Good as gold: an interview with singer/songwriter Becca Mancari
An interview by Gregg Shapiro
Nashville-based queer singer/songwriter Becca Mancari is an artist you must hear and one who’s name you should remember. Her 2017 debut album Good Woman, which received high praise from music journalist Ann Powers, landed at number 19 on Rolling Stone’s "40 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2017" list, as well as Brooklyn Vegan's assemblage of "Five Overlooked Albums of 2017". In addition to her acclaimed solo work, Mancari has also performed as one third of the trio Bermuda Triangle with Brittany Howard and Jesse Lafser. With a new album completed (and being shopped around to labels), Mancari is embarking on a multi-city concert tour. She was kind enough to answer a few questions before hitting the road.
[Mancari performs on Sept. 27 at The Mill in Iowa City.]
Gregg Shapiro: Becca, at what age did you first pick up a guitar?
Becca Mancari: I was 12 when I first started learning how to play guitar. I’ve been playing it kind of poorly ever since [laughs].
GS: Did you have lessons or are you self-taught?
BM: I’m self-taught. At that age I had a lot friends who were in bands, so I had some great mostly guy friends who said, “I’ll show you how to play that”, or “This is that power chord”. Still, today, I have friends that teach me along the way.
GS: Do you play any other instruments?
BM: I’m learning how to play keys now because of the new music and the necessity. It’s really fun. Just some simple keys.
GS: Who do you consider your top five music influences?
BM: When I first moved to Nashville, it was very much songwriters. Bob Dylan. Neil Young for so many reasons, including that we were born on the same day and I feel very connected to him. November 12! There is something about him that feels simplistic in a way and rhythmic, and that’s where I find myself as a songwriter, too. There are a lot of simple, repetitive feelings and I think he does that as well. When I first moved here, I met Gillian Welch. Talk about meeting one of your heroes! At a local taco shop that I worked at in Nashville! That blew me away. Some modern stuff, too. I’ve listened to a lot of Big Thief; I think Adrianne Lenker is one of the greatest songwriters that we have now. She’s just incredible and kind of a poet, more than anything. Radiohead, too, because I think they’re the best band out there.
GS: I’m glad that you mentioned moving to Nashville. Was the twang in your sound always there or did it become more pronounced when you relocated to Nashville?
BM: It definitely became pronounced here. I didn’t grow up listening to country music. When I first moved to Nashville, I didn’t know who Dwight Yoakam was [laughs]. I’d never listened to George Strait. I’d never listened to `90s country, for sure, which by the way is so much fun if you’re in the right setting. Nashville has taught me a lot about the beauty of that. The songwriter aspect that got under my skin when I first moved here was Gillian Welch and the people who were in old country. But then everything changed because I came back to telling my story the way that I grew up speaking it. I grew up in the northeast with no country music. My new record doesn’t even have a hint of country.
GS: In recent years, queer women have become increasingly visible in modern country, with artists such as yourself, Brandi Carlile, H.C. McEntire and Lucy Dacus, leading the way. What does it mean to you to be one of those musical pioneers?
BM: I love Lucy. It’s interesting that you brought her up. She’s so young. She’s so from another generation. I joke with (musician) Jillian Baker. She’s a good friend of mine and I used to give her a hard time. I’d be like, “You kids! You don’t even know what it was like to be gay in the early 2000s!” If I’m being honest, it’s pretty emotional for me. I don’t think of it as a fashion statement. I think of it as saving somebody’s life. I want to be the kind of musician I needed as a kid. That’s my goal and hope, because I didn’t have anyone like me. If I did, I didn’t know. I didn’t have language for who I was. I remember sneaking on my dad’s old church MacBook to try and figure out who I am. I didn’t know how to say who I was, but I knew I was different. I was raised very religious and I always felt connected to the musical aspect of the church and the way it can translate into something more important than being famous or a celebrity. Bob Dylan, the ultimate rock star, said, “No, I’m a poet!” For me as a singer/songwriter, I feel like I’m able to explain something in a way to help people feel less alone.
GS: You released your debut album Good Woman to much fanfare, including a rave review from Ann Powers. How did you go about selecting the songs for the album?
BM: It’s so funny that you mentioned Ann Powers. I’m at home in Nashville now and I just ran into her five minutes ago. It was so nice! I hadn’t seen her in a while. She changed my life! She was the first real writer to write about me and put me on the map! For those songs, it was very much what a debut album is. The compilation of everything that you’ve ever done in your life that you feel is good enough. I always feel like debut albums are interesting because they’re so aged. A lot of times the songs aren’t really in the present. You’re just making your first statements. They’re all the songs that came out of my early 19, 20-year-old time.
GS: Would you say that a debut album is the musical equivalent of a coming-of-age novel?
BM: Oh, sure! I think so! It was a representation of where I was at the time. I knew it was the best record I could do with the knowledge that I had about music. I selected them because they were my story at the time.
GS: Please say something about your hat, which you can be seen wearing in your music videos.
BM: Oh, my God! That damn hat [laughs]! It’s caused me so much trouble. I have always felt that when I put on clothes, they are costumey, like a uniform. A friend of mine said, “Have one thing that everyone will know that you’re that person.” By the way, hats are everywhere now! Especially with women. A lot of young women weren’t wearing that boyish style of hat. I really liked doing that and being different. I started wearing a hat when I was living in West Palm Beach a long time ago. I’m Puerto Rican, but we don’t have Puerto Rican cowboys. I thought the Mexican cowboy style was so cool. I felt related to that part of the Hispanic culture, so I liked dressing like that. Then it became a thing!
GS: Speaking of music videos, as a dog person myself, I was happy to see the dogs in the “Summertime Mama” video. What can you tell me about the dogs in your life?
BM: [Laughs] The dogs in my life! They are like the worst and best decision of my life. They’re definitely our dogs in the music video. My partner has a standard Poodle and I have a brown Pitty-Boxer mix. I love having them. For a lot of musicians, it’s hard to have animals at home. He really struggles a lot when I’m gone. I love him!
GS: Brittany Howard, of Alabama Shakes fame, with whom you perform in the trio Bermuda Triangle along with Jesse Lafser, is also in the “Summertime Mama” video. How did you and Brittany meet and start working together?
BM: This was a long time ago. She was with Blake Mills making her record at Sound Emporium in Nashville. I was dropping off a special present for Blake Mills, and that’s all I’ll say about that, and I met her. She walked out and I knew who she was. She wasn’t as famous as she is now. I was like, “I know who you are. You’re that girl from Alabama Shakes.” But it was more interesting to me that when we first saw each other, it was like this, “Oh, hi again” moment. It was almost like we recognized each other immediately. The girls will talk about this, too. We’ve had the same psychic talk to us about our friendship. Supposedly if you believe in past lives, we’ve been each other’s friend as long as we’ve been around. It’s true! I felt that way about Jesse. We’ve all had that experience individually with each other. We always were going to find each other. And in our past lives we have been friends. A lot of the time we were soldiers and fighting for each other in wars and saving each other’s lives. In this life, we’ve done music and kind of did save each other’s lives at the time we met.
GS: You said that you have new music forthcoming and that it’s different from what we’ve heard before from you.
BM: To me, I feel like it’s the closest to the truth of who I am now as an adult. It’s the most personal I’ve been on a record. I feel like I was able to write and open my life up to an audience that I didn’t have before. The first time around, nobody knew who I was. This time around I do have fans and people who actually care about what’s going on. I let them into my world. Maybe, selfishly, I had some things that I had to get out of my body to move on. It’s a lot about my old faith, my parents, my coming out, forgiveness, some dark stuff, trying to figure out how to be in same relationship for a long time. The human experience. I feel like I wanted to dive into it and tell my truth. The guy who produced it is named Zac Farro. He’s the drummer for Paramore. He and I became best friends six years ago. He wasn’t with the band at the time and has just started playing with them again. He’s incredibly gifted. He’s prolific. He writes and writes. We did the record, just him and I, at his house. We only decided to bring in people when we couldn’t play something. It was very quick and it was different than the way I worked with Kyle Ryan on the last record. You can feel that energy on the record. It feels so good to listen to.
GS: We’re speaking a couple of days after the Stonewall 50 celebrations in NYC and around the globe. Did you do anything special to commemorate the occasion?
BM: I didn’t do anything special that day. My fiancé and I have been trying to learn about where we come from. We’ve been doing a lot of reading and listening to podcasts. I recommend listening to Eric Marcus’ “Making Gay History” podcast, based on his book. It’s so great! He did all of these interviews with people – allies and gay, queer folks – throughout the ages. He had all of these recorded interviews from when he was doing the book. He made a podcast from the recordings. They’re stories of people whom I consider my grandparents in the revolution. My family that I need to know about.
Editors note: Becca Mancari photo by Zachary Grauy