Molly & The Chromatics: How the singer of Aotearoa's up-and-coming soul band took her sound from the cancer ward to the festival circuit

Kiwi neo-soul band Molly & The Chromatics began gigging in backyards in Auckland's Devonport before graduating to the nearby suburb of Takapuna, and eventually, making the leap across the Harbor Bridge to venues in the big city. 

At the time, playing shows 'in town' was a gargantuan achievement; but in more recent years, they've upgraded to crowds of thousands at festivals like Rhythm & Vines and headlining their own summer tours. 

While these musical milestones are significant, they're not the only thing lead singer Molly Rowlandson has to celebrate. She's just hit five years cancer free, after her world was turned upside down with a diagnosis of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia when she was just 20 years old. 

Rowlandson was about to return to her third year at Victoria University when she popped into see her doctor, thinking some lumps on her neck might be glandular fever. 

"The doctor was writing 'urgent' on everything, and I just thought he was being really nice and didn't want me to miss my flight back to uni," she explained. 

After being asked to return to the clinic with her parents, Rowlandson was told: "We detected Leukemic cells. Pack your bags, they're waiting for you at Auckland Hospital." 

With her university studies suddenly on hold and years of chemotherapy, lumbar punctures, radiation, bone marrow biopsies ahead, Rowlandson's missive was: "Okay, this is happening, let's do it." 

"I was 20. I don't know how the hell I did that, but I just did," she said. 

Molly & The Chromatics: How the singer of Aotearoa's up-and-coming soul band took her sound from the cancer ward to the festival circuit
Photo credit: Supplied

"I've always been someone anyway who has a positive outlook on the world. But I just managed to dig deep and charge forward, and not look sideways or backwards. It was forward only." 

Straight away, Rowlandson decided even if she was resigned to a hospital bed, she wouldn't be counted as a statistic.

"No one around me was allowed to go on the internet, to look at Google. I was like, 'No, don't, I'm an individual'."  

Rowlandson watched her hair fall out, her body change and the friends she made during her hospital stays succumb to their illnesses, all while her healthy mates threw 21st birthday parties and went overseas. 

"One of my main things was just being afraid of being left behind," she explained. 

So Rowlandson made sure she wasn't. Around 2014, having had a round of chemotherapy that morning, she took to the stage, bald, to sing to a sold-out crowd at Galatos, with the Devonport supergroup Wonderfish, put together by the father of her childhood friend (and the band's current guitarist). 

"That day was pretty amazing," Rowlandson said. 

Slowly, her life began to return to normal, as she weaned off chemotherapy pills and went to work at an advertising agency. But as Molly & The Chromatics started to gain momentum in the music scene, Rowlandson said she no longer wanted everyone to know what she had been battling. 

"Everyday that went forward meant that I was one day away from not getting it again," she said. But not wanting her medical history to define her, Rowlandson pushed it out of her mind, and took it off the table as a conversation topic. 

"Now I feel like with this five year milestone, I'm older, I'm 28 - I definitely know who I am. 

"I've realised it is quite a unique experience, and it could actually help other people." 

Rowlandson said it was important to her to feel confident that people like her music without being influenced by her backstory.

"I never wanted it to be like, 'yeah they're good, did you hear she had cancer?'." 

Molly & The Chromatics: How the singer of Aotearoa's up-and-coming soul band took her sound from the cancer ward to the festival circuit
Photo credit: Supplied

Now on the line-up of some of this summer's best-loved and biggest festivals, the band also has a new single out. 'Hold Tight', described as 'a tongue-in-cheek protest song encased in a pop disco funk banger', touches on the different ways people define success. For Rowlandson, perhaps unsurprisingly, these are less "house, boat, getting the mill in the bank" and more "health and happiness".

"I just want to keep doing music with my life and make it something that I can pursue," Rowlandson said. 

"Hopefully people can look at me and think, 'woah, she's been through a lot', but I'm doing what I love. 

"I just hope that I can help people see that they can do what they want to do. We're so much more capable than we know. 

"Life can throw you some massive curveballs... so just make the most of it." 

Molly & The Chromatics are embarking on a summer tour that will see them play at Bay Dreams Festival in Mount Maunganui on January 3, Soundsplash Festival in Raglan on January 22, and River Sounds Festival in Katikati on January 30, among other shows.