Alternative Universe

In Molly Universe, Molly Bowers tries to make every kid feel out of this world.

"I didn't set out to write kids' music," says Molly Bowers, "and I didn't plan to do anything topical, either. I just wrote this song that was so cute and catchy that I decided to write more songs like it. And before I knew it, I had a whole album on the same theme. I'm as surprised as anyone about it."
Bowers isn't being coy. She's best known for her work in Sweet Water Well, one of the most popular acoustic acts in Colorado during the Nineties. But ever since the members of the quartet, which also featured Tony Achilles, Dave Jackson and Chris Helvey, announced their breakup from the stage of the Bluebird Theater during the ceremony that capped the 1997 Westword Music Awards Showcase, Bowers has mainly stayed out of the spotlight. "I wasn't really doing much as far as performing," she notes. She was, however, penning plenty of tunes, and she's assembled many of them on a new CD called Double Daddy. Credited to Molly Universe ("It was the name of a band I was in before Sweet Water Well that never made it out of Cricket on the Hill," Bowers explains), the disc is targeted at what seems on the surface to be a rather small demographic slice: the children of gay parents. But Bowers believes there are more youngsters in this situation than most people realize. "It's becoming a common thing," she says, "but it's still kept under wraps, and kids don't talk about it much, either. And since there aren't that many educational resources in this area, I thought this was a necessary thing. But the album's broader than that. It's also about tolerance and understanding, and those are things that everyone needs to hear about."

A native of Oxford, Ohio, Bowers grew up in a household where such messages were frequently delivered in song. "My mom is a musician--she's a songwriter and a singer--and there was always an old hippie guitar lying around the house. Every once in a while, she'd pick it up and play 'Kumbaya' or something." Molly first became interested in performing during seventh grade, when a local musician wowed her music class, and after two years of strumming folk ditties, she branched out. "I started playing Rush songs," she confesses, laughing.

By the time she'd entered high school, Bowers had moved beyond her Alex Lifeson fixation and was writing what she calls "serious songs." She subsequently relocated to Boulder to attend the University of Colorado, and after completing the program, she decided to relocate here permanently. Not that she had big plans at the time. "I graduated with a history degree, but it served no practical purpose," she says. "So I decided to wait tables and be in bands instead."

During the same period, Achilles, Jackson and Helvey were gigging as Sweet Water Well--and a couple of years later, they invited Bowers to join them. At first she found this offer easy to resist. "When they asked me, I said, 'No way--I don't want to be in that silly band.' I'd seen them five years before, when they were doing Indigo Girls covers, and I thought, I don't want to be a part of that." But she changed her mind after hearing a demo tape of Achilles-Jackson originals. "They sounded really good, and I could see right away that they'd developed a style I liked."

That was 1994, and before long, Sweet Water Well had emerged as a steady draw throughout the state. Building on that popularity beyond state lines proved difficult, though. The quartet toiled for a year to complete Watermelon, its debut CD for the Alley Records imprint, but while the finished product pleased the previously committed and earned respectable notices, the disc, which features two Bowers compositions, failed to attract major-label attention. This situation only aggravated creative discord within the group, Bowers says. "We all got along really well, but we couldn't quite figure out what our roles were in the band. I wanted to be doing a little bit more of the singing and songwriting, but because Tony and Dave worked together so well, my joining as a third songwriter seemed to put us all on edge a little bit. We didn't know how to jibe with each other as well. It got to the point where Tony would write songs where I wouldn't know what to do with myself, or I'd write a song, and Tony and Dave wouldn't know what to do with themselves. They're great guys and I love them, but musically it wasn't a perfect match."

On Double Daddy, Bowers doesn't insist on being the center of attention: Ron Voller takes several lead vocals, and other ditties are crooned by contributors such as Rekha Ohal, Andrew Koch, Shy Hammond and Johnette Toye. The resulting all-for-one, one-for-all feel is the most enjoyable part of the album. A few songs don't entirely avoid the well-intentioned patronization that can make children's music a chore for anyone over the age of ten to hear, and a few of the lessons are too on-the-nose. But at her best, Bowers is able to make her points without taking the sledgehammer out of the tool kit. The bouncy title cut portrays having a pair of fathers around the house as a special bonus ("Danny has a daddy and a daddy at home/It's double double daddy and he's never alone"). "Oh, What a Mess (Billy's Wearing a Dress)" and "Hello Rocket" are endearingly silly, and "Magpie" is a perky shambles that any tot can enjoy, regardless of the sexual preferences of his guardians.

The music's appeal was confirmed by several recent appearances Bowers made at area elementary schools. "I used to be a substitute teacher, so a few teachers I know invited me, and things have gone really well. I have to water things down a little bit; instead of going in and saying, 'This is a CD for kids with gay and lesbian parents,' I say, 'This is a CD for kids that have alternative families.' But everyone really seemed to like what I was doing. They seemed to relate to me doing something for kids that wasn't just Snow White and Cinderella."

At a May performance at McLain Community High School in Jefferson County, Bowers was able to get a bit more specific, and she was pleased by how receptive the students were to the concept of "Tolerance"--a track that appears in two different versions on Double Daddy. "The teacher was really good about letting the kids talk instead of putting them in a stifled environment. And when I played a couple of songs for them that had explicit gay themes, they thought it was pretty cool. I don't know if it had anything to do with the Columbine shootings or if it just happened to be a school that was friendly to people who might seem weird or who don't fit in. But they seemed really open to the idea that every kid has a right to feel normal."

Right now, Bowers is busy marketing Double Daddy, which is available in a variety of area CD and book stores. (It can also be ordered over the Internet at www.doubledaddy.com.) And while she hasn't given up on making music for grownups, she's enjoying the opportunity to play for the junior set. "I've had a lot of kids between three and nine really dig it," she says. "And when you see them smile and feel good about themselves, there's nothing better.

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