I’m so excited and honored to share today’s conversation with you. My guest on the show this week is Claire Monesterio, who performs under the name Manchita.
I first met Claire as a fellow audience member at a show, and quickly recognized her as an incredibly sweet, genuine, and relatable person. She’s the kind of person you always hope to run into at a show, always ready with a hug and a smile, and it was such a thrill to learn over the years that she was secretly working on her own music as well.
Watching Claire perform with groups like Tha Clerb and GRRRL PRTY has been a revelation. She transforms into a completely different person when she gets up on stage, with aggressive delivery and incredible dance moves; it’s hard to take your eyes off of her. And she’s a hell of a rapper, often spitting in double time and dropping double-entendres, jokes, and clever turns of phrase that will make your head spin. She’s fierce.
Claire, Manchita, is also a very complex person, and she’s endured a lot in her 30 young years. She has dealt with several serious mental health issues over the years, and has spent a lot of time “investigating” her tics and trying to get to the bottom of her trauma and struggles. She’s also endured a series of devastating losses; in 2010, the man she had been in an on and off relationship with for five years, Micheal Larsen, passed away from an overdose, shocking the global hip-hop community. And in 2013, the house she was living caught on fire, and she and her roommates lost many of their possessions and their pet cat in the flames.
Through it all, Claire has perservered, continuing to write prolifically about her life and sharing those experiences in breathtaking clarity on several of GRRRL PRTY’s tracks. She somehow manages to balance the banging party beats of the group’s music with incredibly poignant, personal, and occasionally devastating lyrics, and makes it work. If you’ve ever heard the group sing “Ash everywhere, ash ash everywhere,” a song about her house fire, you’ll know what I mean.
My conversation with Claire went all over the map. We talked about anxiety, we talked about feminism, and we focused in on the source of so much of her pain over the past five years, which is a story about her relationship to Eyedea that she’s never shared publicly before today. You’re going to want to listen to this one the whole way through. I promise you won’t regret it.
Andrea Swensson: Hey, Claire.
Manchita: Hey, Andrea.
Hey, Manchita. What other names do you go by?
When did you start going by Manchita? I don’t know that story.
It was first La Manchita, but I dropped the La, which still follows me around in many articles, but yeah, basically that, that word in Spanish just means “tiny stain,” like a little stain or blemish or scar or like, mark or imperfection. To be “manchala” is to be spotty or dirty like, like if you Google image manchita, puppies with spots on their eyes will show up because everyone names their dogs manchita, because it’s like spot. It also means, like, little female person, little girl or woman from “la mancha,” which is in Spain, which is where my family is from, so it’s like a little play on words there.
That’s cool, I like that.
So Manchita, ‘Chita for short, which Lizzo gave me as a nickname ‘cause, you know. She’s like, “you rap too fast, [like a] cheetah.” I’ll say, “Okay, I’ll take it, that works. We’ll do that.”
When was the first time you rapped?
M: The first time that I rapped was at Nick and Eddie on February 24th, 2010.
I love that you know the date.
It might have been after midnight, so it might have technically been the 25th. That was with Dave Matters and Ryan Olson and Deathsquads. Basically, Ryan and I had started this song or whatever, and he was like, “You just gotta come up and rap it. We’re just gonna like, throw the beat into this crazy Deathsquads mix, and you’re just going to come up and rap.” I was like, “Okay, okay I’ll do it, sure,” and so, I did it, and that was that. Which felt weird ‘cause I was always told myself I would never be a rapper.
Really? That’s specifically something you had in mind, “I will never be a rapper?”
I will never be a rapper.
Yeah, and for various reasons I think, but he had invited me over and I made the thing, did the doo-doo, did the little show with him or whatever, and I was like, “Okay that was fun, that was fine, that’s over with.” So, six months later he calls me and I was nannying, and he’s like, “What are you doing?” and I’m like, “I’m just wrapping up, I’m about to go home from this kid’s house,” and he’s like, “Okay. We need you to rap on something.” And I was like, “Ryan, that was like a one time thing, I don’t rap.” And he’s like, “Nope. You got it,” and I was like, “Nah, I really don’t even know what you’re talking about,” ‘cause he had Jason Powers, Slapping Purses there, and they were looking for a female rapper. And he was like, “Listen, be here no later than 6:00,” and hung up the phone. It was like, there was no question in my head. I was like, “Well, I can’t be late,” you know? So, I showed up and got the beat and rapped, and that was that. He was immediately, like, “Okay, you need to work with Jeremy now, Spyder Baybie, you need to work with Mike [Mictlan], you need to work with Muck, you need to like, get started,” you know, facilitating, as he does so well. And then it just kind of went from there.
Could I just say how awesome it was when you threw [fake] bloody tampons on everyone at First Ave?
Yeah, I have to do it.
That show was just so powerful on so many levels, because the energy level that you bring as a group is unstoppable, but then to have you rapping about your period and then to see you throwing these bloody tampons out — in my mind, it’s like, there’s been so much talk about like, “Are you or are you not a feminist?” in recent years, and this is what it actually looks like, to put womanhood in people’s faces and be like, “Deal with this.”
Thank you. That was something I felt. That period song was the easiest song I’ve ever written. I have verses that didn’t even make the cut because I feel like I’ve been writing it my whole life, you know? It just was one of those things where in terms of like rap music – and hip hop specifically – one of the things that has always been like the push and pull for me, that I felt like for so long, that there wasn’t a place for me there as a woman. Because I can rap along, I can rap along to you, sir, but as soon as you’re like, you know, saying, “What is it, I ***ed your Hampton’s spouse, **** on her Hampton blouse,” then you lost me. I don’t feel like this is for me. I feel like it’s against me. I feel reduced. I feel objectified, even though you’re not talking about me. I’ve never been to the Hamptons, I’ve never owned a blouse. You know? But it’s one of those things that just automatically draws a line and it’s so ingrained into the music and the ideology and there’s just like a lot of sexism built into the culture essentially and that was something that I always struggled with.
And I was really present for the hip-hop scene in the Twin Cities like 10, 11 years ago, but I had to like, leave, because I just felt so reduced all the time. I had to step out because it was like the role of woman was you’re either someone’s b**** for the night or you’re someone’s girlfriend, and either way, you don’t really get respect. You literally have people be like, “Oh, you’re mine tonight,” and it’s like, “Excuse me? I beg your pardon? Do I have a choice in this at all? You just assume that I’m here to take my pants off, that’s cool, alright.”
It just got exhausting, you know? And I feel like people like Dessa have really, because of her content and her presentation — she’s a strong like, smart, confident woman, and I really value what she’s done because I think that without her, many of us wouldn’t have a place, you know? And I think, you know, with her, and that changing of the times, I was able to see that I was like, “Oh, maybe I can participant.” I don’t have to be on the outside, I can make a place. So I’m bringin’ this back to the tampon song, because I never had a song that was for me in hip-hop and rap. I didn’t have like an anthem that was like, “Oh I relate to everything about this.” That’s why I made that song. Because I was like, “This is just as bottom line as I can get.” I’m inviting you in, I’m inviting you — oh, you have a tampon at your home because you need it sometimes? Because you’re a female? Come here. Listen to this song. You will understand or maybe you’ll think it’s way over the top and that’s fine, too. But it’s really an invitation.
One thing I really wanted to talk to you about was the process of putting more personal experiences that you’ve had, especially very serious experiences about loss, into the style of music that GRRRL PRTY is, which is so upbeat. How do you balance those two kind of goals?
It’s a hard balance, I think that when GRRRL PRTY started, Lizzo and I were coming out of Tha Clerb, and that was strictly party music. I think Lizzo and I had come off that wave and we were like, “We’re going to keep this going.” I know that for me, it is really hard to just write light-hearted stuff. I have a really hard time. The first things that come out of me always just like this deep, dark perpetual grief. And making that palatable is the trick, you know? So, I poke fun at myself in my heaviness, I think, and that’s how I find my balance. There was like the ashes song, the ghosts song, the fire, that one, it just had to happen. GRRRL PRTY came out of that fire. That fire happened and we wrote “Wegula” like a month later and we just kept writing, kept writing, kept writing. So, I think that fire was like the fertile ground that I needed to have this kind of energy to move forward, and I think that out of that, a lot of what we’re doing now came into fruition.
It really is hard to find a balance, but I’m not comfortable just writing fluff. I’ve recognized it a little bit and I think I have to be true to myself, and I am a very dark person; I’m very silly and I’m a loving person and I love everybody, but I do have a lot of darkness. I am a dark in there. And that is why my name is Manchita — because I am stained, I am blemished, I am one big scab, you know? I am a healing process in my entirety, that’s all I’m doing, ever.
The truly dark matter that I make is the stuff that no one’s seen, that’s the stuff that’s unreleased. It’s just like projects on projects on projects that, yeah, and they might never see the light of day just because at this point they’re four, three, two years old, and I’m just going to let those be my journal entries and I have to let go. But there’s more dark matter coming, don’t you worry. [laughs] I got plenty of darkness.
When I was interviewing Adam Levy for this podcast, he talked about being afraid that his most serious material was going to be a burden on people, and that performing it was going to unload all of these feelings onto people and make them feel heavy. But I think that when I’m in my darkness moments, I crave connection to people who have felt that, so I really find solace in a depressing song.
There’s something very validating that someone else has been there, too, and that they can express it, and it kind of helps you express it. But I understand what you’re saying about the balance; I think my favorite art is both the darkest and the lightest that you can imagine and bringing them together and contrasting them.
That’s a really interesting comment. The word burden — I think as people who struggle with mental health issues, that’s like the most common feeling that we have. “I’m just going to keep this because I don’t want to burden anybody, I’m not going to call anyone right now because then they’re going to have to stop what they’re doing and then they’re going to worry about me for two days and text me and call me.” And I think it’s more about us feeling another sense of shame and guilt. And that is probably part of it for me. I think another part of, musically, why I haven’t shared a lot of that stuff is because a lot of it revolves around – I’ve never talked about this in an interview before or just really ever. I’ll explain why I guess.
Micheal Larsen, Eyedea, and I dated on and off for five years. And he was my person. And the grief is so thick and will forever be; it’s like my skin now, it’s always going to be there. And one thing that happened when he died, was that I was ostracized from the community and I was – I feel like I have to be careful about how I say this because I don’t want to talk badly about anybody and I don’t want to – I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings who hurt my feelings.
His family felt like I was responsible somehow, somehow their logic led them to that conclusion, even though I have never used heroin in my life, and I never will. Somehow I was responsible for his overdose. So with that, they banned me from the funeral and every memorial, every benefit concert, any mention of me – there’s like a documentary that’s coming out, there’s been articles, there’s been just tons of stuff relating to him and his death and I’m omitted from everything, and people were even threatened that if they contacted me or spent time with me or comforted me or made music with me or ever went to a show of mine that they would be removed from his label or their music with him wouldn’t be released or they wouldn’t be allowed to perform at this show or they wouldn’t be allowed to participate in this or that. And it’s a lot of people. It’s a lot of beautiful, talented amazing people and I can’t hold them, I can’t hold it against them; I understand what it is to grieve. I really do. And I understand how confusing it is. And I feel guilty saying that out loud, because I feel like one of the consequences of that whole experience that is still continuing to this day is that I don’t feel like I’m allowed to grieve about his passing. And that sort of feeling has made it so that I haven’t felt like I’m allowed to release anything about that. And everything’s about that.
People have asked me, “Why haven’t you put anything out? Why haven’t you put stuff out? Why why? What’s wrong with you?” And it’s such a complicated thing to explain, like I can’t explain to you that I don’t feel like I’m allowed to share my story. I don’t feel like I’m allowed to grieve. I don’t feel like I have a right to my feelings, essentially, and there are parts of me that wonder if it ever happened. Like, to feel so removed from the situation that I wondered, “Did we really? Did we really?” You know? But I know that we did. And I’m lucky that we had what we had, because when I’m not in moments of extreme questioning and fear, I know exactly what we had, what we have. It’s not gone. It’s not gone for me even though he’s not here. And that’s a hard thing to say as well, because I do have a partner now and he’s an amazing person, and it’s always, you know, I don’t want to make him uncomfortable and in any way undermine what we have, which is very beautiful. But Micheal was my best friend and he was my person. You know? When you meet that person and you know, suddenly you make sense. And I miss him every day, but that’s partly why I had to make the tampon song, because I was like, “I need to get something out there.” I have to do something and I can’t be serious, ‘cause I’m going to choke on it. But yeah, it’s hard, it’s hard to find a balance, I think that grief has really controlled a lot of my life and a lot of my art too which is really hard and it feels good to finally say this out loud.
You probably know things about him that nobody has ever seen or known.
Right. And I think erasing our relationship from his life or his legacy is erasing some of the most beautiful parts of him, because we did a lot of growing together. I think he became a man while we were together and I became a woman. And it just isn’t fair to his memory to denounce certain aspects of his growth and his being and his struggle and his beauty and his love that he was able to share, you know? ‘Cause like what else do you leave behind?
Will you tell me more about him, what was he like? To be with?
Probably one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, definitely one of the smartest people I’ve ever known in my life. A really good listener. Extremely talented at everything except for, sorry Micheal, drawing. I know you loved it, but oh my god, I’m glad you found the mic, because damn. [laughs] He was definitely a musician and a writer and a philosopher. I think the thing about Micheal was that he was everybody’s best friend. Anybody who was really friends with him, he was the best friend that they could possibly have, you know? And he understood the world, almost like he’d been here a hundred times already and had this other kind of grip. As long as you were with him, you could see. He’s amazing. He made me laugh a lot. I think the thing that brought us together was, we were constantly battling wits. It was like a battle of the wits, who knows more? We were just constantly flexing on each other. And making each other the butt of the joke, but also very, he was really good at opening you, your mind, in a really gentle way.
He was really good at basically giving you the glasses and allowing you to see without condescension. Just really, a clear connection to like this other understanding of the world and he was a teacher. He was a teacher. I don’t think I’ve learned more from any one person, any single person, than I learned from Micheal. And he was patient. He’s great. He was the best. My favorite person. My favorite.
The O.K. Show, Episode One: A candid discussion on mental health with Charlie Van Stee
The O.K. Show, Episode Two: Mary Beth Mueller and her one-woman crusade against cancer
The O.K. Show, Episode Three: Adam Levy’s devastating loss and beautiful new solo album
The O.K. Show, Episode Four: Irv Williams, the elder statesman of Twin Cities jazz
The O.K. Show, Episode Five: Lydia Liza on empathy, anxiety, and staying grounded in the music business
The O.K. Show, Episode 6: Hard-touring rapper Astronautalis talks about staying sane on the road
The O.K. Show, Episode 7: Mayda on her health and her journey as a Korean adoptee