The FADER's longstanding GEN F series profiles emerging artists to know now.
On stage, Molly Burch is stoic with the innate sensual glow of Golden Era Hollywood starlets like Judy Garland and Loretta Young. But just like those iconic women, there’s something mysterious about her that’s hard to pinpoint. She’s the last person in the club you would expect to be center stage, but when she is up there — she transforms. And she is excellent. This year she will travel all over the world with her band promoting her powerful sophomore release, First Flower.
Growing up in Los Angeles with writer/producer father and a casting director mother, she was exposed to a lot of Hollywood classics, musicals, and television. Though no one in her house was musical (her older sister eventually ended up in the entertainment industry, like her parents), Burch says there was no pressure to follow the family trend. “The movie industry made me nervous,” she remembers. She had no interest in it. Besides, she wanted to be a pop star.
“I realized that I could sing when I was 11 years old,” she remembers, inspired by a cool girl in her class with crazy confidence and a perfect pop voice. “This was the early 2000s, so this girl would sing Christina [Aguilera] and Britney [Spears] hits. She had such a pop voice. I wanted to do that. She was so confident, and I was attracted to it.”
Burch is the first to admit that it’s taken her all of her 27 years to be comfortable in her own skin. As a kid, she says, she turned red at even the slightest bit of attention: when she was in middle school, she used to take her mother’s dark foundation and cake it onto her face to hide her rosy cheeks. “I had a permanent line under my chin, my face one color and the rest of my skin another,” she laughs. She was in a never-ending state of deer-in-the-headlights.
Fearing attention, yet dying to be a singer, Burch started by practicing alone in her room, recording herself and listening back to try to see if she liked the way she sounded. She developed her pipes in solitude. “I kept my singing a secret from my family. I didn’t want to fail.”
When Burch finally showed her sister what she had been working on, her older sibling was amazed and cast her in a school play she had written. Burch had to sing an a cappella version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” dressed in drag like Divine in front of their entire school. Guarded by costume, she got her first taste of the stage and she liked it. Slowly her confidence grew, and she pushed herself to try out for the school choir. “It was a very slow grow,” she laughs.
After high school, Burch split from the bustling West Coast to study Jazz Vocal Performance at the University of North Carolina in Asheville, which was much more her speed. It was there that she began writing by herself. She desperately needed an outlet. After all, she was going through a breakup with her first love, her best friend, and was miles away from her family. Naturally, the songs just poured out of her, but it took time to complete. So long, in fact, that the man who had broken her heart and inspired the album, Dailey Toliver, came back into her life and resumed as her romantic and musical partner.
Two years later, when the songs were recorded (and the couple had relocated to Austin, Texas), Burch sent a demo to Captured Tracks the old-fashioned way. To her surprise, she was signed almost immediately. Her 2017 debut album Please Be Mine earned praise from critics for her unique, effortless vocals and emotive lyrics. Burch’s catalogue has a fragile honesty that draws listeners in. She sounds as tragic as she does romantic, like Tammy Wynette singing “Apartment #9”, Burch’s delivery sends goosebumps through your body.
Following a year of touring Please Be Mine, Burch returned to Texas to decompress. She bounced her ideas off Toliver, who would contribute guitar parts and make suggestions. The hurricanes kept them locked at home, where they forced themselves to write. With nothing but time on her hands, she fought her usual demons of nervousness and self-doubt, but the album slowly took shape and First Flower became real. Burch had one-off lyrics running through her head and for the first time, wrote words before the melodies. When it came time to record, Burch chose to work with Erik Woffard at Cacophony Recorders in Austin. He liked her music and offered her a free day of recording. The songs sounded big and moody. She was happy.
“I was aware that people were actually listening to my music and having a positive experience, I wanted to reveal my own struggles with fear and anxiety,” she explains. “I do not have the answers by any means, but I wanted to talk about those imperfections. I wouldn’t want someone who listens to my music to think that I have it all figured out. I don’t.”
First Flower is a step away from the romance of Please Be Mine, but deeply biographical. The songs are introspective, mostly Burch coaxing herself out of her shell, sometimes proud of overcoming her anxiety and, other times, still grappling with the social paralysis that has plagued her for her entire life. But the album is hopeful, defiant, and shimmering, with Toliver’s sparse, jazz-inspired guitar work providing the perfect backdrop for her milky vocals. It’s the kind of record that sends you into another era. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a smoky nightclub in post-WWII Hollywood, especially when listening to the album’s epic closer “Every Little Thing”.
But the album’s true bubblegum moment is “To the Boys,” a swinging, sassy nod to her own humility. “I don’t need to scream to get my point across / I don’t need to yell to know that I’m the boss,” she coos over a sparse guitar riff. “That is not my style / You can tell that to the boys.”
Today, Burch is in touring mode and always on the go. As she, Toliver, and her new band gear up for their first headlining tour in a long while, she’s traded in that self-consciousness for a confidence, ditching her guitar and standing in front of the mic solo like the pop icons she admired. “I don’t feel like I can really perform when I am distracted by guitar,” she says. “This tour, I am going to just sing.”
“I have always been attracted to female vocalists,” she continues. “My three favorites: Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Lauryn Hill. I also wanted to be a pop star, so I loved Britney, Christina, and all that. I love country too, Dusty Springfield,” her voice trails off and she starts laughing softly. “Really any woman that is singing a ballad is my favorite thing.”