By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer
The best country music singers are good storytellers, spinning yarns of love, lack of love, drinks, the good and bad times that come as a result and, occasionally, death. Molly Alphabet might be one of the first country singers to pen a song about a bird watcher. And “For the Birds” is based on a true story.
“It’s actually about my friend Marianne who has an interest in bird watching. The birds around her feeders were fighting and she found a dead one with a hole pecked in its skull,” Alphabet says. “She took a picture and took it to the bird store to try to figure out which birds are doing this and how to negate this kind of thing. And the advice the woman gave her was, ‘Feed the birds for you and not for the birds.’”
MOLLY ALPHABET CD RELEASE. With Cello Fury, Bindley Hardware Co., Thunderbird Café & Music Hall, 4053 Butler Street, Lawrenceville. Friday, July 26. 7 p.m. $10. 412-682-0177
When she heard her friend’s story, the song’s chorus line fell into place. “I found myself thinking about that for a long time,” she says. “And obviously, there’s a lot you can draw out of that as far as making it a poignant phrase.” With some haunting backing vocals and some heart-tugging pedal steel guitar from Read Connolly, the song captures the poignancy of classic country, even though it comes with a modern flourish.
“For the Birds” appears on Broken Record, Molly Alphabet’s third release, following two EPs. It also marks the first set of material penned entirely by the singer. Her self-titled 2012 debut was going to be a one-off. Her husband, Chet Vincent, convinced her to record five songs that he had written with her in mind. She already had the perfect stage name, inspired by one person’s inability to pronounced her Polish maiden name. “I had been out in Montana in graduate school working at a clinic,” she recalls. “And a patient there said, ‘I can’t pronounce your last name. I’ll call you Molly Alphabet.’”
Describing herself as “not a particularly shy person” who started taking music lessons prior to recording the first EP, Alphabet had a great time with the music and never stopped. These days, writing seems to come fairly easy to her, but her process differs from many songwriters. “I am driving around or walking around or trying to sleep, and I’ve got words and melody in my head,” she explains. “And I’ll typically have the entire song structure all the way through —verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge — before I then sit down and figure out what the chords are.”
Vincent and producer Dave Hidek help flesh out the arrangements, which are particularly noteworthy in “Just a Prop,” where the instruments do a little call-and-response behind Alphabet’s voice. She also acknowledges current artists like Kasey Musgraves and Margo Price as inspirations.
“Ever since high school, I’ve been listening to music made well before I was born. So I really like when I hear people who can take those sounds that I love and try to make them appeal to a modern audience,” she says. Broken Record works in the same way.