Interview: Molly Tuttle on her favourite songs, Pro-tools and Jerry Garcia

Guitarist, vocalist, singer-songwriter and banjo player Molly Tuttle is a leading light of the new generation of bluegrass artists, which also includes Sierra Hull and Billy Strings. She is well versed in bluegrass history and came out of the Californian bluegrass tradition and is now based in Nashville. In 2017, she became the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year Award.

She won the award again in 2018 as well as being named the Americana Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson talked to her by Zoom from her Nashville home to discuss her career to date, her new album of covers ‘…but I would rather be with you ’, Pro-tools and Jerry Garcia.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?
I’ve been alright. I’ve have been keeping busy with different projects. It has been a big adjustment, but I have been fortunate that I have been able to keep busy. So far, my family and friends are OK, a couple of people I know got sick but apart from that, everyone is OK.

You won The International Bluegrass Music Awards guitar player of the year in 2017 2018. How did it feel joining a company that included Tony Rice, Bryan Sutton and Doc Watson among others?
I think you hit the nail on the head there. Joining that list of guitar players I have looked up to all my life was surreal. I remember hearing about the Bluegrass Awards when I was a kid and I got to go to IBMA  when I was  11 or 12 joining a part of the show with kids playing, I can’t remember who won but I think it was Bryan. The list of guitar players was like all those players I have learnt from. It happened so fast, I was 24 when I won the award and it was like all of a sudden I was there in the list, I was more than happy just to be nominated but when I won, it was incredible and amazing

Guitar playing can be seen historically as a male preserve. Do you feel the field is now opening up to other talented women players?
Definitely, I think in the last few years there has been a lot more awareness. I think that people are now realising that it is everyone’s job to solve this. It is all our responsibility to ensure that women and girls are included in the conversation. We need as many safe and welcoming environments in music that men have. There are just so many more issues and barriers for women to make it in the music industry.

You must be a role model now for young girl players?
I just try and focus on my music and I hope that will inspire kids. I don’t like to think about it too much as I don’t think I am the perfect role model. I know some girls who look up to me, so I will keep doing what I am doing.

California has its own bluegrass traditions, growing up in San Francisco how much were you aware of and influenced by the local traditions?
People in California really love traditional bluegrass, maybe even more than in Nashville where I live now.  I grew up listening to the Stanley Brothers, Hazel Dickens. who played the Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco so I got to see her a couple of times. Vern Williams is someone who a lot of people in California look up to. He moved out to Northern California from Arkansas. He was such an amazing bluegrass musician and he inspired a lot of people in the area to start playing. Then you have people like David Grisman, Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis breaking new ground with the genre, so it was a really cool place to grow up.

You mentioned Laurie Lewis. Not many people have heard of her in the UK but she is a very fine player isn’t she?
O yes, she is amazing. She writes incredible songs, it was really cool to get to see her play live, leading a band, she would play a lot of shows around where I grew up so I got to see her all the time. She became like a mentor to me. We stayed in touch and I played on her record that just came out, it is all duets, I think it is called ‘and Laurie Lewis’. It is an awesome record.

Americana-UK recently ran an article on Rose Maddox. Was she an influence?
Not as much. I really respect her, but for whatever reason, I never dove deep into her music but I do really like it.

Bluegrass, San Francisco you must mention Jerry Garcia and Old and in the Way. Did his music have an impact or was it too early?
I definitely listened to them. My mom, more than my dad, was a huge Jerry Garcia and Old and In the Way fan, and played their records around the house so I definitely heard a lot of that. I love those records. I like the Grateful Dead stuff that is more on the countryside like ‘Workingman’s Dead’, I listened to that a lot growing up, so a real influence.

It is surprising how resilient Bluegrass is. Its popularity may ebb and flow over the generations, but it keeps going and more importantly developing. Where do you think it is now?
There are people like Billy Strings bringing it to a huge new audience, it seems like a really good time for bluegrass, I have a lot of friends around the same age who are doing really well like Sierra Hull, it is definitely going in a lot of different directions. People who grew up playing bluegrass are taking it into new directions, which is really cool. I listen to mostly older bluegrass when I listen to bluegrass. My favourite stuff was recorded a long time ago. I think the whole genre, is doing a lot of interesting things, which is cool.

Who do you think your current audience is, who went to your concerts and buys your records?
It is hard to say. I definitely have bluegrass fans, americana fans, fans of guitar music. There are girls who play the guitar like me, I don’t know, it is all over the place. I like my audience because they just like what I do like I’ve put out two records now and they are both pretty different from each other. This covers record, ‘..but I’d rather be with you’, is different again and my fans like me, I think, rather than a specific genre I guess.

That is a good place to be because it gives you a lot of freedom I guess?
My fans are really supportive of me. I have seen they are really excited about this new record, so it makes me happy.

You used Pro-tools on your covers record, how long did it take you to become comfortable enough with Pro-tools to record yourself satisfactorily?
It only took a couple of weeks. I did it pretty fast. There was a learning curve with Pro-tools, but I did it as I went. If I ran into issues, I would call Will the engineer, who was mixing and adding the other parts. He would help, but it was a fast turn round for my parts. It was definitely hard though.

Assuming life will eventually get back to normal, will you use Pro-tools again or will you go back to a more traditional way of recording?
Probably, yes. I would use it again if I were doing a serious recording project. For my demos and stuff that doesn’t need to sound perfect, I will use Garageband. Now I know some basic Pro-tool stuff I will definitely use it again.

How did you get a natural feel Using Pro-tools, there is a danger that you can perfect everything if you are not careful?
That’s right. It was nice to have Tony Berg, the producer, and Will the engineer, so I would just do a ton of takes. That was kind of the danger. I would always feel I didn’t do enough takes or there wasn’t a good enough take in there. They comped it all, and once I had sent it off it was like releasing this to them, and I trust them to make it sound good. In a way, it made me a bit more obsessive but that’s not a bad thing, luckily, I didn’t have to comp my parts. I think that is where I would have really got obsessive about it.

Tony Berg produced your record, he also put some other musicians on it in his studio. How did that work, did you miss interacting with them?
They all delivered amazing stuff. I had no idea how it would sound as I hadn’t played with any of them before. It was less fun for sure, and I prefer recording with other musicians in the room, but in another way, it was cool because I got to work on my parts alone. I get nervous going into a studio because all these musicians I look up to are going to hear me sing this song. It was kind of nice just to have the freedom to do it on my own and then send it to them. Tony and I talked, and we were both like never again. I like working with other people in the room. I will take what I have learnt and next time I’m recording with people, I won’t be as nervous as I have been.

When you first had the idea of recording, was it just for something to do or did you always intend to release the tracks?
We had the idea to make a full-on record, at the time I was feeling just a little uninspired with my own writing, we had just had the shutdown, there was so much going on in the world including a tornado in Nashville,  and I was just going back to songs that had helped me through tough times before. So that was kind of the idea for this record, just to share those songs with people because everyone needs music right now. I just wanted to make something that would stand for this moment and, hopefully, help people get through it themselves.

In terms of the actual songs, there is little bluegrass and  Americana. Is that how you felt at the time?
We wanted to make it with a broad range of styles. Naturally, it just seemed that the less bluegrass and americana would be more interesting for me to cover. I will probably eventually do an album of bluegrass standards, but we felt this would let people see another side of me and be more interesting. These are all songs I have loved a lot but haven’t really played live. It shows a different side of who I am, the music I like.

Did you have a particular favourite song?
‘Standing On The Moon’
is probably my favourite one.

I am glad you said that it was my favourite one on the record as well. It is a great San Francisco song, isn’t it?
Yeah, totally.

You have Cat Stevens there as well?
I love that song, ‘How Can I Tell You?’, and it felt like a send-off, so I put it last. That is a song I discovered in college after my childhood dog died, I listened to that song over and over again and just cried and cried.

You’ve got Karen Dalton, ‘Something On Your Mind’, and the Rolling Stones, ‘She’s A Rainbow’, on there. Where did they come from?
The Karen Dalton song is one I wanted to cover for a long time. I think I tried to learn it seven or eight years ago, but I couldn’t get the phrasing and it didn’t feel natural with my voice. I didn’t play it for a long time but for this record, I came back to it and it felt just so natural.  I felt I have finally captured the song, and yes, I am a huge Karen Dalton fan.

Earlier in the year in Europe, there was a Karen Dalton box set that pulled together some of her recordings with other box set goodies such as a t-shirt and what have you. It certainly raised her profile and the tragedy of her life. She was influential for a time, particularly from the feminist angle, wasn’t she?
I think I heard about her because Bob Dylan mentioned her in some movie, and yes she was influential in that scene.

The Rolling Stones, ‘She’s A Rainbow’, come on Molly, that is not an obvious cover, is it?
I guess not. I don’t listen to that much of The Rolling Stones, but Tony, who produced the record, loves The Rolling Stones. He sent me some of their tracks and I said I don’t really see myself doing a Rolling Stones song as I don’t listen to them, it is not that I don’t like them. Then someone sent me that song and I said actually; that is really cool, it is really positive, I liked the lyrics, I thought it would be a cool song by a woman and I just decided to do it. I really liked the piano part and that was fun to learn on the guitar.

In terms of the other songs, are those just songs you’ve heard through your private listening?
Yeah. ‘She’s A Rainbow’ is the only one that was like I was looking for a song and I found it. The rest are just songs that have come and grabbed me throughout my life. Some I learnt years ago and then forgot about, others are recent.  The Harry Styles, ‘Sunflower, Vol 6’, and  FK Twigs, ‘Mirrored Heart’, came out last year and I learnt those over the last few months.

Have you shared any of your versions with the original artists?
We have been trying. Some of them are hard to get a hold of. It is a reach, but it would be awesome if they got to hear my versions of their songs.

By the sound of it Molly, you are pretty pleased with how the record has turned out?
I think so, yeah. It was a fun project, I just liked the songs so much, it was fun just to record them. I didn’t really know how it would go, recording it on my own in this unconventional way, but it was really fun, and it is a little more freeing to record other people’s songs and put them out. I feel like I’m just paying tribute to a bunch of my favourite songs.

You are also working on your own songs for a new album. Have you learnt anything particularly through this process or got any new ideas?
It is all kind of up in the air now with everything. You can’t go into the studio anymore. Going back to these songs made me think about what I like about them, what stands out are the lyrics so I learnt I want my lyrics to be personal and meaningful to me. Not that they weren’t before, but just putting extra effort into that.

How does this album measure up to your first solo record and EP?
I loved those records because they have my songs on them. I am most excited about the new record because it is new. I always like the newest thing I have done.

But it is only part of the overall picture?
Yeah.

Billy Strings. To an extent you and Billy are similar. Bluegrass backgrounds both instrumentalists known for your proficiency. Do you know him, do you meet much?
We were roommates for two years so I know him really well. We have played shows together, I was supposed to go on tour with him later this year. I sat in with him a few weeks ago, he was doing like a live stream tour of venues in Nashville, that was really fun. I love playing with him, love his music so much, his songs are amazing. I will gush about him and he is such a great person as well. I am really happy to have gotten to know him. Every time we play together, it feels really special.

He has played some Jerry Garcia songs recently. You are both of the same generation, do you think there is a reappraisal of Garcia’s work now. First time round it was hippy music but now, do people see it more as great American music?
He is a big Jerry Garcia fan. He is definitely influenced in his guitar playing by Jerry Garcia. His songs are certainly popular now.

At Americana-UK we are all about sharing music with our readers. What are the top three things on your playlist?
I have been listening to the new Pheobe Bridgers record, ‘Punisher’. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Khruangbin. Remi Wolf, she was my neighbour growing up, and she sings amazing music.

Thanks for that Molly, and finally, is there anything you want to say to our UK readers?
I hope I get to see you all soon. I miss going to the UK, I was over three times last year and I’m getting withdrawal symptoms.

Molly Tuttle’s ‘….but I’d rather be with you’ is released on 28 August 2020 on Compass Records

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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