she’s saying in what we’re playing?

On “Good Woman,” Juan Solorzano played slide on his electric guitar.  It was so emotional. The way we recorded that song, it was me, Juan, and Charlie Whitten playing acoustic guitar. As I was singing, I knew in my gut, this is the one. Juan went back in and said, “Now I’m going to play over this and I’m going to get to that spirit.” And he says that he sometimes he can’t play those notes again, because he was so in the moment.

RLR: Can you talk a bit about your process for developing a song? Some folks lock themselves in a room, others have scraps of lyrics here and there and write relatively quickly. What are you listening for to pursue an idea?

BM: I like to be isolated in a sense, but can be isolated with people too. And like right now, I’ve noticed that I’ve started to retreat from everyone, and that’s when I know I’m going to start going into the next part of myself. I’m not a sit down every day and write kind of person, but I am writing all the time  in my mind. I write through experience; I always have, and I don’t know if I always will. But I feel like I’m ready to disappear for a while–maybe going to another state and just experiencing again. I feel like if we’re going to write these things, we have to at least experience them a little bit. I like to be out in the world.

 


 
RLR: In some ways, I feel like each of these songs is telling a very specific story, but only giving so much detail, and more describing feelings of disconnection or distance, even disconnection from yourself. As you are writing the songs, how do you determine what the sweet spot of detail is to invite the listener into that space, while also leaving a lot of room for them to interpret the song?  

BM: I do feel disconnected from myself sometimes. In that way, I don’t know any other way to live. And that’s been hard on my relationships, too; I’ve definitely had partners be like: you are disconnected. This record, I let myself [write about that], because that was the truth. I’ve realized I’m never going to be able to just play a part. I have to be myself. With the words, I truly enjoy letting you decide what it means. It’s up to you to decide, and I love writers like that, where something doesn’t make sense to me, but I know they’re trying to tell me something; and that feeling is more exciting than somebody telling you how to feel.

RLR: The title track has the line, “And I pretend to be a good woman now.” There is a bit of a thread of the performances we enact each day, sometimes of self-deception, on this album–how much do you think about that element of artifice that is always necessarily part of the life of someone who performs as part of their living?

BM: It’s hard for me, because I do struggle with that. But that song is all about this idea, and it’s another theme on the record, wrestling with myself about what is good? Why do I feel bad sometimes? How do you step back from yourself? Not to get too existential, but you do step back from yourself and wonder what am I doing? Why am I doing it? Maybe it doesn’t make for a great pop record, but it does make for something interesting. And some of my favorite writers are that way, where they are kind of working out their own feelings with you listening in and it’s very intimate, and I kind of long for it, because we are so disconnected.

RLR: You’ve mentioned this broader community of musicians that you’re connected to, and you’ve joined up with Brittany Howard and Jesse Lafer for Bermuda Triangle. What prompted you all to start making music together and how has that community impacted you?

BM: We played a show not that long ago at Mountain Stage and we played with Overcoats. We were just hanging out and talking; they were saying, “We live in New York, and love it, but there’s something about Nashville and being around so many musicians all the time.” They said they felt lonely sometimes not being surrounded by people doing what we do. And it is a sacrifice, it’s a hard life. It’s a choice we make to do this with our bodies, and life, and minds, and spirits.

So, now the fun part of it. Bermuda Triangle is super fun. We just have spent so much time on each other’s porches. And we just really wanted to be able to spend time with each other. We talk about heavy stuff and heartbreaks, and the human experience, but it’s hilarious too. I love hanging out with Brittany and Jesse. They’re my best friends, and we truly enjoy each other. We’re making jokes the entire time. And people, like three songs in, they get it, and see that it’s very funny and inclusive. We know a lot of people are coming out for Brittany, which is great. And I keep thinking if I was a huge Alabama Shakes fan, I would do anything to go these shows. I can’t imagine what they must feel like to see their favorite artist being herself, laughing and joking with them.

 


 
RLR: Is there anything else that you’ve been thinking about with the release of the album that we didn’t get to talk about?

BM: Well, I don’t feel kin to one genre, but get called “country” a lot. I’m not against that, I just don’t think it’s accurate. I also didn’t grow up on that music at all; I’ve been listening to indie rock, The Beatles, and rock n’ roll my whole life. I guess maybe next year…I don’t know, maybe I’ll wear FILA every day or something [laughs]. I don’t know why it matters to me, because it shouldn’t, but it feels misplaced and it doesn’t sit well on my brain.

RLR: Is it that it’s constraining?

BM: It feels hard to even explain. But something’s changed in me over the years and maybe that’s the political climate. But I also feel like the crowd is hard for me a little bit.

Alynda from Hurray For The Riff Raff and I have been friends for a long time, and she’s been so supportive of me. And we’re both Puerto Rican and we’re both queer and we’re really different for the genre, but we both grew up thinking we had to be like these white men. I’ve realized there is this whole other world over there that feels like me and I can understand more. I’m going through a time where I am wanting to find out where I’m coming from. What do those roots look like, and what does it look like to reach people of color? What would it be like to look out in a crowd and not just see white people? That’s important to me, because that’s also where I come from.

There was a great article in Rolling Stone about AmericanaFest. And that night, I was on the road, so I watched it online, but I watched Alynda perform “Pa’lante” at the Ryman, fist in the air, screaming: “Juan! Miguel! Pa’lante!” I was almost in tears and I just texted her: they are so lucky to have you, because you are bringing something that is true. And there are so many people of color making roots music, too, by the way, and they’re not represented. She’s a hero to so many of us.  

RLR: What you’re saying also makes me think about how white people engage without being totally defensive or tokenizing people of color. So much of this conversation is about who has power and how they use it.

BM: Right. And I know you understand this, but it’s not about people of color versus white people. My dad is white. What I believe is we need to tell the truth, we need to find out who we are, and I want that to speak to everyone. Not black people or white people; I want it to reach all people.

 

Becca is playing The Middle East on November 1, Bates College in Lewiston, ME on November 2, and Club Metronome in Burlington on November 4. Full tour dates are here. Get out to see her and pick up Good Woman.

 

Photo Credit: Zachary Gray

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