MUSIC | Molly Dean spills the beans about forthcoming disc, Alicia Wiley collaboration

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Highly recommended for your Sunday enjoyment: brunch at Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis with a set by Molly Dean and a set by Alicia Wiley. At least, that’s the bill this particular morning.

Hunched over coffee and a tasty plate of corned beef hash with eggs over easy, I talk a little shop with Wiley while we wait for Dean to go on. The usual stuff—how’s work, what else y’ been up to, so on and so forth. The best I can do for news is that I am, after the best part of a year, still finishing up my EP. She just got done playing on an opening bill for Al Kooper at the Dakota and, in the same amount of time I’ve been in the studio, she’s released her fifth album and is, as I shovel food in my face and she nibbles at her porridge, wrapping up her sixth. I hate her.

So happens Alicia’s headed, in fact, this very afternoon to Fuzzy Slippers Studio over in St. Paul and—a first—will have another vocalist pitching in, Molly Dean. Dean’s a fine singer. Still, I have to ask why, after years of recording without vocal backup, Wiley chose to change things up. “I brought Molly on board,” she says, nudging a berry around in the bowl, “because from the moment I first heard her, five years ago or so, I was blown away. Her voice is angelic and her presence very warm and authentic. This translated to her music. I knew we had to collaborate together at some point. I can’t remember who first reached out first. All I know is that it’s been a pleasure to work with her ever since we started jamming.”

Dean’ll be featured doing backups, it turns out, on three cuts—”Goldmine”, “Cooling,” and “Floodgates”—on Wiley’s forthcoming Both Sides. Alicia adds that, in a word, she loves Molly Dean’s timbre. I can hear that as a fit: WIley holding down the sultry bottom with Dean waxing, as she said, angelic on top. Indeed, I’d love to tag along for that. Nothing doing: Wiley promptly squashes that notion before I can finish getting it out of my mouth good. She’s keeping the session closed. So, there’ll be no snoop-nose writer playing fly-on-the-wall as the artists tend to their craft. Phooey. Oh, well, she can keep her old recording session. I’ve got interesting stuff to day, anyway. Like, uh, my the dishes I left in the sink last night. And my laundry. So happens, I have a life, thank you.

We’re still chatting when Molly Dean shows up, situates herself onstage with her guitar, and goes to work. Both of us pipe down and listen. Dean, to be certain, is gifted. She has a strong, bright voice, writes airy, engaging melodies and has sure, understated stage presence. It’s a joy to sit there with Wiley and, instead of scribbling notes for a review, simply be in the audience and take in Molly Dean’s considerable talent. She is, by the way, a fine lyricist. Take “A Melody” from her second CD Resonate (the first, Honey Collector, is out of print). “It’s that time again/ Time to make a change/ A look in the mirror/ reflects how long it has been/ since you’ve built up the courage/ to give it a try/ After all your excuses are only/ Words bled dry/ Words bled dry.”

When Dean’s done, I switch company. She joins me to shoot the breeze as Wiley gets up and does her thing from behind the piano. It’s mostly brand-new material, and all top-shelf. Dean and I agree Alicia Wiley has got so good over the years that sometimes she’s downright scary. When Wiley finishes, Dean is back on. I take my leave. Before I do, Molly Dean agrees to do an e-mail interview which, over the course of the next week, we get in the can.

After Hell’s Kitchen you met up with Alicia at Fuzzy Slippers. How was it?
Recording at Fuzzy Slippers with Alicia was a great experience. We get along so well outside of the musical realm, and that comfort flows into the studio experience as well. She is a professional—both articulate and fun to work with. Not to mention incredibly talented, which is an excellent combination of characteristics!

What songwriters do you especially respect and why? Any particular influences on or inspirations for your lyrics?
As far as the list of influential songwriters….what a list. But Jeff Buckley is an amazing writer and musician—he seemed to always be exploring the use of his voice as an instrument. Inspiring and beautiful. Bill Withers, Greg Brown, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, and Janis Ian are a few of the storytellers that I admire. Ani DiFranco, Desdamona, and Cecil Otter are a few of the poet musicians in my life. Sun Kil Moon, Bat for Lashes, Lauryn Hill. That is only a start, of course, covering only a hint of a particular style. The lyrics tend to feel, to me, to focus on the journey. Both my own, and others’ movements, behaviors, perceptions, happiness, hopes, fears, compassion. Whatever makes up the experiences we have in this life.

How’d you learn to make music?
It was mostly a combination of my family’s influence, piano lessons at a young age and a new guitar at age 15, singing in choir for the majority of my life, traveling and living abroad. Having fun and working hard at listening, writing, and performing! I am a self-taught guitarist and worker of pedals, although I did take a semester of guitar lessons in college to learn different picking styles.

How pleased are you with your first two CDs?

I am very pleased. They are very telling of where I’ve been, musically and otherwise. The whole experience of creating these works, through writing, recording, promoting and releasing, is quite a learning process and the knowledge gained continues to present itself again and again.

Anything new going on for your music with the new album you’re working on? Has the writing got stronger? The singing?
The writing and singing have gotten stronger. I have turned back to the piano to write a few songs that will be on this record, so that is a difference from Resonate. There is also an instrumental track based on a live-looping segment that I wrote a couple of years ago. Drums, upright bass, cello, and possibly an accordian will all make appearances. I am very excited to keep exploring this new avenue.