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Molly Miller on Celebrating Disney Classics With Taylor Guitars

Molly Miller on Celebrating Disney Classics With Taylor Guitars

We recently joined forces with Taylor Guitars and Walt Disney Records to kick off an incredible sweepstakes that celebrates many of the classic Disney songs performed acoustically by a variety of artists.

Disney is known for its incredible catalogue of iconic songs, impacting pop culture around the globe. Walt Disney Records is now reimagining many of these songs acoustically performed and recorded by various artists including one of Los Angeles’ most sought-after musicians, Molly Miller who put her spin on “Chim Chim Cher-ee” (Mary Poppins), “Rainbow Connection” (The Muppets) and “The Bare Necessities” (The Jungle Book).

We recently caught up with Molly to learn more about this exciting project.

So, take us back to the start.  

Everything I've ever done has naturally grown from the community around me, and I feel really fortunate to have that experience. I got connected with Disney through Taylor Guitars, who I was connected to by the Jason Mraz team.

Jason works with Taylor, and I was thinking about getting a new acoustic, and he was like, "Check out Taylor, in fact, you should go hang with (Taylor Master Builder) Andy Powers. He's the man." So, I went and hung out with Andy, and he showed me the Taylor Studio, and we jammed on jazz standards, and it grew from there. 

I played NAMM representing Taylor and premiered a Builder's Edition guitar, and so they thought of me when they were looking for someone for this project, and I'm glad they did.

Is it safe to assume you've been a Disney fan all your life?

Oh, my God, forever. You know Disney, like it's a ubiquitous influence just being a human, I think, but especially a little girl. I would dress up as all the Disney princesses for Halloween. I was at my parent's house this weekend, and there's a picture of my sister and me in Belle dresses, because not only was it our Halloween costume but just the thing we wore every day when we were like four and six. I was a mega childhood Disney fan, going to Disneyland, all that stuff. 

It may sound cheesy, but dreams really do come true, and that's kind of what this feels like. It's crazy to think that little Molly, obsessed with Disney and playing guitar, has this dream of being a musician and a guitarist growing up, now getting to merge all these passions. 

On top of that, the next level is watching my nieces and nephews get into Disney. I was with my family this weekend, and we watched Lady and the Tramp and Aladdin last weekend, so it's just like to now have the next generation be so into Disney. 

The project was stupid fun. I was smiling the whole time playing all these songs of my childhood. 

When did you first pick up a guitar?

When I was seven, my parents (mostly my dad) were like, "Okay, you guys are in a family band," so we would have band practice every single day, playing Top 40, like "Surfin' USA," "Louie, Louie," some Beatles songs, things of that nature. 

But when I was in middle school, my guitar instructor showed me Jimi Hendrix, and that was the first phase of where I started getting more into it. It wasn't just something I did. It became something I love to do; that was my first lightbulb moment. 

In high school, I started getting more serious about it, like, "Okay, I want to study it in college. What does that look like? Okay, I'm in jazz band. What are these chords I'm playing? Let's explore jazz chords and jazz harmony." It was a natural progression, studying jazz and playing in garage bands with my friends, you know, playing an eclectic mix of music in different worlds.

I went to USC, and I got my undergrad, masters, and doctorate there, so I'm a Doctor of Guitar Performance. And usually, I have like 200 gigs a year, touring all over the world. My main touring gig is with Jason Mraz, and I'm also the Chair of the Guitar Department at Los Angeles College of Music. So, I still hover between these worlds and feel super fortunate that I get to do it.

How did you go about choosing songs for this project?

When I first got asked to do this, I was just like dancing around my apartment for a couple of weeks deciding what Disney songs to choose. I was talking to my sisters like, "What should I do? A song from Mary Poppins, or Beauty and the Beast, or Aladdin? You know, we were just going through all these songs singing Disney to each other. I knew I wanted each song to come from a different movie, and I wanted each to have a connection to my childhood. 

"Bare Necessities," I knew I was going to choose. "Chim Chim Cher-ee," you know, it was in three, a different time signature, it's minor, and it's so catchy. "Rainbow Connection," god, it's just like one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Gorgeous, sentiment and melody. I love the modulation, and I had fun figuring out how to modulate.

At first glance, you might not think of these songs as solo guitar pieces. How did you approach arranging them?

First, I think of the lyrics, the intent, and how I relate to it. Sometimes you may feel a song is beautiful and sweet, but maybe I hear the angst in it, and I want to bring the angst out. Thinking about my interpretation of a song and how I can make my arrangement true to that, I think that's number one. 

I like to learn a song in its most basic form, and from there, I'll do a lot of different things. I'll play in other keys, different time signatures, different ranges of the guitar, different tempos to see what I'm drawn to. 

The guitar sings in different ways if you play a melody an octave lower. In a different key, the whole song can change. So in trying this all out when you're playing, you're giving yourself as many options as possible.

Often the "answer" reveals itself like, oh, this is the place to go. It becomes evident once you start playing; this should be played single note; this should be played in chords. 

If you can't tell, I get so into arrangements. I arranged these Disney songs, but I also am continually arranging for my solo guitar stuff, my trio, or for different bands I play in.

Let's talk about your treatment for "Bare Necessities."

Oh, my God, The Jungle Book, is such a great movie. It's one of the essential Disney classics, you know. I was thinking of doing "I Want To Be Like You," but with "Bare Necessities," I was drawn to the feel, and I love the sentiment. The simple bare necessities of life, that's all you need. I worked my way into the Travis picking approach.

I was thinking about the harmony a lot. What was happening with the harmony is common; it had changes that I've dealt with before, so I felt like I could do interesting things with it, and I knew how to approach it. I like having songs build. Every time you hear a melody, it's a little different because you know, the lyrics aren't changing. The first time, the bass is not moving. The bass is not doing that one, five, one, five, but the second time you hear the melody, it is, so it gets more exciting as the arrangement's building.

I also go to a whole rubato section because I like the drama of arrangements. Especially with solo guitar, you need to change things up because the guitar's the entire orchestra. So I went rubato and played some fun little riffs because I wanted to be guitar-y. And then I went back into time with even more movement for the end.

What was it like working on "Chim Chim Cheree?"

I knew I wanted to do a Mary Poppins song because I grew up singing those songs. That was another movie that I really associated with my childhood. You know, "Spoonful of Sugar," " Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." "Let's Go Fly a Kite," that was the other one I was thinking of doing.

But I chose "Chim Chim Cher-ee." It's more somber, and not just harmonically. It is in minor, but the sentiment is a little bit sadder, cleaning chimneys, you know. 

In my first arrangement, I spent a while figuring out what key I liked, and I knew I wanted it to modulate because what's interesting is that the original goes up a half step, and then it goes down further, then back up. It's one of those things you don't notice until you study it.

I showed it to my brother, who's a fabulous drummer and great arranger, and he was like, "Yeah, it's cool, but I feel like it's kind of like too Klezmer-y and you want to make it cooler, more mysterious. You should check out some old westerns." He sent me some tracks, Morricone and the like, and I did switch it up a bit to try to add some of those spaghetti western elements.

I think so much of what happens is just how you touch the instrument, and it's the subtlety. It's not necessarily what you play, but what you don't play, and the rhythm in between, shifting dynamically within each phrase. I tried to make my fills a little more inspired by those westerns and closed it out rubato because it felt more somber.

You also offered your interpretation of “Rainbow Connection”.

"Rainbow Connection" was different because I didn't know it very well until I started this project. The Willie Nelson version is what got me because it's so good. And, actually, Jason Mraz does it too, and I play with him, and I was like, "Oh, that's also a really sweet connection to do a song," and I really am here because of the Jason connection.

I wanted each of my song choices to be different, and this was a ballad. The song floors me; it's so beautiful. The intro alone is so pensive, and even though it's simple, it's such a statement. It feels very reflective and draws you in.

Once again, it comes back to jazz harmony that I spent a lot of time studying, and the melody is clear. I probably would have played it an octave lower, but the melody wasn't really singing in that area. I tried it in a few different keys. 

I think copping a vocal melody when you're playing a guitar melody is important because you don't want to just play like a guitar player. You want to make it sing how a vocalist would sing.

What did you learn about how these songs were constructed? Any fun surprises?

The thing that's so cool about these songs is while they're meant for the masses, they're not dumbed down. The essential elements of melody and harmony are there and are simple in the most flattering way. It's like what the Beatles do; it feels good. There's a reason why popular songs are similarly constructed and familiar because they make you feel a certain way, and they sound good.

They're each from a different composer and have unique approaches. In Mary Poppins, for example, the songs don't have a ton of different sections. Like, "Let's go fly a kite," "Chim Chim Cher-ee," or "Supercali—," are built mostly around hooks, whereas "Rainbow Connection" is a longer form song. And then The Jungle Book uses a lot of jazz forms like AABA or AB, and harmonically, it's pretty jazzy. 

Playing these Disney songs, I feel like I had to take my ego out of it a little bit more. It's not about my guitar playing; it's about making these arrangements true to the songs, their sentiment, their story. It's not time to show off all my fancy guitar licks. If it's just me, I'll totally throw in some shreddy guitar stuff. So it was good for me, especially because I knew there would be a different audience. 

I think about it a lot because, as a woman, I have more of this inclination to be like, "Oh, I can play the guitar. You think just because I'm a woman I can't play the guitar? Well, check this out." It's fighting that feeling because the music is more important than my ego, you know.

Can you tell us a bit about the recording session itself?

Luke Adams was the engineer, and I did it at his spot in Atwater Village called The Shark Tank. I used the Taylor 614ce Builder's Edition on "Bare Necessities" and "Rainbow Connection," and I used the 912ce Builder's Edition on "Chim Chim Cher-ee." It was a little bit of like a tighter sound with the smaller body, a little brighter. For mics, we used a vintage Neumann U87 and a vintage Neumann KM84.

What do you hope for listeners to take away from your arrangements?

I want the listeners to love the songs and think of their childhood. To feel nostalgic. Maybe even say, "Oh, wow, that's a lovely guitar arrangement."

Any advice for the new players inspired by your versions?

You know, when I was seven, if I could have seen a woman playing Disney songs on the acoustic guitar, that probably would have been meaningful to me and influential to me. It would mean so much to me that anyone would pick up the guitar after hearing these arrangements.

I would tell them to focus on letting go, having fun, and finding the joy in it. It's such a rollercoaster being a musician, playing an instrument, because I think we often attach our self-worth to our ability or our accomplishments. Joy is a big word for me whenever I pick up my instrument. Playing music should be a joyous experience.

As you get more serious, learn a bunch of the music of people you love. Do that and then do it your own way. That's how you can build your own musical identity; it naturally happens, it'll blend, it'll grow, and that's your sound.

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