A lot of Molly Payton's tracks have been written in the tube, when the night is over and booze courses her veins. "It’s where I do my best writing," she laughs. "When I’m absolutely hammered and angry at someone." It figures: her music is drenched in melancholy, laced with yearning vocals and cutting lyrics about boys who read too much Kerouac and wish they lived in 1972. Still, she has her reservations about the habit. "It’s not good," she jokes, "how as a musician you capitalize off heartbreak. I’m at a point now where if I have a bad experience with a guy I’m like, 'Sweet, thanks mate! Great song.'"
The New Zealand-born artist moved to London with her mum when she was sixteen. The plan was to stay for only a short stint, but when Molly's music started taking off that turned into two years (and counting). While Molly had been writing songs and singing for a while at that stage, she hadn't yet considered making it a career. "In New Zealand I just never really thought of it as a possibility," she explains. Back then, the main Kiwi artists she knew that had made it big were a couple of bands her parents liked, and Lorde. And while she notes that's changing, it wasn't until she'd trekked halfway across the world that pursuing music felt like a tangible possibility. "Moving to London," she explains, "I was meeting people who it just happened to."
Those people were the likes of bedroom pop turned breakout rock star beabadoobee, and Oscar Lang, who's signed with The 1975's label Dirty Hit. Alongside Molly, they're part of a crew of talented young London creatives, the kind that make you feel very old and uncool. "They were a really influential group," Molly says. "I definitely wouldn’t have done anything if I hadn’t met them. Just being around young people like that who’ve made what they want to happen was really good for me, to see that it’s possible."
While Molly's mates may have helped nudge her in the right direction, she's clearly got the talent to make on her own strength, as evidenced on her debut EP Mess. Released earlier this year and produced by Oscar, it's a collection of fuzzy acoustic-leaning tracks, inspired by the likes of Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen. They're like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket of nostalgia and show off a voice that could melt steel.
Now Molly's just released her second EP, Porcupine. This time round she's taking notes from the 90s bands she has on repeat, including Nirvana and Pavement. It's aided by the fact after an extensive two-year search, she's finally got a band of her own to flank her on stage and in the studio. The result is a slick collection of fuller, grungier tracks, the kind you can imagine swaying to in a dingy underground club with sweat lining the walls.
We caught up with Molly from opposite ends of the world to chat writer's block, pre-show rituals and coming home for summer.
Ones to Watch: Are you someone who’s constantly writing?
Molly Payton: I used to be. But in lockdown I didn’t write anything. I think it was partly because I got back from a trip to the States two days before lockdown, and when I was there, I was in writing sessions every day, and I felt like I’d just been squeezed out. I just didn’t feel like writing for the first time in my life. But it’s coming back now.
Do you have a process?
Not really. Most of my best songs I wrote in like 20 minutes.
Is that just you picking up a guitar and writing everything at the same time?
Throughout my day I’ll be having things in my head, but it won’t feel like a song, just ideas. Little melodies or playing around with chords. And every once in a while, - it’s so nice - I’ll just sit there and play something and be like, 'Oh that sounds good,' and keep playing. Then I get my phone out and go into my thousand notes of like, two lyrics at a time, and start putting stuff together. And it just happens. It's the nicest experience. Though in the second EP, two of the singles actually, Warm Body and How to Have Fun, those are the first two songs I wrote with other people in writing sessions.
It must’ve been a pretty different experience having had that experience of songwriting on your own, then sitting in writing sessions. What was that like?
It depends. I hate some writing sessions. There have been a few that I just wanted to leave. But those two sessions were just fun. I wrote Warm Body with Oli [Barton Wood] who produced the EP. It was the first time we met, and I was so nervous because it was my first ever proper writing session. And he just gave me a guitar and put heaps of distortion on it, then gave me a really shitty mic. Which I think was probably the best first session I could’ve had.
Because most of the time it’s just someone will have either an acoustic guitar and they’ll be like, ‘tell me about your ex-boyfriend’, or they’ll have a drum machine and put a little beat in the computer, and you’ll do things really systematically. Whereas Oli was like, just play something and I’ll play along, and we’ll see if something happens. And that’s how Warm Body happened.
You have a really powerful voice - is that a thing that you had to - excuse the cliché - find?
Oh god yeah, I had a really good singing teacher for two years. I wasn’t a good singer. I always wanted to, I always sang, but I didn’t start singing singing until I was about 15. My teacher was really about giving you confidence. And that’s my thing, because I have really, really bad anxiety. Which is funny, because I was such a performer when I was a kid. But the idea of going on stage to someone with such bad anxiety, especially at that age, was terrifying. Which is hard - wanting to be a musician and being fucking terrified of going on stage.
Do you have any pre-show things to help that now?
But I don’t get nervous anymore, I don’t know if it’s because I have a band now… Probably. I have the best band in the world. They’re all a bit older and have been doing music forever, so they’re crazy talented musicians. And I know when I go on stage with them that if I fuck up, Simon the guitarist will do some crazy shit on the guitar and distract everyone while I get my shit together.
Did moving to London change how you wrote at all?
To be honest I was 16 when I moved here, and in [home country] New Zealand I was quite a shy kid. I hadn’t experienced much, then was suddenly thrust into this crazy world. Because the school I went to here, and the people I was mixing with, were so far away from any kind of world I’d experienced before. It was very different, very intense. Going out all the time, having freedom for the first time in my life - and very suddenly - was a bit scary. I don’t know if it changed my style of writing, I think that happened more through writing heaps and getting better. But my sound would’ve changed if I'd stayed in NZ. I met different people, and that would’ve changed the subject matter. It’s hard to say. I don’t even know if I'd be writing if I’d stayed in NZ. It’s a bit nuts to think about, y'know.
Do you miss New Zealand?
So much. I miss my family, and how fucking pretty it is. London’s beautiful but it’s beautiful in a sad way. Everything about London makes me feel melancholy.
I lived in London for six years, so know what you mean.
Maybe it’s because I've watched too many films. I always feel like I’m in a movie here, whereas in New Zealand I feel like a human being. It’s also that weird feeling of separation here where no one knew me before. When I moved here, I had this freedom to be who I wanted to be, which was really fun for a while. I was like, 'I’m gonna be confident, that’s my thing now.' Which was great, and it’s nice to have that thing of, 'No one knows that embarrassing thing I did when I was a kid.' But after a while you miss having that. I’ve got four siblings, and I’m the baby. So just missed getting teased. And Christmas. I had Christmas on my own. In London. It was so sad. My mum was back in New Zealand.
But whenever I say that to people who are living here, they’re like, 'Well why don’t you just go back?' And I'm just like, no of course not, I want to be here. It’s London. In the same way it’s sad, it’s amazing. But I’m coming to NZ for a while so i’m gonna get my feed.
The dream is to just do summer to summer.
The thing is, I’m a winter person, I love winter. I think it’s 'cause I just love a good coat. I love hot drinks.
That’s true. Two winter USPs.
There’s nothing better than New Zealand winter. We’d go skiing and stay in this rinky dinky little hut and had to hike up the mountain because the lift didn’t go. So, you’d have this horrible hike carrying your skis and your bag, then get into this warm hut and sit down and have a hot chocolate. Ugh. I miss winter.
I've just had two in a row so you can have one of mine. What are your next music goals?
I'd love to do a proper tour. That’s the dream, I’d love to be able to play just every day. But it’s weird, I’m such a homebody. Deep down I’m a huge grandpa, it’s my secret to surviving London. I have some friends who go on tour and I’m like, 'How do you survive, how do you manage this lifestyle every day?' Because they go out after every gig, get trashed and do it again. Whereas I can’t handle a hangover. I'm like 'Cancel it all. I'm sleeping today.’