It was sometime back in September that I stumbled upon the story of Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry, and her piece in The Guardian about the unfortunate realities she faced as a female musician. Only days later, I heard the stories of classical composers wearing their own diadems of misogyny. All these forces were crumbling away at what I once believed to be the most progressive industry we had at our hands.
With such revelations came a personal desire for truth at a closer proximity. I honed in my lens and turned it on the state of our own music scene, and the circumstances of female musicians in the Queen City.
I may have stumbled a bit the first time I saw Molly Sullivan perform. It could have been the champagne. It could have been the wine. It could have been the sheer, uprooting shock of such a sneakily sultry voice filling all the quiet corners of a room.
It was 2011 and the setting was a birthday party at the neo-historic Marburg Hotel, and local heroes Shadowraptr had just finished their set in the basement — a lush and operatic performance of their usual brand of psychedelic Prog-Rock, with Jazz sensibility. They didn’t disappoint with an expectedly raucous presentation, and we didn’t back down as an ever energetic crowd. It was in a quiet aftermath, among friends and fellows just as imbibed as our beer-soaked shirts, that I wove my way through a hallway maze and sauntered into a living room with an organ against its back wall. At its helm sat Molly Sullivan.
As she would come to tell me nearly three years later, “Going back to when I first started playing out as a singer songwriter, I always felt this extreme pressure and insecurity of being a female musician…whose music was tending to be more on the delicate side of things, an emotionally driven side of things. It required a little stillness from the crowd.”
But back looking back on that night in March 2011, stillness was inevitable. Warm from wine and an approaching spring, the handful of us that sat in the living room did so with an active passivity. But even as heads lolled against neighbors’ shoulders or against the walls at our backs, there was an intensity in every pair of eyes that I glanced into; all were watching, focused, as Molly struck a chord and then another, taking us through the coziest part of the evening with two or three ballads of life, lovelorn.
It was an intimacy that couldn’t have escaped those of us even if it had tried, and only a brief, drunken sampling of where Sullivan had started her story, rising to the ranks of the recognized, respected and regaled. Before that, she was front woman for the electronically infused No No Knots and a few months after that, she would play out as a solo artist with a backing band, making a stop at The Heights Music Festival and a New Year’s Eve show at the Southgate House Revival in 2012, before a brief hiatus kept her choruses hushed.
Sullivan admits that a lot of the anxious cogs of her earlier years were weighed on heavily by being a female musician in a primarily male-dominated scene.
“I feel like it’s a lot easier for men as artists,” Sullivan Says, “generally, because you have the potential to be the heartthrob, and also it’s not necessarily a sissying thing to go to for a guy. So I feel like there’s more of an audience inherently built in.”
In the later months of 2013, however, she re-emerged, armed with a loop-accentuated sound and a solo confidence that she speaks fondly of. Crafting songs, sonically clad with vocal layering and solid to the string guitar work, Sullivan took her one-woman symphony on the Cincinnati circuit, to high acclaim — winning the solo artist bracket of FB’s local “Last Band Standing 2013” battle of the bands, and earning herself a spot on one of the participating MidPoint Music Festival stages.
Sullivan had dedicated time to playing earlier shows in spots she would normally not perform, in venues and around crowds she would normally not consider being her primary audience. She says she found new courage in taking these risks. Though initially unsure about even participating in the event at FB’s, Sullivan came to find her hesitation was unnecessary.
“I made some assumption about the clientele there – it’s kind of known to be like a bro bar,” Sullivan explains. “I was thinking, ‘They’re not gonna get my art.’ That ended up not being true.”
When asked about the progression of her performance presentation, Sullivan says, “I think I’ve actually come to learn — just by doing it when I’m in a bar and everybody is silent — just like recognizing that there’s something captivating about the simplicity and the emotion of being present with your songs. It’s a really empowering thing when people are dedicated to listening and joining you in that experience.”
Sullivan also recognized the power of community, and the part that earnest encouragement from within the Cincinnati scene played in her career as a musician. One pillar in her support group is claimed by The Daughters of The Midwest, an ensemble stage set of premier, female musicians dominating the Cincinnati area.
“I’ve definitely kind of geared my energy towards being supportive of other female musicians,” Sullivan says, “supporting Kelly (Fine), Mia (Carruthers), Maya (Banatwala). And now that I’m back out there again, because of the support that I’ve been shown.”
“I think it’s a really powerful thing to have a female musician community to support each other,” she continues. “And as soon as I got back into it, it made it a lot easier to go with the flow and be excited for people wholeheartedly.”
And looking outside of the just the female musician community, Sullivan vehemently recognizes the support of Cincinnati as a whole. Sullivan expresses an appreciation for her time playing with The No No Knots, as well as the support she received from the members of Cincinnati’s Marburg Collective. As she explains, "There’s mostly positive reinforcement floating around. There’s kind of this really solid to the earth community here that exists that wants to support."
She admits that what hides outside of Cincinnati is what scares her most. We traded stories and conversations about recent revelations of ignorance and misogynistic skeletons in some of contemporary music’s most renowned scenes, tales of classical composers saying woman have no place in conducting pieces.
Sullivan acknowledges being weary of “the whole, big wide world,” with such possibilities floating around in clouds of reality.
“Cincinnati scares me in its own ways,” she says. “Almost what scares me more is beyond what’s Cincinnati, just the competitiveness that can be fruitful if you’re successful in the game. And I think part of me has been afraid of success, because with that success, you know what’s gonna come: it’s gonna be that banter online, all those anonymous people hemorrhaging bullshit…Why bother?”
Even with such uncertainty for outside markets, Sullivan exhibits an insight and strength that propels her forward, even more so because of her acknowledgements of the bad that can come with the good. She says she’s learning to navigate her way around “the hemorrhaging bullshit.” Her awareness of everything that can dampen an otherwise well lit stage is what makes her voice so definitive on the conversation about the regressive mentality of misogyny that can still exist in our present day music-scape.
There exists within Molly Sullivan a partnership between community appreciation and individualistic impetus. She acknowledges the power of community backing, saying it’s a “powerful thing to have a female musician community to support each other.” And she recognizes the groundwork that’s been laid out in years past.
“We’ve seen the rise of a few female fronted bands come through,” Sullivan says, “and people are more willing to be excited for that and support it.” (She cites the Seedy Seeds and Wussy as pioneers for female musicianship.) Sullivan is aware of where we’ve been and where we are. But what’s more, she’s ready to take us to where we need to be. And she’s ready to do that with a self-made spirit.
“I’m getting to a point where I don’t give a fuck really,” Sullivan says.
It was with a new impetus that she’s approached her musicianship. “I’ve grown stronger as a female musician,” she says. “Now I’m just kind of like, well, if you don’t want to listen to it then fuck you, you don’t have to be here. It took me a long time to get to that point, and I still kind of have some insecurity about it. But most of the time I’m just like, ‘Molly, grow a pair, get over it.’ ”
Sullivan also explains the intentionality behind her current solo-set performances. Much in the same vein of playing in new venues, under possibly uncomfortable lights, she exhibits a drive to explore her boundaries, and expand past her limitations.
“I’ve chosen to do these things by myself,” she says. “If I’m going to play with a band later, I need to be OK playing solo first. It’s been really empowering, doing all of that.” She proves herself to be relentless and, though hurt, unscarred by the outside forces of misinterpretation and misogynistic pressures.
It’s with a knowing, weathered paddle that she navigates these future streams. And it seems she couldn’t be more pleased with the direction she’s headed.
“So far, it’s been really lovely being back.” She takes a moment, at the end of our conversation, to reflect out loud. “Would you look at that? I did that. And I don’t need anybody else. I’m all about collaboration, but it’s really good to know that I don’t need anybody. I’m capable.”