Reimagining the character of Cole Porter’s music became Molly Mary Mahoney’s musical goal in 2022. After all, she is related to the iconic composer. What she nails in her new album My Cousin Cole is the brightness required for his songs as well as the sense of fun and syncopation in her single “All of You.” In the previous album Two for the Road, “Speak Low” has a great bounce and Molly skips through it breezily. She infuses emotion into “September Song” just enough to make the listener feel the longing and also a hint of hope. And that range, so powerful and yet easily attained: “Moment to Moment” unfurls with a natural storyteller’s voice.
When did you realize you had an interest in music?
As young as three years old, I noticed that people lit up when I sang. I didn’t have the language for it then, but I was drawn to the emotional connection I had with others through music.
Talk about getting the opportunity to sing with a big band at the age of 10. How did that feel and was it the moment you decided to do this professionally?
There was never one moment. Music was ever-present growing up and my career has been unfolding since I was very young.
My mom was a regular singer with the Joey Thomas Big Band in New York in the mid-90s. She pestered the bandleader for a long time that he should hear me sing. Weeks later, mid-performance, Joey Thomas called me up to the stage to sing “All of Me” as an impromptu audition. After my first phrase, I remember all of the dancers on the floor stopped and turned. Despite the fact that my knees were shaking the entire time, I must have sung well because Joey hired me on the spot.
As a teenager, I continued to perform with choirs, vocal quartets, musical theater companies, big bands, a salsa band, an R&B group, a college jazz band and an orchestra. After grad school, I singularly pursued an opera career. I realized a few years into this that after learning so much from directors in the opera world I wanted to fully take charge of an artistic vision for a show so I wrote and produced my own show appropriately named Mischief!
What was the most influential part of your early music training that stays with you today?
I was born into a very musical family. My parents met in college performing Jacques Brel, and my grandparents met singing in the opera Ermine.
When I was very young, my family gathered to listen to and appreciate music together. My parents taught me how to sing harmonies by paying attention to intonation and experimenting with styling like going from straight tone into vibrato, both of which helped me to develop my ear and expressiveness.
I have fond memories of lying under the piano when my brother Johnny practiced Rachmaninoff. When my brother Max was learning Donna Lee on a fretless bass, I listened through our shared bedroom wall and tried to sing the difficult melody as fast as he could play it.
What elements of opera have informed the jazz singer you are today?
Operatic training expanded my voice – I learned how to sing higher, with greater stamina, ease and agility. As a teenager singing jazz, I would sometimes fall into the trap of just singing a mood. Performing in opera taught me how to bring that mood to life with story and character. The result has been, no matter the genre, that my technique and expression are more dynamic and fluid.
Besides being related to Porter, how does his music call to you?
There’s a reason why Porter is lauded as one of the greatest songwriters of all time – his lyrics are witty, timeless, and his melodies are memorable. Porter’s canon covers a wide range of the human experience. I particularly resonate with his sincerity and playfulness, whereas My Cousin Cole explores Porter’s yearning love songs. I included his quirky “Nobody’s Chasin’ Me” in my first one-woman show, Mischief!
I love giving new life to Porter’s kind, playful subversiveness. This approach can refill our hearts and I believe it is an antidote to the disconnection we face in modern life.
How do you make this music your own and what subtleties do you imbue the music with?
Josh Hegg and I collaborated on a vision for the entire album. Our thesis was to have all three voices (my voice, saxophone, piano) intertwine like we’re having a conversation. From that foundation, Josh created some surprising and fresh arrangements. Our single, “All of You,” really highlights that.
What is most important: phrasing and pacing, dynamics, articulation, tone, etc.?
Of the qualities you mentioned, I would have to say tone. The tone of a singer’s voice or a saxophone or violin is what really draws me in. It is their own unique fingerprint. Dynamics, articulation and phrasing can shift from style to style, but the persistent, unique tone of a particular artist when they can sing one syllable and you already know who it is… that is magic.
How do you keep your chops in tune and healthy?
My body is my instrument so I pay particular attention to sleep, nutrition, and my mental well-being so that I can sing and express myself with ease. I’ve built my life in a way that supports this. In order to promote flow and flexibility in my voice, as well as the way that I move on stage, I seek out physical practices like yoga, ballroom dancing and aikido.
Name some of your favorite collaborations.
I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with so many creative people. One pandemic collaboration has been with composer Danny Clay in creating an online video game that we’re calling Turtle Town. All of the sounds in the environment, as well as the ones created by the player’s movements, are vocalized by me and arranged in the most delightful ways by Danny.
A collaboration I am especially grateful for is my dear friend, musical director and pianist G. Scott Lacy. Our deep-feeling yet goofy souls collided to create meaningful musical memories in my first one-woman show.
When did you decide to create My Cousin Cole and what surprises are among the tracks?
I decided to start working on this show and album early in the summer of 2021 and the idea became more concrete by the end of the summer after many long walks. Joshua came on board in early September, then my brother in October, and we recorded December 11th. Everything came together very quickly!
All of the arrangements, while true to the original melodies and storytelling, are deft modern reinterpretations. The titular song, “Pitter Patter,” will likely be new to listeners. It was cut from the show for which it was written, but it’s such a fun little romp!
What was the hardest part of producing this album?
It was my own desire to make the album a representation of everything I am as an artist. Even if I could do that in ten songs, it’s not all about me and I’m so grateful to my collaborators for helping me live in the vision of the album and focus on what we can make together.
What is the jazz scene like where you live?
The Bay Area is home to iconic jazz venues like SF Jazz and Yoshi’s, both of which feature local talent and world-famous groups. I also love the exploratory vibe in Berkeley at the Freight & Salvage. I went to see Bobby McFerrin hosting Circle Songs there last week and was reminded of how comfortable the stage is there.
What has it been like coming out of the pandemic and going on gigs again?
Making music in person and really hearing other people breathe has been extremely cathartic. The first in-person musical project after shelter-in-place I did was with West Edge Opera. I’ll never forget hesitantly stepping into Maestra Chun’s music studio, removing my mask, and beginning to sing while she played the piano. After a few phrases, we locked eyes and wept out of sheer joy as we recognized the deep grief of what we had been missing. Reunions with colleagues continue to be cathartic. Another person creating vibrations in the same room as you creates a visceral response. It is so good to feel that again.
What are your hopes for this album?
Through my repertoire choice and delivery, I want to remind my audience of values that help us be in a better relationship with ourselves and each other – values like kindness and sincerity. Within the larger scope of my work, I want to help my audience voice their desires for a better world. We all have different styles for enacting social change. I’m giving new life to Porter to model grace with subversion.
For more information visit www.mollymarymahoney.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2022 Debbie Burke