“Denver is very different from any place I’ve lived, as far as the music scene,” says Molly Raney, the classically trained, California-born avant-pop musician better known as Poppet. “So many people have moved here recently... All of a sudden there’s this influx, and we’re at this moment where people are like, ‘All right, I’ve seen the old bluegrass bands hundreds of times, and I need something new.’ People are ready for something new.”
Raney moved to Denver from Portland last year after tracking the ambitious, gorgeous Poppet album Mirror Age here and feeling inspired by and connected to “a community of artists in all different fields, all helping each other out.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon on the porch at Stowaway Kitchen in RiNo, Raney waxed in awe about the state of Denver music, saying, “I’ve definitely felt more supported here than in the Pacific Northwest, and there’s just so much motivation to create. I’ve always been in places where it’s already pretty saturated, where there’s a big music scene, but it’s not very open to newcomers.”
Raney, thirty, grew up immersed in the study of music, though she wasn’t exposed to a wide range of it at home. She participated in choir, jazz and a Hindustani ensemble, studied piano and violin, completed eight years of training as an opera singer, and maintained a scholarly fascination with music history and ethnomusicology at UC-Davis while majoring in German literature.
It was upon hearing Björk for the first time that Raney — who also studied dance growing up — realized there was a whole other world of music out there, one that embraces and values performance art just as much as songwriting and musicianship.
“My parents didn’t listen to a lot of music, so I kind of relied on friends,” Raney says. “So I was like, ‘Oh, my God; I had no idea this kind of music existed.’ It was such a revelation. I was obsessed with Björk for many years, and I still am. That was eye-opening.”
Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush also inspired Poppet, and the video for the song “Cage Arms,” from Mirror Age, shows the juxtaposition of Raney’s musical training and love of performance in full bloom. Inside of a transparent box covered in plastic, Raney shines, a boundary-less multimedia artist seamlessly integrating theater, dance, skillful and intricate musical composition, and opera-quality vocals.
Mirror Age offers deep, deftly composed tunes that would not be out of place on a Joanna Newsom album, while tracks like “This Hasn’t Got a Backbone” showcase fierce, poetic feminism with a hypnotic beat. And Poppet’s live performances (see her Tiny Desk Concert submission on YouTube from a few years ago) are even more engaging; they are unique, gripping and silly spectacles in which Raney plays countless instruments. Her live shows involve everything from performance art with massive trays of cupcakes to local classically trained dancers, playfully incognito in ninja-like garb.
“I’m very much a ‘go big or go home’ person, especially being a solo artist,” Raney says. “I’m freaking out all the time that I’m not engaging enough as a performer...but on another level, my emotions are very strong and the way that I express them in music just ends up being performative. The other part is that the act of performing is definitely like exorcism for me. I need to exorcise these really extreme emotions from my physical body, which is really intense.”
Feverishly studying musical theory, composition and history, Raney didn’t embrace the musical and performative possibilities that now define her work until she became a part of the KDVS college-radio community around the University of California, Davis in her early twenties. Until that time, Raney had only written music as homework in composition classes, which she “hated." Immersing herself in the KDVS “underground,” she was “exposed to a community with no rules and so much support,” and quickly realized she had “something to say.”
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The songs on Mirror Age certainly prove Poppet songs have a lot to say, but along with that depth and obvious classical background is the mesmerizing childlike wonder of someone who came to popular music relatively late. Sharing that wonder with local collaborators will boil over this fall with the release of a video for the Poppet song “W”; Raney has been working on the video for months with various stripes of Denver artists pitching in, and Ali Bibbo directing and producing.
As for her set this Friday night at Syntax Physic Opera, Raney can only say she’s been “working on getting some props that are very absurd.” You never know what to expect at a Poppet concert, and Raney says that spontaneity makes her feel comfortable.
“I just want to do more, and I feel like now that I’ve done that for so many years, I can’t go back. And I wouldn’t want to; I’d just be very bored by that. I have to keep myself interested.”