Music is My Life: Episode 047

Molly Tuttle on Weaving Her Bluegrass and Punk Rock Music Backgrounds

Originally published September 2020

Molly Tuttle’s brand new … but i’d rather be with you is a collection of seemingly disparate cover songs—running the gamut from Rancid to the Grateful Dead—that got the singer through tough times in her life. She recorded the album as a coronavirus lockdown project because everybody else is currently going through tough times of their own.

In this wide-ranging interview, not only does she touch upon her time at Berklee College of Music, playing with the Goodbye Girls, but Molly Tuttle also describes how two parallel musical lives intersected in this album; her bluegrass family experience and her punk rock peer group experience. The result is a distinctly Molly Tuttle sound where no matter what genre she chooses to pull a song from, she makes it her own.

Molly Tuttle: I remember my dad playing songs for me as a really little kid. He would play bluegrass songs and folk songs. My favorite was this one “Matterhorn,” about people climbing the Matterhorn and they all died. I remember requesting that a lot as a little kid, I just wanted to hear that song. I think the story was a little bit scary and exciting. I remember just hearing my dad playing guitar and singing, and then he also played fiddle. 

So I would sometimes when I was really young, like three or four, I think my mom would take me, he would be playing a square dance or something and we’d go. So I’d see him playing fiddle and then I really wanted to play fiddle, but at that age, three or four, I didn’t really have the attention span for it, so I didn’t stick with it. Then when I was eight, I asked for a guitar and my dad brought me home this little baby Taylor guitar, a guitar that’s good for kids basically.

Your siblings. Are they older, younger? What’s the age range?

Molly Tuttle: I have two younger brothers. We’re fairly close in age and we’re each two years apart. 

They’re part of the band too, right?

Molly Tuttle: Yeah, they were in the band. The band that we had when I was a teenager was my two younger brothers, my dad, me, and then our friend AJ, who everyone thought was in our family, but she was just our friend that we’d met at bluegrass festivals. But she was a great singer. So she and I really liked to sing harmony together. Yeah, that was our band.

It’s interesting listening to the new album, it’s obvious that your musical interests were not limited to bluegrass. Is this collection of songs what you were listening to as a kid growing up or was there something else that attracted your attention in addition to bluegrass?

Molly Tuttle: Some of them. I always had other stuff I was listening to. I think in middle school, when I was 12 and 13, that’s when I started to explore music on my own because I grew up just hearing bluegrass around the house and I really liked it, but then when I was in middle school, my friends were listening to other stuff and I remember going to Tower Records and buying my first CD, which was a Beck CD because my older cousin was like “you should listen to Beck” and I listened. 

Which one?

Molly Tuttle: Guero. I listened to that a billion times. My music teacher in middle school was like “you can take whichever CDs of mine that you want” and he had Rage Against the Machine, Sublime, Rancid, kind of ‘90s bands I guess. I listened to those a lot too. Whichever CDs I could get my hands on and then I had an iPod shuffle, but I was still burning CD’s onto it. But yeah, so one of those songs, “Olympia, WA” ended up on the record, but I listened to and would jam with my friends on in middle school. The rest are just songs I picked up over the years. Just stuff I was listening to and songs that stuck with me through the years and then I went back to and had a lot of fun playing on my own.

Yes so when you were in middle school and you’re playing Rancid covers, were you doing the straightforward with distortion pedals and everything? I imagine you weren’t doing a bluegrass feel to it at that point.

Molly Tuttle: No, it was pretty simple. I don’t think I knew how to use pedals or anything. There was a strat at my middle school in the band room that I would use and then my friends would plug in the electric basses. But yeah, we were just going straight into amps and try and set up mics and stuff. Each year there was a rock concert at school so we’d be getting songs ready for that. I think one year we did “Fall Back Down” by Rancid. That was our big one we worked on a lot. We also did some Sublime songs, some Blink 182, we played a lot of Green Day songs. It was just playing for fun basically for the school concert at the end of the year.

During that time, were you involved in the family stuff as well? That’s more on a professional level too.

Molly Tuttle: Yeah, so that was actual gigs I was playing around the same time. I was starting to play gigs with my family. It wasn’t really the family band at first, it was other students that my dad had that were the same age as me and we would form a little band. Sometimes my dad would play with us, sometimes we would play on our own. But it was nice to have other kids my age who liked bluegrass because there was no one at my school; actually, that’s not true. There was a little bluegrass band at my school too, with some kids who were a few years older than me, but no one in my grade was into bluegrass. So it was fun that my dad had students around the same age as me. 

What year was that?

Molly Tuttle: That would have been like 2006.  

Right, because there was the whole O Brother, Where Art Thou? resurgence of bluegrass in the early 2000s or late ‘90s.

Molly Tuttle: Oh yeah. I guess that still would have been carrying on a little bit. People were aware of bluegrass. I think some people at my school listened to it a little bit or liked O Brother, Where Art Thou? There was a little bluegrass band and we’d play at the farmer’s market. I remember I was in sixth grade and they were all in eighth grade and I got to play with them which was fun. We were called the Lil’ Billies. 

[LAUGHTER] That’s pretty good!

Molly Tuttle: I think my parents chose that name for us. A bundle of pure cuteness. 

[LAUGHTER] That is great. Did you really play it up and wear overalls and straw hats?

Molly Tuttle: No. [LAUGHTER] I was so shy. I would just show up and I was terrified to talk to the eighth graders. So I would just play guitar.  

During this time when you’re doing both of these things, having fun knocking around with your friends, playing punk rock covers and then doing stuff with the family, playing actual gigs, doing bluegrass songs, what was the music that was in your head and your heart at this point? Just in the day-to-day walking around. Was it a mix of all these things and more or was it one more than the other?

Molly Tuttle: Yeah, it was a pretty eclectic mix because around that time I was obsessed with Hazel Dickens. I was getting into old-time music a little bit, but Hazel Dickens was my main bluegrass obsession so I’d listened to her non-stop. Then I’d also listen to other stuff that I listened to with my friends. I remember walking around my neighborhood and listening to Operation Ivy but then also turning on Hazel Dickens or Laurie Lewis was another one of my heroes because she’s a Bay Area bluegrass singer that I got to see live a lot.

Then there’d be like bluegrass bands coming through the Bay Area. There is one bluegrass series in Redwood City, California. I think it was Redwood City or Mountain View and so every month there would be another bluegrass show. I’d always go to those. So I just picked and chose the bands that I really liked and was never sticking to one genre over another, I guess.

Right, so did you have your punk rock friends and your bluegrass friends or anything like that?

Molly Tuttle: Yeah. It did feel separate in a way like my friends at school I would listen to one kind of music with and on the weekends, I’d play at the pizza parlor with my bluegrass friends or go to a bluegrass festival, so there wasn’t too much overlap. 

Speaking of overlap, did you ever get to see Hazel Dickens play live?

Molly Tuttle: Yeah, in San Francisco at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Warren Hellman, who put that festival on, was a huge Hazel Dickens fan. So he always flew her out for it and we’d get there really early to see her set. But yeah, it was really magical to see her. Then one year we got backstage passes from a friend so I got to meet her for a second. That was really cool.

At the same time, now I’m wondering with this new album and being in the industry for a certain amount of years, I’m guessing you’ve met some of your punk rock idols as well. 

Molly Tuttle: Not yet exactly. Although, Lars from Rancid messaged me on Instagram when he heard my cover and he said he really liked it and that made me so happy because the first line of the song is “hanging out with Lars.” I was like, “Oh my god, I’m actually talking to the Lars from the song.” I think he might be still in the Bay Area so I’m going to message him and try to meet him someday.

You know when you sometimes listen to something for the very first time, you’re like, “Alright. I’m just putting it on in the background and we’ll just see what jumps out at me.” That was the line that I was like, “Wait, I know this song.” 

Molly Tuttle: [LAUGHTER] I think that song especially pops out. The sound quality of it is different than the other songs.

You’re doing both these things and then comes Berklee College of Music, or you’re doing the band with your family as well, the Tuttles?

Molly Tuttle: Yeah. When I was in high school, the family band with AJ took over. I stopped playing with bands at school. I wasn’t really doing any music at school except for the occasional, there would be a music band, they’d asked me to play a song or something. But I didn’t have any bands with my friends. I was doing gigs with my family and then sometimes I’d do a solo open mic, and that’s how I started playing my own original songs. I would play some originals with my family but I was also writing songs and starting to play a little bit solo before I left for Berklee. Then at Berklee is when I really started doing my own band.

Then the Hazel Dickens Memorial Scholarship too, that must have been kismet.

Molly Tuttle: That was really magical. I loved getting that. That was really cool.

Tell me about when you got to Berklee, did you find your niche right away or did it take a little bit of time? I know that kids can get lost in the mix there with so many different interests. 

Molly Tuttle: I was really lucky with that. I went to this music camp, and I didn’t really go to music camp as a kid so much, but I did go to one the summer before going to Berklee. I feel like I met almost everyone at Berklee in the Roots and Bluegrass program the summer before. I told them all I was going to go to Berklee, most likely. When I got there, I already had gigs lined up with students there and I was already in a lot of the classes that I wanted to be in. Bruce Molsky was teaching an old-time ensemble that I got to be in. I felt like meeting all those people the summer before really helped and when I got there it was pretty immediate playing with other students, at least in the Roots Music Department. But then it took a little while to really hit my stride with the classes I wanted to take and finding the Guitar Department, especially, since it was totally separate from the String Department where all the bluegrass people were. It was harder to hit my stride in that area, I guess.

Did you go in with a major? 

Molly Tuttle: No. I think I declared my major after a couple of semesters and I just chose Guitar Performance so that I could take more lessons and stuff. But the Guitar Department, I remember when I got there, it was the semester that John McGann passed away and I had been planning to take lessons with him because he was such a great bluegrass guitar player who also knew a lot about jazz and music theory. But he passed away right when I got to school. Then they didn’t really have any bluegrass or roots music guitar teachers so I had to just explore and try with different teachers. I asked around a lot for recommendations and eventually ended up studying with this guy, Dave Tronzo. He does free improvisation. He’s a really amazing slide electric player. He helped me a lot just with general music concepts.

It’s interesting too because your style is so rooted, no pun intended, in roots music and thinking about the fact that you do have all this knowledge of other ways to play and your punk background as well. You have such a knack for expressing your songs in your own way. But I guess it must be tempting to use some of the knowledge you have from other genres inside what you do, and you do with this new album. But I guess if you could speak to that from a guitar perspective.

Molly Tuttle: Yeah, I think just learning from other instruments and other genres.

On the guitar, how I do that is I just listen to a song from another genre and try to learn the part on guitar. I did that for a couple songs on the record, “She’s a Rainbow,” I just learned the piano part. I think it’s not really something I have to try to incorporate other styles. I feel like no matter what I play ends up sounding kind of bluegrassy, just my own style. I can listen to a bunch of different styles and then play and it still sounds like whatever else I’m playing for better or worse. But there were some songs on the new album where I definitely stretched out a little bit and played them in a little more unconventional ways. There’s some when I’m not playing with a pick and just plucking the strings, just a few where I learned from a piano part or another instrument. 

You get to school, how long after did you formed Goodbye Girls? 

Molly Tuttle: A year or two. That band formed because this booking agent in Sweden reached out to Lena who’s the fiddle player in the band, and she is Swedish. She came over to study American roots music at Berklee, and he reached out to her. He had known her for being a great Swedish fiddle player and he was like, “Why don’t you put a band together at Berklee and I’ll bring you all over to Sweden for a tour this summer.” I never toured abroad or anything, I was really excited. She asked Allison, the banjo player, and then Allison was like, “Hey, I know a good guitar player we could get in the band,” so they asked me. Then I was roommates with Brittany, the bass player, and I was like, “Why don’t we get Brittany to fill out the band?” That just happened naturally, and then we went over to Sweden and did that tour. We’re like this feels really special and none of us had ever felt that exact way playing music in a band before. We really became great friends and just had so much fun playing together, so then we ended up doing more tours. Once we had videos, people were approaching us a lot about doing tours and shows and stuff. It was never a full-time thing, but it went on for a few years and it was really fun.

I was wondering if that was ever something you all talked about as far as, “Hey, when we’re done with school, let’s maybe give this a go.” 

Molly Tuttle: Yeah, we did talk about it. It was always tricky because I was trying to do my own solo thing. I felt like I always had to be like I want to do this thing and this is where my focus is. I loved playing with the band, but it can’t distract me too much from this other thing that I’m doing. I don’t want to do too much with the band because I just didn’t want it to take off more than my own solo thing because I knew that’s what I wanted to focus on. 

You were Rod Stewart in the Faces, basically.

Molly Tuttle: [LAUGHTER] We all had different projects going and we’re all really busy, so it just naturally never became a full-time thing. But I think that was nice because then whenever we did tour together, it was really special. 

Then you move to Nashville. Tell me about what happens when you get there. 

Molly Tuttle: I moved to Nashville. I stayed in Boston for a little while after I graduated, then I moved here and then I had a bunch of songs. I’ve been writing songs since I was a teenager but I never recorded them. I had a handful that I really wanted to record an album with. Then I started reaching out to people trying to find a producer. I ended up talking to Kai Welch who ended up producing my EP Rise. We did that album together right after I moved to Nashville, we just recorded it in a garage studio. 

Then after I did that, I was touring with my own band, just trying to do as many festivals and shows that I could with my band. It was like a total bluegrass band. Then once I put that record out, my EP, that’s when stuff started to speed up a little bit and I got a lot more gigs. I signed with Compass Records and then I won some bluegrass IBMA awards. Then that’s when things started taking off a little bit more, and I got to play lots of festivals and tour most of the year and stuff with my band.

You’d said before when talking about the Goodbye Girls that you always knew that the solo career was what you wanted. How did you know? Was it because you’d been with the family band so long and played in bands? I guess just at what point do you get that singular vision?

Molly Tuttle: It was just a gut feeling. When I was doing other stuff, there was this nagging feeling that it was taking away from what I really wanted to do. I think maybe a lot of my heroes are solo artists and songwriters. The other thing is with what I do, like writing songs, singing, and playing guitar, it felt like having a solo band is really where I could express fully who I was as a musician.

With Goodbye Girls, it was such a fun side project to have because I didn’t have to worry about carrying the whole band and I was playing mostly rhythm guitar. I’d take a lead here or there and I’d sing maybe half the songs in a set or something, but it wasn’t all about me, which was a nice relief. It was fun to just focus on other things musically, but I just knew that it wouldn’t be fully satisfying and wouldn’t help me grow as much as a musician as pushing myself to do a solo project.

How often with a solo band do you change up the members? 

Molly Tuttle: With my last record, When You’re Ready, I decided to just start with new people because I’d had a bluegrass acoustic band for so long. The record that I made, When You’re Ready, that came out last year, there is electric guitar and electric bass. So then I just decided I want to start with a totally new band. Then I found Sam Howard and Nick Falk who have played with me for the last year and a half, and then a few different fourth and fifth band members here and there. Christian Sedelmyer has played a lot of violin with me, and Anthony da Costa has played electric guitar with me sometimes. I love my band members and I want to play with them as long as I can. They’re just awesome. 

With the album titles When You’re Ready and but i’d rather be with you…, who is the “you” in that and is it the same “you” in each title? 

Molly Tuttle: I think with When You’re Ready, I was thinking about myself because I was leading up to that album for so long. It just felt like I was ready to make a statement of who I was, but I’d been mulling for a long time. I always wanted to do a solo album. but i’d rather be with you…, this one I feel like I chose that title because, to me, it’s thinking about I want to be with my audience, I want to be with my friends, I want to be with my family in California, but we’re all so isolated right now. We’re going to get through and get to be together again. But it’s just this feeling of right now that I’m doing this album alone in my house, learning how to record myself, but i’d rather be with you… all playing music together and doing what I love. It sounds depressing, but it’s just nodding to the situation. 

It sounds depressing, but it doesn’t sound depressing, like the record. I couldn’t really tell that all these people weren’t in the same room together. Have you met everybody who played on the record in person? 

Molly Tuttle: No. I’ve met the three vocalists: Z Berg, Tony’s daughter; Ketch is a friend of mine; and Taylor Goldsmith is a friend of mine. But I’ve met no one else who played on. 

That’s funny. Did you ever contact them to hear what their experience was like working on it? 

Molly Tuttle: We were going to set up a Zoom call and that still hasn’t happened. I’ll definitely reach out to them before I come out, but I’ve messaged with a few of them, but I haven’t really talked to them so much which is strange. 

That is strange just because you’re basically getting these people to share a very personal thing. But I guess it’s a little bit different when you’re playing with session musicians because you are in the same room and you do meet them and you can say, “No, do it like this.”  

Molly Tuttle: Totally. This is all going through Tony so he knew all of them. 

You’d mentioned that you were learning and teaching yourself how to record. That was not something that you learned at Berklee? 

Molly Tuttle: No. I never took recording classes at Berklee. They have a really great engineering program. I was only there for two and a half years, so I felt like there were so many other classes I would have wanted to take if I’d stayed for four years. But yeah, I was focusing on guitar and songwriting when I was there. I had never used Pro Tools before. I’d always recorded stuff on GarageBand. It was a bit of a learning curve, but I wasn’t doing anything crazy with plugins or anything really intricate with my parts, just recording, setting up a click track, setting up mics, recording a few takes. Sometimes I’d be multitracking my guitar and vocals and then sending them off to the producer or engineer. 

Walk me through the process of coming up with this project and then figuring out who was going to be involved, and how to get them to sound so full for such a postal service type collaboration. 

Molly Tuttle: I met Tony Berg in January and we were like, “Let’s make a record together.” I was thinking an originals record, but then I went out and stayed with him in LA for a little bit, and we talked about it some more. Then I actually flew back to Nashville from his house in LA and that’s when quarantine started. I was with him at the studio. I was just playing around some guitars and then I got a call that all my gigs are canceled, which I was kind of expecting. The next day I flew back to Nashville and started quarantine, and we just put everything on hold. Then after a few weeks, he reached out and was like, “Hey, why don’t we just do a record in quarantine?” I had been struggling to write songs because I just felt like there was so much going on. It was really hard for me to express how I was feeling. So he went back through a bunch of these songs that I’ve just loved throughout my life, and tried to figure out ones that might be a little more unexpected for my audience, show a different side of who I was, but also show a different side of the songs like having my voice on them, I guess. 

What was the setup in your house? What room were you in? How were the neighbors reacting? 

Molly Tuttle: [LAUGHTER] I live in a small house in East Nashville, and I have my bedroom and then an extra room. I was just in my extra room, which is really tiny. I mainly did the whole thing using three mics, really simple mics, just SM57, SM7B and the Audio Technica 4033, I think. I just set up the mics, I borrowed a preamp from my friend Ryan and then downloaded Pro Tools. Each day I would just sit in the room and usually record guitar first, and then do a few takes of that, send it to them. They would comp it and pick the best take, and then I would either multitrack another guitar part on top of that to make it sound fuller, like you hear two guitars at the same time on some of the songs, and then do the vocals. It was a lonely process, but it was also really freeing to get to do whatever I want and not worry about having only a certain amount of studio time or having a bunch of producers and musicians in the control room listening to every note I play. It was nice just to do it on my own timeline. 

So you do the stuff then you’d send it off to Tony. But did you ever get anything back and then add more? 

Molly Tuttle: Yeah, sometimes. So I would send him guitar and vocal and it was usually really simple stuff like, “Hey, sing another vocal part on this,” or like in the song “Mirrored Heart,” I sent him a guitar and vocal and he was like, “Why don’t we just keep this as only you and you just sing all the harmony parts?” So he sent that back and he was like, “Just have fun with it, make up your own parts.” So I just sang whatever I heard, and that one ended up being like three or four vocals of mine at the same time. I might have multitracked some of them and then just one guitar. So it’s stuff like that or sometimes I’d play something on the guitar and he’d be like, “Hey, re-do this part,” and send it back, or play it on a different guitar and send it back. There was some stuff that I did where he said, “This isn’t working.” 

Was there anything left on the cutting room floor as far as versions of songs? 

Molly Tuttle: There was another song by Lana Del Rey that I was covering at the beginning of the year and I recorded that one. We ended up not doing that. 

Which one is that? 

Molly Tuttle: It’s called “The Greatest.” There’s a different version of it on YouTube, and I just really liked it, it came out last year. But we ended up not doing that because it didn’t feel like it fit with the other songs. There were a bunch of songs that I sent him that just didn’t work out for whatever reason. 

Then as far as like stuff on these songs, there were some parts that weren’t fully fleshed out that I would record and send him, and he’d be like, “Hey, work on this guitar part a little more,” or “sing this vocal in a different way.” One thing he had me do is like, I’d sing a vocal and send it to him and he’d be like, “You’re thinking about this too hard. Turn off all the lights and drink a glass of wine, and then redo it and send it back to me.” 

[LAUGHTER] Did it help? 

Molly Tuttle: Yeah. It actually helped a lot. That is something I’m going to remember for the future. [LAUGHTER] 

Do you think this will change the way you do recording? Will you do this approach of starting your initial tracks next time? 

Molly Tuttle: Maybe, I think it’s cool. Maybe I would want a mixed approach, maybe some I would do like this, and some I would do in a studio. But it’s definitely made me realize that having seven days in a studio and trying to get a whole album feels like a lot to me now. I think I want to just take longer and really go back through each part of mine, and make it how I like it before trying to just get a whole album out in a week or whatever. 

Right. So what’s going on with the next project?

Molly Tuttle: I’m just back in the writing mode for that. I don’t really know when I’ll be going into the studio or anything. I guess it’s kind of all up in the air anyway. But yeah, just been writing a bunch of songs. 

Doing all these covers help you with your own writing? 

Molly Tuttle: I think so. It made me think about what I really like in my favorite songs, and I love all the lyrics in the songs that I chose. Yeah, it made me think about why I like the songs that I like. 

As far as the songs you did choose for this record, do you see a through line between all the groups that you’ve covered? 

Molly Tuttle: Nothing except that they all remind me of different times in my life and different exact moments in time when I was listening to them or playing them. It feels like just kind of a timeline of my evolution in the music I’ve listened to and the songs that have meant a lot to me. 

Tell me about your connection to “Standing on the Moon.” It’s a later Grateful Dead song and you don’t often hear people cover later era songs from them. 

Molly Tuttle: Yeah. That was one I actually hadn’t heard until a few years ago. I was trying to figure out a song to do for this Jerry Garcia tribute show. I just heard that song and I was like, “Wow, I think this is my favorite song.” It just felt like this is the song I’ve been wanting to hear for my whole life because it made me feel really nostalgic for where I grew up in California and the lyrics just rang so true to me. 

I ended up not ever playing it for that show. I played a different one that was more of Jerry’s more bluegrassy songs because that’s what I grew up listening to like Old & In the Way, Workingman’s Dead, the more acoustic stuff. But “Standing on the Moon” always stuck with me so I learned it and played it at my record release show in San Francisco a year ago. That was a really special show for me just to go back to the Bay Area and see a bunch of friends, and my brother and his band opened for me and they sat in with me on that one. It really felt like a homecoming show and that was a special moment of playing that song that I remember. It just became one of my favorite songs. 

Tell me about your connection with “Zero.” 

Molly Tuttle: “Zero” is one that I really liked in high school. I think it came out when I was in high school. I remember one of my friends was really, really obsessed with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and I really liked them too, but she was a super fan and so we listened to all their music together. That song came out and I just thought it was so awesome, and it made me feel so powerful listening to it as a teenager. I remember just like singing along with it. So then when I was trying to figure out covers to do in my set after my last record came out, I was like, “Maybe I’ll try learning that song.” It was a little nostalgic for me and I just like the vibe of it, and then the guitar part grabbed me because there’s a fast eighth note rhythm part that I thought was really fun to play. That one became a staple of my live show this last year, and that’s the one song on the record that I have played live a lot. It felt like a good fit for the album. 

It’s interesting that a lot of the people that I’ve talked to for this podcast, the current thing that they’re promoting is something that they did before quarantine. But you’re the first person that I’ve talked to who’s done something during quarantine. It must be strange to not know how you’re going to promote it because there’s no touring cycle right now. What are your thoughts on that? 

Molly Tuttle: I was never expecting to tour this album, especially since its covers, I just want to pay tribute to this songs that I love, and it’s okay with me if I’m not going out and playing a million shows, promoting it because I am doing livestreams, and putting out videos, and doing stuff online to show my own voice with these songs. I think since this record was made in quarantine and it’s covers, it feels a little bit like I made it for this moment as a way to connect with my fans and be like, “Hey, here’s these songs that have really helped me through the times in my life and really brought me a lot of joy, and I hope that you’re all doing okay, and I hope that you enjoy them too, and maybe you’ll feel more of a connection with me, seeing this other side of me, and maybe we can all stay connected through this time.”