Featured photo: The Queen Bees is made up of Molly McGinn, Anna Luisa Daigneault and Kate Musselwhite Tobey, three Greensboro-based musicians who first collaborated together in 2021. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)
They don’t really have the time, but they do it anyway.
When Kate Musselwhite Tobey texted Molly McGinn and Anna Luisa Daigneault earlier this year to ask if they wanted to enter the NC Folk Festival’s Not Your Average Folk competition, McGinn was quick to say, “No.”
“I was in a space where I was trying to say no more and trying to be more thoughtful about projects that I say yes to,” McGinn recalls.
Even Daigneault responded in the thread by saying that she was tired, wiped out.
“And Kate responded and was like, ‘Are you sure?’” McGinn says. “And I’m doing pilates in the garage and thinking, ‘Well, actually, I’ve got this song start….’”
Over the next few weeks, the three sent texts, voice memos, beats and lyrics back and forth as they created a song. Tobey renamed their text thread “Queen Bees,” and the name stuck.
“Because we’re grown ass women, we text each other at like 7 a.m. because that’s the time we’re awake and have time to do stuff,” Daigneault says.
Eventually, those few lines that McGinn had come up coalesced into the disco-inspired song, “Let the Queen Be,” for which the trio made it to the finals of the competition.
The three artists, creatives, writers, musicians all have their own solo work for which they are known. McGinn is a folk singer-songwriter known for her near constant collaborations with local musicians, including with Daigneault in the past. Daigneault, who performs under the stage name Quilla, is a vocalist, songwriter and electronic music producer. Tobey is a classically trained violinist who uses her talents to harmonize with local musicians. Prior to the three getting together, she had worked with both McGinn and Daigneault separately. In addition to their creative pursuits, all three balance full-time jobs with other creative side projects; two of them have kids. It’s a lot to add another musical collaboration on top of everything they’re doing.
So why do it?
Part of it is because they didn’t win the competition two years ago when they gave it a go.
“I was personally heartbroken,” McGinn says. “We didn’t even make the final four.”
But also, McGinn says the relationship that the three of them have built over the years feels especially unique.
“I have really been missing playing with women,” McGinn says. “I’m lucky to find a collaborative musician in general, but there’s something particularly lovely to be able to play with women who are also peers and also women you admire.”
Plus, the three bring distinct skills that allow them to each make their mark on the music.
“We’re able to bridge between Molly’s world building, research and lyrics, Kate’s ear for arrangement and structure and me with the actual production side and the skeleton of the song,” Daigneault says. “I like to call us the triforce; I know we’ll share the load equally between us in a way that feels healthy and fun.”
So, when the opportunity presented itself again this year, the trio came back together for another shot.
“The nugget of that creative idea, the spark was so real,” Tobey says. “You could just see all the places it could go.”
A celebratory queer anthem
McGinn’s smoky alto voice offers up the first line, introduced by Quilla’s tinny disco beat and a smooth bassline.
“She moves like Donna Summers undercover,” McGinn sings as Tobey’s fingers pluck violin strings. “A disco bird of paradise. And that’s just her on a Sunday, hip step through the grocery aisles. Oh, why be King, when you could be Queen?”
The impetus of the song, according to McGinn, was watching all of the anti-trans and anti-drag queen hate that has been rising in the last few years.
“I was thinking, Wait a minute; we could take this contest and make it an opportunity to really stand up for something and make a difference in something,” McGinn says.
The tempo picks up for the chorus as all three sing along.
“Drag Queen dreams, in bootcut jeans
With rhinestones where her heart should be
Let the Queen be”
In addition to coming up with the sound of the song, which was anchored by Daigneault’s production and Tobey’s talent for harmonizing, the three used their skills as researchers (Daigneault) and as past journalists (McGinn and Tobey) to learn more about queer history. They delved into Queerolina, an online oral history project of queer history in North Carolina and listened to the stories for inspiration. Initially, after they created the song, they hoped to premiere it and shoot the video at a queer club but realized that they don’t have those connections.
“It was a little presumptuous for me to think that just because you write an anthem for a community that you know where they’re coming from,” McGinn says. “That was a big lesson for me.”
In the end, they shot the video at the Flat Iron, where they’ve performed in recent weeks.
Part of the reason they wanted to create an anthem rather than just a song, is because the three, who identify as cisgender, view music as an arm for social justice and storytelling.
“We have a tendency to see collectively beyond the song,” Tobey says.
In addition to “Ravens and the Wrens,” the song they created in 2021 — which was inspired by trans activist and author Sam Peterson — the Queen Bees have about a dozen songs, many of which they’ll be performing in the next few months. They’re plan is to release an EP next year.
Almost all of the songs represent a kind of push and pull dichotomy that speaks to a larger issue within society.
“I think we all see music in our own way as a platform that we’re very privileged to have,” Tobey says. “We’re trying to see the deeper meaning and the most meaningful way to use these instruments, these tools.”
“As the Sea Rises” and “You Belong Here,” both penned by Daigneault, touch on climate change and migration respectively. “Everything is Fine” by Tobey was inspired by the meme, the one with the dog surrounded by fire.
“Each song goes into a heavy theme,” Daigneault says. “But we find a way to make it uplifting.”
For McGinn songmaking is also a personal “antidepressant strategy.”
“If I’m feeling terrible, my only option is to make something beautiful out of it and make other people feel connected to it,” she says. “I don’t know why some people write songs, but for me, it’s because I don’t want to die from sadness so I’m going to write about it.”
As the three have continued to collaborate after the Folk Festival, they say that working together has changed them as musicians.
“My own sound feels stronger and more interesting,” Tobey says.
That’s why, even though they don’t have the time, they couldn’t do without it.
“We’re inventing pockets of time to do this project because it feeds our soul,” Daigneault says.
McGinn puts it plainly.
“There’s no way we’re not going to do it.”
Learn more about the Queen Bees on Instagram at @queen.bees.music. The three will be performing at the Blue Ridge Music Center on Jan. 20.
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