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Becca Mancari On Collaborating With Zac Farro, Fishing With Brittany Howard & How A Series Of Threatening Letters Gave Her A Perfect Pop Song

Becca Mancari

Photo by Zac Farro

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Becca Mancari On Collaborating With Zac Farro, Fishing With Brittany Howard & How A Series Of Threatening Letters Gave Her A Perfect Pop Song

The Nashville-based songwriter discusses her friendships with Paramore’s Hayley Williams and Zac Farro and explains how grief played a role in shaping her latest album, 'The Greatest Part'

GRAMMYs/Jun 18, 2020 - 08:13 pm

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 ShakesBrittany 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 MusgravesGolden 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.

Hayley Williams On Going Solo, Alanis Morissette & Trusting Her Intuition

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

Mumu Fresh On What She Learned From Working With The Roots, Rhyming & More

The Making Of Paramore's "Ain't It Fun"
Paramore's Jeremy Davis, Hayley Williams and Taylor York

Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

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The Making Of Paramore's "Ain't It Fun"

Hayley Williams and Taylor York recall the creative process for their first GRAMMY-winning song, including an unexpected emotional element

GRAMMYs/May 8, 2015 - 02:08 am

(The Making Of GRAMMY-Winning Recordings … series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of music's biggest recordings. The series' current installments present in-depth insight and details about recordings that won 57th GRAMMY Awards.)

(As told to Chuck Crisafulli)

Taylor York: This song was a complete surprise. I came up with a lot of ideas that I thought sounded like what we were supposed to write — big rock guitar riffs that would have fit on our earlier records. As I played each idea for Hayley she'd say, "Yeah, that's cool but what else do you have?" I went through everything I had until I got to the last idea — one that I wasn't planning on showing her because I thought she'd hate it. But it was all I had left. She got excited about it and from there the song just built organically and naturally. It all came together in a sound and a style that we had never really explored. The fact that "Ain't It Fun" came together so easily and worked so well really was the turning point for the writing process of the whole record, and it helped us fall in love with the writing and recording process at a new level. The music was something that I had felt connected to, but I didn't think it was Paramore. It turned out that whatever we feel connected to absolutely is Paramore.


Hayley Williams: I remember walking into Taylor's hotel room one of the first days [after] our move to L.A. to make our next album. He played that little marimba part on a loop. I thought it was so cool — I went straight back to my room to get pens and a notebook. By the time I got there I already had a melody, and by the time I got back to Taylor's room I already had the first few lines of lyrics.

We started demoing vocal parts in Taylor's room and when we got to the bridge we felt like we needed to hold on a root note and let the tension build with a lot of voices. Taylor and I stacked our voices about 10 different times and it sounded unbelievable — but not in a good way. We decided that we needed really good singers to come in and get it right. A couple of months later we're recording at Sunset Sound and a local gospel choir comes in, and by the second practice run-through it was perfect. I welled up with tears because I've loved gospel music all my life and to hear a choir singing our parts — belting out that harmony — it just felt insane to be in a band that could have that kind of amazing moment as part of our song. All of a sudden we felt big, like we had really made it. Yes, we've got a gospel choir on our record. This is really happening.

(At the 57th GRAMMY Awards, Paramore's Hayley Williams and Taylor York won Best Rock Song for "Ain't It Fun," marking the first GRAMMY wins of their respective careers. Paramore are scheduled to kick off a U.S. theater tour on April 27 in Augusta, Ga.)

(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)

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MusiCares MAP Fund Charity Auction Launched

GRAMMY Charity Online Auctions offers exclusive memorabilia from seventh annual MusiCares MAP Fund benefit

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

Following the seventh annual MusiCares MAP Fund benefit honoring Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan and Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman on May 6, GRAMMY Charity Online Auctions has launched the MusiCares MAP Fund Charity Auction. Presented in partnership with Kompolt, the auction is open through May 19 and features a variety of autographed music memorabilia, including items signed backstage at the MusiCares MAP Fund benefit concert by Linkin Park's Chester Bennington, Gahan and Paramore.

Additional auction items include a framed issue of Rolling Stone signed by the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger; vintage memorabilia signed by Tony Bennett, Jackson Browne, Annie Lennox, Rod Stewart, and Barbra Streisand; guitars autographed by Kings Of Leon, Korn, Tom Petty, Kenny Rogers, and Keith Urban; unique memorabilia signed by Jeff Beck, Justin Bieber, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Muse, Katy Perry, and Rihanna; and a 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards VIP Experience for two including rehearsal passes and hotel accommodations.

To place your bid on items featured in the auction, visit www.ebay.com/grammy. All proceeds will benefit MusiCares and the GRAMMY Foundation.

7th Annual MusiCares MAP Fund Benefit
Martin Gore and Dave Gahan perform at the MusiCares MAP Fund benefit concert

Photo: Jordan Strauss/WireImage.com

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7th Annual MusiCares MAP Fund Benefit

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. In this special installment of The Set List, we're bringing you the scoop from the seventh annual MusiCares MAP Fund benefit, honoring Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan and Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman. As always, our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which artists performed to who made a guest appearance. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read and want to know more, you can learn all about the MusiCares Foundation here. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your thoughts and/or questions. Oh, and rock on.

By Jamie Harvey
Los Angeles

There's something about a benefit show featuring great music for a great cause — something intangible that makes for a truly unique experience. The seventh annual MusiCares MAP Fund benefit concert, honoring Depeche Mode lead vocalist Dave Gahan and Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman, at Club Nokia in Los Angeles on May 6 was such an occasion.

Featuring an all-star performance lineup, the benefit raised money and awareness for the MusiCares MAP Fund, which provides members of the music community access to addiction recovery treatment. We often fall in love with music from musicians who bare their souls on record and onstage, and this event was full of artists who've not only battled their own addictions, but people who have exposed their emotional and physical weaknesses for the sake of their art. I felt humbled to have been in attendance.

After a DJ set by Justin Warfield and Adam Bravin of She Wants Revenge, comedian Greg Behrendt was the first to take the stage, warming up the theater with an array of self-deprecating jokes in anticipation of the first performers of the night, Ozomatli. Within their two-song set, Ozomatli honored both Lyman and Gahan, the former by thanking him for giving them their first big tour, and the latter for assisting them in losing their virginity. Their final song, on which they were joined by a brass band, wrapped into a cover of "Just Can't Get Enough," a song on Depeche Mode's 1981 debut album, Speak & Spell.

Behrendt returned for more laughs as the stage was set for Paramore. The four-piece band played an acoustic set while seated in chairs, highlighting lead singer Hayley Williams' vocals.

Next up was a series of video clips sent in by musicians ranging from Bad Religion and Joan Jett to NOFX and Katy Perry — with each artist discussing Lyman's impact on them. Perry's description of her inability to take showers on the Warped Tour in 2008, one of her first major tours, put into perspective just how important the tour has been in helping propel many careers to superstardom. Concert promoter Gary Tovar then presented Lyman with the MusiCares From The Heart Award. In his acceptance speech, Lyman thanked his family and mentioned how he followed his passion for music.

Bob Forrest from "Celebrity Rehab" tackled the tough subject of addiction and introduced Jane's Addiction, whose three-song set had the crowd dancing in their seats. "I've known both these guys a long time," said lead singer Perry Farrell of Gahan and Lyman between songs, "and I'm glad they're still alive."

Chester Bennington's solo acoustic song, "The Messenger," was one of the most heartfelt performances of the show. The Linkin Park lead vocalist introduced the song of perseverance as a letter he wrote to his kids, and a song that also works for those battling addiction. Bennington also admitted that playing an instrument while singing was a bit of a foreign concept to him.

Legendary Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler presented Gahan with the Stevie Ray Vaughan Award, sing-songing his line, "And you know you'll be alright." The crowd was in rapt anticipation as Gahan walked onstage. His acceptance speech included an anecdote about Tyler soberly interrupting his drinking at a bar one night.

Gahan's band, including keyboardist Vincent Jones and bassist Martyn LeNoble, joined him for a longer-than-expected set of pure magic, including a mix of his solo work, Depeche Mode songs and covers that seemed meaningful to him. I can assure you that "I Feel You" segueing into a cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" will remain one of my concert highlights forever, and that's coming from a girl who goes to 100 shows a year.

The grand finale featured a surprise appearance by bandmate Martin Gore, who took the stage to play guitar and sing background vocals on the Depeche Mode hit "Personal Jesus." As everyone in the crowd was on their feet, singing "reach out and touch faith" with their hands in the air, I was reminded of how unifying and healing music can be.

Set List

Ozomatli:
"Ya Viene El Sol"
"Como Ves"/"Just Can't Get Enough" (Depeche Mode cover)

Paramore:
"Misery Business"
"That's What You Get"

Jane's Addiction:
"Stop!"
"Three Days"
"Mountain Song"

Chester Bennington:
"The Messenger"

Dave Gahan:
"Cracked Actor" (David Bowie cover)
"Dirty Sticky Floors"
"I Feel You"
"Love Will Tear Us Apart" (Joy Division cover)
"Low" (Mark Lanegan cover)
"New Rose " (the Damned cover)
"Saw Something"
"Personal Jesus"

(Texas-based Jamie Harvey is the rock community blogger for GRAMMY.com. She attended 112 shows in 2010. You can follow her musical adventures and concert recaps at www.hardrockchick.com.)