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The Residents: In the eye of the beholder 

How avant-garde rock icon the Residents changed pop music, and singer Molly Harvey's life, forever

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DANCING WITH THE DEVIL: Molly Harvey (right) during the Demons Dance Alone Tour.
  • Henrik Kam
  • DANCING WITH THE DEVIL: Molly Harvey (right) during the Demons Dance Alone Tour.

In time, she also befriended another regular customer at the coffee shop, a woman named Sarah McLennan who was a managing partner at Ralph. McLennan enlisted Harvey to work filling the label's mail orders, which became a full-time job. If Harvey was only vaguely familiar with the Residents' music up to that point, she now had a universe of the group's records and CDs at her fingertips.

She immediately immersed herself in the music. "As soon as I had access to it, I was into it," she says. "We listened to a lot of the music in the office, and I became familiar with the whole Ralph Records catalogue," she adds, running though a list of her favorites. Renaldo & the Loaf's 1983 LP Title in Limbo and Snakefinger's cover of Kraftwerk's "The Model" from his Chewing Hides the Sound LP still resonate with her. When it comes to the Residents, she was always drawn to the group's 1988 album, God in Three Persons, mostly because of its powerful storytelling elements.

Eventually, the part that Harvey had casually gone in to read for the song "The Old Woman" appeared on Gingerbread Man. When she heard it, she was elated, but still in shock that she had been accepted by and even become a part of the group. "Our aesthetics just worked — everything about it was symbiotic," Harvey says. "My weirdness and their weirdness complemented each other."

The Residents brought Harvey to Köln, Germany, for a one-off performance in August 1997 titled "Disfigured Night (The Saga of Silly Billy)." Because her character was a mute, her only vocal part during the entire show was to hum a bit of USA for Africa's charity song "We are the World." That performance was the extent of her experience singing on stage. At a restaurant after the show, however, one of the Residents pulled her aside to explain that the Fillmore in San Francisco had contacted them to play five nights, leading up to a midnight show on Halloween. Not only was she going to be on stage with the group, she was going to sing. "I was like, 'What? ... What? Um, OK ...'" she says. "And then there I was on stage in front of 2,000 people at the Fillmore ... singing for the Residents. No pressure!"

She survived the shows, which to her felt very much like trial-by-fire. Afterward, she found that she had earned a place among the group's ranks. It also meant it was time to make a decision. When the show was over, according to Harvey, one of the Residents said, "Do you want to keep your identity, or do you want to be anonymous?"

Her decision wasn't difficult: She stuck with Molly Harvey. "I never really felt like I was one of the Residents, but also, while working at the Ralph office, fans would call every day to talk about the music and whatnot, and they all knew me as Molly," she explains. "I already had a rapport with a lot of the Residents' fans, so I kept it at that."

Over the next decade, Harvey lent her voice to several Residents albums, including Bad Day on the Midway, Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible, and what is perhaps the group's most poignant album yet, Demons Dance Alone. Since she started appearing with the band more than 15 years ago, the Residents seem to have discovered that a little subtlety goes a long way. The music remains as bizarre and challenging as ever, but the more melodic arrangements of albums such as Demons Dance Alone reveal new layers of emotional depth. Whether that has anything to do with an added female presence, or if it was just the Residents maturing as artists, is anyone's guess.

In 2005, the group released Animal Lover, Harvey's final studio recording with the Residents. That same year she embarked on a trek to Australia to sing for the Way We Were Tour, which became her last major outing with the group. Since 2003, Harvey has called Atlanta home, and although her initial plan was to keep working with the Residents, the distance and time apart have resulted in a gradual, but natural parting of ways. She is a mother now, and in a new chapter of her life. The Residents have carried on as well. This year marks the Residents' 40th anniversary, and just as it always has done, the group is continuing to experiment with changing technology, social media in particular.

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