If this is your introduction to Minnesota singer/songwriter Molly Maher you are in for a treat. If you are a follower, this may be a rather unexpected shift. Musicians often stay in the “gig to gig” grind but some decide that there may be a different path. That’s not to say performing was her only means of Maher supporting herself. She’s been a booking agent, a guitar tech, a guitar retailer, a tour/festival organizer…the list goes on. Maher decided to shed some of the trappings of the music biz. Turning instead to yoga, nature, and a more organic way of making music. The result is Follow, her first album in nine years and fourth overall.
Maher abandoned an album she recorded seven years ago because it didn’t fit her new approach. Longtime bandmate and co-producer Eric Koskinen, who had released several of his own fine albums, claims that Maher has been wanting to make this record for the last 17 years. What makes the album interesting and unusual is its patchwork quality (meant in a good way, like a well-constructed quilt). Maher may be in control but she’s not always in the spotlight. On three tunes, other lead singers take the mic while she plays guitar. Some decisions were spontaneous. She heard Twin Cities singer Anastasia Ellis perform for the first time and invited her to record lead vocals the next day.
Nature flows through “Follow” as Maher sings about a bird, a river, a storm cloud, and the open road. The vocal tunes are interspersed with instrumentals. On some like the Mexican spaghetti western instrumental “Jango” that opens Maher plays the jarana, an eight-string Mexican instrument Maher borrowed from a member of Los Lobos that led to writing three songs. Mexican influence is all over the effort. Some of that is due to the six weeks she and her husband spent there this past winter. Some owes to the influence of groups like Los Lobos, the Latin Playboys and Calexico. Some owes 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).”
Maher is a cancer survivor. 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. Yet, the pivotal event in her musical change came in 2016 when her brother passed due to cancer. That led her to more emphasis on quality of life living. She was shaken and felt she couldn’t return to constant gigging and guitar retail. She felt she had done all she could with the camp as well. 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.”
This is not to suggest the album is full of unusual instruments and experimental forays. Those, in fact, play a lesser role to the Americana songs like “Storm Cloud,” “Pale Face River,” and “Someday Somebody” as well as the more pop-infused “Run, Run, Run” and “Find the Shepherd.” The configurations range from a quartet on the latter to an octet on a couple of tunes. There are 13 musicians and/or vocalists in the credits.
This is a great example of an artist making unfettered music, doing it her way as if she and her friends gathered for a long jam session just to see how they could embellish a wide array of songs.