I was having a bad day. My commute home from work took longer than usual and the girl I was dating just gave me the ax. I had a show to play that night at Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn and I was hoping that would snap me out of my funk. I got there early and a band was just about to go on. More into drinking a beer than listening to music, I wasn’t particularly paying attention. But from the first note they played, I couldn’t deny what I was hearing. They were killing it like all great rock ‘n’ roll bands are supposed to. I bought a CD and soon found out that Olivia Mancini wasn’t just a great rock ‘n’ performer, she also wrote great melodies and constructed some pretty interesting tunes. When we talked recently, she told me about her process for putting songs together, as well as the trust required for a good collaboration and her new EP composed of breakup songs, a songwriting genre that ultimately disgusts her.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
I had been trying to write songs when I first got a guitar, when I was like 16, and I’m pretty sure the first song I ever wrote my best friend just laughed in my face. It was standard rock ‘n’ roll, probably set to C, G and Eminor. Those were the only chords I knew for ten years. And I’m pretty sure the lyrics involved the words ‘standing on the side just clapping along’, which I think that was the part that got my friend. She was like ‘This is terrible. Try again.’
Do you remember the name of it?
I do not. I’m not even sure if it ever made it all the way to performance. I built it up, played it for the one friend, then was like ‘Okay. Try again.’ So the second song was called “Monday Morning”.
And that was a keeper?
That was a keeper.
And what was that about?
I think based on my friend’s feedback I decided to go in the opposite direction with the lyrics and just spit nonsense, you know? Free form. That way no one could judge me for what I was saying because they couldn’t understand. I worked with that for a while.
Cool. So where are you from?
I’m from DC.
Is that where you grew up?
Do you think growing up in DC helped shape your songs in any way? Are your songs DC-centric?
Sometimes I name check DC just because ‘Why not? Hometown crowd.’ When I was coming up with the songwriting, I think what was going on around me in DC had more of an oppositional effect on me because when I was growing up what was big in DC–Dischord, hardcore bands, that kind of angular indie rock, gogo–I couldn’t really relate to any of that. I really liked vocals and vocal harmonies, which weren’t really popular, certainly not in DC and I don’t know if it was popular anywhere in the mid 90’s. I think I almost started writing my own songs to hear what I wanted to hear, rather than hear what was going on around me, if that makes sense.
That’s interesting. You’re the second person I’ve interviewed and the first person spoke of the DC hardcore scene as a tremendous influence. It’s interesting to hear contrary feelings about that.
Yeah, totally. It’s interesting too because I think that scene was an influence on me, just not musically. The DC hardcore scene was great for DIY shows and making your records and this whole independent musician’s work ethic and that had an impression on me.
When you write, do you have a space or room you like to write in? In the house or at the studio?
I would say all of the above, but I definitely have to be alone. I find if I take myself to a new location to write, if I can borrow someone’s practice space for a day, a space I’ve never been in, I find it to be the most [successful]. I do a good amount of writing in the living room and in my bedroom, but when I wanna get down to it, I’ve had experiences when I’ve been upstate and grabbed a cabin or gotten there a day early and used that kind of new environment energy.
Do you ever collaborate?
That’s sort of a more recent thing for me. I’ve been working with the same musicians for the last ten to fifteen years and only in the last five have I felt like there’s been enough trust and confidence on my end to be like ‘Okay, I can sit down with somebody else, another songwriter, and bring what I have to the table and mash up my parts with theirs and accept whatever criticism and deliver my own criticism, my own ideas and accept other people’s ideas.’ So yeah, I’d say in the last five years that’s something I’ve been getting into more. I definitely approach it sort of like my tennis game or my pool game. I definitely want to work with someone who’s better than I am. It raises the level of the playing field.
When you say ‘trust’, is that a matter of trusting yourself or the other person?
Definitely both. Trusting myself to have enough to contribute and the confidence to be like ‘okay, I can do this. I’m a worthy contributor to this project.’ And also trust for other person-I’ll be honest with you, I’ve had collaborative experiences where one
“…when I was growing up what was big in DC–Dischord, hardcore bands, that kind of angular indie rock, gogo–I couldn’t really relate to any of that.”
person or the other is bossy or too critical or too demanding and that kind of tainted my idea of what a songwriting co-writing relationship could be like. I’m not pushy. I’m not a pushy person, but if the other person is what I’d consider to be too aggressive then I’ll kind of back down and then I’m like ‘Well, we’re not really collaborating. You’re just sort of writing it and I’m just sort of here.’ So I think trust for the other person is gonna be a 50/50 effort and nobody’s bringing ego to the table and I think that’s the important part.
When you put your records together, do you write songs that are gonna fit an overall theme? Or how do you select your songs when you’re writing for an album?
Every time I finish an album I’m like ‘Alright, the next album I’m going totally concept. I’m gonna pick a theme and write twelve songs that are gonna fit that theme come hell or high water’. And I just haven’t succeeded yet. I think the songs that come out of me are so ad-hock it’s like whatever’s happening at the moment or whatever idea is germinating and once you come up, once I go through the process of writing twelve songs, it’s hard to not put an album out at that point. You’ve got twelve songs you develop and you like and it’s hard to be like ‘Let me wait until I write eight more like that one before I put out a record.’ So far I haven’t succeeded with the thematic album arc but I’m gonna do it one day I know it.
Is that something you’d be interested in doing?
Definitely. I always admire people who’ve accomplished that. Some of my favorite records, there’s a theme. I think it’s a wonderful thing to hold on to when you’re listening to a record.
Even just doing like you were saying, writing twelve songs and putting out a record, there may a musical similarity and not a lyrical similarity or similarity in concept but somehow the songs can just feel right together.
Yeah, I know what you’re saying. I find I write my songs in pairs. Like I’m usually working on two songs in tandem so there’s often a musical similarity. Like they’ll be sets of songs across an album that have definitely some similarities and odds are if I’m writing twelve songs across the year just because it’s during that period of songwriting, they’re going to have something musical in common just because that’s where my music head is at.
How did that come to be that you write songs in pairs? That’s really interesting.
You know, I have no idea. I think it was like, as a songwriter you start writing a song and inevitably you get frustrated in the process, so I think I just developed this tandem process where I would get bored or frustrated with one song and I could switch to the other one, work on that until I got bored or frustrated and then go back to the other. Kind of work the two simultaneously until they’re both done.
How about things like structure, chord progressions, time signature, are you conscious of those things when you write or do you start writing and those things are secondary?
I make a big distinction between the lyrics and the music obviously. I’ve never considered myself a lyricist. I love doing the music and the lyrics I’m like ‘eh’. So I think the music and the structure, that’s the part that seems to come most naturally and most
completely, so when I sit down to write I definitely start with some progression I like and I fool around with that in a number of different ways, changing the strumming pattern, changing the time signature, changing the feel until I get something that feels right and then all with this long range goal of where this goes structurally. To answer your question, that’s what’s on my mind most, the progression, the melody, how to insert variations and different parts to keep it interesting. It’s much later in the game do I actually insert some sort of lyric.
So you never start with lyrics you’ve written and are like ‘Oh, I wanna write music to this’?
I wish that I did. I’ll write lyrics when I sit down with a couple of beers, when I feel the inspiration, and just kind of write anything that comes to mind for use later, but I rarely sit down and do that during the songwriting process. It’s usually the after process.
How has your process changed over the years?
Almost not at all. What I find has changed is my ability to concentrate and my ability to visualize the song as a whole and just working really hard. I mean that’s just practice. You learn how to write a song and you develop your skills. I would say it’s gotten easier but my fundamentals of process haven’t change.
I have friends who say that breakup songs are the best songs. Would you say that was so?
I would say they were the best and the worst songs. I think they’re the best songs because they’re cathartic for the writer and if they’re done right they’re cathartic for the listener. And they’re the worst because they can be so predictable and so cliché. And from a writer’s perspective, kind of a cop out in the sense that that’s easy fodder. They’re like probably the least challenging songs to write. I’m guilty of writing many of them. I’m definitely part of the problem.
How about political songs?
They’re just not my forte. I just don’t have the right touch for political songs. If I feel strongly enough about a political issue and I try to write about it, it usually comes out really heavy and big, like really obvious and isn’t effective and isn’t a good song. I think the handful of political songs I’ve tried to write and bring to the band have been vetoed immediately for being capital ‘L’ lame.
Is your band your gauge on what’s good and what you feel doesn’t live up to your standards?
They’re definitely my sounding board, but you have to take it with a grain of salt and there have definitely been instances where I come to the band with a song and they’re like ‘This is dumb’ or ‘Can it be twenty times faster?’ or ‘Can it be this?’ or ‘Can it be that?’ and I feel strongly about pushing on and eventually the band ends up liking it.
“I just finished an EP that was composed entirely of breakup songs and I was so disgusted with myself.”
But sometimes you’re too inside a song. When you’re a songwriter you’ve totally lost perspective and you’ve worked so hard on something and you don’t know if it’s good or not and so I trust my bandmates. We’ve been working together for a decade and they have everybody’s best interest at heart. If they’re gonna tell me it’s not working or they’re not feeling it or ‘don’t scrap it all together but change the lyrics’ for example, you know? I listen and I consider that.
How about songs that tell stories? Have you had any success with that?
That’s another one on my to do list. The songs that I generally write capture moments rather than tell a story from beginning to end. I would love to write a song like Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”, right? I’d like to write twenty coherent verses that tell a story from beginning to end. I think it falls into the same category for me as political songs that when I try to write what I see as a songwriting genre I think I get a little intimidated and it ends up being clumsy.
What about writing a song for revenge?
I sure have. That’s a really funny question. Have you?
Yeah, but it’s kinda like what you said about writing breakup songs or political songs, sometimes you write those songs and cathartically they work for you but I don’t know how much they resonate because either they’re just too personal for someone else to understand or just the bitterness that goes into the act of writing a revenge song ultimately translates as bitterness or not enjoyable to listen to.
Yeah, I know exactly what you mean, but I have written revenge songs. The one I’m thinking of that actually made it to an album. I knew it was a revenge song. I knew what it was about but I think the lyrics were so kinda obscure and musically it had an angry kind of energy but I don’t think the listener could discern exactly what situation I was talking about. It may not have been obvious but it was there.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Some of my favorite songwriters are storytellers or moment capturers. I have many favorite songwriters. I would say the big blockbuster names are Tom Petty, Billy Joel, John Fogerty, Paul Simon. I think they’re great American storyteller types. And then randomly, Elliot Smith, Neko Case, Rhett Miller, Ray Davies.
How about your peers?
Sure, there’s a lot of good songwriters in our circle. A guy I collaborate with a lot, Ed Donohue, is a tremendous songwriter. We play in a band together called Ed & Donna. He’s got his own songwriting that is really excellent. And another guy I work with Jarrett Nicolay. He used to be play in a band called the Virginia Coalition. He was the songwriter for them and also does his solo stuff. His musicality blows me away. He’s writing pop symphonies and making them accessible.
What’s the collaborative process for Ed & Donna?
On this record, Ed wrote 90% of the songs, so the collaboration wasn’t so much in the songwriting process as it was in the performance and delivery of them. We practiced once a week for almost a year to prepare for the recording session-working out the best keys for our voices and perfecting our phrasing and cadence, and developing the Ed & Donna “character”.
How is Ed & Donna different from your other collaborations?
It’s different in that we’re really working within a conceptual framework, creating an imaginary folk duo that may have existed in, say, the early ’60s. Both Ed and I love ’60s pop like Lesley Gore and close harmony like the Everly Brothers, so we set out to write songs in that style and arrange them in a way that was both an homage and something of a modern interpretation. Many of these songs are character driven-we meet “Jimmy” and “Beverly Nite”, for example-and Ed challenged himself on a handful of songs by writing from a girl’s perspective with the idea that I would sing them. We’re already working on the next record and I’ve been so inspired by Ed’s songwriting that I’m working on songs for him to sing on the next album that I write from a male perspective.
Are your other collaborations still active?
My other collaborations are definitely still active. The other one is with my buddy Jarrett Nicolay (see above). Together we’re Astra Via, and our sound is more electronic.
For that collaboration, we try to employ the Lennon-McCartney model, where individually we present each other with most or all of a song and then the other person adds a bridge or the song will grow or change based on the other person’s contribution or interpretation as to make for a different, hopefully better tune.
Are you writing anything now?
Funny you should ask. I just finished an EP that was composed entirely of breakup songs and I was so disgusted with myself. All these break up songs! So I took a little break after that and I’m still kinda in this break period where I wanna really think about what kind of songs I want to write. I’m in this strange holding pattern where I’ll sit down everyday and play the guitar like I usually do and I’m working out things musically but I’m somehow keeping myself from formulating any real content ideas or lyrical ideas until I get a vision. I wanna wait until I have something that’s the antithesis of a breakup song and I wanna roll with that because going through the process of writing these breakup songs and recording them, it was like they’re fine songs, right? But they’re so personal that I was like ‘Really? Are you a songwriter or you singing off your diary?’ I think at the moment I’m just letting this free-form brainstorming process happen. Maybe I do wanna start with this concept album idea or I’m gonna write topical songs or I’m gonna write outside my comfort zone and challenge myself a little bit more.
This is kind of a personal question but it relates to what you’re talking about. Did you go through a breakup? Is that what inspired you to write breakup songs?
I sure did. It’s funny because you ask that question because it’s been on my mind recently. Yeah, I went through a breakup not this winter but the previous winter. I took myself up to Woodstock, my friend has a house/studio, and I just parked it in a basement room and got it all out. And it was great. It was incredibly cathartic. Musically it was passable. And then I was kinda like ‘What do I do with all these songs?’ I really did work on them. They were real songs. They just had a really narrow subject matter. And I really struggled with whether I should record them or not. I didn’t want this work to go to waste. In the end, I took what were the four best ones and I was like ‘Let’s just called it The Breakup EP.’
Is that what it’s called?
It’s called Walkabout and that’s gonna come out in the fall.