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Interview: Becca Mancari

25 August 2023

Photo by Sophia Matinazad

With the release of their third full-length album, Left Hand, Becca Mancari appears to have unburdened themself of an immense emotional load. The profound intricacies explored within the album reflect Mancari’s courageous exploration of challenging subjects, effectively employing their lyrics as a cathartic outlet for processing an array of sentiments. Diving into Left Hand, it becomes evident that this collection of songs offers a unique and transparent glimpse into Mancari’s personal journey, leaving no concealed emotions or experiences. Yet, overarching the candid revelations is a profound sense of self-acceptance and a newfound positive perspective, indicating Mancari’s empowering voyage towards self-discovery and a deeper comprehension of their place in this world.

In a warmly illuminating conversation, Mancari graciously delved into their start in the music industry and revealed the profound impact of literature and film on the fantastical sounds woven throughout many of the album’s tracks. Mancari also tenderly discussed the significance of their bond with their grandfather, while candidly narrating how navigating their personal nadir paved the way for the genesis of Left Hand.

Your first album, Good Woman, which came out in 2017, had a country/Americana vibe. Those are two words that I wouldn’t use to describe your new album. How would you trace the evolution from 2017 to today?

BECCA: It’s a great question and something that is definitely part of my story. I had never been to Nashville before I moved here. I would say that I’m pretty impulsive to a fault. I’m working on that in therapy, so it’s part of my ethos. I had met my manager, who at the time was managing The Civil Wars, that’s how long ago this was, when we were both in a wedding together. I had always played music, been a writer, played shows, but I’d never done it professionally. I’d never released any music. This was in Virginia. I was living there at the time, and I played a couple of songs I had written for my friends, and he was there and he was like, “Pull me aside later,” which is such a Nashville thing to say.

He was like, “This is really good. Are you pursuing this? What’s your story?” And I was like, “This has been my dream, but I had kind of gotten off the path for a really long time. I took a long road to get to being where I am now.” And he said, “You should consider Nashville.”

When I moved to Nashville, the garage rock scene was really big, which was amazing. And I was friends with a lot of that community. That’s kind of how I met Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes), randomly enough. And then I think, at the time, I was really enthralled with the Gillian Welch side of music and people like John Prine, all Nashville based at the time. And I really wanted to fit into this mold. I have a lot of respect for that person because I was so young and just trying my best. I really wanted to be a great songwriter, and I hadn’t actually grown up with that kind of music.

So, long story short, I realized after I put out Good Woman, that culturally that album didn’t reflect my community at the time. I’m a Puerto Rican from Staten Island. When I told my family I was moving to Nashville, they couldn’t even conceptualize it. It was so far out of their ethos.

I think the second record, The Greatest Part, was very much built out of a connection that I had with my very good friend Zac Farro from Paramore, who was like, “Why don’t we just make a record of music that you actually listen to? Isn’t that what you would want to make?” And so we did, and it’s been like that ever since.

How early in life did you realize that you had such a wonderful voice? Did you just know it or did people tell you when they heard you singing?

BECCA: Thank you for saying that. It’s funny because when I moved to Nashville, for years I was definitely a small fish in a big pond. I was like, “I am not really a technically good singer.” I think what it is for me, and that is the thing that has always been the common thread of why I think I’ve had success in this job, is that when I was very young, I remember thinking, “I don’t want to sound like anybody else. I want to figure out what my voice sounds like, and I want to double down on that.” It would have been during the Fiona Apple era and the Feist era. I love both of them. But, it’s interesting, they both have a very identified voice.

And then there were a lot of copycats. We heard a lot of people trying to mimic what they were doing. I remember being cognitive enough to say, “I know that I don’t want to do that.” I think even there were some artists that I really loved who had said something like that in an interview. They said, “Find your own singing voice.” Especially as a CIS woman at the time, that was very important to me to find my own kind of sound.

It’s just me. I think what people find power in, it’s not very big of a voice, but I think it’s honest. And if you can find that, people can connect to that. I connect to that in singer-songwriters. That’s probably what I listen to the most.

Back to your question, after leaving Staten Island, I grew up in very, very rural Pennsylvania. Like, tiny. When I tell you it was more deer than people, that’s true. There was one traffic light. I remember when we got a McDonald’s and it was a huge deal. My dad was, and is, a pastor so it was a really religious upbringing but the saving grace of all of it was that I was allowed to sing and I was allowed to be on stage at a very young age. And I think that was where I found that people noticed. My parents did encourage that. I just was always singing. They were like, “You would embarrass us at restaurants” because I’d sing.

While you don’t sound like Fiona Apple or Annie Clark (St. Vincent), your music has a similar vibe. It sounds so good when listening on headphones and the louder I listen, the more I can pick out things that I don’t hear when listening quietly in my car. I once described St. Vincent’s music as being the soundtrack to a fractured princess Disney-type of movie, it had kind of a dream state to it. Are you influenced by the fantasy worlds created in movies and books?

BECCA: The fantasy world for sure is part of this. I’m glad you picked up on that. Even the imagery for the album is deeply fantasy driven. I found this incredible cave about an hour and a half outside of Nashville and it was this old limestone cave that had been man made and it’s just abandoned behind a Piggly Wiggly. That’s the most Southern thing I could ever say.

The fantastical is actually something that I really love, and I watch a lot of, and read a lot of, Sci-Fi. The Left Hand of Darkness was a book that I read before I wrote this record and it has so much about gender and non-binary precursors. It’s just an incredible book.

I take a lot from other sources that are art forms but not always music. I don’t listen to new music when I’m making my own music because you’re ten steps behind when you start listening to something that just came out. It’s already been done so you just move forward.

There’s a move called The Tree of Life and it really struck me. It just kind of destroyed me, honestly. I wanted the record to feel like a movie almost. So, the record is kind of thick. It was definitely a choice.. I think you need three times with it, and then you’re like, “Oh, shit. I think this is really good.” I think it’s very much driven by listening in your headphones. I’m kind of old school in that way. I really wanted that to be on purpose. And, it takes time for you to digest which is kind of an old school trait for making music. I did want it to be fantastical. I have always had very vivid dreams. I’m lucid in my dreaming. So, I wanted it to feel like you could almost be in another part of your lived experience which often happens in your sleep.

Did The Tree of Life provide any inspiration? Are there any lyrics that, if I watch the movie and then immediately listen to Left Hand, I’ll say, “Oh, okay. I get it”?

BECCA: 100%. If you listen to the last song, “To Love the Earth,” there’s a moment in the movie where Jessica Chastain is talking to her son. The movie is about a family and grief and the afterlife, the transition you pass. It’s pretty heavy. There’s one brother who committed suicide and they were gay and you don’t find that out. You have to really dig to figure that out. There’s this line where she says something about forgiveness. In the song there’s a line that I sing, “Love every blade of glass / every stream of light / forgive,” and I think that’s almost verbatim to what she says in the moment when she’s talking to her son.

I’m assuming the intro to “Homesick Honeybee” is an actual voicemail from your grandpa. Those little personal glimpses into your life really help draw the listener in. Was it an afterthought to put that voicemail at the beginning of the song, like maybe it needed just a little something more, or it is something you’ve been hanging onto trying to find the right moment to use it in a song?

BECCA: I love that question, because that song had so many iterations. There’s so many different versions. There’s like a 10-minute long version where it’s mostly instrumental which is kind of what I love the most about making music, it’s the actual sound format. That is even what I’d like to do eventually, make music for movies and TV. I just had this really dreamy loop that I had made, which is pretty much what we did. The whole record has a ton of demo stuff. That’s something that was so important to me. If I captured it, why not use it?

I had this dreamy moment where I felt like the song is very much about being lost, but also being found in the people that find you and accept you for who you are. And my grandpa has always accepted me. He’s 93. The guy’s amazing and still so with it. He knows about my parents’ disacceptance and he pulled me aside during the pandemic. I went to go see him, and I hadn’t seen him in so long, and he said, “I know you’re gay, and I don’t even know what that means, but I know that you are, and I love you, and I know that, and I know that that is what I know that God is. And so why would I not? Nothing would ever make me not love you.”

He’s so old school. He’s got almost a transatlantic accent. He grew up in Delaware, was born there. That’s home to him. And so he has this cadence, the way he speaks, that is very rare for me to hear now in the South. And so it just timed so perfectly. And I think that was the catalyst where I was like, “Wait, this sounds like what I made with this drum loop. It would be perfect, the way he’s speaking.” It was this marriage of art and meaning. I know that he’s not always going to be with me, and I want him to be in the world forever.

It feels to me like Nashville is a small big town, where everybody knows everybody. Juan Solorzano is all over Left Hand. I first heard about him from Molly Parden, who said she recorded with him, and then I saw him when he was touring as part of Ruston Kelly’s band. He seems to work with a lot of people.

BECCA: This is a huge deal. We originally were not going to do this record together. This is a deeper story. I had this very bad circumstance where I went into working with a bigger name producer, and it was just really bad. I had to leave in the middle of the night, basically. Juan has played on everything I’ve ever done. And he has done one other song with me, a song called “Golden,” where we re-recorded it and that version is actually the most streamed song of my career.

I was leaving and I called him and I was like, “Hey, I’m going to cancel your flight and I’m coming home.” He had heard the songs. He said, “You’ve already produced these songs.” I had done everything already in my own way. I played every part, I’d arranged the songs. He was like, “We could just do this. You could come home. We live in Nashville. We have literally got everything we need right here.”

And so that’s what we did. We started within a month of that. I took some time off to recenter myself and get healthy and get away from that energy.

Juan has been my dearest, truest collaborator, he’s played on everything I put out. It’s crazy. When I really think about it, I’m like, “Who is the common person?” And it’s Juan. He’s always my first call. He’s so not in his ego. He just serves the song. He’s very much driven by the music. And if you get in a room with somebody like that, that is just so uniquely special and important, because we are all stuck on our egos. That’s kind of part of being an artist, honestly.

You’ve got a number of special guests on the album like Julien Baker, Brittany Howard, Zac Farro. As someone who grew up studying liner notes, I’m wondering if you have to give their label credit, like “Julien Baker appears courtesy of …”?

BECCA: Not with Zac … maybe we did, actually, I don’t know … because Zac owns his own label, it’s called Congrats. It’s amazing. I think he’s pretty independent and a contractor when it comes to Paramore.

But with Julien and with Brittany, yes, we have to do that, especially with Julien. I think Matador is very particular about that.

You can’t just call up your friends to come over and hang out and play some music that ends up being recorded without so much red tape involved.

BECCA: Yeah, that’s very true. It’s definitely something that is newer to me now that I’m on my second record with a label. Even I can’t necessarily just put out anything that I want to. I have an amazing label. Captured Tracks is the best that you can imagine in the business, honestly. When you start putting money into art, there’s always going to be bureaucracy, right?*

I listened to Liz Phair on a podcast and she said she knew she wanted to make her first record but she had no idea what that actually meant and what the next step was. It took her a little while to figure that out. When you were early on in your career, were you in that same boat? Were you like, “I think I want to make a record but I don’t even know where to begin?”

BECCA: I had a few experiences. I lived in South Florida and I did a little music there with a studio that was never released. And then when I first moved to Nashville, I worked with this somebody that will not be named, but it was a person that was very old school and only recorded to tape and was kind of like trapped in the 90s. An amazing producer. No shade, honestly, but it was just not a good scenario. I learned a lot. I spent my own money.

I think I’ve always had a pretty strong gut. That’s one thing I will say. I’m super proud of Good Woman. I think it’s fucking amazing. I think that record is so special. And when I got to that point, I had met this man named Kyle Ryan who was working with Kacey Musgraves for years. I had been compiling songs and said, “Okay, I’m ready. I have this really solid band.” They actually played on the record which now, in hindsight, broke Kyle and me. That was just a part of being green. You’re like, “This is my band and they have to play on the album.” The reality is Kyle and I could have played everything and maybe brought one person in, but that was a great learning experience because it taught me to fully trust my gut in the next iteration of me.

I’m a person who asks a lot of questions, and I take a lot of time, and I’m kind of a late bloomer, so I have a lot of respect for the craft and a lot of respect for the people, my elders, and I ask for their advice. I ask for help when I need it, and that’s something that I really value, and I think that’s something that makes me a better artist.

Kyle kept coming to my shows and I started noticing. When you’re first playing out, you play a shit ton around town. I just played everything I could, and he was always there, and I knew who he was. By the last show, I saw him taking notes in his little notebook and I pulled him aside. I was like, “All right, you want to hang out?” And he pitched himself. He was like, “I really think that we would make a great record together.” And so we did. I’m super proud of that one. I can’t believe how good it sounds for somebody that was so new at this.

You’ve navigated some rough waters the last couple of years. Did you hit a rock bottom or did you just wake up one day and say, “Okay, I’m ready to start the next chapter?” Was there a turning point that led you to where you are today?

BECCA: 100% there was. I would say I definitely hit the bottom. I got signed in 2019 to Captured Tracks. I had already made the record. Zac and I made the record without a label, without a manager. I had been road dogging, working my ass off for years, grinding as we all do, this is not a unique story. I thought I had done the work, the emotional work, but little did anybody know I had not been in therapy ever. I had always used drinking as a coping mechanism. And in 2020, The Greatest Part came out in June. I was destroyed by that because it came out shortly after lockdown. I had all these hopes and expectations. In hindsight, the album did amazing. I’ll always think, “If I could have toured it, it would have been so great.” But, genuinely, because of the pandemic, people did listen to it. We got A-listed on BBC6.

Those were huge steps for me. We really did make waves. And my team, I’m forever grateful for them, but I just couldn’t get past that I couldn’t tour it because I am such a road dog and not being able to play the songs and see my fans killed me. I just sat on my couch and was devastated by that.

And then early 2021, somebody very close to my family was diagnosed with cancer, and I was just devastated by that. I ended up just going home to help them. All of 2021. And it’s like an 8-hour drive to where I was going. I was at the end, and I think I just said, “Is this even important anymore? Is doing this even good for me?” I’d spent so long just surviving.

I’ve had the same partner for seven years, and she has never been allowed in my parents’ home or invited there. And they finally said, I think it was Christmas, December 2021, “If you promise to not act like you’re together and stay somewhere else, we’ll have you for dinner.” And we did it. And what was interesting is that my rock bottom was driving home and thinking, “You could have done that so long ago.” I had been hurting myself for so long because I was a queer person. A lot of us, we don’t want to leave our families. A lot of us don’t want to be excommunicated or shunned. And that is what happened in my life. And I left the whole community, I left my whole life behind to be who I was and started over in Nashville alone. I did not have support.

The first song on the record that I wrote was “It’s Too Late.” I think what I love about that song is that it’s a bridge between The Greatest Part and Left Hand because Zac worked on that song. That’s the only song that he worked on on this new record. It was really hard for me to not have Zac produce the record with me again. But I knew that my friend, one of my best friends, has such a strong voice, he’s such a strong sound, even as an artist, that if I did another album with him, we would always be married for life. And I can’t do that. I need to be married to myself only because life is about your own path, each of us. Or at least that’s my decision as an artist.

That song is talking to my family, saying “It’s too late. Good try. You could have done this a long time ago. But I’ve already destroyed myself. I’ve already drunk so much that I almost drove off the road that night.” That’s a real story. I remember being ready to disappear. And I know that’s heavy, but a lot of us struggle with suicidal ideation because we are so alone. I’m really proud of myself. I did the work. That was the last angry song to my parents that I think I might ever need to write. I hope that is the case. This record is like that. It’s not about them, it’s about me for the first time.

You mentioned not being able to tour during the lockdown and I’m sure that was devastating but I hope you’re able to look back and understand that nobody was touring, it didn’t matter if you were the biggest artist in the world.

BECCA: It was horrible, I think there’s no glossing over that. And I had friends that lost their parents to Covid. I know for me, the way I was going, I would not have been okay. I think you would not have gotten Left Hand from me, that’s for sure. This record comes out of a place of stopping and actually doing the work. In 2022, after I wrote “It’s Too Late” in the winter of 2021, I decided I was going to approach music like a job, and I was going to approach my writing like a 9-to-5.

And I’m sitting in the room right now that I wrote the whole record in, and I will always cherish the space because I showed up for myself and I worked literally 9-to-5. When the door was closed, my partner knew, “don’t come in.”

I am channeling what is given to me. This time around it was really intentional and really hard work. You could even tell from the timestamps of The Greatest Part to the timestamps of Left Hand. These are three-minute long songs. Not that The Greatest Part isn’t, but those songs were like, “bam, bam, thank you, ma’am. Let’s just go, go, go,” which is very Zac, by the way, and he’s also learning that, too.

But for me, I was like, “I want to sit in discomfort and I want to believe in myself so much that somebody’s going to stick with me for three minutes.” And that is totally surrounded by self love, by the way. It’s all connected.

The song that really strikes me is the title track, “Left Hand.” I don’t want to say it’s not a traditional song, but that’s the one that I really love putting the headphones on, because you’re doing a little bit of talking, you’re doing a little bit of singing, you’re doing a little bit of whispering.

BECCA: That’s probably my favorite song on the record. It was originally called “May 24,” and it is pretty heavy. All the speaking is from the demo. All the speaking is from me channeling. I didn’t write that down. That was all coming out of me. I had had this loop that I had built that is also from the demo. And it was just this really interesting chord progression that I had been on. It was the day of the Uvalde shooting and I was just so broken-hearted for those children. All of them were children. And the epidemic of sadness in this country and the epidemic of gun violence, epidemic of suicide, of self hatred, I saw myself. I saw myself in that. I saw my own struggle with loving and forgiving myself.

And so when you hear me saying, “Forgive yourself, forgive yourself, you forgave me,” I’m crying. That’s real. You can hear it. And when we went to make the song, everybody was like, “That’s it. We have to build it around what that was. We can never do that again.” It’s very special to me and it was part of my own journey into learning how to love and forgive myself.