Molly Burch Finds the Love in Pop

Singer/songwriter puts the guitar down for the follow-up to her acclaimed debut

Photo by David Brendan Hall

For much of Molly Burch's recent performance history, she put her guitar down to emphasize one moonlit ballad in the full-band set. Now, behind a debut headlining tour for sophomore album First Flower, she's leaving the instrument behind altogether.

"I've always identified first as a singer," remarks the 27-year-old local. "It's such a powerful thing to just sing and be super present in my body."

The switch aligns with her collegiate training in jazz vocalization, as well as her Los Angeles upbringing idolizing Britney Spears-level pop stars. Integrating the classical influence of microphone heroines Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, Burch unveiled her smoky, nostalgic tone on 2017 LP Please Be Mine, an acclaimed collection of her very first compositions. First Flower, out Oct. 5 on Brooklyn tastemaker Captured Tracks, follows up with her most strident, assertive pop yet.

In the first place, Burch self-educated on guitar out of necessity and self-defense. After college, upon moving to Austin from North Carolina in 2013, the singer struggled to recruit a rhythm guitarist for her backing band. She also found that if she wasn't holding an instrument, onlookers assumed her boyfriend and lead guitarist Dailey Toliver wrote the songs.

Such blatant sexism in the musical realm, alongside past service job experiences, informs the brazen, intentionally blasé second single "To the Boys." Burch's soft, feminine, conversational tone asserts the song's kiss-off: "I don't need to scream to get my point across/ I don't need to yell to know that I'm the boss."

The open-ended imagery of a two-person partnership falls under Burch’s magic for finding the archetypal emotion in everyday life.

"There's so much to being a woman in a band and on the road," expands Burch on the song's lyrical content. "Part of it is about finding my identity as a bandleader [while] playing with a ton of guys, some who have completely looked to Dailey during practices."

Burch recounts track inspirations from the large, screened-in back porch of her blue Hyde Park bungalow. The cozy surroundings, shared with Toliver and their fluffy tabby Mr. President, are relatively recent. She wrote all of First Flower last fall outside of Lockhart, where the couple lived.

On a long break between tours, Burch laid down initial melodies. Outside, Toliver planted a flower and vegetable garden in the yard. Phoning in from tour dates backing Julian Neel, who often lends bass to Burch's band, the guitarist remembers it as "a really nice, spacey time" living south of the city limits.

"All of our roommates were gone, and we were in this big house that had these big rooms," recalls Toliver, who writes songs himself under the moniker Cowboy Crisis. "There was a rainstorm, and we made all the demos. It was kind of perfect."

Alongside residence in the low-rent paradise of Lockhart loomed Burch's persistent anxiety, a lifelong songwriting and performance companion. Self-doubt inspired the bulk of her new capture, exemplified in first song "Candy." The taunting track compares insecurity to sugar addiction. In bleeding-heart breakup lyrics, Burch kicks bad mental habits to the curb like an ex that won't stop crawling back.

"I would walk around Lockhart having these long conversations with my dad about my anxieties," recounts Burch. "After I got off the phone with him, I wrote that song. It's about this voice in my head that's saying negative things. I'm asking, 'Why do I value that voice over my dad, or a positive voice?'"

Efforts to silence the internal critic permeate much of the track list. "Good Behavior" offers a tribute to warts-and-all self-acceptance, and in the yearning "Wild," Burch gently rails against the grass-is-always-greener paradigm. An Eighties-style video for the latter song imagines three competing triplet versions of Burch facing off in a zany pageant talent show. One is too cocky, another skittish and unconfident, but the medium Molly sings it just right.

Throughout First Flower, its creator discovers strength in her "deeply sensitive" identity, a quality that lends a far-reaching poignancy to her pop configurations. Despite this thematic progression from the all-encompassing heartbreak of last year's bow, the new album still hangs in a haze of wistful romanticism, a distinct aesthetic now solidified over two long-players. Devotee of big gestures and Dawson's Creek – matched by a current obsession with reality dating show The Bachelor – Burch admits love remains her first language.

"[The new songs] might seem like they're about love," she concedes about the big feelings on First Flower, "but they're more about other types of relationships and friendships that weren't working out."

Backed by a Hill Country landscape in Lockhart's neighboring Luling, the new collection's cover photo focuses on Burch's piercing, watery stare. She leans back on the supporting figure of Toliver, whose eyes have been cropped out of the frame to convey "an anonymous sort of man." The open-ended imagery of a two-person partnership falls under Burch's magic for finding the archetypal emotion in everyday life.

Citing dramatic, glitzy, early-Aughts pop, the artist holds no qualms employing an embellished, sometimes "very make-believe" lyrical narrative. Toliver says his partner's velvet-curtained, lovelorn ethos reflects in her at-home listening habits, a balanced diet of golden oldies and modern divas like Ariana Grande.

"Her songs are a natural effort at real, unself-conscious pop songwriting," he offers. "She likes presenting an idea in a really glamorous way. It's an appreciation of anyone who's amazing and fabulous, but that kind of older song quality, too."

Burch designates the album's title track as the only true, literal love song in the bunch. Hinged on a chorus declaration of "you are my man," the message harks back to an early YouTube clip of Burch and Toliver performing as a duo. Wide-eyed and swaying in 2015, the singer delivers a spacious rendition of Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man."

As Toliver accompanies on electric guitar, Burch's idle hands illustrate her voice, hanging delicately as she pushes the tender ballad to its conclusion. From then on, and now into First Flower, she's staying true to her medium.

"I just love pop music," says Burch. "And a lot of pop music has to do with love."

Molly Burch performs weekend one of ACL Fest on Saturday, Oct. 6, noon, at the Barton Springs stage. Her album release party assembles Oct. 20 at Barracuda with Olden Yolk and Cowboy Crisis.

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Julian Neel.

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Molly Burch, Please Be Mine, First Flower, Captured Tracks, Dailey Toliver, Julien Neel, Tammy Wynette

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