Molly Maher, Minnesota’s queen of Americana music, rejected Neil Young’s sage rock ’n’ roll advice that it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
Rather than burning out, she thinks it’s better to pivot. She said goodbye to the grind of bar gigs and said hello to yoga, nature and a different kind of music making.
“With other records, I always felt like with those songs I had to sell beer for a bar,” said the veteran St. Paul singer-songwriter. “Now I want to make music that makes me feel good.”
So, she scrapped an album she’d recorded seven years ago (“it didn’t feel authentic”), took a break (“I wanted to live my life”), refocused (“I needed to play guitar again, find melodies and, frankly, practice”) and regrouped.
On Friday, Maher will deliver “Follow,” her first album in nine years and fourth overall.
“For the last 17 years, she’s been explaining that she’s wanted to make this record,” said guitarist Erik Koskinen, her longtime bandmate and co-producer, with her, of “Follow.”
The project feels like the work of a collective, not a particular singer-songwriter. On three tunes, other lead singers are featured (“my voice wasn’t the voice I was hearing in my head”) while Maher simply plays guitar. One night, Maher heard Twin Cities singer Anastasia Ellis perform for the first time and invited her to record lead vocals the next day.
“Follow” is an alluringly organic, relaxed album that sounds like skilled musicians grooving together on a street in Mexico — and someone pressed “Record.”
Some selections like “On the 18” are more like jams with an ambient radio in the background. Some are full-fledged songs that evoke Beth Orton (“Storm Cloud”), Rosanne Cash (“Pale Face River”), Lucinda Williams (“Someday Somebody”), Sheryl Crow (“Run Run Run”) and the Beatles (“Find the Shepherd”).
Nature flows through “Follow” as Maher sings about a bird, a river, a storm cloud and the open road.
“When I’m driving, I’ll sometimes take the long way just to listen to music a little bit longer, just to let my head air out,” Maher said from her St. Paul home. “When my husband and I were in Mexico taking bus rides, we’d sit back, let our minds wander and let things pass us by. Right now, with what we’re going through, it’s a unique opportunity to stop, slow down and reset.”
Reset after brother’s death
In 2016, after the death of her older brother Bob from cancer, Maher decided to pivot.
“The passing of my brother helped me reset some quality-of-life issues,” she said, fighting back tears. “He was a big person in my life. Quite a force.”
After successful treatment for breast cancer in 2010, Maher spent five years — from 2013 to 2018 — running a twice-annual camp in Maui for cancer survivors, ages 18 to 40, teaching them how to surf and regain balance in their lives.
“You’re supposed to be normal again,” she said of cancer survivors. “For all of the campers I’ve worked with — myself included — that sense is gone. You have to start over. Getting them out of their element into the elements seemed to be pretty successful. So did talking to other survivors about things you can’t discuss with your family or caretakers. It’s a very safe space to do that.”
That camp wasn’t Maher’s passion, however. She had to follow her arrow.
For the past few years, she has been teaching yoga (her lawyer brother Bob paid for her teacher training) “so I could make mix tapes of my favorite songs for people to move to” — and make the same amount of money as playing music in bars.
“What burned me out was gigs and guitar retail,” said Maher, who worked for 30 years in shops, including Willie’s American Guitars in St. Paul. “Trying to come back to this normalcy after your whole world is shaken, it just didn’t fit anymore.”
Koskinen said he’s noticed a change in Maher since November, when they ended their long-standing Wednesday night gig after nearly nine years at Nye’s and the Aster Café in Minneapolis.
“She takes every live music opportunity like, ‘This could be the last one,’ ” Koskinen said. “She’s homed in on different instruments like the tres [a Cuban guitar] and drum machines, doing experimental stuff.”
And Maher has lived life, including six weeks in Mexico this winter with her husband, home remodeler Ryan Beadie.
Mexico colors her new album. Some of that is due to time spent there. Some to the influence of groups like Los Lobos, the Latin Playboys and Calexico. Some to friend and collaborator Todd Clouser, a Minnesota guitarist who lives in Mexico City and invited Mexican vocalist Iraida Noriega to sing on “Bird Song (I’ll Follow You).” Some to a jarana, an eight-string Mexican instrument Maher borrowed from a member of Los Lobos that led to writing three songs, including the Mexican spaghetti western instrumental “Jango” that opens “Follow.”
Making music is only part of what Maher does. She’s equally talented with her left brain, learning how to do such tasks as co-producing the annual Lowertown Guitar Festival; producing the now-defunct Real-Phonic Radio Hour at J.J. Hill Library (2010-15); serving as guitar tech for Lucinda Williams, Los Lobos and Prince (for one night); being “string” tech for Trampled by Turtles’ tour, and booking musicians for such venues as the Como Pavilion in St. Paul and the Hook & Ladder Theater in Minneapolis.
“I always encourage musicians starting out to diversify and learn all aspects of the music business, because not one of them is going to support you [financially],” Maher said. “Even though I’m not onstage a lot of the time, I’m still part of the circus. I love music for all of it.”
By trial and error, she has learned how to take care of business — even if a quick pivot is necessary.
When Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz ordered nonessential businesses to shut down at the end of last Friday because of the coronavirus pandemic, Maher rushed over to Noiseland Industries in northeast Minneapolis to pick up 1,000 “Follow” CDs.
“They’re in the back of my car,” she said. “If anyone wants a physical copy, they can send me a message [mollymaher.com/contact]. I love going to the post office.”