There’s nothing quite like a deadline to inspire creativity. The songwriting duo of Molly with Charles took root and blossomed in a matter of weeks, accelerated by the impending matriculation of vocalist Molly Arizona. Over the course of several days last August, she and Charles Nutrivore honed a concise set of songs inspired by the sleek and emotionally simmering pop of Sade and Frank Ocean. Charles with Molly celebrates the release of the new EP q + m Friday at the Back Room, a concert conceived as a fundraiser for the Berkeley High jazz program.
The project owes its existence to the school’s creatively charged atmosphere. Last May, Nutrivore (aka songwriter, pianist and producer Jackson Kinder) connected with Arizona (aka vocalist and then-Berkeley High senior Molly Sazer Hopf), and their first writing session produced the lithe synth pop song “Thank You for Existing.” The piece had so much promise they decided to focus on a songwriting collaboration. There was one complication. She was about to head east to start her studies at Boston University.
“As a producer I’m always looking for cool singers,” says Nutrivore, who’s making the most of a gap year before starting Pomona College. “I’d gone to school with Molly at Berkeley High and after that first fruitful collaboration I realized we’re very much on the same page musically. We had two weeks before she went off to BU, so we holed up in my garage for a crazy whirlwind of music making.”
Friday’s concert features largely the same cast of players who contributed to q + m, with bassist Max Schwartz, vocalist Dante Ryan, guitarist David Marcus, and rapper MBK ZU. Richmond rapper Nekhi Foster and East Bay vocalist Amen’Auset play an opening set.
Arizona and Nutrivore both hail from families deeply engaged in creative pursuits. His father was a longtime Pixar employee who directed the 2015 indie film White Rabbit. She was weaned on music by her parents, and has spent many summers teaching at the music camp led by her mother, violinist, vocalist and Real Vocal String Quartet bandleader Irene Sazer.
“I started writing songs in 4th or 5th grade with my best friend,” Arizona says. “Around 6th grade I started writing by myself, and it’s been that way until I ended up in this collaboration with Jackson. We’d been friends and talked about doing music together, but it really came together when he said ‘Hey I wrote this song, you should come and sing on it.’”
Nutrivore credits his experience in the Berkeley High jazz program with providing a sense of community and offering a window into the wider world. He took part in the band’s trip to Cuba last January, which drove home “how music is a universal language,” he says. “It’s a cliché, but I hadn’t fully processed it until I went there, being able to connect with these young Cuban over a montuno” [a highly syncopated piano ostinato].
The experience crystalized his commitment to unleashing music’s power to bring down social barriers, at home and abroad. In making q + m, he recruited a disparate cast of players from around the region, like South Berkeley rapper Dante Ryan.
“It’s a very progressive city but there are entrenched divisions, equally bad as the rest of the country,” Nutrivore says. “Music is a way to start to overcome those divisions. Dante is from Berkeley, but we’d probably never have been friends if not for music. There are so many connections I wouldn’t otherwise have made. I’ve tried to use that as a guiding philosophy, seeking out and bringing disparate sounds and people together.”
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