On a winter night in northern Minnesota, a young woman encounters an older woman at a lakeside dive bar. The stranger senses she’s struggling with something and sits her down to tell of her own hard-scrabble life. Shit’s not gonna get any easier, her story implies, but grit and perseverance can carry you through just about anything.
So goes Molly Brandt’s “Old Northern Woman,” an anthemic power ballad that starts with evocative storytelling and grows into a thrilling wall-of-sound crescendo that leaves you breathless.
Brandt gives you that same feeling live on stage and in her studio recordings. You’re pulling up a stool next to her and she’s got tales to tell you—her own, other real-life stories, and fictional fables that ring true no matter how much melodrama and poetic detail they contain. Like the storyteller himself, Tom T. Hall, Brandt knows just what to tell and what to hold back to fire up the listener’s imagination.
Brandt has also inherited Dolly Parton’s knack for painting unvarnished pictures of poverty and struggle but performing them with glitz, style, and attitude. She dazzles when she takes the stage, first with her presence and statement outfits—inspired by designer Nudie as well as divas Nikki Lane and Margo Price—then with her powerhouse vocals. Also like Dolly, the personality she reveals between songs is down-to-earth, funny, and a little goofy—until she steps into her next story.
Characters come vividly to life in Brandt’s lyrics and fiery delivery: the twisted, traumatized killer in the feminist murder ballad “Revenge”; the tired and jaded aging star in “Rhinestone Teardrops”; the runaway bride of “Surrender to the Night.” So do places, from bucolic backroads to quirky bars (as in her ode to a real-life Minneapolis honky-tonk “Eagles 34”).
Many of Brandt’s songs are often set in the Midwest, reflecting all its seasons, from the summery “Bluff Country Paradise” to the chill of “Old Northern Woman.” But her lyrics resonate broadly. They tell American stories—of blue-collar struggles, hard-won revels at dive bars, wide-open country and long car rides, and heartache, disillusionment, and revenge.
Brandt’s own story began in Colorado where she was born, but she spent much of her life in Iowa until moving to the Twin Cities in 2019. Music has always been a core part of her existence—she studied classical piano from age 5 through high school, sang in show choirs in high school and college, and performed jazz around Des Moines after college, even forming her own jazz combo. But the Molly Brandt of today is a fairly recent development. Laid off and recovering from a bad breakup during the pandemic lockdown, she taught herself guitar and started writing songs. With a little help from some producer and musician friends, she began recording, releasing her first singles in 2022 and playing her first Minneapolis show at the legendary West Bank bar Palmer’s. Since then she’s played numerous venues in Minnesota as well as Wisconsin, Iowa, and Chicago, and regional festivals such as Big Turn and Boats & Bluegrass.
Her debut album, Surrender to the Night, was released in July 2023. The collection showcases Brandt’s vocal and lyrical strengths against a tapestry of styles ranging from classic two-step honky-tonk to 70s countrypolitan to 90s alt-rock. Brandt is already planning to return to the studio in early 2024 with another batch of songs that will evolve and expand her sound to embrace an even broader range of roots music.
While we’ll have to wait to hear what this next iteration of Molly Brandt sounds like, one thing we can count on is that it’s going to be unforgettable. “Take a ride with me,” she sings in one song that could be an advertisement for her own music. “Light me up, you know you can't resist / ’Cause I’m like propane and cigarettes.”