In July I was on the metro, cutting my Osheaga day short to meet with Michael Hansford, who makes folky dream-pop as Molly Drag. I turned on his song “Out Like a Light” and soon started to cry. I couldn’t stop. I tried to occupy myself by reading advertisement overhead, and then I saw something I couldn’t stop staring at: the ears of the man sitting across from me were rapidly getting bigger. I missed my stop, unable to stop watching the guy in his blue Oxford shirt, which was now sparkling. Such are the follies of acid.
My response was not out of the ordinary, even on psychedelics. In Hansford’s own words, his music is less casual listening and more, “Holy fuck is this guy alright?” Moments after entering the bar at which we were to meet, I braced myself for a bummer of a night. But the Pagliaccian rift between the art and the artist was immediately striking; Hansford is a gregarious and deeply funny person whose smile didn’t let up for the few hours we spent together.
He is conscious of this misconception of him and maintains that his music may be melancholy, but it is fundamentally optimistic. This comes through on Touchstone, his newest album, due out Oct. 4. A track like “Nothing to See Here” finds a sort of comfort in comparing the dissolution of a relationship with the changing of seasons — the implication in this analogy being that both lead to a kind of rebirth. And then there’s “Cherry Red,” the record’s closing track, a collage of beautiful harmonies, wild drums and dream-like spoken word.
Hansford was born in Midland, Ontario. In his early teens he took to skateboarding, at one point getting sponsored by a local shop. He recalls going to the park one day and finding a good friend who had, seemingly overnight, learned how to land switch-back sidekick flips. Hansford knew it would take him years to pull that off, so, foregoing youthful idealism for precocious prudence, he decided right then to do something else. Inspired by the soundtracks of skate videos, which featured the likes of My Blood Valentine and Dinosaur Jr, Hansford began playing guitar.
He moved in with his grandmother after both his parents left, and also received support from his art teacher Ila Kellermann, who would feed him when he didn’t have a lunch or offer a bed to sleep in when he wanted to get away from home. “No one in Midland really wanted to leave,” he told me. Hansford, however, did immediately after graduating. Upon telling his grandmother he was going to Toronto, she curtly told him he’d be back — within months, he was. Returning to Midland, Hansford worked, saved up money, and later relocated to London, ON for college.
In London in 2012, Hansford began releasing music online, though he says that project embarrasses him now. (He refused to tell me what it was called.) In a quintessentially early 2010s move, he decided to contact Aaron Powell, a lo-fi singer-songwriter from Fredericton who performs as Fog Lake, through Tumblr. One can hear similarities in the music of Molly Drag and Fog Lake: moody, nostalgic, stunning. Naturally, they got on well. Soon after, Hansford began touring with Fog Lake.
“Without Aaron, my life would be so much different,” he told me. Unhappy with the project he’d been working on, Hansford began recording Molly Drag demos at this time. He showed them to Powell, who bluntly told him they were much better than what he was doing. The next day, Hansford cancelled a planned recording session and released the demos on BandCamp.
Hansford talks about Molly Drag as a sort of therapeutic endeavour, both for himself and for his listeners. The singer of the band Past Life, whom he’d been touring with, told him something that struck him: no matter how many people are in the audience, there would always be one die-hard fan of Molly Drag. “That’s what’s going to carry you and heal you.” This, the act of creating and performing art, of being inspired and inspiring others, seems to fuel him.
The gloomy foundation of his music, he thinks, is a form of catharsis for listeners. People don’t engage with his music to feel sadder, but “to connect to their emotions,” he explained. “You can always relate to someone feeling sad, even when you’re happy. I consider my music healing. It’s empathetic.” Indeed, to regularly come in direct contact with one’s most primordial emotions — like having a good cry in a depressing film — is to deny their supremacy, their ability to take over a life.
Hansford is sentimental in the way most artists are. He strives to find beauty in everything, even a childhood he describes as fucked up. “Midland is in everything I do,” he told me. Perhaps that’s why late last year, with the newest record finished, he called up his former art teacher Ila Kellermann. They talked a lot, and she told him something that clearly affected him: he was always one of her touchstone students. Hansford asked if he could use a painting of hers as the cover for his newest record and she agreed.
Like Hansford himself, Touchstone is at its essence occupied with memory, indebted to a melancholic past and aware of the joy therein, but aware, also, that the path forward almost always intersects with the one backward. ■
Molly Drag launches Touchstone at Casa del Popolo (4873 St-Laurent) with openers Whitney K and Anna Arrobas on Friday, Oct. 4, 9:30 p.m., $10/$13