"I feel like we kind of manifested this."
That's Becca Mancari's playful, pop-psychology-informed proclamation to her music-making peer and fellow interviewee S.G. Goodman, near the end of our three-way Zoom session. Mancari is referring to the sense of kinship the two singer-songwriters have shared ever since a six-month period several years back, when they were both based in Nashville. Of course, we at World Cafe were unaware that they had a track record of comparing outlooks, talking shop and even, on one occasion, sharing the use of a tour van.
Since then, Goodman returned to her native Kentucky, where she recorded her new, southern-accented indie rock album Old Time Feeling with longtime band mates and guidance from Jim James. Mancari has remained in Nashville, where she and her studio partner, Paramore's Zac Farro, swapped the folk-rock of her debut for a dream pop aesthetic on The Greatest Part. What's evident, even from the outside, is that they have each reflected on their backgrounds with compelling complexity. When Mancari conjures the horrors of cultish control and homophobic condemnation from an insightfully surreal remove, and when Goodman highlights the persistence of rural hardship and exploitation in her backyard with spiky, spirited sarcasm, neither resort to predictable expression. They teamed up to tell us how they pulled that off.
Jewly Hight, World Café: What did it look like for each of you to capture your complex relationships with your pasts, people and places you've known on your albums?
Becca Mancari: I wanted to address really dark issues with lightness. It wasn't a mistake that the record, most of it is upbeat. I've gotten a lot of people who don't understand that. They're like, "Why did you make these sound like pop songs when they're really sad and heavy and about coming out for the first time and about being called a child molester?" ... I couldn't move forward as a person, because I was too emotionally destroyed by my own coming out story and my own struggle with addressing my past. I wanted to do it in a way that wouldn't bum you out, or be grotesque even. I think that I'm realizing as a writer, I want to bring people up. I also just love pop music.
S.G. Goodman: With my music kind of teetering between the genres, I feel like someone who particularly listens to country can find elements, of maybe some throwback, here or there – or someone who is from a more urban area, and maybe would lean more towards the indie rock, will be able to find that within my songs. When I wrote my song "The Way I Talk," it's a very driving, indie, feedback-rock song. My commentary on the South, and ultimately on people's views of the South – I feel like I was intentional by writing that in a song that would reach people who hold those stereotypes.
BM: S.G., I just want to say, too, that song in particular, I think that's just so important and so powerful for being a... [pauses] I want to let you guide this conversation — how do you identify? I was about to say a word, but I don't know where you're comfortable.
SGG: Well, for that particular song, it's like I am a farmer's daughter from the South. I identify as queer. A lot of people I feel like don't, when they're thinking of a lot of the hot-button issues that have come out about farmers in recent years, with the tariffs and things, they don't really understand the actual complexity behind the industry itself. Or they look at the South, who many people would say, "Oh, you don't vote in your best interest when it comes to social services," and all these things. It's important, I feel like, for people from rural places to put out a different [picture], to let people who may hold those stereotypes against Southerners and people from rural places know that there are progressives in those situations. We are asking hard questions, and that we see it for what it is.
Let's go deeper into how you frame and deliver your songs. Becca, you play out a harrowing scenario of religious harassment during "Hunter," but you sing it placidly, like you've removed yourself and are telling the story from a protective distance. That's how you sing "First Time," too.
S.G., you mentioned "The Way I Talk," and during that and "Old Time Feeling," your vocal attack feels riled up, the way you use your vibrato, and so does the guitar playing. Tell me about the tones you struck.
SGG: With "Old Time Feeling," it was a call to arms for me, just because I have lived in a rural place and in the South my entire life, but I've traveled the whole time and made friends with people from other places, and much more progressive places. I'm really tired of people being shocked by the fact that I have a lot of progressive friends in these small areas, where there are a lot of nonprofits and organizations who are really doing the Lord's work here that never get any attention... I wanted it to be an upbeat song, a lot like Becca's, as well as to be very particular in the guitar part and stuff. I told my guitarist, "Get a little Alan Jackson on it."
I wouldn't have guessed that.
SGG: Yeah, you never would. But those are my roots and things I pull from. ... As much as I wanted that song to be heard [by] people not from the South and from rural areas, I wanted it to appeal to people from here, for people here.
BM: If you know my music from the last record, Good Woman, it's a lot of chest vocals. This record, it's almost like this range is right in this pocket, not flat-lined, but it's very specifically zoned in on you. With "Hunter," it's from two perspectives. It's from the man that actually wrote all those letters to me — which is a true story — and then me singing to him, "You're not going to get me." Not even that one person, but that whole culture of "if you leave the tribe or the group, you take a thread out and it starts to unravel." This is me singing back to them, "You can't scare me anymore." Because I grew up really afraid. I deal with a lot of fear.So I really wanted to sing in a certain way.
"Stay With Me," a song later in the record, is a really difficult song for me. I wrote that and I just sobbed. I was at the point where I'm singing to my partner, saying, "I went through somebody that I really love saying directly to me, 'You're one step above a child molester for being queer.' How do you handle it? How do you progress? How do you get free to actually become the person that you want to be? And stay with me long enough, because I'm barely still here."
S.G., I don't know how you feel about this, but as a queer person, I think I didn't realize how close I have come to dying. And that's not a joke. When I wrote "First Time," I remembered. That story is true. I remember the porch on a hot summer night in Virginia. I'll never forget it, standing back there and feeling my head against my dad's chest and his arms just down by his sides. That will destroy you. It just will. ... I remember that night being like, "I'm going to kill myself. I can't keep going. I just want to disappear now." I think I just finally can say that, because I couldn't actually write this record years ago. I wasn't able to. I wanted it to feel like this journey. So we start really strong – it's almost like you're pretending to be strong, though.
SGG: Becca and I have talked about this. It's an interesting thing, being really open about yourself and your struggles around acceptance [of] your sexuality. Because inevitably, in order to do so, we're remarking on people who are very close to us who have been hurtful. And that is a really fine line, because — and I know Becca shares this — we love those people.
I mean, I'm a very private person. I have had to become brave around the fact that I feel like there is purpose in me talking about these things. I could have put out "Space and Time" and just played it off as if this was a love song, when really that was mysuicide song on the record, and one of the songs that drove me to make the record in the first place.
The lyrics, I almost never came back around to that song, because I felt like they were too point-blank in what I was trying to say about my situation, about coming to the end of the road in my life. Talking about mental illness and talking about the struggles that people are still facing today in 2020, really, me and Becca being queer women in music should not be something that should attract attention. But unfortunately, it's still very important for that type of visibility for our communities.
BM: S.G., I speak to you about this, why I choose to even stay in the South. [Back to] the question about the sounds and why we did things: A lot of people are like, "I don't think that this record was done in Nashville. It sounds like LA or New York or whatever." Yeah, I did it in Nashville in a house studio. To me, it's really important to stay here and keep fighting. It would be easier for S.G. and I to go to Portland or LA or Seattle and just be around queer people like us. For me as a person of color, I am exhausted from this town. In a lot of ways, I do not feel accepted at the table. I know that I make music not for the male gaze. In this city, when I first moved here, it would have been exponentially easier and way better for my career to put on a dress, to kiss the ring and to act straight. And I refused to do that.
SGG: On something she said there, about 'We were intentional about where we made our records,' I did live in Nashville for a short period of time, but I was very adamant about making my record in Kentucky, because I knew what I was going to say and I knew the message I wanted to have. And at the end of the day, I wanted Kentucky and rural places to be the ones who, quote unquote, own me. I stayed out of Nashville because Nashville is getting more and more progressive. I wanted to make sure that I was representing the rural commentary I was saying. I wanted people to know that this is not only what I'm talking about, it's where I'm from. And this was made here and this was made for y'all.
How did you give the perspectives in your songs a sense of dimension, so that old wounds and rejections feel real and harrowing, and their impact lingering, but the characters from and connections to your past aren't entirely written off?
BM: Thank you for saying that. ...This was not, "I hate you." This is, "I love you." Even for the "First Time" music video, I made sure to go back and hug those people — like the parents that play my parents in the video, come and hug me at the end. That was really important to me. Even the pastor that was dunking me under the water to baptize me was also loved. There is a story of reconciliation. The song on the record "Tear Us Apart" is all about not letting the people in power who I do think are corrupt, the government, who are just using us as pawns against each other. Actually, this is so much in your music, S.G.: "Do not let them separate us. We are in this together."
SGG: If there is one good thing about this administration, it is that he's pulled back the veil on a lot of issues that people who were shocked when he became president might not have thought — systemic racism and the social issues as far as civil rights for queer communities, people of color — were just so polarizing. Well, they are. I kind of come at it from an intersectionality kind of stance, of the economic issues that we're facing. And all day, as a person who's queer, we're going to be used as hot-button points to distract from a lot of the real issues that, actually, minorities all have in common and poor white people have in common. I have more things in common with those people than, you know, probably a rich gay person.
I feel like I'm not as blunt, because there's a lot of heartbreak songs on the album. If a person knows my story, they're like, "Wow, gay people get their heart broken too. How human of her." You know?
[all three laugh]
It's true that alongside the bigger themes you both made room for songs that are more intimate and tender, that depict the small happenings in romantic relationships. Was that a priority?
SGG: I get asked a lot, 'Was this some sort of purposeful, politically driven album?' And I always say that I don't think I'm at the point in my writing ability to sit down and write a concept album. This is just commentary on my life. I think one of the biggest struggles that people like Becca and I and other marginalized communities go up against is that politicians and talking heads want to take the human element out of our experience. I think it's always important for us to also realize that, yes, we have a voice and we're speaking towards harsh issues, but we're also living in this world. We're your neighbors. We're getting our hearts broken or we're having a good time with friends. At the end of the day, we don't have to pigeonhole ourselves into just representing our struggles. We need to represent our joys and also make people see us as human. I think as many love songs as there's been written since the existence of humans, it's amazing that people are still writing new ones, and that just goes to show we connect on shared experiences. I feel like it's always purposeful to represent that in a person's work, as well as just going after the man.
BM: I agree, because I didn't realize how many songs I'd actually written about my partner on this record. "Bad Feeling" is about monogamy. It's also a sexual song. But it was about the idea of staying in a monogamous relationship with the same person for the first time. That is so important, because the culture is always trying to make us like we're like deviants. ... I think it's really important to talk about the mundane as well.