Still only in her mid-20s, Molly Tuttle is already festooned with awards for her songwriting and incredible acoustic guitar playing. We caught up with her during a recent UK tour to talk about her new album.
When Molly’s new album, When You’re Ready, landed in the office a few months ago, it brought our working day to an immediate standstill. We were amazed at the guitar playing from the first track onward and, still not quite believing what we’d just heard, jumped onto YouTube to see her in action. Her right-hand technique alone is enough to make players twice her age hang up their acoustics in shame - and that’s before you consider the purity of her voice and the power of her songwriting.
After a brief dalliance with the piano and violin as a young child, things shifted gear for Molly dramatically when her father presented her with a Baby Taylor when she was eight years old. He showed her some chords and melodies, not really expecting the guitar to prove different from her previous attempts at playing music.
“But with the guitar, I was kind of interested in it,” she says. “After about a year I got really, really into practising and learning new tunes, and it became really fun. Then I started singing a couple of years after that, and playing banjo, but guitar was my first musical thing that I learned.”
Since then, she has taken home trophies at the International Bluegrass Music Association for Guitar Player Of The Year in both 2017 and 2018, and won the 2018 Instrumentalist Of The Year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards.
Do you come from a musical family?
“Yes, my dad plays music. My mum didn’t play much music, but my dad’s a music teacher for a living. After I started playing, my two younger brothers wanted to start playing instruments, too. So eventually we all played and then we played together.”
What were the first tunes that you learned as a child?
“I learned tunes like Old Joe Clark and Cripple Creek, which are really standard fiddle tunes. When I started, I was mostly just listening. I didn’t really have music that I would seek out on my own, so I just listened to bluegrass, which is what my dad played around the house. He had a bunch of bluegrass records and there would always be music on in the house. My mum would listen to folk music or bluegrass, too, so I heard that a lot growing up. But when I became a teenager, that’s when I started to seek out other types of music, like rock music and pop, and all sorts of stuff.”
When did you begin playing live?
“I started playing in public when I was 11. It was just little shows. There was a local pizza parlour and sometimes bands would come through and I’d open for them. I played with some of my dad’s other students, who were around the same age as me, and eventually my brothers started performing, too, and so we played together. But there were usually some other kids around the same age as me in the bluegrass scene that I would play with.
“Then, after a couple of years of that, we started playing with my brothers and my dad, and this girl, AJ Lee, who was our friend. That kind of naturally progressed from playing with other kids, and then some of them became less interested in bluegrass over time. Eventually, it was just AJ and us playing and then my dad would play bass.”
When did you first think about going pro?
“I guess, gradually. When I was 15 or 16, I started writing songs and music was all I really wanted to do. In my spare time I was always playing music, so I began to entertain the possibility that I could be a professional musician, and then started thinking about colleges. I really wanted to go to Berklee College Of Music to study. I think I became more and more obsessed and in love with playing. It became my dream to be a professional musician and I decided to go to music school and pursue that. And with my dad being a music teacher, I always had in the back of my mind, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work out to perform, I can always do that.’ So I had his example set for me that I could always teach music as well.”
Did playing live supercharge your overall love for music?
“Yes, yes. I think that really made me practise more and take it more seriously. But other kids I was playing with were more advanced than I was and they could improvise. I really wanted to be able to jam and improvise solos like they could. So that all turbo-charged what I was doing.”
Did you begin playing with a pick?
“Yes, straight from the beginning I was playing with a pick, that being what my dad did with his right hand. And, eventually, I guess I developed my own thing. I practised a lot. I learned some songs that I liked to cross-pick with, White Freight Liner [Blues] in particular. I learned that one, and then wanted to play it really fast, so working up the solos and the rhythm part on that one really pushed my cross-picking. I remember transcribing some David Grier solos, and there’s a lot of cross-picking there as well, so that helped me get more comfortable with skipping strings because he’ll play a low note on the sixth string and then cross-pick on some high strings. It’s really all over the place. So [my picking technique] was a combination of things: I didn’t really do many exercises and drills, it was just learning songs and tunes.”
Do you play fingerstyle as well?
“Yes, a little bit. Not as much - and definitely not very advanced. But there’s one song on my new record, High Road, where I’m playing fingerstyle.”
Has playing the banjo influenced your guitar picking?
“Yes, I would say so. I think the banjo influenced my guitar playing and probably vice versa. Sometimes I’ll play something and people say it sounds like a banjo roll, and I don’t even think about it. I’m like, ‘Yes, I guess that does sound like something I’d play on banjo.’ I think playing the banjo helps me get an ear for filling out the chords around the melody, because you’re always rolling and playing different chord tones around it.”
How did When You’re Ready come about?
“I was writing a bunch of songs - I think I probably had 30 songs and then I narrowed it down to 20 - and showed them to the producer, Ryan Hewitt. We worked on them and really whittled that down to the 11 songs that we recorded. We recorded it in the studio with some Nashville session players and some friends of mine that I brought in like Sierra Hall, Matt Smith, Brittany Haas, Jason Isbell and Billy Strings. It was fun bringing in all these people I’d become friends with since I moved to Nashville.”
Who are your songwriting influences?
“Aimee Mann was someone I was listening to a lot when we were going into the studio - she’s definitely an influence. And Gillian Welch. Even bands like The National and The Smiths, so more indie bands - I think there’s some influence from them on this record. I like to keep an ear to the ground for what new music is coming out. I’ve been listening to the new Big Thief singles a lot, and... what else am I listening to? I don’t know, it’s usually a mix of indie and some folk, and then I’ll get on a pop music kick, where I want to know what the most popular music sounds like.”
What acoustic guitars are you playing at the moment?
“I’m using a Pre-War Guitars Co guitar, which is their ‘18’ model - it’s similar to a D-18. I love that guitar. It sounds like an old guitar and it looks really cool. They kind of age it to look older.
“I’m also playing a Preston Thompson guitar, and that’s a Brazilian rosewood guitar that they gave me a year ago. It’s just awesome - it’s a beautiful sunburst and [has a] beautiful inlay. Preston Thompson actually passed away a few weeks ago [in April 2019], which was really tragic. But my guitar is really special and I’m really grateful to have it.”
What pickup do you use in the guitar?
“I use a K&K pickup with a ToneDexter preamp. That’s it - I don’t use anything else. Right now I don’t feel like I need effects, but maybe eventually I will. If I got something, I might get a reverb.”
When you were over in the UK last time you were playing with a fiddle player. Is this something that you do all the time, or do you play in various formats?
“That setup was kind of a one-time thing. We were doing a co-bill tour together, so we played a set of her stuff and then a set of my stuff. I generally have a four-piece band out with me - drums, bass and electric guitar/piano. And then, when we can, we’re going to bring the fiddle with us, too. So it’ll be a five-piece, but the core will be a four-piece band.”
You’ve also toured with Jerry Douglas on the Transatlantic Sessions UK tour. What was that like?
“That was really fun. Everyone in the band was so amazing, and it was great to meet all those people. It was really fun hanging out with Jerry Douglas; he’s been a hero of mine for a while. But I just really liked to get to know him better. Cara Dillon and Gretchen Peters were both so sweet; we all shared a dressing room each night and it was really fun getting to know them.”
What does the immediate future have in store for you?
“I’m doing a lot of touring for the new album. I get back home in a couple of days, and then go out again to North Carolina, then I got to the East Coast and the West Coast. We have a lot of exciting festivals and shows coming up. We’re doing Telluride Bluegrass [in Colorado] and opening for Old Crow Medicine Show at the Ryman [in Nashville], and we’re going to do Winnipeg Folk Festival, which I’ve never done. Then in the fall we’re doing Pilgrimage [in Tennessee] and Newport Folk Festival [Rhode Island]. There’s a lot of great stuff coming up.
“I’m going to be at Bush Hall in London on 29 October, and hopefully some other stuff around then, but nothing else is announced yet. People should keep an eye on my tour schedule around that time.”
Molly Tuttle’s debut album, When You’re Ready, is available now via Compass Records