Molly Rankin of Alvvays Realizes She’s a Gearhead and Discusses the Process of Writing ‘Antisocialites’
This article originally appeared in She Shreds Issue #14, which was released in February, 2018. Find a stockist near you here.
Molly Rankin, vocalist and guitarist of indie pop outfit Alvvays, comes across as shy but self-aware. Her lyrics portray colorful dreams backed by scenes of noisy, heartbreaking nostalgia, although she makes sure to keep a foot grounded in reality.
The influence of past generations on Rankin’s sweet, masterful melodies is apparent, including that of bands like Mazzy Star and The Jesus and The Mary Chain, a band Rankin has personally shared a stage with and dedicated a song to [“Lollipop (Ode to Jim)”]. But what isn’t apparent to many listeners, and perhaps a crucial piece of information to understanding Rankin as a musician, is the influence of The Rankin Family—a Celtic folk family collective that included Rankin’s father, the late John Morris Rankin. Growing up, Rankin never believed she’d be following in her family’s footsteps, but the casual afternoons spent fiddling with her brother’s guitar would turn into the beginnings of what would one day become Alvvays.
The self-titled debut album from Alvvays, which featured the hauntingly catchy “Archie, Marry Me,” put the band on tour for two years with slots at major festivals, including Glastonbury and Coachella. Their sophomore album, Antisocialites (Polyvinyl Records), released in September, is packed with fuzzy guitars complimented by Rankin’s endearing vocals, as well as cheery
synths and energetic drums. On the first half of Antisocialites, Rankin delivers a dark and disheartened narrative, yet reveals a positively energetic outlook toward the second half of the record.
She Shreds spoke with Rankin about following up to a successful debut, evolving musically alongside her best friend, and why the smallest details matter.
It sounds like the band did some soul-searching and followed up with a tighter, more developed sound on Antisocialites. What was the biggest challenge when creating the album?
We had several demos that we were very fond of, and sometimes grabbing the sound from those demos and chasing those moments can be a tall task. We ended up using a chunk of those original recordings on the record anyway, but yeah—in order to capture the spirit of something that you wrote a few years ago, it’s hard to get into the headspace. We went on tour for a few years before we were able to record our second record. So those were harder to capture—the songs that had been kicking around for awhile.
Do you think that difficulty was because you’re in a different space, mentally or maybe emotionally, from when you originally wrote those songs?
Yeah. And also, sometimes when you’ve been playing things live for awhile, you become a little close-minded about what the song sounds like. You have pretty concrete ideas. I feel like in the studio you should have a fair number of ideas ready, but also be open-minded. So when you’ve established something and are really comfortable with the way it already is, sometimes you have to detach yourself from that.
What were some differences in writing your debut album to writing Antisocialites? How would you say some of the themes and sounds changed?
With the first record, I was striving to be a part of something—it seemed like there was a little bit more of a yearning and reaching out. With this record, I was trying to move away from several things. Also, with your first record, you have your whole life to write the songs, and with your second record you have sometimes a matter of months. But I like a little bit of pressure.
The media often talks about there being a lot of pressure to follow up a successful debut album. How do you feel about that notion?
Years have gone by since I wrote “Next of Kin” or “Archie, Marry Me,” but I still listen to a lot of the same things as far as influences. I was listening to a lot of The B-52s and Dolly Mixture for this record, some Cocteau Twins and Felt. I still feel like those influences could be found on our first record. I’m not sure there is such a change on this second album as maybe some think. The production changed a little bit, I used less reverb on my vocals, excluding “In Undertow,” but I was always a bigger fan of delay than reverb anyway.
I was surprised at the magnitude of that question. I think I was asked that question every time I did an interview for probably six months, and I think if you don’t give people a really strong narrative with your album, they’ll choose their own. I think that the sophomore question probably was that narrative. But I felt more pressure making our first album because we didn’t have any money, and we didn’t know anyone that could help us. So this album was fun to make and I was able to write for two weeks—which is a luxury. I wasn’t serving tables and mopping floors and closing a bar at four a.m…
I really enjoyed reading about how the band met and decided to move to Toronto together to pursue music, and of your family’s history in music as The Rankin Family. Do you feel like the decision to pursue a musical journey was inspired by your family’s history? Do you think that influenced you as a musician?
I would say no. Growing up with my father being away for long periods of time and watching the stress of what being a musician entails, it was not an encouraging field to pursue. I ended up sort of falling into music subconsciously. I got into it during high school, just writing songs, having some time by myself. My brother played hockey, so my mom would be driving him all over Cape Breton, and I had a little bit of alone time in the house and would entertain myself with the guitar, which I didn’t own.
It was my brother’s guitar—a Peavey, a very metal instrument. I think my father had an acoustic guitar, and I eventually got my own Danelectro when I was probably 19. I don’t really feel music is something that your parents would ever actively encourage you to do. I think they support you if you choose to pursue it, but it’s definitely an activity that has so many variables at play.
Has your family been supportive?
My aunt came to our show in Halifax. Sometimes I see spouses—they’re all over the place. I have some family in California that usually come out, but now they have babies and are super busy. I always think it’s so funny when family comes and you’re playing at a bar where people are wasted, your feet are sticking to the floor, and your aunt is standing in the back trying to figure out what exactly she’s witnessing [laughs].
After moving together, has there ever been a moment or a time when you all realized, “Oh, I think we made it?”
No. I think the way that my mind works is I focus on the obstacles and what I need to do next. But I do now realize that it would be irresponsible for any employer to hire me, so I can no longer attain a job [laughs]. So I don’t have a job right now, which I never thought would be an option.
Are you looking for a job?
Well, I’m thinking of getting into accounting.
What’s it been like growing up and evolving as a musical outfit with best friend and keyboardist Kerri MacLellan?
Being around Kerri is very easy and I think most people find that she has a special gift. She’s an incredible listener and she embodies my favorite attributes that humans can possibly have. Because we grew up together starting at such a young age, it’s a very natural friendship. I haven’t really found it to be a challenge to be around women. I think that we can be pretty hard on ourselves sometimes and I am constantly reminding myself to nurture those relationships. I have a lot of close girlfriends and it’s always nice to spend time with them and work with them. Working with Kerri is such a pleasure because she’s so patient.
What’s one thing you’ve learned over the years playing in this outfit?
I think that details are very important, and I know that I spend a lot of time on the details of what we do. [Our guitarist] Alec O’Hanley is a very driven person and also focuses on the little things. If you start there, I feel like you have a better grasp of where the big things should be. That’s a pretty vague thing to say, but I try to keep our operations really small. I like doing our album art, I like doing our poster art, our t-shirt designs—if we have the means to do that, it’s just less dialogue and less compromise and also more efficient. It’s cheaper and it’s something that aligns with your taste.
Even the production on our record was very much something that Alec and I did together. I think that the more you do yourself, the better off you are in the long run, because then someone can’t just spit out jargon to you, where you have to figure out what they’re saying. There are worlds I don’t really understand, like mastering. I guess it’s good to have people in your band that can do several things.
As a writer, where do you go for inspiration?
I’m most inspired by water and the outdoors. Daylight savings is quite inspiring when it gets dark at 4:30 [laughs]. But yeah—seasons, space.
What guitar do you play and what pedals are on your pedalboard right now? How has your gear setup changed from album to album?
I have a 60s Duo-Sonic that I always come back to no matter what guitar I’m maybe periodically attracted to. It sounds the same no matter what you play it through, and I’m fond of that sound. I think it’s become a part of the way our records and our band sound.
I’m not a huge gearhead, but I usually have a Carbon Copy pedal. I kind of just rifle through different reverbs, but right now I have a Strymon, and usually a distortion pedal. I use a Vibro Champ [amp] on stage which has a fair amount of natural distortion when you turn it up a little bit. I sing through a Memory Man, which is just like a delay pedal with several knobs so you can feed it back and ride the oscillation to your liking, which is also a big part of our recording sound. So yeah, I guess I am a gearhead [laughs].
I think that I’ve been using a similar setup since the beginning. Alec and I have always used Memory Men [laughs] but I demo with all of the same gear, so our demos are similar to our record. When I’m writing, I think it’s important to not have that many variables, so I can deviate and still get back to where I need to be.