Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Alvvays easy on your own press shot 2022 credit Eleanor Petry
Nine Songs

As Alvvays prepare to return to the live stage, Molly Rankin talks Mia Smith through the pivotal songs in her life, taking in her love of guitars, melody and the beauty of singing.

31 May 2024, 08:00 | Words by Mia Smith

Much to their surprise, Alvvays scored the top spot on Pitchfork’s 100 Best Songs of 2022. Rankin and her band were at a luggage belt in South America when they found out “Belinda Says” had been ranked as the best of the best.

“We were waiting for about twenty pieces of equipment to come through”, Rankin recalls. “It was taking forever, we were exhausted, and then our engineer pulled it up on their phone. We couldn’t believe that this song we made in our basement would soar to such heights.”

We discuss how it can sometimes feel reductive to pit artists against each other when music is so subjective but decide that it’s still pretty good when you come out on top. “It’s probably best for your being if lists aren’t a huge part of how you value yourself”, she laughs. “But it was very morale boosting, and we had a good laugh”.

“People are like that with awards too”, she adds. “People say they’re horrible, but then if you’re included that definitely changes the way you feel”. “Belinda Says”, from Alvvays third album Blue Rev, was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Performance, so take from that what you will.

For her own Nine Songs list, Rankin has chosen music and artists that have informed what Alvvays have tried to do over the past decade. She comes armed with judicious notes, careful not to miss out on any feelings.

She explains that most things she does are a collaboration with bandmate Alec O'Hanley, so naturally he was roped in too. “But we ended up with a playlist that was 50 songs long and still counting”, she sighs. “I had to put my foot down; we had to reign it in because there’s only so much time in this day”.

The pair poured over this challenge - Rankin noting that these picks aren’t their nine favourite songs, but the nine that are most important to them. “I don’t have a ton of guilty pleasures on this list, but I do have a ton of guilty pleasures in my heart”, she assures me.

She admits that interviews like this can sometimes be intimidating. “I get intense about knowing things”, she explains. “In my early days of doing interviews I feel like because people knew that Alec and I were into older music, it brought out a lot of music enthusiast, archival people, who would ask really involved questions about B-sides and unreleased material”.

“I wouldn’t know what they were talking about - I would feel like I had my pants down”, she says, half-laughing. Luckily, I thought “Tragedy” was a Steps original rather than by The Bee Gees, and I don’t know enough to quiz her on weird underground pressings either.

Alvvays 2022 pharmacist credit Eleanor Petry
Eleanor Petry

In between narrowing down their Nine Songs selections, Alvvays have also been preparing for their UK and Europe summer tour, including a slot at Glastonbury. But this isn’t their first Glasto rodeo, and this time the band have their sights set on finding better food.

“Last time we had some plain noodles from this giant steel vat”, she remembers. “I feel like prisoners at least get some sauce for their noodles. At least when stuff like that happens it’s really funny, if nothing else.”

Rankin’s (and O'Hanley’s) Nine Songs are, at their core, about a love of music. We dig through songs that were squeezed into day-job playlists, concert videos that have been watched obsessively, and records discovered through the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack - all sounds and associated moments that constantly inspire the band’s ethos.

When Alvvays are unpicked, these songs are the threads that tie them together.

“Pretty Persuasion” by R.E.M.

MOLLY RANKIN: This song harks back to the days that me and Alec were living in The Maritimes. We had a bunch of older pals who were really into R.E.M and had R.E.M posters all over their house. When you are part of a group of friends, you look up to those people; they pass bands on to you, and you’re given all of this wisdom.

Each time I hear the album Reckoning, it feels like I’m listening to it for the first time; new parts and perspectives are always unfolding and revealing themselves.

This song specifically - even just the intro - makes you really believe in the glory of guitar. The Peter Buck guitar style, the drumming - there’s so many weaving elements that we’ve consciously tried to apply to our band for years, just hoping that some of it would rub off.

It’s hard to imagine a band that sounds like this getting serious radio play these days - they’re this beautiful anomaly that have really stood the test of time. They’re refreshing and modern, not linked to any era. That’s something that I really love - that it can’t be pinpointed when it was created.

“Give Me Back My Man” by the B-52's

MOLLY RANKIN: This band! For me, it feels… [silence full of awe and wonder], not real. The way they’re so unhinged but militant - I don’t know how they have such a honed sound, and also sound like they’re partying all the time.

I guess that’s what it feels like when people fully commit. She’s [Kate Pierson] playing keys with just her left hand, and headbanging with a gigantic wig on the whole time.

This song specifically, I can’t believe how beautiful the singing is, and then she rips into this really fraught chorus. I don’t want to use the word ugly, but I love it when singers who sing well aren’t afraid of sounding dismantled and wild.

There’s this live concert video of them playing the Capitol Theatre in black and white, and I’ve watched it so many times over the years. The universe they’ve built is so interesting, and the audience itself is so free. It’s a really special world they’ve created.

BEST FIT: You say R.E.M. has inspired your musical process - what about the B52’s? Can we expect to see you in any crazy wigs soon?

I don’t think we’re extroverted in the way they are on stage - we usually do the wigs on the tour bus. They never really stopped moving. I don’t know how they execute with such precision while they’re bouncing around - I can’t even turn the volume down on the car stereo if I’m driving, that’s how bad I am.

“Tragedy” by Bee Gees

MOLLY RANKIN: “Tragedy” was their first single after “Night Fever”, which was quite the run. The sound reminds me a little bit of ABBA: something they’ve done really well in this song is building suspense and drama.

ABBA and The Bee Gees were two vinyls that were always at my grandmother’s, so whenever my family would get together both of those bands would be on rotation.

I grew to love them so much - even their duet with Céline Dion, “Immortality”. I’ve always had a soft spot for The Bee Gees, and “Tragedy” is just an incredible karaoke song. If you put it on everyone reacts to it.

There’s a really great documentary about them [The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart]. It goes through their entire career, and then by the end of it, it’s just the main singer left [Barry Gibb], the one who unlocked that really wild falsetto - really late into their career too, he didn’t know that was a skill he had.

It’s devastating because they were all brothers. He says at the end of the documentary that if he could trade all of their hits for his brothers back, he would do it in a second. Their songs are so jovial, but it’s also really, really sad.

BEST FIT: What do you think of “Tragedy” by British national treasures Steps?

I actually don’t know who you’re talking about. Is this like a seminal band I don’t know?

Yes. Though now they just go on quiz programmes really. Claire from Steps has been on everything.

That’s audacious! Like special guests on Gogglebox?

Actually, yes.

“Black & White” by The dB's

MOLLY RANKIN: This one’s cool - I think it’s another I.R.S. Records band alongside R.E.M. It was one that we were all listening to back in our early 20s; we were all working our day jobs and handing around mixed CDs to each other, and we’d drive to the beach and put on what we were all listening to.

This one was always on. I even wormed it into a playlist at the restaurant that I worked in at the time - it would be like Ke$ha, Adele, and then The dB’s - me forcing the dignified diners to listen to that really tricky hi-hat song.

BEST FIT: Did any customers in the restaurant ever ask you what the song was?

No! [laughing], they never enquired. And I don’t think Shazam existed back then, so they weren’t doing it secretly either.

“Black and White” is just a perfect song for me: the revenge tinged pop, the guitar melody that weaves in and out as the core of the song, and that really beautiful verse. It’s something I’m continuously trying to find in songwriting - that dynamic and those melodies.

“He’s on the Beach” by Kirsty MacColl

MOLLY RANKIN: A hero in your neck of the woods! I first picked up her album Kite on Barrington Street, this main street in Halifax in Canada where I lived at the time. I was just getting turned onto The Smiths and The Replacements and Teenage Fanclub, and Kite was in that section.

I couldn’t believe her vocals, her delivery and attitude. With all of the arrangements it was like The Smiths were playing, but this beacon vocal was slicing through everything.

It was really a pivotal moment for me, hearing music like that. I really wanted to do that - to be a part of a dynamic where you have so much emphasis on guitar melody, but a vocal that somehow remains central. I was just beginning to write songs that felt like they could be for a band, and she was a perfect blueprint to strive for.

This song isn’t actually on Kite - I found it on YouTube later. We ended up covering it; I think it was one of the first covers we ever did. There’s a few little old videos of that happening - Godspeed! It was a pretty bold choice to try to do justice to. Kirsty is someone we’ve always held so close to our hearts.

“Spacehead” by The Primitives

The Primitives were really blowing up when I wasn’t born, and they were in a different part of the world. So my exposure to them was obviously via the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack. Their song “Crash” was in the film, which led me to “Spacehead”. We covered “Crash” too.

I think it’s pretty rare now for a film soundtrack to have a bunch of really big hits - I guess Black Panther did - but back in the day, that was such a big way for music to be found.

Their record Lovely is really interesting, the mixing and the dynamic of really pure vocals against this relentless, hissy wall of guitar is really experimental and brave. It’s a total wonder how they made it work - the elements don’t necessarily liken themselves to success, but mixed together they managed to thread that needle.

This song specifically sounds like a thousand children in a gymnasium banging on the bleachers, and it’s just a fun, jovial pop song. Their sense of melody has always been such a guiding light.

BEST FIT: You’ve covered a couple of your Nine Songs choices - do you find it useful to emulate your favourites?

Absolutely! Learning other people's songs on guitar is really helpful for coming up with your own new ideas - learning a new perspective, taking on new information and weaving that into your old tricks.

This interview is just about ripping other bands’ ideas! I guess you have to walk the fine line between influence and theft.

“Violent Side” by Neil Young

MOLLY RANKIN: This is an interesting one. I was deliberating between doing a Gordon Lightfoot song or a Neil Young song because they’re both pillars of Canadian music, and most children listen to them in their households growing up as they’re artists that everyone can agree on.

He got a fair amount of flack for this specific record (Landing on Water) and this song - I feel like sometimes when artists step outside of their comfort zone there’s a reaction to recoil and resent. But there’s some really neat songs on this album. I think he was getting into Devo and Kraftwerk and really weaving that in. But Neil’s supposed worst is a lot better than most people’s best.

The concept of the song - trying to suppress your dark side and overcome that - is also just a neat concept and a novel idea, especially with that children's choir lurking in the background. He was very brave to try things, and that’s all you can really do when you're creating.

BEST FIT: “Harvest Moon” would definitely be on my Nine Songs list. The comments on the music video are all just old men saying it was their first dance with their wife who they lost.

Wow… that’s profound! Neil is a classic first dance choice.

Would you say any of your songs are first dance-y?

[Laughs] I’m trying to think about what you could actually dance to. We get quite a lot of “Archie, Marry Me” ones in an ironic way, and a little “Dreams Tonite”.

“Heaven” by The Psychedelic Furs

MOLLY RANKIN: This is a smash! Something about this song that’s so cool is that it starts with the chorus, which you don’t hear that often. It really speaks to their confidence and their boldness. The minute the song starts, you step into this universe, and you want to be dancing in the fake rain with this man [Richard Butler] and his cheekbones.

It’s also a perfect example of how a textured vocal can have a ton of impact in a recording scenario. There might not be a lot of purity and perfection in this specific song - the chorus is really gravelly - but the vocals slice through the production in this really cathartic way. It makes me think about vocals and how they’re a real tool.

We were really into this song and video when we were making Blue Rev. We were trying to steer one of our songs into this universe of pulsating synths, and have the chorus open up in this really free way that it felt like it was beckoning to you.

This is another soundtrack band too – ‘80s movies like Pretty in Pink are a real gateway to their work. And there’s just so much fashion, so much style.

“Cherry Chapstick” by Yo La Tengo

MOLLY RANKIN: This song was the first one I heard that had an incredible balance of a melody that calls out to you and an incredible storyline. They aren’t compromising with the sound either, it still gnaws at you throughout the song.

There’s this throughline of melody in all of their songs that takes the front seat, and it’s so refreshing to have that balanced with some challenging sound and noise. They’ve just honed that year after year. It doesn’t sound like there’s only three of them - they’re all masters of dynamic, of that skronky guitar and creating noise that’s loud but also quiet and restrained.

I wouldn’t say that we’ve tried to steal anything specific from them, but we’re absolutely inspired by their spirit. Just their mantra: that integrity and relentless, loud, brash guitar work with a lot of character and tunefulness. I don’t know how they’ve been able to do what they do for so long - I certainly hope that they never stop.

BEST FIT: Have you ever seen them live? I’ve been lucky enough to and was so in awe of these immortal giants still rocking out in their 50s and 60s.

They actually once lent us their organ for our late night performance on Jimmy Fallon. And we’ve also been on a cruise with them.

What! No way. Did they offer you any musical wisdom, or just good life lessons?

I feel like we mostly talked about the cruise that we were on! James the bass player knew where to get a good slice of pizza though. They’ve toured so much that they’re really good at giving little tips on where to go and where to eat. And unfortunately, that is always the priority.

Alvvays UK tour starts 21 June, including London's Troxy and Glastonbury

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