SPOTLIGHT: With Full-Length Debut, Molly Tuttle Proves She’s Ready
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
It’s comfortable in a family band. You’re onstage with people you’ve known all your life, who support you without question and look after you off stage as well. The music is ingrained in your head, in your heart, in your bloodstream. There aren’t many surprises or shocks to the system.
Growing up in California’s Bay Area, Molly Tuttle thrived in such a cozy starting place, but she always knew she’d want to leave the nest one day. So, as a young adult, she did, heading first to Berklee College of Music in Boston and next to Nashville, where she started making a name for herself as a top-notch guitarist and a sweet-voiced singer. With her first solo EP, Rise, in 2017, she offered a taste of what she was capable of on her own, earning multiple award nominations and enthusiastic press coverage.
But now, at age 26, Tuttle is fully spreading her wings with her debut full-length album, When You’re Ready, out April 5 on Compass Records. It’s a statement, she says, of who she is now. It’s bluegrass and folk, but also rock and pop. It’s happy and sad and confident and confused — real, in other words, especially as a reflection of a woman in her 20s. It’s also the work of an artist who’s already been lauded for her talents, including as the first woman to receive the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year award, but has even more to show us.
“This album is representative of my life over the past couple years, so it’s a statement of who I am as a songwriter,” Tuttle says. “I love songwriting and I love listening to songwriters and I love singing, so I think this album puts those two — singing and songwriting — in the forefront more than what I’ve done in the past.”
Tuttle was already an accomplished guitar player as a teenager, but she wanted to explore music further in an academic setting that would expose her to new ideas and directions as well as to people her own age she could play music with and learn from. Her years at Berklee gave her that and even more, she says.
“When I got to Berklee I was kind of resistant to learning music theory or trying to learn to read music, and I think it just doesn’t really come naturally to me,” she says. “But then once I started learning some theory and learning about the different modes and kind of applying that to my guitar and doing ear training classes, I really found that it helped my playing a lot and it helped how I thought about music. It made music even more interesting to me.”
To keep things interesting, Tuttle moved to Nashville after college — a bit of a culture shock to someone used to living near the ocean, but she soon tapped into a current of supportive musicians there.
“It took me a little while to really get on my feet here and realize, ‘Oh, I have to, like, actually make an effort to text people and go out to parties and jams, whereas in college I just kind of naturally fell in with people I went to classes with and different bluegrass bands that the college put together. … But then when I got to Nashville, once I realized if I go out as much as I can and try to really put in effort to meet people, everyone’s super friendly and welcoming.”
One of the people she met in Nashville was Ryan Hewitt, a producer who’s worked with many bands Tuttle grew up listening to, including Blink-182, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Avett Brothers. They formed “a creative connection” during their first chat, Tuttle recalls, and kept in touch. When it came time for her to start work on When You’re Ready, she tapped Hewitt to help her weave strands of the music she liked to listen to into the fabric of the music she liked to make.
While several of Tuttle’s friends appear on the album — including Jason Isbell, Sierra Hull, and Rachel Baiman — Hewitt brought in people he knew as the “house band,” just one of the ways he helped her break out of her comfort zone, she says.
“When I recorded my EP, Rise, I was playing with musicians who I knew really well and playing songs that I’d written years ago that I was super comfortable with, so I recorded most of that album live, totally live, singing and playing,” she says. “This one, I think I went in thinking ‘This’ll be the same, it’ll be really easy, I’ll have time to work on these songs and practice them and get them really comfortable.’” But with Hewitt she found herself revising a lot, and trying different things to find out what worked best.
“Going into the studio, everything felt really fresh and I was playing with musicians who I hadn’t ever played with before. … It was definitely a less comfortable environment, but I think that really pushed me to play in a different way or sing in ways I didn’t know I could sing, just really get outside my comfort zone. It felt like a blank slate, I wasn’t set in different ways of playing and singing.”
Tuttle wrote or co-wrote every song on When You’re Ready, including “Million Miles,” an unfinished song started by Steve Poltz and Jewel in the 1990s that Poltz mentioned in a songwriting session with Tuttle. Her most personal songs, Tuttle says, usually flow out when she’s alone. But she’s also learned a lot about the writing process by working with others, she says. And there’s nothing like a set time and place, and someone else’s presence, to get things moving.
“I think usually when I get writer’s block it’s because I’m just vetoing my own ideas,” she explains, “so that’s when co-writing really helps me break out of my headspace that I’m in and start writing and become less precious with the writing.”
Collaboration comes naturally to Tuttle, which she credits to her folk and bluegrass background. And she still does a lot of it. Over the past year she’s played a few high-profile gigs with The First Ladies of Bluegrass — with Alison Brown, Sierra Hull, Becky Buller, and Missy Raines, all, like Tuttle, the first women to win IBMA awards on their instruments. And she sometimes still plays with her college band, The Goodbye Girls, with Allison de Groot, Brittany Karlson, and Lena Jonsson. As busy as she is with her own music, she finds that working with others recharges her batteries.
“It kind of feels like I’m re-energizing myself for my own thing because it’s so different from what I do,” she says. “We play old-time music, focusing a lot more on rhythm and the groove of the songs instead of more complex guitar parts and singing every song in songwriting. That feels like it balances out what I do nicely.”
In addition to IBMA awards for her guitar playing (in 2017 and 2018) and last year’s Instrumentalist of the Year award from the Americana Music Association, Tuttle has been featured in pretty much every guitar magazine. A video last year from Guitar World magazine with a camera clamped to her guitar as she plays “White Freightliner Blues” blew minds and garnered hundreds of thousands of views.
Most of the coverage rightfully focuses on her precise and skillful playing, not her gender. But out in the world, the ghosts of “pretty good for a girl” still linger. Tuttle’s had a few “uncomfortable moments,” she says, like being skipped over in jams when she was younger or encountering teachers who “just didn’t know what to do with having a female guitar student.”
“I think what I mostly get sometimes from people is surprise or, ‘Oh, I feel extra attention on me because I’m a woman playing guitar,’” she says. “People definitely still focus on the fact that I’m a woman, which, in a perfect world I’d like to just be seen as a guitar player, not a woman guitar player.”
But, she continues, “it seems like in the last couple years there’s been a bigger awareness of trying to make women feel included and feel comfortable.” And that, she points out, isn’t just a women’s issue.
“On one hand it’s important to talk about, but I think everyone needs to be talking about it and asking the questions, not just women,” Tuttle says. “I think men have a lot of questions they should be asking themselves about ‘How do I make women feel included?’ I think it shouldn’t rest all on the women to tell the story.
“People ask, ‘How are you going to inspire young girls,’ and that’s definitely super important to me to inspire girls to play music, but I think that should be important to everyone. It’s not just the responsibility of women musicians to inspire girls. I think everyone needs to make girls and women feel comfortable playing music.”
Tuttle also strives to inspire and bring comfort to people who, like her, have alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. In recent years, she’s been more outspoken about the condition, even sharing photos of herself without her wig on social media.
“My whole life I haven’t always felt comfortable being really public about it, but I think my whole life it’s been a dream of mine to just make that part of my purpose, to help others feel comfortable with how they look and help others who feel different or out of place or are being bullied in school just know that they’re not alone and that other people understand,” she says. “When I was a kid I just often felt like an alien because I looked so different, and sometimes I’d get teased, just didn’t really have people in my life who understood, exactly. So that’s really important to me to make that part of who I am and what I have to say.”
Getting to that point was “really scary,” she admits, but freeing. She first posted about alopecia two years ago, just before performing at an alopecia conference without a wig. She found that experience empowering, and more recently she performed a streaming concert to a wider audience in which she talked about the disease and removed her wig. “I want to show that no matter who you are or what you look like, different isn’t a bad thing,” she says. “You’re still beautiful, even if you look different from other people.”
It’s a tough balance, she admits, to make time for her advocacy as well as her music career. But making time for all of her passions has been a priority lately, and it’s one that’s paying off.
“I love collaboration, and part of that has been a struggle for me, because I love playing with other people, but I’ve really had to learn to prioritize my own music and playing with my own band because it’s easy to have a lot of different projects and get really overwhelmed and not really be bringing my best to each thing. So the past year I’ve worked on saying ‘no’ more and really focusing in on this album and playing mostly under my own name.”
In a lot of ways, Tuttle has been working her whole life toward this moment, the release of a full-length album in her own name that showcase all of her skills — singing, guitar playing, songwriting — at full strength.
“I just feel really ready and confident in making this statement and putting myself out there more than I have in the past,” she says. “I do feel like it’s the right time to put it out for me. I think it’s kind of an invitation to other people, too, to listen to it, just let the songs in to their lives and hopefully resonate with them.”
Molly Tuttle is No Depression‘s Spotlight artist for April 2019. Look for more stories and more about Molly all month long. Her album When You’re Ready comes out April 5 on Compass Records, and is streaming now via NPR First Listen.