Hilken Mancini, ruler of the Boston female rock ‘n’ roll scene

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Hilken Mancini, even when she’s referring to her life 30 years ago, speaks in the future tense. I can’t prove it -- maybe there’s a study somewhere -- but I’d like to believe that optimistic people use language in this way. 

Perhaps that optimism keeps her young. Although she’s close to 50 years-old, Hilken is far cooler than most young people you know: She runs a beloved vintage shop in Jamaica Plain, her story is littered with iconic namedrops (Kurt Cobain, for one), and most notably, she runs Boston’s Girls Rock Campaign. 

In true punk rock fashion, Hilken speaks about her past and present with a blunt deference for her own hustle and DIY ethic (“Don’t get me wrong, a record deal didn’t just happen — I was obsessed with getting signed.”) Her entrepreneurial spirit took her from studying ballet at the Boston Conservatory to where she is now: leading the next generation of badass women to start their own music gang.

When Hilken was at Berklee’s Conservatory, folks like her could afford to live in the Back Bay working at a record shop. She spent her time working at Mystery Train record shop and working on a lackluster band with “Berklee students who played by the book.” 

She finally had enough of playing by the book. 

Enter: Chris Toppin, her Mystery Train coworker. With a record shop employee’s knowledge of music in their back pockets, the two of them started Fuzzy. “Everyone we knew had record deals,” Hilken remembers. 

Soon, they had one, too. During their show at Cambridge’s Middle East, a representative from Atlantic swiftly signed them, bringing them on tour to open for bands like Dinosaur Jr. and The Lemonheads. The record company loaded them with equipment: Marshall amps, nice electric guitars, the works. “We were living the dream.”

On top of that, Hilken’s connections brought her close to big names. At a Hole show at The Rathskeller, she remembers Courtney Love “shouting about wanting to beat up Mary Lou Lord,” one of Hilken’s close friends. 

Hilken laughs remembering this. “Mary Lou had been dating this guy named Kurt. Sound familiar?”

After years on the road and recording music, the band was dropped from Atlantic. But at 30 years old, Hilken struggled to find another record deal. Things had changed significantly from when Fuzzy was first signed -- record deals were harder to come by, requiring more than just talent, songwriting chops, and a great sound.

Rather than taking up a stiff 9-5 office job, she started up Punk Rock Aerobics, bringing hoards of anti-exercisers to CBGB and gaining traction in the press from outlets like the New York Times and Newsweek. Unlike other exercise programs of the time (Jane Fonda’s, for one), Punk Rock Aerobics had dark lighting and no mirrors while folks jumped around to punk rock. 

But, she wasn’t making any money -- and even more, she had recently attended something called Rock ‘n Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon. “All the girls, everyone, were just so fucking awesome.” At the camp, girls learned to start a band: they played instruments, danced, and sang. With her rebellious spirit and love of community, Hilken found a home in the Rock ‘n Roll Camp -- enough that she decided to start one in Boston. 

At the start, Hilken bootstrapped the program, using equipment from her old Atlantic days and creating a small team of volunteers. Now, nine years later, Girls Rock Camp in Boston sells out within days with a waitlist even with two sessions offered. 

Hilken sees Rock Camp as an intentional community, where girls come to support each other and play loud. During a time when it can be hard to feel good about the state of things, especially about being a girl, Rock Camp offers an infectious environment of encouragement. “When you’re  a woman playing rock ‘n roll, there’s a pressure to age gracefully and quiet down. But I’m not going to stop playing. At Rock Camp, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. Rock Camp saved me.”

Photo by Stephen Dowling, 2006.

Photo by Stephen Dowling, 2006.

Hannah Weiner