Photo by Zac Farro
Becca Mancari On Collaborating With Zac Farro, Fishing With Brittany Howard & How A Series Of Threatening Letters Gave Her A Perfect Pop Song
When Becca Mancari moved to Nashville eight years ago, she got a job at a taco shop and set herself a goal to meet as many female musicians as she could. Little did she know, the two would go hand-in-hand. "I had no idea what the deal was with Mas Tacos, but if you live in Nashville, you know of this place," she explains on the phone from her home recording studio. "I walked in and the owner—Teresa Mason is her name, she’s the most vibrant, strongest woman I’ve ever met—she’s talking to me and serving people at the same time, and there was just this energy that I felt. So I got thrown into that and oh my god, I met so many people there."
Alynda Segarra (of Hurray For The Riff Raff), Jack White, Dan Auerbach and country music legend Gillian Welch are just some of the famous names Mancari served tacos to. Segarra, Julian Baker and Paramore’s Hayley Williams, are now among her closest friends—though it’s Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard who Mancari is most entwined with. Together, along with singer/songwriter Jesse Lafser, they perform in the folk-rock band Bermuda Triangle, and in March before the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to stay-in-place, they had plans to go on the road together (they have rescheduled the tour for September).
The friendship is also notable because on their latest albums, Jaime and The Greatest Part, both Howard and Mancari examine the duality of being queer, mixed-race woman in America. For Mancari, who is Italian/Puerto Rican, this includes singing about her Christian fundamentalist upbringing, receiving threatening letters in the mail from a religious fanatic and learning to grieve and forgive her oppressors—and herself. Along with Hayley Williams’ recent debut solo album Petals For Armor, it completes a trifecta of emotionally vulnerable albums by three of Nashville’s most audacious pop stars.
Mancari’s directness gives her songwriting gravity, but when she first started writing The Greatest Part (out June 26 via Captured Tracks) she wasn’t sure if she had the fortitude to be so forthright. She credits Paramore drummer Zac Farro (who produced the album) for igniting the spark she needed to lean in and share the types of raw, emotionally charged memories that punctuate her songs. "Hunter," "I’m Sorry" and "Stay With Me" all showcase this robustness, but the lyric that is most potent is also decidedly intimate. At the beginning of "First Time," which is Mancari’s personal coming out story, she sings, "I remember the first time my dad didn’t hug me back." The exact moment belongs to Mancari, but the memory it clings to is shared by millions of queer-identifying people throughout the world. The song's warm tones are like a cathartic cocoon, and it’s already had an impact on fans. When Mancari played it live for the first time she had a number of people approach her afterwards to say they saw themselves in the song, and to thank her. "It’s not all of my story, but it’s something I realize now that I have to do," she says of recognizing her power. "There is nothing else I can say, other than that I needed an artist like me when I was young."
Mancari recently spoke with the Recording Academy about the power of pop music, understanding her own internalized whiteness, fly fishing with Brittany Howard and finding forgiveness on her new album The Greatest Part.
The overarching theme on your new album is finding your way to forgiveness—to forgive yourself, your own body, your family and the church. Do you think writing these songs was part of a grieving process that inevitably had to happen for you?
Yes, that’s exactly it. These songs came to me in a way that I can’t describe other than that sometimes songs are given to you. I feel like that is what happened. And I have to give so much credit to my partner in this, Zac Farro, who produced the record with me. I could feel his energy, too; he was on fire. Everytime we would go in I kept coming back with these songs, and I kept trying to not truly go there, I kept saying, I don’t know if I can truly tell this story. But at the same time I said I can’t keep living like this, I have to tell the truth, no matter how hard it’s going to be. And all the people that listen to this who are also coming from backgrounds where they’re afraid to be free, I feel like this is for them, too.
Your relationship with Zac is something I wanted to touch on a little later, but let’s jump to it now. Can you tell me about the role he played in shaping this album?
We’ve been friends for about seven years and he always saw something in me that I wasn’t able to fully see yet. I think he just said, "Listen, I love the record you did before, but that’s not really where you come from, is it?" And I said, "No, I grew up listening to shoegaze music and The Beatles, not Johnny Cash." Nashville is a very country-driven city, which is incredible, but it’s just not something I grew up on, and he said, "me neither," even though he’s from Nashville.
So I think as we started working together there was this moment of clarity. He comes at it with the ears of a drummer, that’s his first instrument, so I think he just shifted the rhythm of the songs. I have a tendency to want to write these sad, emotionally driven songs, but I didn’t realize the power of his drums, they’re so emotional. If you listen to the record, I think the drums are one of the most interesting parts. Our whole process was to see how much we could do together first, without bringing in anyone else—just him and I in his home studio playing instruments that we don’t even normally play. And you can feel that on the record, it does sound like two people having fun together, even though we address hard stories about my life.
Your first record, Good Woman, has more of a country feel to it, whereas this one is undeniably more of an indie-pop record. Is that because you thought pop music would be a better vehicle to relay the types of emotions you wanted to express on this record?
I was always a fringe kid, not a cool kid, I was a musician and was hanging out with punks, wearing band T-shirts and going to shows. So when I used to think of pop, I just didn’t have the knowledge to understand what it meant, or to understand the power of pop music. But you know, I think I did digest a lot of pop music while I was making this record. As I was writing I was trying to understand what makes an earworm, what makes something powerful, that lasts. I listened to a lot of Lady Gaga during this process, because I was like, "What makes her music stick in your brain?" I wanted to understand that. So I don’t think I could have done anything else, and I don’t think I want to do anything else.
Hayley Williams has taken a similar path to you, going from making rock music with Paramore to making pop music on her new album Petals For Armor—and I don’t think a lot of people would necessarily have expected that from her. But when you mature as a person, suddenly you can appreciate a much broader range of musical influences. Is that how you felt?
That’s a great point of reference. I was talking to her the other day and I told her, "Hayley, this new music, I can’t stop listening to it. You really hit it." She’s matured, she’s become who she is, and I’m really glad to see that happen for her. And I see her fans just saying, "OK, that’s not what we expected, but let's go there." That’s powerful. That’s being a real artist. Artists change, they don’t stay the same.
I want to ask about the song "Hunter," which is about a series of threatening letters you’ve been receiving from someone you went to church with when you were younger. How long have you been receiving the letters for?
I got one last week. It’s been almost seven years now since it started, and it had been after a long break between me knowing him. I was 15 the last time I saw him. I got a letter right before I was supposed to go into the studio with Zac—this is in the very beginning, we hadn’t even decided to do a record together yet—and it was one of those songs that wrote itself immediately, I just sat down and wrote it. I do love the fact that he gave me a great song. How you use things in your life is everything, right?
You describe the person in the song as saying, "I am the prophet. I am the savior." Is that how they describe themselves in the letters?
No, that’s me understanding the background of where it comes from. This is not the only person who has done this in my life, a lot of people have wanted to say you belong to us, you have to be this way, we need you to be this other person. And you know, I just refuse to do that, I refuse to belong to a group of people.
In the video for "First Time," your younger self is played by eight-year-old Tigerlily Tashian (daughter of Daniel Tashian, who won a GRAMMY for his production work on Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour). Is that how old you were when you started to feel different to some of the other kids you were around?
I think I was five when I had my first crush—and I remember her name, I just hadn't learned the language for it yet. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I knew the words for it. I was at a public college and it was the first time I was around different ways of thought. I read this book about Virginia Wolfe and I was like, "Oh my god, that’s me, I’m just like that." I remember in the movie The Hours—Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Wolfe and Juliane Moore is in it—I remember [seeing] the scene where Juliane Moore kisses this woman, and I was like, "Oh yeah, that’s what I need to be doing, too."
You are part Puerto Rican, but you’ve said that because of the way you were raised, you had to spend some time getting to understand your own "internalized whiteness." How did you go about doing that, and what did you learn about yourself during that process?
It would be impossible for me to answer without honestly saying I am still processing this. I know that for my mom it was easier for us to assimilate into being white, but I believe she was just trying to protect us. I am ready to ask myself the hard questions, and also to be kind to myself as I find my way out of what "white" America has done to colonize all of our minds with white supremacy. This is a layered conversation, and again it's difficult for me to answer, but I know for me I am looking at myself in the mirror, asking myself the questions, and listening to others. I know that we can't change the world without looking into our own hearts and changing within first.
I understand that you love to go fishing, which some people might find surprising, since it's not a common hobby for a musician to have. What type of fishing do you do, and do you feel like the solitary nature of fishing helps with your music?
It definitely helps me not be so wound up, which is good for my manager. It was a Brittany [Howard] thing—it’s something that she got into first—and she loves it so much that when we started Bermuda Triangle she was like, "Listen, I’m booking us a trip and we’re gonna go and fly fish." So that’s the fishing I enjoy the most. It’s a really beautiful sport and it was created by a woman, so I love that. She booked us a trip on the Caney Fork River (in Lancaster, Tenn.) and we learned to fly fish and wrote some of the first Bermuda Triangle songs there. At night, after fishing all day, we would come into the tackle room and drink and play songs. But it’s something you really have to invest in, it’s certainly not a cheap sport, so now we’ve just been doing some catch and release fishing, we’ve been going up to this lake outside of Nashville.