Red Molly:
poised for the leap

In a single evening at the 2004 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, three lives were changed forever. The night started normally, but by the time the sun crept up, a jazz singer was no longer a jazz singer, an actress found herself committed to folk music and a folky singer-songwriter had picked up two new partners.

Abbie Gardner, the jazz singer, tells the story. "We had all attended the festival on our own. Late one night, we began playing around with some old-time songs and we found we had a natural blend and we just had so much fun." The next day, Laurie MacAllister, the singer-songwriter, had a showcase scheduled and asked her two new friends to sing with her. "The showcase went so well," she says, "we decided to form a band and went looking for gigs. One of our first gigs was a radio show in Sharon, Connecticut, and the day after the show we found our band name. That show gave us our commitment to the band."

Red Molly was born.

Carolann Solebello, the actress, says the fact that they all come from different musical backgrounds creates the uniqueness of the band's sound. "In our lives, we've listened to a lot of different kinds of music, so among us, we've got quite a range of interests. One of the things we love, though, is good harmony. We've studied harmony singers in different styles of music, be it folk, country, musical theatre, jazz, blues or Americana." They've been influenced by singers from all over the musical map: Patty Griffin, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, Emmylou Harris and Billie Holiday are names that come immediately to Solebello's mind.

Their instrumental influences are just as diverse. All three are multi-instrumentalists Gardner plays Dobro and acoustic guitar, MacAllister doubles on guitar and banjo, while Solebello handles mandolin, bass and guitar chores.

Being new, they've worked hard. "At first," MacAllister says, "we took any gig we could get, figuring the exposure and the chance to play out made it worthwhile. We divided gigs into A, B and C gigs. What we've found is that we're already in a position to turn down C gigs. We're getting enough A and B gigs to keep us busy."

Who are these three women? Gardner grew up with a jazz and blues piano playing father, who had a steady gig with Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks. "I grew up knowing them," she says, "I can't remember not knowing them." Her mother, though, was a bluegrass fan who started dragging Abbie to festivals when the girl was only 3. "I used to sing and dance along to Tim O'Brien. It was good training. You really learn the 1-4-5 listening to bluegrass." Even with that exposure, though, her first instrument was the flute, which she took up in the fourth grade and played all the way through college. In 1998, she began playing guitar. Unable to get the sound she wanted on acoustic, she began studying slide with David Hamburger but a bout with tendinitis caused her to give the instrument up.

Unable to play, Gardner could still sing, so she began performing in jazz clubs and, in 2004, released a CD, My Craziest Dream, with her father's quartet. When the tendinitis subsided, she began playing folk gigs again, substituting the Dobro, which was kinder to her wrists and forearms, for the slide guitar. Her Dobro work is central to Red Molly's sound.

For MacAllister, the story of her move into music is the story of her battle with stage fright. Discovering early that she had a talent for singing, she also found that she got terrified in front of an audience, so when she was 13, she abruptly quit performing and didn't sing in public again until she was in the graduate program in psychology at NYU. MacAllister'd begun hanging out at open-mic clubs and realized she had to sing again. "I wasn't complete unless I was singing," she says.

At first, she practiced in the subway. Then she landed a steady Monday night gig at a club and gigged around the club circuit until she met her mentor, Cliff Eberhardt, who asked her to sing background for him. She claims that working with Eberhardt turned her into a musician. He must have agreed because in 2004, Eberhardt produced and played on her album, The Things I Choose to Do. The rights to that album have just been picked up by Barnes & Noble, which is featuring it in all of their stores.

Solebello came to the group from a musical theater background. At graduating from Fordham, she spent six years doing dinner and regional theater around the country. She landed a part in a Wichita, Kansas, production of "Smoke on the Mountain" by claiming she could play bass and mandolin, so before the show opened, she had to learn the instruments.

After the play closed, she returned to New York City. She and a fellow cast member, Hope Nunnery, played the city's folk music clubs as Blind Diva. When Nunnery took a new acting job, Solebello started her own indie label, Elizabeth Records, and released a solo CD, Just Across the Water. Then she formed a folk-rock band called CC Railroad, with whom she worked until she joined Red Molly.

Although the formation of Red Molly proved to be a turning point for all three women, MacAllister was the first to recognize that her life had changed. The trio had been out gigging around for a few months and it quickly become obvious to MacAllister that while singly the women had talent, together they had magic; they were building a following and assembling a set of reviews and comments that most musicians would kill for. Upstage Magazine called them "one of the finest female groups I have heard in a long while," claiming "their artistry will captivate you, individually and collectively." The Frederick (Maryland) News-Post said they were one of the brightest lights on the acoustic music scene, calling them "a cross between the Dixie Chicks and O Brother, Where Art Thou."

It was in Maryland, in fact, that MacAllister experienced her epiphany. They'd played a concert in Frederick and, from the stage, watching and feeling the audience reaction, she had a vision. "The audience response was overwhelming. They were quiet and attentive during the ballads, energetic during the up-tempo numbers. They were with us all the way. I saw then exactly what we had together and I knew this didn't have to be a weekend thing, we could do this all the time. Red Molly could be the career."

Knowing they'd found the magic combination, when the women got back to New York City, they went to work placing Red Molly on a solidly professional basis. "We have to realize that as much fun as this is," Gardner says, "music is a business. We treat our musical career as just that -- a business. A lot of hard work goes into what we do."

The career is moving more quickly than they'd anticipated. Gardner says reaction to their work has been "overwhelming, actually, a wonderful thing." They released their first CD, a four-song EP, in 2004 and quickly sold out the first run of 1,000. The reorder is selling just as quickly. They've been working steadily throughout the Northeast region, from Boston, where they played the legendary Club Passim, to New York City and Pennsylvania. They are currently prepping their first full-length CD for a late summer release.

When you hear Red Molly, you understand why forming this band changed the members' lives. Their harmonies are gorgeous and original, as striking as those of the Roches or the McGarrigles. One of those rare bands that possess both talent and taste, Red Molly has voices to die for. When they sing, you feel the soul inside the songs and, while the material they sing is often rooted in old-time mountain music, their approach is always modern; the result is a sense of timelessness. Theirs is music to make the spirit soar.

Gardner feels that as long as they live up to their musical philosophy, Red Molly can't miss. "Our first goal is to have fun with the music and pick great songs. That's the basis of everything we do. If a song is fun for us to sing and play, then we figure the audience will probably like it, too. We come up with arrangements mostly by instinct, by using our ears and hearts." She emphasizes, however, that for all the fun, doing music is hard work. Flashing an infectious smile, she adds that the fact that it's hard is OK. "The best way to make your dreams come true is to work hard and put all your energy into it."

Forming Red Molly created a new dream for Abbie Gardner, Laurie MacAllister and Carolann Solebello. They're working hard to make it come true.

by Michael Scott Cain
8 July 2006