Molly Sarlé :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

It took Molly Sarlé three attempts to get Karaoke Angel exactly where the Durham, North Carolina-based songwriter wanted it. “I basically recorded the whole record three times,” Sarlé says from home, pausing the third season of Netflix’s GLOW to discuss her first solo lp, a step to the side of her work as one-third of the a cappella folk trio Mountain Man,

That final attempt, a collection of Laurel Canyon folk-rock, dream pop, and sparse ballads, comes out via Partisan Records this week. Recorded with producer Sam Evian at Dreamland, a converted church in Woodstock, New York, Karaoke Angel was inspired by time spent in Big Sur and Los Angeles, and its songs find Sarlé handling heavy topics with a light humanist touch, observing addiction on the charging “This Close,” a painful conversation about suicide with her father on the stark “Almost Free,” and singing with frankness about identity and intimacy on “Suddenly.”

The songs are rooted in real life, she explains. “We focused on thinking about making the record like making a documentary,” Sarlé says. “I wanted to make a record and be in an environment where I could fully explore what I wanted to say as possible.” Mining the last six years, and the revelations that occur in small moments, Sarlé’s built a monument to her own movements, a West Coast to New York to Appalachia travelogue, but also an internal map vivid with detail and feeling.

Aquarium Drunkard: In the bio for this record, Jenn Wasner quotes Joan Didion—and you quoting Joan Didion—saying “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Are you wired to look for narrative arcs? 

Molly Sarlé: It’s 100% the way I’m wired. I can’t help it. I make sense of the world through stories. When I hear a song, it’s almost like I have a parallel narrative running along with whatever story somebody else is telling. That’s a huge part of the way I digest life.

AD: The songs demonstrate that desire for narrative structure, but some of the moments that hit me hardest on this record—“Almost Free,” which recounts a very difficult conversion you had with your father, and “Suddenly,” a very intimate song—what strikes me about those songs is how comfortable you seem with ambiguous scenarios. Did writing them require getting comfortable with letting threads hang without necessarily tying them up?

Molly Sarlé: Both “Suddenly” and “Almost Free” are reflecting on a moment in time. It’s not really about a beginning/middle/end [with those songs]; it’s about the strength of a specific experience. But they’re not ambiguous to me. There’s perhaps ambiguity within them, but as far as the feeling of experience those songs about, they’re very particular to me. 

AD: Were those the scariest songs to write on the record? 

Molly Sarlé: “Suddenly” was really difficult to put out into the world because of how differently it is interpreted by men and women, not to get too gendered. [Laughs]

AD: You can get gendered. Do men misread that song due to its sexual subject matter?

Molly Sarlé: They completely misread it. It’s about a particularly female experience. Part of what the song is saying is, “Listen, I’ve painted the entire picture for you, so that you can understand what this feeling is like,” and to have people [miss the point], even when I’m trying to spell it out for them, is really frustrating.

That’s a song where I sat down and it just came out. Part of the song is about robbing yourself through your own performance of yourself. I was coming to the realization that was something I had been doing while I was writing the song. It was empowering to have that realization. That’s what the song is most centrally about. 

AD: In “Human” you sing “Who hasn’t talked to God like he’s a man?/I do it all the time on accident.” Why does it feel accidental to approach God that way?

Molly Sarlé: In one word, the patriarchy. I was raised Catholic. I think a lot of things are changing…but as far as who holds power in our world, externally, it’s white men. So if you’re speaking to God like you’re speaking to power…I think it’s so easy to idealize people in positions of power, and project that onto love interests. 

AD: I thought about it as ascribing knowable characteristics to an unknowable concept that in some ways could diminish its unknowability. But that happens in relationships too: you can accidentally define someone too much.

Molly Sarlé: I’m talking about both things. The way I learned to talk about men has of course been projected onto men I’ve been in intimate relationships with—or it has been, I go to a lot of therapy [laughs]—because that’s part of it, too. 

AD: Songs are a way you can get into other people’s heads, which is something we’re bad at as a society. But karaoke is one space in our culture where we let that happen. It’s kind of strangely radical, though it’s not thought of as weird or strange. We get up on stage and into other people’s songs and perform them for strangers. Were there some particularly good karaoke experiences in the run up to this record? 

Molly Sarlé: A couple of years ago, I started to think about karaoke as the modern version of us all sitting around the campfire singing songs to each other. When I was living in Big Sur, where I spent a lot of time trying to write these songs, there’s a bar where karaoke happens every other Friday. That became the main social event for me. I was living in a trailer in the mountains alone, and I’d come down to this motel and sing karaoke, and watch strangers inhabit songs and feel like I was getting a glimpse into their soul. 

AD: We don’t think of karaoke as out there—it’s a very normie thing to do—but you found something mystical to it?

Molly Sarlé: I think it depends on what you bring to it. You can do it and it can mean nothing. Or it can mean a lot to you and the people in that space. It meant a lot to me at that particular moment in my life. That was the place I got to perform and express myself in that way. Especially after singing in an a cappella trio and being a backup singer, it felt like the first time I was able to start exploring performing in a new way. words/j woodbury

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