How to Make Social Anxiety Taste Like Candy: Singer/Songwriter Molly Burch on ‘First Flower’ Album [Q&A]

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Photo Credit: Max Jenkins

Since the release of her 2017 debut album, Please Be Mine, LA-born, Austin-based Molly Burch has thwarted expectations of indie-folk-pop. Folding a croon reminiscent of Brill Building pop over twangs of slide guitar, Burch sings of heartache, anxiety and the relief of finding and keeping resolute love.

Burch released her second album, First Flower, in early Oct. 2018. The album’s subject matter turns away from the iridescent romance focus of her first project and towards the tug-of-war between artistic insecurity and the hard-won pride that Burch enjoys on the album’s second single, “To The Boys.”

Molly played rhythm guitar while touring her first album. Having achieved a certain level of success and signed to Brooklyn-based indie, Captured Tracks, she’s bequeathed the guitar to her boyfriend and bandmate, Dailey Toliver, and embraced the sensual, swaying performance style of her favorite Golden Era singers. I spoke with Burch after her hometown show (she grew up in west LA) at The Bootleg Theater, where she made the audience forget about the final 2018 World Series game playing in the front room (cheers erupted outside the door and Burch interrupted her set to ask if the Dodgers had scored the winning point). With her hands free, Burch floats around the center of a stage lit in red and let the drawn-out sigh of First Flower swell up around us.

OTW: You trained as a jazz vocalist at UNC Chapel Hill. Do you find your technical background to be a liberating or limiting force in your songwriting?

MB: Because I didn’t go to an intensive conservatory program, I don’t feel like I got the sort of rigorous training that would deeply inform my songwriting. What I took out of it was tons of performance experience. I don’t think I would’ve done well in an intensive conservatory environment. I’ve never been that interested in school or in being a student, so UNC was a good pace for me at the time.

OTW: Was it during your time at UNC that you started writing your own music or had you been doing so beforehand?

MB: I really started writing when I moved to Austin after I graduated. That’s when I started working on my first album, Please Be Mine. I had dabbled with my college band, but we always wrote together so I hadn’t had the experience of writing by myself. That came later because I was insecure about the songwriting process — I had no desire to do it because I felt like I couldn’t. I started writing because I moved to a new city by myself and there was no one to lean on.

OTW: How did you land on Austin?

MB: I wanted to move after college and was deciding between going to Austin or LA. Even though Austin was a totally new place, I felt like it’d be an easier city in the long run than LA. Austin is just a slower pace, a smaller city. I’ve moved a lot around Texas and seen different parts of the state that I loved. I recorded my first album in the hill country, and it was so beautiful. I lived a little south of Austin last year in a town called Lockhart. I’ve always been drawn to Texas — my dad’s side of the family is from Dallas, and I grew up going there a lot and idealizing it as super wholesome in my head. 

OTW: How did you start to meet other musicians after you’d moved there?

MB: It was a slow process — I was pretty lonely for a solid year. I played with people who weren’t right but it was something, you know? But then slowly, by putting myself out there, I met other people. I got back together with my boyfriend, Dailey, who’s in my band now. He moved to Austin, and we started playing out as a duo and started meeting people naturally through playing. After playing as a duo for a time, we started performing as a four-piece, and that’s the arrangement with which we recorded the first album. 

OTW: You have such a distinctive sound and style, vocally and instrumentally — if you just started writing after you moved to Austin, you must have developed both quite quickly.

MB: It came naturally at first when I started writing and it’s been organic bringing Dailey into the process. It’s really been a journey of figuring out the right people to play with. I’ve played with a ton of guys who have been disrespectful or looked to Dailey and not me for leadership. Navigating how to be a band leader and also a woman has taken a long time — it’s something I feel I’m still learning. Right now, I feel so happy with my live band. It’s a long process, finding people who get your music and are respectful of it and you.

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OTW: It’s funny you say that because, at your LA show, you said, “To The Boys” (which is a sort-of a f**K you “To The Boys”)  — was “the most special song” on the album. What exactly did you mean by “special?”

MB: “To The Boys” sounds like a fun, playful song. But I felt so vulnerable when I wrote it because I was talking about certain parts of myself that I’ve always viewed as real flaws. When I first sent the album to a bunch of women and to my label, everyone was drawn to that song. I was nervous about it initially, but having that reception from a bunch of women was like, “Fuck yeah.” And performing it out is so fun.

OTW: It makes sense to me that it resonated with lots of women. You put forward the fresh idea of exerting power as a woman without trying to adhere to a masculine representation of power.

MB: Exactly. It feels like a lot to do with being a woman playing music. Dealing with sexist guys and not getting respect but they don’t see you as someone powerful because you’re not their idea of what a leader looks like. Just seeing one girl singing along is my favorite. (Laughs) Last night, all these guys were singing along too.

OTW: This time you’re touring your newest album, First Flower, which you released at the beginning of October, two years after you released Please Be Mine. I read that you recorded Please Be Mine in two days. Was there anything you appreciated about the time limitation?

MB: I released Please Be Mine before I signed with my label, Captured Tracks — I had saved up money and did it quickly because that’s what I could afford. My band had playing the album for six months so we could get it done fast. We did it the whole album live in one day and did overdubs the next. I do like working fast, but that was pretty fast. For the second album, we spent a week in the studio which felt like the appropriate amount of time for this album. I still like to work fast. Even though I get help from my label, I like having the mindset of doing things cheaply. I’m used to being crafty about these things.

OTW: You titled the second album First Flower, taking it’s a name from the song “First Flower,” which seems to be a love song. Much of the album concerns topics related to anxiety or artistic insecurity. My question is, what do you think is the overarching focus of the album?

MB: “First Flower” was one of the first songs I wrote — I liked how the phrase sounded. As the album started to form, it became about me, my anxiety and my journey the past couple years. Figuring out how to be a leader, figuring out a band leader, figuring out how to manage my life and friendships. I’ve had a lot of messy relationships within my band and this album is about the self-growth that was necessary to find my way out of them. I felt like the phrase, First Flower, captured that.

OTW: “Candy" is an interesting song because, at first listen, it sounds like you’re addressing a former lover or friend. Then you realize you’re personifying and speaking to your anxiety.

MB: “Candy” captured how anxious I was while writing the album. I was living in Lockhart, and I had so much time on my hands. I was just trying to write the album and felt so blocked. I’d talk to my dad a lot over the phone and take long walks — he’d make me feel so much better. I wrote that song because at the time I kept asking myself, why am I listening to this negative narrative in my head telling me that I can’t do this thing when I have such an amazing support system around me? I should be listening to those voices instead of the ones inside my head telling me I can’t.

OTW: On “Wild,” which is my favorite song on the album, were you referencing someone you know or a part of yourself, or an aspirational part of yourself when you repeat, “She’s so wild.“

MB: More so in the past, I’ve struggled with putting people on pedestals and giving everyone but myself authority. The whole song is wanting not to do that, wanting not to idealize other people. I feel like the verse represents the time when you’re idealizing people and thinking they have it so easy, that they’re free of anxiety. The chorus is wanting to be okay with yourself, wanting to accept your anxiety, and being the wild version of yourself that you want to be.

OTW: Did that show up in the conception of the music video for this song, in which you got to wear lots of fun prom dresses?

MB: (Laughs) That was so fun. I reached out to Luca Venter — he’s really a cool director who’s made a bunch of Tennis videos. We totally clicked on the idea for “Wild.” He was like, “Okay, I’m seeing a 70s beauty pageant…” and I was like, “Say no more!” I loved his idea of having me play three different people. I also loved the idea that we’re all share some similarity and can always find common ground. The song is about anxiety, which I feel like everyone can relate to on some level.

OTW:  In the album art for First Flower, you’re sitting in the woods, looking at the camera while your male counterpart is turned away. What’s the story behind this pastoral scene?

MB: I think it’s good when you’re starting out to have your own image on your albums so people know what you look like. I wanted Dailey in it as well because he’s so much a part of my music. I also liked the image of his face getting chopped off as well (Laughs). We drove out to Luling, Texas — me, Dailey and Julian (Burch’s bassist) — which is even further south of Lockhart, to take the pictures. I developed all of the rolls and that one was perfect. And then I just cropped Dailey’s face off!

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OTW: Who are your current ones to watch?

MB: I love Bedouine and Natalie Prass and Kevin Morby. And, of course, Ariana Grande.

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