Molly Sarlé: Karaoke Angel

Partisan Records, Sep. 20 

Several years ago, Molly Sarlé, who provides one-third of the band Mountain Man’s incandescent vocal harmonies, was trying to figure out her next steps while living in a cliffside trailer in Big Sur, California. Nearby, ensconced in redwoods, was a motel-slash-bar called The Fernwood that hosted karaoke every other Friday night. Sarlé often made the pilgrimage. There, she frequently found herself on stage singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” alongside anthems by Linda Ronstadt, Sheryl Crow, and Mazzy Star. 

“It kind of feels like your uncle’s dirty basement,” Sarlé says, remembering the bar at her current home in Hillsborough. “There are couches that have sticky beer stains on them and duct tape, but extreme magic comes out of the people that perform there. And that’s something that inspires me: watching someone completely transform a space. All you need is a microphone and a song you connect to.” 

And bam, there’s the thesis of Karaoke Angel, Sarlé’s debut solo album, which comes out September 20 on Partisan Records. Sure, “Dreams” is many people’s go-to karaoke song, but when you listen to Karaoke Angel, that kinship starts to click into place. Like the musky powerhouse ballads of Rumours, Sarlé’s album has a Laurel Canyon sheen to it: gauzy and light, grounded by subtle lines of guitar, bass, and percussion. 

But unlike a lot of the material that came out of that era—personal experiences sanded down into generalized heartbreak—Sarlé’s music doesn’t feel like it’s trying to do a lot of standardizing. It’s contemporary and intense and in-step with the metamorphic nature of specific feelings and moments, which (to make another very grand musical allusion) brings to mind Robyn, an artist whose songs reach catharsis via fine-tuned emotional precision.

One of the first songs on the album narrates a conversation Sarlé’s father had with her about wanting to die. Another is a letter to a lover’s ex-wife. On yet another, Sarlé makes grilled cheese and sings her way through a post-coital epiphany about power and pleasure. There’s autobiography, sure, but it’s autobiography, bound up in the experience of revelation and release—and if that’s not a working definition of karaoke, then I don’t know what is.

Directions to Sarlé’s home sound a bit like the chorus of a Lucinda Williams song: windy turns, thick woods, a long gravel road. It’s an image heightened when she opens her door, one day in late August, with two dogs and a cat at her heels. One of the dogs peels off, but she apologizes, saying that the remaining pets will probably stick around during the interview, and of course, they do. 

It’s the day before the first leg of her tour, which kicks off in Brighton, England and winds through Europe before a hometown release show at NorthStar Church of the Arts on October 20. It’s not her first international tour: While Sarlé was still in college, Mountain Man caught the interest of Feist, and the trio joined her as backup singers for a fourteen-month tour. It is her first time striking out as a solo act, though. 

Born in Santa Cruz, Sarlé headed north for college. While at Bennington College in Vermont, she met Amelia Meath and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig. 

“I first heard Molly sing from the floor above her in our dorm,” Meath says in an email. “Her voice has the magnetism of a mythic animal. I immediately had to go check out who was singing.” 

When Meath came downstairs to the dorm common room, she found Sarlé singing a roomy, roaming song she’d written called “Dog Song,” which Meath quickly learned and taught to another friend, Sauser-Monnig. 

“Molly sounds like a flute with a sassy attitude,” Meath says. “Like the loudest thing you have ever heard, a femme bird of paradise. Her singing could stare you down.” 

The three began singing together and performing at house parties. Earthy and unadorned, their harmonies are very nearly spooky in how closely they evoke the sounds of traditional folk music. The band quickly became beloved for their chemistry and for how faithfully they maintained the intimate feel of a house show, even as they began to perform on big stages.

Their debut album, 2010’s Made the Harbor, was recorded in an abandoned factory, giving the music a subaqueous feel; tracks begin with the environmental sounds of people laughing and gathering around a microphone. 

At the time, Sarlé was still in college studying gender and performance theory, and she felt hesitant about committing fully to music. Critical acclaim followed the release, though, and the band went on tour, first with the singer Jonsi and later, The Decemberists. Then came the offer from Feist. Sarlé dropped out of college and took the plunge.

It wasn’t an easy transition. While the band’s melodies may have been homegrown, the music industry was not. 

“Mountain Man felt like a thing that happened to me in many ways,” Sarlé says. “The momentum was out of my own intention or control, and I didn’t know how it actually connected to what I wanted to be doing with my life. I saw a lot of people in the industry who seemed lost and unhappy, and I saw some really powerful women where it seemed like it was really destroying their self-esteem. I didn’t want to end up that way.” 

After the tour, the band dispersed: Meath moved to Durham, where she eventually started the Grammy-nominated electronic duo Sylvan Esso with Nick Sanborn, and Sausser-Monnig returned to her home state of Minnesota before eventually moving to North Carolina, where she released her own album as Daughter of Swords this year. Sarlé, meanwhile, headed for a Zen center in California. 

“After being on tour for about three years, I felt kind of empty inside. I didn’t think I was ever going to do music again,” she says. 

She moved into a yurt and would wake up at four-thirty to meditate before helping to clean the facilities. After a few months, she felt that not having a creative project was making her unhappy. For a while, she decamped to Los Angeles and pursued acting while working at a restaurant, but she found that telling other people’s stories also didn’t fulfill her need to be both creative and emotionally honest. According to a Vanity Fair piece on Sarlé, she shared these feelings with Feist, who told her, “You’re a lightning bolt, there aren’t very many of those. You should do your own thing.” 

Sarlé had kept in close touch with Sausser-Monnig and Meath, who begged her to move to North Carolina, even offering to fly to her and help caravan her belongings cross-country. Eventually, she took up the offer, and the three women drove from California to North Carolina. 

The Hillsborough house that she now shares with housemates is light-filled and crammed with guidebooks to seemingly everything (national parks, nature, sex) and little shrine-like arrangements of plastic figurines and rocks and bits of sea glass. When I ask about the song “Almost Free,” about her father’s suicidal ideation, she hesitates and then asks if we can talk in the backyard, where there’s more privacy. It’s not that she doesn’t speak openly with her housemates, she says, but that she’s still figuring out how to put language around the songs, period. 

“Almost Free” is probably the most stripped-down and raw song on the album. There’s a particularly long pause that follows the line, spoken by her father, “This time I’m sure” that is almost unbearable to listen to. But then it’s followed by assurance: “I tell my dad what he wants to hear / I say I love you, Dad, I need you here.” 

“My relationship to my dad talking to me about suicide has changed since I wrote that song,” she says. “It feels vulnerable. But I think that’s also part of songwriting. Part of the way I thought about writing these songs was I tried to encapsulate experiences clearly enough that they could live on their own and not as they related to me. Just because I don’t feel the same way about my dad talking to me about his illness now as I did then doesn’t mean there isn’t somebody that could listen to that song and be like, whoa, I’ve had this similar experience. A lot of women have talked to me about that.”

It’s been a whirlwind year for Sarlé. Last September, Mountain Man reunited for a second album, Magic Ship, named for the stray cat that found its way to Sarlé in North Carolina several years ago, and which is curled up against her leg as we talk. During the same period, Karaoke Angel, produced by the musician Sam Evian, was recorded at Dreamland, a church turned into a recording studio in Woodstock, New York. In January, Sarlé released the first track, “Human,” a warm, swoony single about letting go of someone, which picks up the spiritual, looking-upward-but-earthbound thread of the album (“Well, who hasn’t talked to God like he’s a man?” she asks in the song). It was released alongside a music video filmed in The Pinhook, which Sarlé says is one her favorite local karaoke spots (another favorite—and this one is a bit of a plot twist—is Carrboro’s 2nd Wind). 

Soon after the release of “Human” she fired her manager and went several months before hiring another; consequently, the release date was pushed back several times. But that also meant that she’s been able to carefully roll out singles alongside music videos; since January, she’s released three more. 

“It was frustrating a lot of the time to be managing myself, to try and calibrate advice in a field that I’m not necessarily that familiar with,” Sarlé says. “But I’m proud of pretty much every song on this record, and I’m happy that four of them got to have that moment.” Along the way, she’s earned praise: In a recent interview, Jeff Tweedy named Sarlé as one of his favorite new artists, and she’ll open for Wilco during several stops this fall. She’ll also play with Sylvan Esso during its fall tour. That her new album will resonate widely seems definite. There’s an honest, open-hearted quality about Karaoke Angel, and about the way that she’s brought it into the world. She hasn’t been swept into music; she’s chosen it. 

As we sit in the backyard, I mention that the witty “Suddenly,” a song that I took to be about bad sex, is possibly a female music writer’s dream come true. It’s not that left-field of an interpretation; the delightful bridge-to-chorus portion goes, “After giving you head / I get the fuck out of bed / Melt some butter in a pan / Throw some cheese between two pieces of bread / And I don’t know why / But suddenly I am no longer what I wanna be.” 

Sarlé laughs but says that the song is more complicated than that. It’s not about bad sex, per se, although it’s also not quite about good sex. It’s about power and it’s about learning how to be good to yourself. 

“It’s interesting, the way men relate to that song and the way women relate to that song,” she says. “Men put themselves at the center of the narrative and are like, oh, she’s written a song about giving me a blow job. No, I wrote a song about how powerful I know that my sexuality is and having the realization that it’s not just about bringing pleasure for the other person. Females are taught that our sexual power is for someone else. That song to me is about understanding the ways that we rob ourselves through our own performance of ourselves.” 

These kinds of gradients guide the album: nuances about climax, songs sung to recognize the feeling of recognizing something. Most of us want to reach transcendence, but many of the songs on Karaoke Angel go a bit further, orbiting the territory around that state: How do we get there? What do we do when the feeling fades away? “This Close,” an airy track about falling in love with an addict against the backdrop of Big Sur’s spirit-haunted landscape, gets the closest at answering those questions. Sarlé sings: 

“That night at the karaoke bar / Your face came out of the dark / Pasty white and glowing / With some kind of knowing / That all you’d have to do was sing.” 

It’s not hard to imagine those lines being written on the back of a napkin, possibly at the Fernwood. It is also not hard to imagine peeling yourself off of a bar stool and heading to the front of a dark room, having connected with that song, having decided to give yourself over to a kind of extreme magic.

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