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Rachel Levitin Once Played at DC Open Mics, Now She Hosts Them

by Eric Althoff

Ever since she was little, Rachel Levitin has been making songs. She began composing them with her father when she was small, and hasn’t stopped.

“I started writing songs when I was 3 years old, or so I was told,” Levitin said recently. “My dad was playing on the guitar, and I would make up words.”

Levitin and her father also bonded by attending concerts together. One of her favorite experiences remains seeing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young near where she grew up in Chicago. 

“Because of him, I am always trying to be the first person in line for the door. I would stand in line for hours when I was a kid,” Levitin says of falling in love with live music. “That never changed when I got older.”

Sadly, Levitin’s father is no longer around, but she continues to honor him and their time together by making her presence known at every music venue in her adopted home of Washington, D.C. While attending American University, she hung around DC9, the Iota Club, and many others, both as a patron and trying to get her own compositions in front of people.

“Even without a car, I made it happen. I either carpooled or saved up the money for an Uber. That’s how bad I wanted to get to those concerts,” she said of making the rounds of the capital circuit stages, including those in Maryland and Virginia. “I just genuinely love being at music venues whether I am working at them, playing at them, or just hanging out at them. It’s where I feel very comfortable.”

Even though it’s a big city, Levitin describes DC’s music scene as having a small-town feel, with artists knowing—and supporting—everyone else. 

“If you put yourself out there, you will very quickly find people who you can easily connect with if you search for them,” Levitin said. 

One of her favorite places to hang was Jammin Java, where she watched Tony Lucca perform on a regular basis. She had even been inspired to start playing guitar by seeing him perform on the Disney Channel.

“I was listening to Lucca’s songs and thought maybe I could start writing some songs,” she said.  “And that day, I started.”

Levitin and Lucca would eventually become friends, and he has mentored her ever since.

“He even attended my 30th birthday party with my family. We got to play music, and it was awesome,” she said.  “I really consider him a big brother because he called me his ‘little sister.’”

Levitin says that in addition to Lucca, some of her influences include Rachael Yamagata, Norah Jones, and Sara Bareilles. Her goal was always to write Top 40 hits, though she acknowledges some of her early attempts were “cheesy.”

“The lyrics were definitely written by a teenager who either had puppy love crushes or was feeling angsty,” Levitin says of those first songs. “My goal was to aim big, but the songs didn’t really get to where I felt they were of a professional caliber until 2012.”

Now her sound has matured on songs such as “Heavy,” with its gently driving piano inviting the listener along on a journey. Levitin’s vocals enter plaintively, as she entreats the listener to treasure the past while also looking toward the future.

“‘Heavy’ was a direct result of my working with Tony during the start of the pandemic,” Levitin said. “That was the first song I felt comfortable enough to share with him and have him give me his honest feedback on.”

She and Lucca continued collaborating during lockdown, when performing live was impossible. Levitin used the extensive time at home to purchase a MIDI interface, learn GarageBand, and discover how to produce music. 

“As a woman in music, I don’t remember having many role models” who were self-producing, Levitin says. “So I had no examples to learn from. Maybe it took me a little while to get there, but I think I was always meant to bring my vision to life with my own creative power.”

“And the fact that I get to be more in control of the creative process, it’s very empowering. And I hope it inspires other women frankly to do the same.” 

During lockdown, she also took an online bass lesson from DC’s own Elizabeth II so that Levitin could then also write bass lines for her own songs.

“Once I had all of these little tools and tricks of the trade under my sleeve, I started to make demos of all the new songs that will eventually become the new album I am hoping to put out sometime in the next two years,” Levitin said of her current path. “I’m making it happen with the musicians that I want to work with, and trusting myself. I had never played electric guitar on my own records before. I had never played any solos on guitar before or played keyboards.”

She has also released a song called “Hear Me,” which she describes as a “feministic anthem,” as well as a dulcet composition called “Off My Mind,” which Levitin calls the best work she has yet done. 

“If I were to die tomorrow, I would say please everyone remember me for this song,” she said, praising the DC-area crew who helped produce the song and played for the recording, including Jasmine Gillison on bass. “It’s all DC people who are all involved in their own projects and have their own things going on, but we all banded together to make this possible.” 

Levitin will be back in front of audiences at DC9 on Aug. 27. She is also volunteering with ProjectHERA, a DC-area organization that encourages female empowerment through music. 

She will release more songs as she feels they are ready—not before. She has also hosted open mics at the Wharf’s Union Stage, thus bringing her story full circle as she meets and encourages up-and-coming musicians in turn. 

“It’s been a very positive growth experience that I don’t think would have necessarily occurred had I not started out going to the Iota open mic consistently, and then making myself known as a regular patron at several venues around town,” she said. “When you start making friends with people and sharing your stories and mutual love of live music, those kinds of things naturally occur in the wild.” 

“That’s a great example of moving from Chicago to DC for college and deciding to stay,” she said. “I made my mark on the DC music scene, and I’m very proud of that.” 

Photos by Helen Hennessey.

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Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his fiancee, Victoria.

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