"There's nothing more mortifying," Molly Sweeney confides, "than cracking on a note when your voice isn't properly in shape."
And she should know. The dusky-throated Montreal singer blew out her voice a few years ago while singing at the loud summer pastime known as the Tam Tam Jam on Mount Royal.
"There's that ubiquitous beat," she says with a laugh, "and I was trying to sing above it."
If her sublime debut album Gold Rings and Fur Pelts is any indication, the voice (and her songwriting and co-production chops) is back in attractive form. This week the sixties-styled folk-siren performs in Toronto and Ottawa, where her pipes are the draw. But there's more to this elegant upstart than her vocals.
Where she's coming from
Sweeney, 29, grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. (where her father taught at Lake Superior State University) but spent much of her time across the border in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
"There wasn't much to do on the American side," says the singer, who took her power-skating lessons in maple-leaf land.
At age 17, she moved from Massachusetts to Montreal. She attended McGill University, but went to school on Joni Mitchell.
"I got a copy of Blue and I guess it totally blew my mind," recalls Sweeney, now a dual citizen. "She was a huge influence, as far as choosing an acoustic instrument and discovering alternate guitar tunings."
What she's saying
Her lyrics are often metaphorical, you might say enigmatic.
"That's a compliment," she says. "It just means it's something to figure out. It requires a little more attention."
On the pop-cabaret title track, the gold rings and fur pelts represent prosperity and happiness, and the sacrifices made to find them. The words are sharply and scathingly literal on the darkly lit Not Faithfull (titled as to play on faithful/Marianne Faithfull, and textured with tiple, Wurlitzer, violin and upright bass).
How raw can Sweeney go, you ask? Try "think you should go, because I don't need you; and it costs too much to feed you." The song refers to a "psychological and emotional" rift with a friend. "I tend to confront people," Sweeney says. "How long friendships endure depend on our ability to take criticism."
Once in a full moon
The centrepiece of the album is Full Moon, a delicate ballad set to guitar notes that could have been picked by James Taylor. The song lifts lunar-high toward the end – Sweeney's voice rising unimaginably. "I'm screaming this song and I hope you will hear / well I must owe you something, since I hold you so dear."
The burst of vocal range stuns out of the blue. "Dynamic range is important, in terms of emotional expression," she says. "It's like leaving the stage after a half an hour. You want to leave them wanting more – to leave on a high note, so to speak."
Molly Sweeney's Gold Rings and Fur Pelts is streaming here . She plays Toronto's Dakota Tavern, Dec. 7; Ottawa's Raw Sugar Café, Dec. 8.