In the past, Molly Burch presented herself as the quintessential singer-songwriter with a guitar strapped to her shoulder, but not anymore. When she plays the Bartlett with a five-piece band, she'll stand behind the mic and sing hands-free, like the pop stars she idolized growing up.
"I don't really love playing guitar," she says. "I kind of picked it up out of necessity. It's less expensive to tour with fewer people, but for the album-release tour especially I wanted to do it the way I like. I love just being able to perform, and singing is the most important thing to me. When I play guitar, I kind of feel distracted, like I can't perform the way I'd like."
The Austin-based musician is touring to support her sophomore album, First Flower (out last month on independent record label Captured Tracks). Whereas her chief focus on debut album Please Be Mine (2017) was romantic love, Burch turns her focus as a songwriter inward to explore how anxiety affects her personal relationships and place in the world.
Speaking to the Inlander on the road somewhere in the Southwestern U.S., she says she's never felt more comfortable in her own skin, but learning to live with anxiety is still a work in progress.
"The point of the album is not to say I've conquered anything; it's very much a journey," she says. "I definitely feel more confident than I did growing up, or even just two years ago."
As a younger woman, she struggled intensely with performance anxiety; simply identifying herself as a musician was a terrifying prospect that would result in a deer-in-headlights response. However, she studied jazz vocal performance at the University of North Carolina in Asheville and gradually overcame her severe self-doubt through repetition and support from her sister, "the one who pushed me to pursue music," Burch says.
She committed to a career as a musician after college and recorded Please Be Mine, which was inspired by breaking up with her first love. She supported the album with a solid year of touring. At first, she found it difficult to meet many of the expectations associated with being a modern musician — doing interviews, promo spots, managing her social media presence.
"It definitely was something I had to get used to," she says. "But, again, with practice, I don't feel nervous anymore. Phone interviews used to cause me a lot of anxiety. If I had to do it on the road, I would make the band stop at a gas station, but now I'm doing it in the van and they can probably hear me, and it's OK."
But that's not to say Burch has vanquished her demons entirely. During the month or so she set aside to write First Flower, the same old uncertainty crept in.
"It's a lot different than my first album," she says. "Even though it was really personal, I had written it over a couple years and we had been performing those songs live before we recorded them. This one was really different, because it was the first time I was writing an album in one sitting, basically, and I had a whole new band. It was a totally different process. I was struggling with self-doubt so much when I was writing it. I just felt like I couldn't do it. It felt like an accomplishment just to have it done."
Always technically capable as a singer, Burch's range and control are noticeably improved over her work on Please Be Mine. Her baseline vocal tone is deep and smoky, recalling Judy Garland and other starlets from the Golden Age of Hollywood. (Curiously, she cites pure-sounding pop stars such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera as major influences.) It's easy to picture Burch beside a piano in a smoke-filled lounge on the single "To the Boys" as she sings, "I don't need to scream to get my point across / I don't need to yell to know that I'm the boss." But she's versatile enough to adopt a light, airy vibrato when it's called for, and practically everything she sings is nuanced and textured.
Burch certainly has the skills to make it in the music industry. And she's gaining confidence with every performance, leaning more into her identity as a dynamite vocalist. In fact, now she feels more comfortable on stage than anywhere else — comfortable enough to shed the guitar, step behind the microphone and sing alone under the spotlight. ♦
Molly Burch with Jesse Woods • Fri, Nov. 2 at 8 pm • $12 • All ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174