The positive points of negative space

Molly Kummerle

Band-room eyes: Molly Kummerle.

“I’d love to play my trombone again for kicks,” admits Molly Kummerle, front woman of pop-jazz trio Ruby Slippers.

This isn’t the sort of comment one expects from a sultry vocalist who wears her red tresses piled loosely on her head, dons lingerie tops and evening gowns for the stage, and pens lyrics about underwater fireflies.

Drape herself over a grand piano, sure. Heft a trombone? Well …

“Out of all the brass instruments, I think it sounds most like the human voice,” Kummerle continues. “Because it doesn’t have valves, you can do so much with it.”

She should know — she played the unwieldy instrument in school band. And, unlike most of us who are forever trying to shed our marching-band dorkiness, Ruby Slippers’ singer is applying band-class principles to the lounge-club aesthetic of her current musical endeavor.

I [don’t] want my MTV

“One thing that I learned being a band geek is that there are different parts [to a piece of music] and they’re all important,” Kummerle says. “For [Ruby Slippers], being a trio, every part is really important.”

The vocalist got her start as a back-up singer in R&B outfit Mavis, but when that group broke up, Kummerle wanted to keep singing. At the weekly open-mic sessions hosted by Tressa’s, Kummerle met drummer Robin Tolleson and guitarist Andy John, both seasoned musicians associated with various Asheville-based projects.

“I was trying to put together a band and Stephanie Morgan gave me [Andy’s] phone number,” the singer recalls. “I ended up putting us into the Gypsy Moon songwriting contest and we won $50. I said, ‘See, you’re gonna make money if you play with me.'”

Three years later, the trio has attracted a viable fan base and plays venues around the Southeast — but don’t expect any rock-star antics or big-label deals on the horizon.

Living Room (Groosion Records, 2005), the group’s first full-length CD, is a homegrown effort produced and arranged by the band and mastered by Asheville engineer Steven Heller. Mellow, jazzy grooves provide a vehicle for Kummerle’s poetic, often-dreamy lyrics. There’s a modern sheen to the album, offset by a passionate throwback at the end: “Miss Celie’s Blues” from The Color Purple, which Kummerle croons to considerable effect.

“We don’t have the great MTV goal,” Kummerle says. “I don’t know anybody who has that. What I’d like is for us to keep playing together.”

If that sounds unlikely (what band, deep down, doesn’t want to land a Rolling Stone cover?), keep in mind that Ruby Slippers considers themselves among a growing local scene that not only churns out singer-songwriters with pop savvy, but supports its own. “This is a great time to be a musician in Asheville,” the vocalist insists. “I like the fact that Asheville is small. It’s kind of cozy and very personable, [and] there are a lot of creative people, so it’s easy to collaborate.

Between the lines

Which is to say, this singer has no plans to leave home. Born in the Virgin Islands, Kummerle moved with her family to WNC when she was in middle school — the trombone years. But, despite exotic beginnings, the front woman is happy in Asheville.

Instead of scoping LA or New York, Ruby Slippers is focused on “honing our chemistry,” as Kummerle puts it. “[We’re] like a little family — these two people know me really well. There’s a lot of trust involved in making original music.”

And, far from employing diva-esque maneuvers on stage or in the studio, Kummerle takes the less-is-more approach. “Something I’ve come to enjoy a lot is the use of space,” she says. “We always joke, ‘Oh, my favorite part was when you weren’t playing.’ It doesn’t matter how much you have to say, it’s [being able] to say what you have to say in the least amount.

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

More band-geek lessons? Maybe.

“I’m really shy,” Kummerle admits. “Being a performer gives me an outlet to grow as a person; to meet people I wouldn’t [meet] otherwise.

“I don’t think of myself as ‘that girl.’ I still feel like a kid walking down the hall with the [trombone]. I was never one of the cool kids, to my knowledge — I’ve pretty much done what I wanted to do.”

Catch Ruby Slippers next at the Mountain Sports Festival (Carrier Park on Amboy Road) at 5 p.m. on Friday, May 5. Free. See for more information.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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