Singer-songwriter Molly Burch’s rich, smoky voice recalls dark jazz halls, as well as the sound of her idols, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. But the Los Angeles native, who has called Austin home for six years, is as inspired by the pop stylings of superstar Ariana Grande as she is by the old standards that marked her jazz vocal performance studies at the University of North Carolina Asheville.
We caught up with the chanteuse before her Sept. 7 homecoming show at Barracuda, which closes the tour in support of her sophomore album, “First Flower,” about what makes Austin such a special place for young musicians. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
American-Statesman: Your tour is heading to California next as we're speaking. Does that feel like a homecoming, or are you more at home in Austin?
Molly Burch: I see them both as home. I get nervous playing L.A., because my family and friends are there. I lived in L.A. until I was 18. I was born and raised there, but my dad is from Dallas, so I grew up coming to Texas. Texas has always felt very much like home. I’ve lived in Austin since 2013, so I feel super at home in Austin. I love living in Austin.
What brought you to Austin and, before that, to Asheville for school?
I went to Sarah Lawrence College (in New York) for my freshman year, and it’s a liberal arts college that doesn’t have majors, necessarily, so I eased my way into deciding to major in music. You could casually focus on things you liked, so I chose music. I was a little scared to major in it, so it was a nice segue.
I had to transfer, because I couldn’t afford to stay there. My mom had moved to North Carolina for work, so it made the most sense financially to go get in-state (tuition) at a North Carolina school. I finished and graduated in three years, then spent one year in Asheville after I graduated.
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I felt super lost, and it was such a small community. I just felt like I couldn’t grow at that time. I was deciding between going home to L.A. or moving to Austin, which felt more exciting because I didn’t really know anybody. It felt more manageable, in a way, because of the size, and I knew it was a big music city. So I chose to take that risk. I’m really glad I did.
How did you get connected in the music industry when you first moved to Austin?
It took me a little bit. It was tough at first even to make friends; I basically spent a year just alone, sort of trying to figure it out, and that’s when I really started writing music. I pushed myself to book a show, take baby steps before finding whatever community was there. I started to play solo shows and then duo shows with my guitarist Dailey (Toliver). We had a ton of iterations with band members and started to book shows and meet people and build experience with shows, and just one thing led to another. I met Dan Duszynski and decided to record my first record (in his Dripping Springs studio) and send that out to labels, including my current label (Captured Tracks), and I put my first record out with them.
Where was your first show in Austin?
My very first show was at the old Cheer Up Charlies, the one on East Sixth. It was a duo show with my ex-boyfriend. I’m kind of forgetting how it came together. My first full band show, the first show I booked myself, was at Mohawk inside in 2014. I was so shocked that they responded to my email. I felt so excited. And it was a great show, it was so fun.
Once we sort of got in the scene, it was easy to keep playing. Austin is really nice in that way, once you find a community.
What was your first memory of feeling like you could make it in the music industry?
I played with so many different people. The first show I played with the band that I recorded my first album with, we played at the Scoot Inn, and that felt super memorable. "Okay, we’re a band, we can do this." It was this show with Jordan Moser, who is now one of my best friends.
Now, most of the bands I was playing with, we’re all touring or getting older and feeling more like homebodies. But that was more … a time where we’d go out a lot.
Dailey is your partner, right? Did he move to Austin with you from Asheville?
He moved here a year after I moved here. We dated in Asheville, we played a little bit in Asheville, but I had my own people to play with. I broke up with him when I decided to move to Austin and then, after a year, he moved.
It was really good for me, because I felt like our breakup and moving inspired me to write and just feel more independent. Then he moved, and I had all these songs to show him. We started playing together and we’ve been playing ever since. He’s the constant person in my band.
At first, (showing him the songs) was kind of emotional. But now it’s just business. We’re past it, but at first, definitely, it was meaningful.
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Were you in the music program together at UNC?
He’s from North Carolina and spent one year at UNC Charlotte, then dropped out and moved to Asheville because he had a lot of friends there and it has a music scene. I had heard about him because (Asheville) is a really small place; I heard this amazing musician moved to town, and at the time I was working at a grocery store and I met him in a checkout line. We didn’t start dating immediately because I was, like, a party girl, and I didn’t want to settle down. But we became friends. I just loved his music. He has his own project called Cowboy Crisis. ... We started hanging out (my senior year of college) and then later started dating.
What was the difference in writing your new album, “First Flower,” versus writing the songs on your first album, “Please Be Mine,” when you first moved to Austin?
When I was writing my first album, I didn’t have a label. I wasn’t expecting to release music. I wrote all those songs over a couple of years. It was more slow and organic. For my second album, it was a bigger process — I’m on a label and now know I'm going to write songs to be on an album.
I moved to Lockhart for a year (while working on “First Flower”), and it was really nice at the time because I basically had just gotten home from a year of touring and working super hard for the first album. I was decompressing in Lockhart. I pulled from all this change that happened to me since being signed and touring for the first time and finding myself as a bandleader and a boss and going through a lot of change. Then we moved back to Austin because we missed it a lot.
What did you miss about living in Austin?
Lockhart isn’t so far out, but it kind of is. I just missed the convenience of going out to eat, and water. I missed everything. I’m already such a homebody, especially from touring so much, that when I’m home I love to be home. So when home was Lockhart, it was even harder to see friends, because I was like, I can’t make the drive.
What are some of your favorite Austin spots?
I love going to King Bee. I haven’t been there in a while. If there’s a show happening, it’s Barracuda or Mohawk. And I love Cheer Up Charlies, but I haven’t been there in a while.
You just released two new songs as a 7-inch, “Ballads.” What was the inspiration for those songs?
We recorded those two songs when we recorded “First Flower.” Thirteen songs was just too long (for the album). There was a conversation with my label about which songs we wanted to save for later, and we all agreed on those two songs. We always planned to release a 7-inch with them, and I think they fit together really nicely. I love that we’re able to highlight two slow ballads. That is not common.
I heard you like to cover Ariana Grande at your shows. What’s your favorite song of hers?
I love Ariana Grande. I’ve always loved pop music. I take a lot of inspiration from pop vocals. My inspiration is jazz and pop and classic sounds. We’ve been playing “Needy” on this tour, and we will be playing it at the Austin show. It kind of surprises people.