Sierra Mollenkopf's stunning soprano arrives fully formed on local quartet's cathartic, sparkling debut

Already, it’s hard to imagine the innocence of two weeks ago, when, sitting in the living room of the Old North home occupied by dream-pop quartet First Responder, the conversation centered around the upcoming primary election, the lasting influence of the Cure and the do-it-yourself acumen of millennial bands in the age of streaming and strident self-promotion.

Fast forward to this week and the release of Courage, the young band’s sparkling debut album that envelops like a comforting security blanket. The songs of singer/guitarist Sierra Mollenkopf encompass a kaleidoscope of tones. Some are angry and discordant, some silly and fleeting, some lilting and sentimental — most of the record, in fact, deftly combines all of the above. For Mollenkopf, it’s been a long, intentional evolution.

“I listened to a lot of ’80s hair metal as a young child,” Mollenkopf said. “It was always on the radio at my grandparents’ house. But they were also into the bad side of grunge, butt-rock. For a while growing up, I don’t remember strong, female-fronted bands, maybe the Cranberries. It wasn’t until I got to college that I had an awakening and there were artists out there that I wanted to sound like. Angel Olsen, Adrianne Lenker, Waxahatchee, Karen O — those are songwriters who aren’t too complex but have connected with me.” 

When she found her voice — which, after years of choir experience, is a stunning soprano that belies traditional indie rock balladry — the songs started to come naturally. As a student at Ohio State, Mollenkopf found a kindred spirit in guitarist Cameron Carr. They started First Responder in 2016 as an outlet for Mollenkopf’s songs and soon after enlisted bassist Collin Geddis, who also moonlights in Dandelion Hunter, and drummer Zayn Dweik. Though Mollenkopf brings most of the songs to practice, as a unit there’s a noticeable collaboration to buoy her melodies with a sonic insulation that recalls Cocteau Twins and Throwing Muses. 

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“The band helps me write about darker topics in a very cathartic way,” Mollenkopf said. “Then I’m able to share those things in a way in which I’m not so vulnerable. And these are now experiences I can incorporate into my life, and I can have fun while doing it. I can have a certain power onstage speaking those [experiences] to other people.” 

Indeed, the themes on Courage spare no emotions. On highlight “Two Stars,” Mollenkopf sings that “car wrecks don’t only happen when you’re driving,” a metaphor for feeling a sense of personal agency in a world where it’s harder and harder to find a modicum of control. “Family Plot,” likewise, focuses its energy on not having to be tethered to a toxic relationship, and, more pointedly, a decree against guys who say a partner is too “clingy” or “suffocating” and not understanding the damage that comes from such claims. The quiet/loud/quiet/loud dynamics employed by her band add considerable weight to each heartfelt lament. 

Courage almost didn’t happen. When Mollenkopf left Columbus for graduate school in New York, the band took a hard pause with the future of the record in doubt. About half of it was complete, and when Mollenkopf returned she was encouraged by what she heard, so the band regrouped and holed up in various studios around town to finish it. 

The final product sounds fully formed. It’s a statement about hope in the midst of dark times, be it personal, social or political. While First Responder wouldn’t label itself careerist, or musicians powered by a particular cause, the message on Courage is one of a “wokeness” that is being embraced by 20-somethings forging a new path. The foursome looks to other locals, like snarls, wyd and didi, that embrace a similar edict. It’s an awareness that is even reflected in the band’s name. 

“I think of the name First Responder as an ode to the people who are nonprofessional first responders in your life,” Mollenkopf said. “It’s for the people who are there for emotional support — the person who is the first one who texts you back after you’ve had a horrible day.”

In light of current events, First Responder is postponing its previously scheduled March 21 release show to a later date. For now, you can listen to Courage here.