Molly Tuttle: She’s A Rainbow

Dean Budnick on December 24, 2020
Molly Tuttle: She’s A Rainbow

photo credit: Zach Pigg

On her new album of covers, Molly Tuttle shares a variegated range of interests and affinities.

“It just kind of happened organically. I wanted a fun project to work on and it was nice because it kind of re-inspired me during the pandemic,” Molly Tuttle explains, while discussing the origins of her new record. On …but i’d rather be with you, the dynamic acoustic guitarist and singer interprets 10 songs from other artists, ranging from Harry Styles (“Sunflower, Vol. 6”) to Karen Dalton (“Something on Your Mind”), The National (“Fake Empire”), FKA Twigs (“Mirrored Heart”) and the Grateful Dead (“Standing on the Moon,” which yielded the album title). “I was feeling drained and it was hard for me to write my own songs. So coming back to these songs that I love was helpful.”

At the time, she was in the initial stages of working with producer Tony Berg on the follow-up to her acclaimed 2019 album, When You’re Ready. “We had been talking about making a record sometime this year or early next year so I had been staying with him. We were just trying to get to know each other while we did some preproduction—we’d play songs and listen to music together. I flew home to Nashville from his house in LA and then went into quarantine. A couple of weeks into it, we both felt like we should start working together and put these covers together. I sent him some demos—just me playing songs that I liked. And, when he heard them, he was like, ‘Why don’t we just make an album of these covers, quarantine style. You send me your guitar and vocal tracks, and I’ll have people that I work with play on top of them.” That list eventually included: Taylor Goldsmith, Matt Chamberlain, Patrick Warren and Ketch Secor.

In making her song selections, Tuttle decided to focus on compositions that were uncommon in acoustic picking circles. That is why the 26-year-old musician—who studied in the American Roots Music Program at the Berklee College of Music and would go on to win the IBMA Bluegrass Music Award for Guitar Player of the Year in 2017 (when she was the first women ever nominated in the category) and 2018—opted to take on The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow.”

Tuttle acknowledges, “The style of the song is so different from my own that it was a little challenging to work up. But once I realized that I wanted to learn the piano part as closely as I could on the guitar, the song opened up to me and I felt like I could put my own spin on it while still paying tribute to the original.” Not only does the song appear on …but i’d rather be with you, but Tuttle also conceived an absorbing, ruminative video in which her own performance of the tune is juxtaposed with appearances by a series of guests (including Tom Morello, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Linda Perry, Nathaniel Rateliff, Lilly Hiatt, Danny Clinch and Ali Harnell) who share their handwritten reflections on gender roles and social equity.

Tuttle notes, “We really wanted to give people a place to express their feelings on equality, equity and feminism. People went above and beyond with their responses. It was exciting to see.”

…but i’d rather be with you presents 10 songs that resonate with you in this moment. Can you recall the first artist or song that you connected with growing up?

My first musical hero was Hazel Dickens. She’s one of the first women in bluegrass who had her own band. She wrote all her own songs and was just an amazing singer with a really distinctive voice. I heard her for the first time when I was about 12, and I was just like, “Whoa, who is that?” I could hear all the emotion in her voice. I remember learning all her songs in my bedroom and studying them really closely. That was the first time I ever felt the need to just learn everything about someone who I admired musically.

Did you experience a memorable performance as a music fan that elicited a similar reaction?

I saw so much music growing up because my dad is a music teacher and he’s really involved in the Bay Area music scene. I went to so many concerts. I can’t even remember what my first one was, but I remember getting to see Del McCoury and that was the first time I ever felt like, “Oh, my God, this is so amazing.” That was the first show where I remember having that magical feeling you get when you go see live music.

Moving to the album, was there a song that you struggled with for a little while and now you’re particularly proud of the results?

“Mirrored Heart,” the FKA twigs cover. That was the last one I recorded. I had been struggling, figuring out what the last song for the album would be, and that one just seems so intimidating because the style of the original version is so different from my own. But I finally decided to give it a try and I ended up just finding new parts of my singing and guitar playing that I hadn’t explored before. I ended up playing the guitar and then singing all the harmony parts on top of it. I’ve never done that in the studio, where I layer my own voice on top of itself a bunch of times. So that was a fun, new way to record. It was cool that I recorded it all on my own because it gave me the chance to take my time with the arrangements and explore and experiment a little bit more than I normally would in the studio.

You cover a Karen Dalton song on the record. Her music is so deep-felt and moving, although I suspect many of your listeners will be unfamiliar with her work. Can you talk a bit about her?

I discovered her when I was a teenager. It was after I had started listening to Bob Dylan and I read all these interviews with him where he mentioned her as one of his favorite singers. So I listened to her stuff and I used to cover “Katie Cruel,” which is another haunting song. I think her voice has always resonated with me. This was another one of my favorites. I tried to learn it a while ago, but the song is so impactful that, when I was learning it as a teenager, it was hard to find my own voice with it. Then, I played it for Tony, who loved it and was like, “We have to record that one.”

I wanted to cover both Karen Dalton and Arthur Russell in hopes that some of my fans might go out and discover their songs and fall in love with their music in the same way that I did.

You grew up in the Bay Area and you’ve said that, although you were not a Deadhead, you absorbed their songs by osmosis. Beyond “Standing on the Moon,” which you record on the album in part because it reminds you of home, are there any other Dead songs that have impacted you over the years?

While I wasn’t a huge Deadhead as a kid, I always loved the Workingman’s Dead album that my mom got me when I was young. I listened to that record all the time, and the song “Dire Wolf” was my favorite. I also remember playing a Grateful Dead festival when I was growing up and learning songs for it. That’s when “Ripple” became one of my all-time favorite songs. So those two are the ones I loved as a kid. I’ve gotten more into their music as an adult, but those are still some of my favorites.

I imagine you heard your fair share of Grateful Dead music when you were touring with Billy Strings.

I did. I hope to do more with him this year. We were roommates for a while in Nashville, so sometimes we would jam on Grateful Dead songs. He was listening to them a lot around the house. So that was another way I got more into them— seeing how much he liked them and hearing him cover them a lot.

How did you come to be roommates?

We crossed paths at this conference called Folk Alliance around five years ago—around the time I was moving to Nashville. I met him, we jammed a little bit and we just had a musical connection. When I first moved to Nashville, I lived in Madison for a while, but I eventually wanted to move closer to the city. That’s when I saw his post on Facebook: “Hey, I’m looking for a roommate. Me and my girlfriend Ally just moved to Nashville.” So I messaged him out of the blue and was like, “Hey, I want to live with you guys.”

Since we already wanted to be better friends, it just worked out. I went to see the place and then we lived together for like two years. It was a fun time because we were on a musical street. We had Lindsay Lou across the street from us and there was music happening on the front porches all the time. Everyone was going off on tour and then coming home, reconnecting and jamming. So that was a fun time. Since then, we’ve all kind of dispersed from that street, but we remain good friends.

You share a lineage with Billy in that you won the IBMA Bluegrass Music Award for Guitar Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018, and he took the honor in 2019. After winning, you went on to perform some gigs with Alison Brown (banjo), Becky Buller (fiddle), Sierra Hull (mandolin) and Missy Raines (bass) as the First Ladies of Bluegrass because each of you was the initial woman to win instrumentalist of the year in your respective category. I imagine that you’d prefer to be thought of as a guitar player, not a female guitar player, yet there’s also value in inspiring other young women. Can you talk about that balance?

You’re right, I definitely want to be known as just a guitar player. But I also hope that helped make the guitar world a little more inclusive for girls coming up and for women who already play the guitar. As I’ve reflected more on my experiences growing up as a female guitar player and going to college, it just seems like the culture around the guitar is not very welcoming to women all the time. Even just going to a guitar store, you get people who assume that you don’t play lead, or assume that you’re a beginner. If I go into a random Guitar Center or something, guys will sometimes say to me: “You shouldn’t use that pick.” But, little do they know, I’ve been using the same pick since I was 10 years old.

It’s a different culture and I think that needs to change. So it makes me happy that, just by playing shows and reaching out to girls who want to play guitar, I can change the culture around the instrument a little bit and change people’s attitudes toward women who play guitar.

It’s getting better for sure. But even when I was at Berklee, I never had other women in my guitar classes, and some of the teachers would make weird comments about women playing guitar. It was a lot to wade through. Looking back, I can see why women feel intimidated going into guitar playing spaces or playing lead guitar.

Your video for “She’s a Rainbow” offers some important reflections on gender roles. What led you to frame the video that way?

I thought it was fun that I was putting this feminist spin on a Rolling Stones song because The Rolling Stones seem masculine generally. Classic rock seems kind of male-dominated, similar to the guitar. So I was talking to my managers about the video and what we wanted to do, and we came up with the idea of posing three questions about feminism and equality. We tried to have as much diversity as possible in the video so that we could feature many different perspectives. It was rewarding to see all my friends and some of my heroes and fellow musicians put so much thought into their answers. I feel like I learned so much from watching everyone’s responses. It was overwhelming.

This may be challenging to answer but was there a particular person in there whose participation you found thrilling?

I love everyone in the video. They’re all my favorites. [Laughs.] I was just grateful to everyone who took the time to offer their responses. They all put a lot of thought into it. That said, I think Tom Morello and Buffy Sainte-Marie were the ones where I screamed when they came on in the video. They’re both larger than life to me. It was cool to see that.

You appear without a wig at times in the video. Over the past couple of years, you’ve increasingly been upfront about your alopecia. Was there a particular moment or incident that led to this?

Now, it’s definitely an ongoing thing, but a couple of years ago, when I was maybe 21 or 22, there was a moment when I was just fed up with feeling like I had this secret. I didn’t really let my fans know about it. My friends knew and people who were close to me knew, but I really wasn’t open about it with my fans. And it brought on a lot of anxiety just because I would feel weird wearing a different wig one day or going out without my wig. I just wanted to be myself. So then I decided to reach out to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation to see if I could perform there over the summer. I thought I could announce that I was performing there and use that as a way to explain what alopecia is.

So I went and performed and then made a social media post. I had my friend take some pictures of me without my wig and it felt so good. It was like this huge weight had been lifted. I think some people already had inklings that maybe I used to not have hair because there are pictures of me floating around where I’m just wearing a hat and no wig. But it just felt good to have it out in the open; so there was no more question about what was going on if suddenly I had long hair because I’m wearing a different wig. Since then, I’ve just evolved how I talk about it. As my level of acceptance and openness with it has evolved, I’ve used that to educate my fans. And I have continued to talk about it. It’s been super rewarding and I’ve connected with a lot of people who have alopecia. People who have just been diagnosed message me all the time. So it feels good to be open about it.

You mostly cover a number of rock acts on …but i’d rather be with you. Do you think that, these days, more pop and rock songs are finding their way into the bluegrass canon as standards?

There aren’t a lot of straight-up pop and rock songs that cross over to become bluegrass standards. If you go to a jam session, it’ll probably still be mostly Bill Monroe and classic bluegrass, and then maybe a few songs from current bands. I feel like Billy Strings has songs that have kind of become jam standards, like “Dust in a Baggie.” So a few gems like that will cross over into the jamming and bluegrass standard repertoire. But, overall, people still love to jam on really old songs by the first people in bluegrass, like Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe. There are some newer songwriters, like Gillian Welch, who have written songs that are now jam standards. But, mostly, I think people want to stick to their three-chord bluegrass songs.

So you chose not to cover Gillian Welch on the album because you wanted to go further afield from your immediate influences?

I love her songs. Some of them are my absolute favorites. I feel so influenced by her and by Dave Rawlings. But when I was thinking of cover songs, I didn’t feel like I could bring something new to one of their songs. I want to hear someone cover their songs in a totally new way that I’ve never heard before. And, since I was so influenced by them, I didn’t know what new life I could bring to the songs.

In November, you announced a series of thematic livestreams, and the second of these was billed as a night of songs for social change. What songs currently speak to you in such a manner?

Well, we named that show Talkin’ Bout a Revolution—that’s the title of a Tracy Chapman song that I’m going to play, and that one is about class differences. A lot of the songs I’m playing are like “People Have the Power,” just celebrating the human spirit and resilience. I’m going to do songs from different decades. I’ll do some Bob Dylan classics and then some newer stuff, like Taylor Swift had a song on Lover called “The Man” that points out these interesting double standards in terms of gender. And one of my favorite current bands, Big Thief, has a beautiful song called “Forgotten Eyes.” That one’s a little more abstract so it’s not as direct with the messaging but, to me, it’s kind of about homelessness in America. So I’m going to be doing stuff that’s varied in how direct it is and or how abstract it is, and then stuff from all different decades and subject matters.

In this moment of quarantine, we’ve been asking artists for their thoughts on the “Power of Live.” What does that phrase mean to you?

I think live music really makes people feel connected. When you’re sitting in an audience and your favorite band is playing and you’re all singing together, you feel that connection with humans. It breaks down the barriers between people. Right now, we’re all feeling kind of isolated on so many levels and in different ways. So people are really feeling the power of music and even watching a livestream that other people in the world are watching can bring that feeling of connection. I personally miss sitting in a room with a bunch of other people and feeling the energy when we’re all hearing and seeing the same thing and loving the same music. To me, that’s just the best feeling.