When Molly Tuttle was a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, a teacher encouraged her to step outside her comfort zone. He instructed her to improvise with a flat nine chord, which Tuttle says “sounded really strange to me.”
“So I was always cringing when I was playing it,” she says over the phone in early April. “And he was like, ‘Why does that make you uncomfortable?’ And I was like, ‘It’s because I’m not used to it and I’m not familiar with it.’ And he [said], ‘You need to take that feeling and realize that’s the root of so much division [we as] humans feel towards each other and towards different things we encounter.’ I think lessons like that helped me approach music in a different way.”
Tuttle’s embrace of unexpected sounds is apparent on her terrific full-length debut, When You’re Ready, out now on Compass Records. Originally a student of bluegrass and later a fan of indie and alternative rock, Tuttle extended her diverse taste to her own music, crafting in When You’re Ready a breathable Americana piece following a more conventional—but no less enthralling—chapter one, her 2017 EP Rise.
That Berklee professor wasn’t the only mentor who influenced Tuttle’s music and career. There was a voice teacher who lived down the road from her house growing up and taught Tuttle breathing basics and vocal techniques, perhaps having an effect on her airy-yet-grounded voice, which flows beautifully with the arrangements on this record. But the most impactful instructor was Tuttle’s own father, a music teacher who taught students in California’s Bay Area for three decades—and gave an eight-year-old Tuttle her first lesson on a “baby Taylor Guitar.”
“I grew up in a musical household,” Tuttle says. “So there were all these instruments lying around the house and from the time I was really little, my dad would be playing bluegrass songs and folk songs and he would have jam sessions, so there was always music around and I was always really interested. When I started on guitar, he showed me some tunes and chords. And before that I’d been to music lessons with other teachers, but it was really fun as a kid to get to play with my dad.”
After that first lesson, Tuttle was hooked. She began collaborating with her dad’s other students and tagging along to jams and bluegrass festivals, eventually leading her to pursue roots music at Berklee and then, following graduation, in Nashville, where she made a name for herself as a guitar ace. After Rise, she became the first woman ever to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year award. She was also nominated for IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year title, took home trophies at both the International Folk Music Awards and Americana Music Honors and racked up hundreds of thousands of views on her YouTube guitar tutorials (not to mention plenty of admirers among guitar geeks)—all before the arrival of her debut album. Those would be impressive feats for any artist. Tuttle accomplished it all before her 26th birthday.
Nashville is also where she recruited a team of friends and other notable locals to help her record When You’re Ready: producer Ryan Hewitt (who’s worked with several bands a teenage Tuttle jammed out to like The Avett Brothers, blink-182 and The Lumineers), fiddler Rachel Baiman, bluegrass musician Sierra Hull (Tuttle’s childhood friend with whom she’s been collaborating for years) and Jason Isbell, one of her “big heroes.” The latter of those two sang backing vocals on the sweetly sweeping album opener “Million Miles,” a song co-writer Steve Poltz started with Jewel in 1990 but never finished. Tuttle worked with a number of songwriters for this album, including Poltz and Sarah Siskind, all of whom were Nashvillians or just passing through town. A Nashville resident since 2015, Tuttle seems to have embraced the city’s collaborative spirit and, in turn, the scene has welcomed her. She hosted her album release party at East Nashville venue The Basement East.
“I haven’t done [co-writing] very much before,” Tuttle says. “And that also brought me outside my comfort zone and made me be a little less precious with the ideas I came up with and just tried to draw from inspiration right there with someone else in the room, which was a little uncomfortable at first, but it was fun.”
Even though teamwork played a huge role in the album’s creation and production, Tuttle found herself writing more personally than ever before. When You’re Ready wraps up all of the swirling emotions that come with being in your 20s—uncertainty, longing, hesitant confidence—and packages them in 40 minutes of floating strings, traveling fiddle and determined guitar picking.
“It ended up being a pretty honest and personal album,” Tuttle says. “And even in my vocals, I felt like I was connecting to the songs in a different way than I have in the past. I was getting more emotional when I was singing them in the studio. So I think the whole thing is just kind of a deeper reflection of where I’m at right now with my life and my music.”
While external anticipation was certainly present following the positive response to Rise, Tuttle was concentrated more on internal noise.
“I definitely like felt pressure from myself because I was like, ‘I want to have something new out there, I’ve been playing these songs for years, some of them,’” Tuttle says. “So I pushed myself as a writer to just gather as much material as possible. I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do for this album. Most of the pressure was internal. I wanted to just do the best I could and work as hard as I could to make this album happen. And Ryan [Hewitt], I think we both just really pushed each other to just pour as much into it as we could.”
The proof is in the pudding: When You’re Ready is a rock solid debut, a great foundation on which to build a career and further evidence of Tuttle’s expert musicianship. Even with such a diverse collection of songs (a game, driving bluegrass ditty in “Take The Journey,” on which Tuttle flawlessly employs the clawhammer technique, a tried-and-true country song in “Make My Mind Up,” poppy singer/songwriter fare in “Don’t Let Go”), it’s nearly impossible to avoid getting labeled. Tuttle’s music attracts every description from folk-pop to old time, but thankfully she isn’t too concerned with definitions. However, her music fits squarely in the Americana sphere, whatever that may be these days. We agree “Americana” is an amorphous term.
“I sometimes don’t know what that means,” she says of the phrase. “So when people ask me what it is, I’ll sometimes say Americana, or I’ve heard people say folk-pop or indie. I think there’s definitely elements of different Americana artists that I love, and I think there’s elements of indie rock bands that I love who’ve inspired it. So I’m not too precious with labels, but I definitely love the Americana world and [there are] so many incredible bands in that scene right now.”
The album’s centerpiece is “Light Came In (Power Went Out),” a grand bluegrass gesture confidently arranged to sound like a pop song. It advertises the familiar idea that joy and happiness can sometimes arrive when we’re least expecting it, when everything seems its darkest. But Tuttle freshens the anecdote with personable lyrics: “The light came in when the power went out,” she sings. “I can feel it, I can feel it now / The love came in when the power went out.” Hearing Tuttle sing this song, only a few years into her 20s and just at the start of her career, it sounds like she’s strutting confidently into the unknown, ready to face whatever the future might bring—flat nine chords and all.
When You’re Ready is out now on Compass Records. Purchase it here.