Banjos, Family Bands and Coonhounds With Molly Hazel

Banjos, Family Bands and Coonhounds With Molly Hazel

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This may be banjoist Molly Hazel’s first release as a solo artist but she is no stranger to the bluegrass scene. When Molly was only 13, her family created The Pearce Family Bluegrass Band and toured the United States; self-releasing Not For Sale in 2004, Guilty in 2006, and Home in 2012.

Molly, her husband Caleb, and sons, Colton and Carter, now make their home in Bellingham, WA. During her second pregnancy Molly recorded her most recent and first solo release, See. With See now available online, Molly and I caught up to talk banjos, family bands and coonhounds.

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Molly Hazel in her great grandmother's coat.

Can you tell me a little bit about what See is and what it means to you? Does it reflect the current time in your life? Or is this EP more of a journey bringing you to this point?

See is definitely a project that has been years in the making. It is my first solo project, and is, therefore, borrowing songs from different stages of my life. I’ve been a part of many other projects, but knew it was time for me to finish a project of my own. My perfectionist mentality makes it really hard to finish anything, particularly in my music life. Because of this mental block, I decided to bite the bullet and hire my brother, Wil Pearce, to produce this EP. He is currently a musician and producer in Los Angeles, and does incredible work. I knew I could trust him to put out a fantastic product, as well as trust that he knows me better than most and could help me through my mental battles. Honestly, this project was such a growing and therapeutic experience.

With this album being all original material, do you have a long creative process or do tunes come to you quickly? Do you enjoy the writing or arranging more?

The hardest part for me is just getting myself to sit down and write. I am such a busy body, it is hard for me to stop and make room to create. Once I do sit down and focus, I honestly feel like the process happens fairly quickly, at least for the first draft of a song. I thoroughly enjoy both writing and arranging, although I feel more practiced in the arranging side over the writing. I had the songs pretty much complete when I sat down with Wil to record demos of the songs, and he helped polish and bring each arrangement to that next level.

‘Lonely Girl’ is an undeniably modern bluegrass song. It is a breath of fresh air from a unique perspective and a fantastic example of the killer female voices and instrumentalists we have in bluegrass today. With so many talented women to choose from, could you name some musicians that helped you find a voice in what has long been a male dominated genre?

For sure Alison Krauss… by far! Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan, Alison Brown, Loretta Lynn, Cia Cherryholmes, Sierra Hull. These amazing women have encouraged me to keep playing and pursuing excellence. I don’t feel like I’ll ever live up to the level of musicianship that these women possess, but am trying to accept where I’m at and put out music from where I am in my life and musicianship.

I know you had an interesting start in the bluegrass world. Could you tell me a little bit about the family band days and your time studying the banjo and voice?

Yes! I was raised in a very musical family by parents that were/are professional musicians in Los Angeles. I started out playing classical piano… much more fitting to my “in the box” personality. My dad brought out the banjo every once in awhile, but bluegrass definitely wasn’t our family’s primary genre in my early years. We listened to a wide range of music, but mostly jazz, fusion, eclectic and some bluegrass. When I was 12, Down From the Mountain and O Brother, Where Art Thou? came out, and that really sent my whole family on a bluegrass journey. I picked up the banjo, and my family decided to start a family bluegrass band, The Pearce Family Bluegrass Band. I wasn’t quite ready to play banjo in the band in those early learning days, so I played upright bass for those early years in the band. Banjo was my love, though, no doubt. I went on to The Master’s University, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music. I was on scholarship for banjo there, and was able to explore lots of types of music on banjo while I was studying there. My senior recital consisted of a wide variety of music, from The Beatles to Jaco Pastorius’ ‘Portrait of Tracy’, Bela Fleck’s ‘County Clare’, as well as a Bach Invention. I’m super thankful for my time there and the experiences I was able to have as a vocalist and banjo player in that music program.

When I’ve seen you perform live you have a confident, assured demeanor. But in a recent Instagram TV video I heard you say you’re uncomfortable in front of the camera. Have you ever dealt with performance anxiety? What advice would you give to beginners to feel comfortable in front of others and make music seem so effortless?

I’ve been performing in front of crowds since I can remember, so my level of performance anxiety is relatively low, though it somewhat depends on the particular situation. As long as I am in a supporting role or a low-pressure situation, I don’t have performance anxiety hardly at all. That all changes when I am the leading lady or performing my own stuff. The vulnerability that is necessary to be the lead person, all of your flaws ready for the taking, really weighs on me. This is partially where the name of the EP See came about… I was finally ready or brave enough to put myself out there and be “seen” (at least from behind a recording). I definitely hate being on camera and don’t particularly love having eyes on me, mostly because I care what people think.  Who doesn’t, right? However, most of my anxiety in playing comes from my own head and the pressure/standard I put on myself. So yes, I deal with performance anxiety, but the killer really is my own mind… not being able to accept where I’m at rather than letting go and enjoying the musical moment from where I am currently. Some advice?

Relax and enjoy the moment you’re in. Play vulnerably and let people see you in your successes and failures as a musician.     

Molly Hazel

The second track on See is a wonderful fiddle tune titled ‘Samson’s Reel’. What inspired you to write this tune? And would you mind if I shared a guitar arrangement?

For sure share a guitar arrangement!

‘Samson’s Reel’ came about when I was messing around on banjo one evening. My husband Caleb said, “Write a song that sounds like Samson!” Samson is our dog, a mischievous, dopey, tri-color coonhound. My mind has always connected so much more to melody than to lyrics. Arranging and hearing melodies comes fairly instinctively, and writing this tune was no different; a culmination of all of the fiddle tune melodies I’ve heard focused in on one particular picture of my dog. This tune came out so naturally as I pictured our sweet dog frolicking through the fields and snatching food off of the counter.

What does a practice routine look like in Molly’s world? Exercises, hard tunes, scales? What do you think bluegrass musicians neglect most in their woodshedding?

Currently, practice time comes rarely. If I can fit it in, it happens during the kid’s nap times or after bedtime.  When I get to it, my favorite practice is very technical and theory-focused. I feel comfortable and safe there. Lots of scalar practice and trying to expand my comfortability with the fretboard. Maybe it’s my background in classical piano, but I also love learning difficult songs. Because of this, I’ve sort of skipped over a lot of great bluegrass standards! I’ve been jumping back to a lot of those lately, which has been super fun! I feel like my style of practice is opposite of what most bluegrass player’s practice looks like. Maybe we should switch… I could use a lot more noodling in my life, and I think bluegrassers could use some more of the technical knowledge and practice in theirs.

In a world with constant distractions and so many amazing musicians to keep up with, how do you balance music with other obligations like family, social life, hobbies?

I feel like I’m terrible about this! Family is my priority, as it probably will always be. I just had my second kiddo in October, so my life is full-on mom mode right now. My passion for music and motherhood have always kind of clashed in my brain. Now that I’m here, I’m realizing I just need to embrace both in all their chaos, which is how See came about. I decided that I needed to finish a project at the same time that I was pregnant and having our second son, Carter. I was actually 9 months pregnant when I recorded vocals for this project… I’m hoping Carter ends up loving bluegrass as much as I do; with his last memories in the womb being of his mama singin’ away. Also, motherhood has been such a unique place to use music. Colton, our first son, has actually always hated when I play banjo or practice. I think he didn’t like my attention NOT being on him… oh boy! As he’s seen me go through this release, and as he’s seen his little brother respond so well to music, he has started to cultivate his own love for music. He now asks for  ‘Mama Songs’ at bedtime, just the sweetest! The cool thing about music is that there will ALWAYS be more to learn. I keep touching on this, but part of this release has been my embrace of where I am at in my musical journey, rather than sitting in dissatisfaction of where I would like to be.

The last time we talked in person and just prior to this interview, I teased you about a video of your family singing beautiful harmonies while your husband, Caleb, is cooking in the background. Have you made it clear to Caleb that he has to take up the bass when your sons Colton and Carter take up the guitar and mandolin?

Haha! Yes… I keep insisting that he take up the upright bass with his tall stature of 6’ 5”, but of course he recently went the opposite direction and took up the ukulele. I’m sure he’ll come around to the light once the boys join the family band.

Where can people follow you online to keep up on gigs and releases? Do you offer lessons for those who are vocally or banjo challenged?

I’m not teaching much right now… I’d be open to Skype lessons in the evenings, but my schedule with two boys keeps me on my toes most days. You can follow me on my Facebook artist page, Molly Hazel. I’ve been posting some videos there recently describing in more detail each of the EP songs, as well as playing a piece of them for you all. Go check it out, give me a follow, and give the EP a listen on Spotify or iTunes!

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