For the third instalment of our newly inaugurated FOCUS Nottingham feature, Ben Standring sits down with the soul-inspired Mollie Ralph to discuss balancing workloads, the debut EP and her determination for the future.
Vivacious red locks cascade over the top of a gleaming Mustang cruising comfortably over London’s iconic Tower Bridge. The vintage sights of the capital’s remarkable architectural landscape balance decadently with a bounding Norah Jones-esque figure swinging around lampposts, testing retro-framed bicycles and permeating colour into the mundane everyday. A viewer might mistake the four minute video as a promotional campaign for a fashion label or a teaser for the latest offering from a Hollywood actress, yet alas not, the video is for single Give It Up and the central figure is a humble, instantaneously likeable character, with roots not in Los Angeles but Nottinghamshire.
Sitting down with the heat of another late-afternoon Summer day reigning down, Mollie Ralph is exhausted and understandably so. ‘I’ve just finished a placement which had fourteen hour shifts so seven until nine, and then went straight down to London on Saturday morning to film the music video, and then back up to Nottingham,’ she laughs through sleep-deprived eyes. A student nurse having to juggle intense work placements in Derby with the early blossoming of a music career, Ralph is a composed figure, who at first clings tightly to the makeshift shield of her bag before letting loose and opening up, her workaholic mindset contrasting the anecdotal horror stories of past exam seasons in which the singer-songwriter confesses she’d cry during every year.
Examining her artistic path, Ralph exclaims ‘I’ve always sung really. I did the typical vocal grading and then my first few gigs were with a guy, a pianist I met from Newark, and I did a couple of Costa Coffee gigs when I was seventeen. They were fun but I sort of wanted to go off on my own a bit so I learnt the guitar myself just basically so I could go to open mic nights in Nottingham so that’s where it started.’ Whilst the city’s vibrant open mic scene led to the singer-songwriter being offered prestigious festival slots at Splendour and Dot to Dot, music had always been drilled in to her creative mindset from an early age, with her father in a band, she explains. ‘I grew up on a lot of eighties crap’ she laughs. ‘I can’t say I am a huge fan but I’ve always listened to the older tunes from Etta James and Billie Holiday. They’ve really influenced me.’
‘I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my own time if it wasn’t something that I was so passionate about, something I want to pursue as a career,’
There’s an inherent timelessness within Ralph’s artistry that gesticulates towards the fifties jazz and soul movements, but similar to contemporaries Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Norah Jones, Ralph desires to shift the precious genre into the twenty-first century. ‘The artwork for the Old Cafe EP cover is like that I guess. I do like to go down the vintage route. I’d like to be perceived like that but also it’s juggling…trying to appeal to a younger audience as well. I want to appear fun and youthful but I also want to be the more classic, Norah Jones kind of artist.’ A quirky, vibrant character who understands Amy Winehouse’ artistry to be a timeless element within music history, she offers gracious company. A curveball question regarding her favourite movie has Ralph gasping and grappling for tenterhooks. ‘You can’t ask that!’ she marvels. ‘Oh my god I don’t know, probably Pulp Fiction. Tarantino is so stubborn I don’t think he’ll come out of retirement. I watched Reservoir Dogs the other day. It’s weird I just love his spin on things it’s amazing.’
With influences spanning creative art-forms and genres, Ralph’s sound core was naturally going to incorporate the maelstrom of vintage and modern day passions she grew up with, yet her debut EP Old Cafe came about mainly as a result of a desire for a portfolio of music to send to festivals and venues. ‘I thought I’ll independently release something to showcase myself,’ she explains. ‘I just wrote some songs that I loved and just went for it and released it.’ Such was the passion and enthusiasm that Ralph had for her debut project that she took the brave step of taking six months out of her nursing degree. ‘It took around six months to make and I’m glad I did it, it’s given me so many great opportunities. It’s how my managers found me…it was really good,’ a wily hesitance is brushed aside by an infectious grin.
When asked about the real-life intricacies of freeing up six months of an academic year, Ralph is graciously honest. ‘My parents weren’t happy, no, but I thought you know what, if this is where my passion truly lies I may as well give it a bash,’ she sighs. ‘They understand why I did it now because they realised it was sick! It was a great experience having a sold-out EP launch at Rough Trade as my first gig as well.’
‘Acoustically you can only achieve a certain sound and that’s not what I wanted.’
A residual warmth lingers deftly in the air, hovering as Ralph examines the making of Old Cafe, the extravagantly produced debut EP which fits a market so desperately in need of a new figurehead. The modern jazz and soul movements were once spearheaded by a war of vocals between Amy Winehouse and Duffy in the mid-2000s. Since then, Duffy has faded into the abyss and Winehouse passed away, leaving the genre free of key female-driven leads, with the likes of Gregory Porter and Leon Bridges coming into the spotlight. Yet, there are smatterings of greatness cast across the sprightly EP, with Give It Up an instant pleaser from the get-go, its liquid-golden delivery tunnelling soothingly into the ears of the haplessly inspired daydreamers and life-long optimists, whilst lyrically its message is one of departure and self-respect.
Co-written with Nottingham stalwart Georgie, Give It Up documents ‘unrequited love…when someone’s not giving you their full attention but you want to be there for them, you want to be their hero, you want them to run to you if they need you…but they’re not.’ A forlorned sigh washes over the typically placid singer-songwriter, who sits with a quaint politeness throughout the interview, yet breaks into glowing periods of enthusiastic chatter later on; her Cheshire Cat grin demonstrating a slight wild-child aura in the singer’s demeanour.
‘Seeing some of the people in Nottingham really going for it is incredible…and I’m just like I want this!’
Addressing the crux of the EP; the shimmering soul-infused textures woven delicately between the layers of jazz and pop foundations, Ralph profusely highlights her need for a creative output that wasn’t rooted in the acoustic sound of the city, despite being partly a product of the open mic community. ‘I didn’t want people to hear my EP and it feel like its too acoustic-based,’ she declares. ‘Acoustically you can only achieve a certain sound and that’s not what I wanted. I did some acoustic shows to finance the EP and I lost myself a little bit. I wanted the full production and because instrumentally I don’t play that well, it’s hard to capture the full-bodied sound.’ Now with a nine-piece backing band behind her, Ralph is ever-closer to the sound she feels characterises her identity. ‘Everyone is just really excited to be involved so we’re trying to think of a name for the band! I’ve got trumpet and saxophone and backing vocalists, it’s amazing.’
An example of the flourishing hive of creativity buzzing around her camp, Nightwalker is perhaps the most avant-garde offering from Ralph to date, straying far from the acoustic path she seemed so traditionally comfortable with. A seductive temptress of a single, working with exquisite yet subtle layers of instrumentation, Nightwalker is a tongue-waggling offering that manages to prise Ralph into small fits of giggles as she explains its inner-workings. ‘Nightwalker…that’s the song about the prostitute! Somebody told me a story about one of their friends who considered going into prostitution. My immediate thoughts were just ‘gosh that’s risky‘, you don’t know who you’re meeting and anything could happen. This story came about in my head and I put pen to paper and that came out. I didn’t really want to be too controversial in my first EP, but I really like the song!’
‘I want to appear fun and youthful but I also want to be the more classic, Norah Jones kind of artist.’
Delving into the writing process behind Nightwalker and it’s clear to see that Ralph thrives off human interaction, picking up subtle anecdotes and conventionally mundane quips before shaping them into songs with a driving story behind them. ‘I’m not that old and haven’t experienced that much, so I take ideas from things that people have told me or movies that have touched me.’ She passionately describes in minute detail the rush that follows after writing a track from the very core of an idea, before offering a side of her personality previously unseen, a ferocious artistic drive for crafting a sustainable sound for the future. Whilst Ralph has started to battle between her goal of becoming a successful artist and the drive to maintain artistic integrity, the integral sonic soundscape that so beautifully frames her voice and songwriting style looks to hold the singer-songwriter in good stead for the coming months. ‘I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my own time if it wasn’t something that I was so passionate about, something I want to pursue as a career,’ she says matter-of-factly, before declaring ‘I’m not too stubborn really! I am good with seeing things from other people’s perspectives. I am open to suggestions as long as it’s good!’
Despite Ralph’s clear-cut drive and determination, there are signs to suggest that she’s opening up to the camaraderie of Nottingham’s music scene. Having met singer-songwriter Chloe Rodgers at school, a friendship later blossomed which led to the two performing together and subsequently collaborating on a joint project. Recording partly next door to Madness at RAK Studios in London, Ralph explains ‘Chloe taught me to harmonise properly, she’s a genius at it. It started from just busking together. We were too scared to go alone so we took it in turns last summer and now we’re writing an EP. Chloe is a lot more folky so it’s trying to work out how to blend that together. I’m obviously a more soulful artist and we want both genres in the mix so she started two tracks, and I started two tracks, and we completed them together.’
With the fruits of Ralph’s collaborative endeavours with another one of Nottingham’s finest singer-songwriters still to come, there is a lot lying on the horizon with new single Traitor coming soon, based on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and subsequently ‘about being cheated on… a dickhead basically…It’s kind of got Bang Bang vibes.’
Now with the help of a nine-piece band behind her, Ralph’s live show is an intoxicating celebration of soul and jazz, bolstered by the artist’s determination to pursue a career in the music industry. ‘Seeing some of the people in Nottingham really going for it is incredible…and I’m just like ’I want this!’ she projects. Ruminating on the video for Give It Up starts to inject a belief of where Ralph could get to in the future, with a sense of purpose and drive matching her larger-than-life personality. In contrast to the video’s faux dress-up and superstar-glamour pretence, it’s not an overt thought to ponder upon whether the singer-songwriter could soon be indulging in the sights of London from the comfort of a Mustang of her own as she starts to mould a timeless genre to her own irreversible talents.