D.C. musician Olivia Mancini is at a crossroads

By Moira E. McLaughlin
Friday, June 11, 2010; WE06

When Olivia Mancini was in elementary school in Chevy Chase, her teacher asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.

"A rock-and-roll star," she responded.

Now, at age 31, things look a little different to the guitarist and songwriter whose music at once recalls Buddy Holly and the Cardigans.

"I think, well, me and my musical friends are at an age where you hit a crossroads, where you kind of have to draw a line between music as a career or music as a hobby, and I'm resisting this decision with every fiber of my body," Mancini says.

In 2009, she deferred admission to Georgetown University Law School and then, about two weeks before classes started, "ejected from the law school plan." But now it's Plan B again, and she intends to attend Columbia University this fall to earn a master's degree in social work.

But who knows?

"It's really weird," Mancini says. "I keep taking these voluntary actions to do something different, and then when it really comes down to it, the only thing that really rings my bell is music."

When Mancini was 16 and a student at National Cathedral School, her parents grounded her for throwing a party while they were out of town. But before her long "internment," she says, she drove to Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center in Wheaton, bought an acoustic guitar and a chord book, and taught herself to play. Later, at Vassar College, she majored in history but also found time to play in bands.

After graduating, Mancini began playing bass with the Washington Social Club, a popular local quintet that opened for such underground rock bands as Hot Hot Heat and Phantom Planet. The group broke up in 2008, but by then Mancini was also playing with the band the Housemates, later called the Mates. The group recorded its first album, "This Kind of Life," in 2007.

Mancini says it was never her intention to have music take over her life. Now that it has, however, she is finding it difficult to move on to something else, which she believes she should do.

"I grew up in Washington. I feel that there's always been this expectation and this gentle pressure that you go to college, [then] you would get a job and then the rest of your life would unfold," she says. "Music always seemed like a wonderful hobby that I would be able to pursue for the rest of my life, but it certainly wouldn't be the core of my professional life, so that was something I didn't expect."

Growing up, Mancini listened to WBIG, the oldies radio station, and her music is heavily influenced by the likes of Del Shannon, Dion and the Belmonts, Lesley Gore and the Shirelles. Her songs are playful, simple pop melodies featuring an unaffected, sweet soprano vocal and a throwback guitar tone reminiscent of Chuck Berry (another of her favorites).

Gigs don't pay all the bills, however, so Mancini teaches guitar and voice, as well as two online music courses for Penn State: the history of popular music and the history of punk music.

"I've been watching my friends drop like flies the last three or four years where people start looking a little bit into the future thinking, 'Oh, maybe I'd like to buy a house or start a family or get married,' and there's something about being like a mid-level musician who hasn't had a hit single."

Hit single or not, Mancini has achieved all that she dreamed of as a kid. She has reached such personal goals as playing the Black Cat and New York's Irving Plaza and Bowery Ballroom.

"I've experienced all the popular success I was ever interested in," she says. "This is great. I get to play shows. I get to keep making records. In terms of, like, gaining popularity, I've achieved most of my dreams and then some.

"But financially music is a hard business, and, you know, you do a lot of scrambling, and when you get to be a certain age you start thinking about and maybe others start suggesting to you, maybe you want to get something a little bit more stable. . . . I still enjoy getting in a van with my bandmates and . . . playing and staying out late and whatever, but I may not like that in 10 years."

The transition to grad school will not be easy, and Mancini wonders whether her plans mean she is growing up or giving up.

"I don't want to disappoint myself surely, but I also don't want to disappoint my family or anybody else that may be close to me. But it's still your life and you have to decide what you want to get out of it."

And what Mancini wants is a degree in social work from Columbia?

"We'll see," she says. "Jury's out. Check with me September 1st."

OLIVIA MANCINI Appearing with Tom McBride, the Treading Lemmings and the Andalusians on Friday at the Rock and Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE. Show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets: $10. 202-388-7625. http://www.rockandrollhoteldc.com. The Download For a sampling of Olivia Mancini's music, check out: From "You Can See the Mountains From Here": "The Strangest Things" "Easy Way" "Graphology" From "This Kind of Life": "I Wouldn't Worry" "Jealous Type" "Let's Do This" -- Olivia Mancini

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