Music, by its very nature, is tough to talk about. You can approach it either theoretically or emotionally, but either way you’ll end up sounding pretentious.
The music of Montreal-based songwriter Molly Sweeney is so rich, her lyrics so reliant on mythological and historical images, that talking about it feels like an exercise in futility. From every direction, she’s one step ahead of you.
Nevertheless, I sat down with Sweeney at a recent Toronto show to try and get to the bottom of her intoxicating debut album Gold Rings and Fur Pelts.
You’ve been making music for a long time, but this is your first album. Is it also your introduction to the industry side of music?
Pretty much. I’m the bandleader, so I deal with logistics – getting gigs, paying everybody – finding a way to make things work. I self-released this album, so I had to figure out what I needed. A lot of research.
Did you seek advice from fellow artists?
Yeah, asked around. The industry is so different now, and if you talk to someone who has been around for a long time, they don’t know what’s going on. They’ll have a previous idea of how things work(ed), which got subverted in the digital age.
But even new artists must have an archaic perception of rock “stardom” carried over from the previous generations…
I think so, in some cases. But the industry did then what it does now. If you get signed to a label, and they decide you’re not a star, you become filler. I think that happened to a lot of artists back in the day.
Did you learn, essentially, how to record with the production of this record?
I love recording. What I didn’t love was waiting … finding a publicist, figuring out to print records, getting artwork done. All these things where I don’t get to have any fun. “OK, we need three months of lead time to make people aware …” I thought you could just (release a record) right away! The records ready, get it out there! I guess the first three months are pretty critical. You have to make it an event.
But, now you know how to do it.
Though I do expect the industry to change again.
People are scrambling to grab onto anything that might be distribution replacement, like when Radiohead tried the “pay what you want” scheme, and by most accounts it was not very successful.
It’s important to not get greedy, keep things cheap. New artists can’t wait or make things too expensive. People will get music for free if they really want to.
You’ve been playing music since you were very young.
Yes, I’ve been singing since a very young age, and playing guitar since my 13th birthday.
So what made you want to make an album, at this point?
I’ve been wanting to do it for years, waiting for the right time, but that right time doesn’t exist. My boyfriend pushed me, to get it over with.
Do the songs stretch back years?
I’ve been writing songs since I was 16. I wrote “Full Moon” nine years ago, though it’s changed over time. I chose (the tracklist) to be cohesive; I have some songs that are maybe more aggressive that clash with the psych-folk style I wanted for this record. I’m a big fan of concept albums, so a lot of the topics I write about are related in some way.
Like your interest in mythology, as in “Eros and Psyche.”
Yes. Are you a fan of mythology?
I somehow ended up taking more than one “classics” class. What is your background?
I did a lot of reading around the age of eight, like I’d try to read The Iliad or Satyricon, but ultimately had to stick to less complicated translations. I liked reading writers like Joseph Campbell, who would recognize mythology as a collective unconscious.
Is that how you approach your own writing, telling specific stories that nevertheless connect with different cultures and many different people?
I appropriate stories, with a certain tone. With “You Mustn’t Worry”, I had The Odyssey in mind when I wrote it, but from a different perspective, like if Penelope wasn’t just going to sit around at home and wait years for Odysseus. I gave her a bit of guts.
Are you drawn to songwriters who can really think outside of themselves to write lyrics?
Bob Dylan is very good at that. There’s a song on Bringing It All Back Home, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, singing about Captain Ahab, but with a beautiful stream of imagery. He goes in a strange direction with it.
Or “Desolation Row”, where he takes dozens of literary/historical characters and implants them in a slum…
[sings] On desolation row… Yeah, he’s able to mythologize.
Do you write unconsciously?
For sure. Some stuff takes a long time to gestate, like “Spirit, Will I See You”, where I found a recording of myself playing it (while improvising), but I couldn’t figure out what I had done. It took me a year to figure out that my guitar had been a quarter-tone flat, all across the board.
Do you think you’ve ever lost a really good idea?
Definitely. I wrote a song in a dream, a dream with people who just burst into singing. And I woke up just in a total haze. Always keep a recorder next to you!
On the other hand, preserving an idea doesn’t always work. You’ll go back to something and look at it like, “What the hell was I thinking?”
You’ll just cling to the empty shell of an image. More important to keep a feeling, rather than the exact way of expressing it.