Molly Rowlandson is the lead singer and songwriter for Kiwi soul band Molly & The Chromatics, who have been a regular feature on the NZ music scene and festival circuit for the past few years. She talks to Capsule about finally being able to open up about her cancer experience at 20 and why it pushed her to live the life she wanted, no fear required.
In the daily grind of work and life, particularly in a year like this one, it can be easy to lose sight of just how much there is to celebrate. When Molly Rowlandson looks at her life now, she knows that a younger version of herself would be very proud.
As the lead singer and songwriter for Kiwi soul band Molly & The Chromatics, Molly (29) is living the creative dream of regular performing and – despite lockdowns – the band have just released their new album, Pressure Moving. But there’s another reason that present day Molly holds 20-year-old Molly so close – because that’s the age she was when she was diagnosed with a rare and life-threatening form of leukaemia and life as she knew it shut down, basically overnight.
At the time of her diagnosis in 2013, Molly was studying an arts degree at Victoria University and had been travelling with her family around the South Island. “We were doing a walk around Mt Cook and I had these lumps around my neck; and for the previous week, I’d been unusually tired and lethargic,” Molly recalls. “My face got really enlarged, so I booked a doctor’s appointment; at that point, I thought it might have been glandular fever.”
She went for a morning check-up at her regular family doctor in Auckland and when she noticed he was marking her bloody tests with ‘urgent’, she assumed he was just doing her a favour and aiming to get the results before she jumped back on a plane to Wellington. “I got a call at midday the same day, saying ‘Come back to the doctor, Molly, and bring your parents.’” She was told they had found leukaemic cells in her blood and that she was to pack her bags, immediately, and head to Auckland hospital.
I put my head down and charged forward with a lot of positivity because I almost believed that if I had any once of doubt, then I wouldn’t make it through
A bone marrow biopsy identified it as acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and Molly’s university degree was put on hold as she embarked on nine months of in-and-out day stays, with all of 2013 dedicated to different types of cancer-fighting treatments, finishing up with radiation to her brain.
“Looking back, my mindset at the time was ‘okay, let’s get through to the other side so that I can get on with my life,’” Molly says. “Now, I wonder if my mindset would be the same if I got it at this age, eight or nine years later. Because I was 20, I had so much zest for life that it just seemed annoying that I had this diagnosis. I put my head down and charged forward with a lot of positivity because I almost believed that if I had any once of doubt, then I wouldn’t make it through.”
There were plenty of wobbles that threatened that ‘head down, move forward’ mentality along the way, Molly says. Through her cancer treatments, she befriended several other people who were also fighting cancer in their early twenties and many of them died as a result of their illness or, in one case, as a side effect of their treatment.
“I really did think, ‘Why me? Why did I survive, and not them?’” she says. “It’s not every day that a 20-year-old is confronted with their mortality… and gets through it. Because a lot of people don’t get through to the other side.”
Once the treatments were done – a timeframe of two and a half years, in total – it did refocus Molly’s life and what she wanted from it. “I definitely wanted to make up for lost time but I also wanted to enjoy my life,” she says. “I have no idea if this was already my disposition or if I am like this because I’ve been through cancer but all of our experiences shape us. I just want to enjoy my life and not sweat the small stuff.”
Maybe cancer took away some fear of failure, because I just don’t care about that as much anymore. I just want to be around the people that I love, and be authentic, and share my music.
For Molly, it was taking a life-long love of music and putting it centre stage in her life, co-founding the band Molly And The Chromatics in 2015, along with her good friend George. “I felt like, ‘Well, of course I’m going to do a band, because why wouldn’t you do what you love in your life,’” she says.
“Maybe cancer took away some fear of failure, because I just don’t care about that as much anymore. I just want to be around the people that I love, and be authentic, and share my music. I know that I’m good at singing and making music, so why wouldn’t I share that with people and get rid of that tall poppy side of things? It’s good music and it deserves to be heard.”
The two worlds of cancer and music remained officially separate at first – even though Molly was still taking chemotherapy pills when the band first began – but that boundary has lessened over time. It is an interesting balance, Molly says, of knowing what to share and what to protect.
“I’m grateful for the experience, because I don’t know who I would be now, if I hadn’t gone through it. But at the same time, I have never wanted to be defined by it,” she says. “With the music, I didn’t talk about [cancer] for a long time. I never wanted it to be ‘oh, that’s the one that had cancer…’ I was fearful of that. But then I went through a stage about three years ago where I would get drunk and tell people that I had cancer,” she laughs. “I’ve started therapy since and I think it was my subconscious being like ‘Hello… you haven’t dealt with me yet!’”
But music and writing songs has long been one of her best coping mechanisms, Molly says, be it cancer, or break-ups, or living through a pandemic. “Writing has always been a very good way for me to process my emotions and what’s going on in my mind at the time,” she says.
While lockdown has meant a pause in performing gigs this year, plus having to remotely record parts of the band’s latest album, Molly says that the uncertain nature of living in a pandemic had less of an impact on her than it did on others. “This doesn’t feel that unfamiliar to me; I think I’ve gotten really good at letting things go, from my cancer experience. A big thing is you can’t control what you can’t control; you have to let it go, otherwise it will consume you.”
Reframing that idea of how to make a successful life has been part of that process. “What I’ve learned is that the universe, or whatever, can throw you curve balls but we have a choice in how we react to them,” Molly says. “I care so much about doing the best that I can with music, even though I’ve never actively been like ‘I’m going to play Rhythm and Vines, I’m going to play at the PowerStation,’ even though we’ve played at all these places. I just think 20-year-old Molly would be like, ‘Woah, that’s amazing,’ and so saying yes to things and putting myself and our band in the position where we can try new things is now so important to me.”