When most 16-year-olds get grounded for throwing a party while their parents out of town, they sulk in their rooms. Chevy Chase native Olivia Mancini, on the other hand, used the time to teach herself to play the guitar. She stuck with it through college and after; she played bass in the DC-based Washington Social Club and now tours the US and Europe with multiple acts including Astra Via and Olivia and the Mates. It’s with the latter that she’s releasing a new album of folky, head-bobbing tunes at the Birchmere this Friday with Matthew Sweet.
Mancini is now based primarily in New York but finds herself back in DC often. We caught up with her by phone to talk about the new album, balancing band life and graduate school, and why it’s great to be a performer in Washington.
So how’s your day going?
Pretty well! I actually just finished typing an interview with Matthew Sweet that I did last week. It was a really cool turn of events—it was for the Vinyl District blog and we interviewed each other, so I got to talk to one of my musical idols, and I’m opening for him next week at the Birchmere. I pressed send right before you called.
I continue to be a big Matthew Sweet fan—I’d say starting from tenth grade on. It could be one of those conversation-starter questions: “Who would you like to talk to, living or dead?” He was on my list, and having never met him it was a bit nerve-racking [to interview him].
What’s on the schedule leading up to the CD release?
My band is doing a number of shows this week and next, supporting our CD release, so we’re doing a ton of practicing and playing in next two weeks, really getting ready for the Matthew Sweet show, which is the end of the string of shows.
This isn’t your first time playing at the Birchmere, right?
I’ve played at the Birchmere before, but never headlining. I grew up in Washington, but I had never been there until the first time I played there. It’s a cool place to sit down, have dinner, drink a pitcher of beer, and watch your favorite bands.
Do you have a favorite local venue?
There are so many more choices in DC now than when I was growing up, and they all have something to offer, something special about them. I love Black Cat, and the smaller venues are equally as charming; then there’s new spots like the Dunes, a few indie spots, and some houses, concert houses, popping up in past couple of years.
I spoke to another local band, Shark Week, recently, and they said they find as a band it’s easier to be cool in Washington but harder to be cool outside of it. Do you agree?
Washington is a smaller place. It has fewer venues, so if you’re looking for something to do on a Friday night you can check Washingtonian, the Post, City Paper, and see names you more or less recognize. But in New York, every other doorway appears to be a venue. So I would agree that it’s a little easier to establish yourself in Washington, whereas in New York there’s that competition factor—in addition to the bands that live there, there’s an unknown amount of bands who would love to get the chance to play New York.
Would you say the music community here is more supportive?
It’s certainly something I think about. I don’t wanna offend anyone in New York; I have met many wonderful musicians, and started playing with them, but not unexpectedly there’s more pressure up here. It’s less of a community and more of a competitive environment; you’re just competing for audience members, for shows. A lot of bands and musicians [in New York] are vying for the same thing, but in DC everybody knows everybody, so there’s a lot of sharing of bills and everybody working together to promote the show. There’s a real camaraderie in the DC scene that we haven’t quite tapped into yet.
What can you tell me about the new album?
It’s called Interregnum, which is a Latin word that refers to a period of between kings, a period of chaos. I think that’s pretty reflective of our band’s life over the past couple years. I moved up to New York to go to grad school, so there was a lot of back and forth, and we had to keep the band on the same page and get together whenever we could. This CD is a collection of singles that we managed to get together, write, rehearse, and record. It’s been a while since we put out anything physical—this is our first official release since 2010—so we’re looking forward to getting songs out there.
Are you finished with school now?
I have finally finished. I went to Columbia’s School of Social Work, and got an MSW [master of social work], which is sitting there waiting for me.
I read an interview you gave when you were still deciding whether to go to grad school or to make music a full-time thing—how do you feel now that you’re done with school?
I often think of that interview because now, three years later, what I learned in grad school is [music is] probably the only profession I want to have. And I learned a lot and gained a lot from years in grad school, but for me it was the same as every other academic experience: I was sitting in class trying to pay attention to whatever the brilliant professor was saying, still checking my phone under my desk, thinking I can’t wait to get back and record a demo. So I think over the past couple of years I’ve returned to thinking of music as more than a hobby.
If you had a major goal for your musical career, what would it be?
I feel very fortunate—if I’d made a list when I was 12 of things I wanted to do, I’ve managed to check off a lot of those, like playing at 9:30 Club, playing at Black Cat, and I’ve managed to play with a bunch of people who I found really inspirational. On the bucket list is definitely traveling to countries I’ve never been to; I’ve been doing some European touring, so I want to continue doing that in other countries, and even branch out to other continents.
And what about a goal for your show?
I would like people to leave humming one or two catchy melodies. We’re big into sing-along songs, melodies you can carry with you, and being inspired by watching someone being engaged in really loving what they’re doing. My band—we love playing together, and that’s reflected in our stage performance, so I hope people catch that joyous vibe from it and leave with a smile.
Olivia and the Mates play the Birchmere Friday, August 23, at 7:30 PM with Matthew Sweet. Tickets ($29.50) are available online.