Molly Sullivan makes music that makes you feel good. I’m not saying it’s feel good music necessarily, because that sounds too much like a Tide commercial, but rather that Sullivan makes music that delightfully plays with melody and space. Sullivan largely flies alone, creating all of her myriad sounds via effects pedals and a copious amount of looping, both of her instrumentation and her rather dulcet voice. She’s playing here tomorrow evening with someone named Johnny Sands, who I’m told could be the ghost of an actor who died in the U.K. While I can’t confirm the veracity of that previous statement, I can live in hope that it’s accurate. The show is at Haymarket Whiskey, and is well worth your time. Molly was kind enough to type words back and forth at us, and you can read all about that below.
Never Nervous: First off, I have to say that your music is really, really lovely. How do you write?
Molly Sullivan: Hmm.. How do I write? I am neither a trained musician nor a trained writer, so I go mostly off my gut and grind hard when I feel most emotionally volatile or damaged. I’m not the practiced, consistent writer that I sometimes wish to be, but at least the stuff is real.
NN: Does the music come first or the words? If it’s the words, how do you craft a song around that?
MS: Words first vs. lyrics first is something you can never predict. The sound recorder on my phone has been an incredibly useful tool if I happen to be out and pick up a little melody or lyrical line (or both). You can revisit these little seeds and create an entire theme or soundscape around them. Sometimes, a poem is born and the melody just finds itself there.
NN: Why solo? Why not with a band?
MS: Playing solo has, for the moment, allowed me flexibility and autonomy with where and when I play, as well as giving me freedom from producing or performing music that I feel has to meet collaborators’ aesthetics. Does that make sense? Like.. I’m playing for me and me alone, for now, and am growing in comfort with my gear and performance. I need to be self-sufficient and confident without relying on the skills or sounds of others.
NN: What kind of gear do you use? The video you sent shows a lot of sampling, what do you use to do that? For that matter, what kind of challenges come along with live sampling?
MS: As of now, the set up involves two mics- one directly into the PA and one into a little personal mixer which I also plug my guitar into. The mixer’s line out is channeled through Boss Tuner, Metalzone distortion, and Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb/Mooer Shimverb Reverb Pedals, and then funneled into a Digitech Jamman Stereo Loop Station.
In the few interim years of playing primarily as a solo artist, I played with several bands and grew debilitated by not having as full of a sound with the solo material. With certain songs, I play and sing over some pre-recorded backing tracks to create the ethereal and fuller sounding sonic space that I think those specific songs beg for. Others are either looped live on the spot or are a combination of the two. I wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable relying entirely on looping, though, and have a few straight forward songs that showcase the raw, emotionally vulnerable, and perhaps strikingly feminine side of my songwriting.
NN: Tell us about being voted Cincinnati’s best singer songwriter. Was there cake at the awards ceremony? Did they even spring for an awards ceremony?
MS: So, each year, CityBeat Cincinnati puts on a big (super-fun-shit-show) awards ceremony for the local art scene. It began with celebrating theater and I believe visual/video art as well as music, but for now it’s pretty much dedicated to music. There are several categories and nominations are accepted from a committee of 40-50 Cincinnatians, with most categories open to public vote and the remaining few “Critical Achievement Awards” relying on a panel vote.
The singer/songwriter category was up for public vote and I was extremely happy and proud to have won this year. It was a super warm and precious moment.
NN: I’m a musician, and I know a lot of musicians, and I don’t know anyone that likes to describe their own music. How do you?
MS: Yeah. Describing your own music can be tuff. I range anywhere on the spectrum from pop to folk to weird minimal droney stuff. Lately, I’ve been describing it as, “lo-fi pop freckled with folk and experimental/minimal influences.”
NN: Why should people come out to see you play?
MS: I never play the same show twice. There’s always some improvisation, and not just with stage banter. There’s always some weird morsel of the performance that people can take away from and be able to say that it was a completely raw human experience. My music may not literally have you dancing on your feet, but if you let it, just might make your heart palpitate in a way that is equally as satisfying and enchanting. (Did I just jerk myself off, for real?)
NN: What is your favorite song that you’ve ever written and why?
MS: Oh, lawdy. It depends on the day. It depends on the space (mentally and physically). It depends on the bodies around me. I have a few that are particularly special to me, but there is really not one single favorite piece. Currently, however, I am really proud of how “Into the Vessel” has turned out.
NN: Relative to that, what is the best show you’ve ever played and why? What about best show you’ve been in attendance to?
MS: The best show I’ve ever played? Probably these last two in NYC. Completely bombed. It wasn’t that my performance was shitty, just that my gear was crapping out and I had no way of diagnosing it. When it was all working, it was just shy of spiritual, but then something would short-out in the middle of a song and the mood (I felt) would be completely ruined. It was awesome because even though I wanted to curl up and die when this was happening, I survived, and more importantly, the crowd was super supportive and was intently focused on letting the mishaps go to appreciate the good things that were going.
St. Vincent. Two years ago. Mind blown.
NN: Supposing you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and why
MS: SYD. Y U gotta ask such a heavy question?!?! I suppose sprinkle compassion-fairie-dust on everyone.
NN: What are your desert island picks for music, and why?
MS: Broken Social Scene, Joanna Newsom, WHY?, St. Vincent, Liz Phair, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Erik Satie, and perhaps Arvo Part’s Te Deum. And probably a fun lil Hip Hop/ R&B mixtape of Miguel, Sevyn Streeter, D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, and a random assortment of things produced by Timbaland. There’s a little bit of everything and I have not explored the complete collections of any of them, so there’d be discovery in store!