Hilken Mancini is up on stage at Cambridge’s T.T. the Bear’s. Her pale spider monkey arms linked to lissome fingers that scrupulously strum a glossy, cherry-red guitar. She seldom takes her wide, green eyes off the guitar’s neck to emerge from under a curtain of blonde fringe. She belts out a cover of the Go-Betweens’ “Rock and Roll Friend” with fellow ‘90s rocker Mary Lou Lord before rocking out on guitar and later thumping on drums, stomping her caramel-colored boots all over the stage with her all-female band, Shepherdess.
But Mancini does more than put on a good show. Last year she co-founded the Jamaica Plain-based Girls Rock Camp, a non-profit organization that teaches girls aged eight to 16 to form a rock band, write an original song, and perform it live at T.T. the Bear’s—all in a single week. “If I were to pick up a trombone right now, I’d probably be really bad at it. You don’t have to be destroyed because you failed the first time you tried something new.” But this concept is foreign to the campers. “It’s insane to them,” Mancini says. “I’m gonna have to learn how to play an instrument?” she says, mimicking the voice of a teenage girl. “And then I’m gonna be in a band? And then I’m gonna write a song? And then I’m gonna get onstage in front of my parents, and my grandparents, and my best friends?”
Although the Girls Rock Camp is based on technical music instruction, self-esteem is the underlying premise of the camp. “It’s so funny because I’m like, ‘Totally! Yeah! Rock and roll!’” she snarls with both hands popping up to form “the sign of the horns,” with her tongue leakingout of her mouth before she deadpans, “not really.” The camp focuses not just on telling young girls that anything is possible, but showing them they can succeed in a just week’s timeframe. “Boys can be silly and stupid and funny—but girls feel they have to be perfect,” Mancini says, “To show a girl you can totally fall on your face, but get back up and then actually succeed is what’s so amazing about Rock Camp.” Emily Arkin, Shepherdess guitarist and camp volunteer says their efforts to “infuse [the girls] with the rock and roll spirit” with the core teachings of self-empowerment push the boundaries of what the girls think they can do “in both music and life.”
Mancini wasn’t always a rocker. She grew up practicing ballet in Syracuse, New York She first developed her taste for punk and rock music at the Lost Horizon rock club in her hometown. When she was “old enough to look like [she] could get into a club” she snatched her older sister Meredith’s I.D. to see bands like Die Kruzen and The Smithereens. As a sixteen-year-old having her first experience with live rock music, she felt a natural lure toward that lifestyle because it left a more powerful impression than her simple gawking at her sister’s Keith Richards poster. “He’s like a superhero,” Mancini notes, “but going down the street and seeing the Dead Milkmen in a rock club” made her view musicians as real people. But it was American punk rocker Stiv Bators performancethat struck a genuine chord with Mancini. While the other girls in the crowd expressed their yearning to be romantically involved with the performer, Mancini aspired to be like him as a artist. However it was only after she started listening to female musicians like the Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush that Mancini began to write her own music—a confidence only established because she could imitate the female vocals. “It was only because my voice could sing it,” she says.
But Mancini still doubted her own ability to create rock music. While studying dance and musical theater at the Boston Conservatory in 1990, Mancini began taking her first steps toward rock and roll glory. At age 20, she became the lead vocalist in the Goth band Womb to Tomb, but that still didn’t satisfy her lust for rock stardom. Her status as the disposable female vocalist left her frustrated; “You’re not playing anything and you don’t have to know anything—you just sing.” Fed up with being disrespected, she began to teach herself guitar, in order to not risk further ridicule from her bandmates. She would only drop in to Cambridge Music Center for problems she couldn’t figure out on her own—like a broken guitar string. “It’s not rocket science,” she reflects. “Any moron can do it, but men always make it seem like this crazy, mysterious thing and it’s so notBy 1994, Mancini was the lead vocalist and guitarist for the band Fuzzy, which was signed to major-label Atlantic Records.
Mancini has always lived according to her own rules. “Aesthetically, I live my life as a punk rocker,” she proclaims. “Which I think if you look at me, you wouldn’t say…‘cause I’m a 41-year-old woman running around with a car, and a bank account, and a purse.” In 2000 she co-created Punk Rock Aerobics with video artist Maura Jasper, which was featured in Newsweek as the new “blockbuster fitness craze.” Clad in red-banded tube socks and sparkly blue eyeshadow, they taught seven-dollar classes at small venues like The Middle East in Cambridge and CBGB’s in New York City. The classes focused on rebellion-inspired moves created for “the misfits of society,” like air guitar, skank, punch, teenage kicks, and mosh pit. Mancini’s bandmate Arkin says she valued the non-conformist nature of Punk Rock Aerobics because it was “not to meet some external gym bunny beauty standard.”
In 2008, she went on to co-own 40 South Street in Jamaica Plain, a vintage store she reincarnated to feature women’s clothing. Mancini says she is a “punk rocker at heart” due to her nature of not just questioning, but altering the worlds of music, fitness, and fashion. “[They] look at status quo and say, ‘fuck you,’” she states, once again morphing her slender fingers into obscene gestures. Arkin initially saw Mancini as a “tough cookie” because of her “tell-it-like-it-is” personality, but later learned she is one of the best, biggest hearted, and most supportive people” in her life. She also notes Mancini is “someone who always takes pains to share what she knows and tries to give other people the keys to the confidence that comes naturally to her.”
Although Mancini had a packed plate, she sought more. Mancini was asked to teach Punk Rock Aerobics at Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon in 2006. It was there—cast in the role of a wide-eyed camper—that she became inspired to set up a camp in Boston“I wanted to be cool,” she reveals. “Here I was going into this place and I was going to meet all these women and I wanted to be accepted.” The staff and other campers made her feel comfortable and safe in this new environment by encouraging her to be loud, sweaty, and silly although she was afraid to. She ended up volunteering for five years at the Portland camp and in 2010 opened her own Boston branch. “She was born to do it,” says camp volunteer Eve Belfer-Ahern, “I couldn’t imagine anyone more well suited to rock the Boston chapter of this great program.” Belfer-Ahern also saw the wonder and confidence Mancini instilled in the campers: “It’s amazing to see the girls look at her with such admiration. She truly loves rock and roll, and wants every young lady to have the support system so they can do what ever they want.”
Through helping the campers find their voices, she found hers. Still living in her 20-year-old rock star fantasy that she now brings to the campers, Mancini’s thought’s still revolve around “writing the best song ever.” “Would I be doing this if this were a horseback riding camp? No,” she says, citing music as the most important thing in her life. In the future, Mancini hopes to buy a building for the camp instead of renting out the Spontaneous Celebrations studio on Danforth Street.
For now, Mancini is basking in her spotlight up on stage at T.T. the Bear’s. But come summer, pre-teen and teenage girls in bands with names like Peanut Butter Panthers will be performing their own music on the same stage. “I want to tell [the girls] you’re awesome no matter what color eyes you have, no matter how fat you think you are, no matter what issues you have—you rock.”