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From The Archives – Rip It Up: Hollie Smith/Walking in Autumn Rain

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Hollie Smith: Walking in Autumn Rain
By Martyn Pepperell

Just prior to departing for a recon trip to Europe, Hollie Smith breaks cover to speak about her new collaborative record ‘Band of Brothers Vol.1’, and the creative realisations associated with it.

A tattooed warrior woman with a voice that seems to enchant and infuriate with equal abandon, since the early 2000s Aucklander Hollie Smith’s musical presence has been indelibly marked on the regional creative culture of New Zealand. A soul singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter – between her own series of divisive solo recordings, and collaborations with a spectrum of artists that includes Don McGlashan, Concord Dawn, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Bulletproff and Trinity Roots – Smith’s impact has been longstanding, and in certain cases iconic.

By now, whether you’re a fan or not, chances are you know the back story. Teenage Celtic music recordings, acclaimed live (and recorded) performances with Trinity Roots and countless other members of the local musical mafia, an international record deal with Manhattan Records (which didn’t play out as expected), gold and platinum record and single sands and – with the 2010 release of her sophomore album Humour And The Misfortune Of Others – what some call a miraculous reinvention. Close to a year and a half on from the last time I spoke with her, on a sunny Auckland afternoon in July, I headed up to the EMI offices to hear about her newest offering, ‘Band Of Brothers Vol: 1’.

Constructed over a frantic, creatively saturated six week period in Wellington, the album saw Smith teaming up with hotly tipped local multi-instrumentalist, DJ, golden voiced singer and record producer Mara TK (of Electric Wire Hustle). The mercurial outcome of the project was a spectacular reimagining of Smith’s potential and range as a singer, as filtered through TK’s artistic engagement with the international psychedelic soul and modern beat music soundworlds he actively participates in.

Blending the synthetics of G-funk with the hazy atmospherics associated with chillwave, the record connects these forms with the vicious chopped and screwed aesthetics of deceased American genius DJ Screw, the melodic sensibilities of American jazz composer David Axelrod (and his many musical descendants) and Smith’s storied musical past. Not so much a ‘Hollie Smith’ record per say, it is a true collaborative venture – the first in what she intends to be an ongoing series of similar projects released under the Band Of Brothers banner. For Smith, this project has been an awakening of possibilities. As such, it represents a sonic vision beyond the expectations people already have of her. Best to let Smith explain the rest.

How did this whole new project get started?
I had been thinking about it since late last year. I thought I would try and put a project together and chuck it out before moving to Berlin for a while. I wanted to do something on a small budget and create some income while I was away. I wanted to something different, maybe in collaboration, as I wouldn’t have had the capacity mentally or financially to do another Hollie Smith album.

What was going on in your life at that point in time?
You know, as much as I love Humour And The Misfortune Of Others [Smith’s second album], and it reviewed really well, and there were a lot who really liked it – it didn’t quite fire in the way [her first solo album] Long Player did. It never sparked anything that kept me really busy or occupied. So I actually had quite a bit of time to start doing something different. It was a case of ‘what do I do now?’ I didn’t have the capacity to take Humour And The Misfortune Of Others overseas, so I started thinking about moving forward and doing another project.

Which of course became this record didn’t it? In light of this, how did you select Mara TK as your collaborator?
I had another idea in mind at the time. I talked to Mara about the idea of him helping me out or co-producing it. He was like, ‘if I’m going to get involved I I’d like to do this, and this – and this.’ Essentially, he was talking about a whole new project. He had six weeks until he had to leave for Europe with ‘Electric Wire Hustle’, and he thought we could make it work. It took on a life of its own. I’ve always been a massive fan of his work in general. The Electric Wire Hustle album would be one of my all time favourite New Zealand albums. Watching him perform with Eru Dangerspiel and Fly My Pretties was a real highlight of those shows for me. Then there is his solo stuff and things like that. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for what he does. I love his voice and the way he puts things together musically. I thought he would be too busy and not that interested. Then he just came onboard. It was perfect.

Can you remember how you met him?
Not really – I think it’s just that amalgamation of musicians and scenes, you know?

Faces and voices slowly becoming more and more familiar?
We were definitely only acquaintances before this project. We’d been in each other’s peripheral view for quite some time though. We had a healthy respect for each other – he was excited to work with me and vice versa, which was a nice feeling.

Is this the quickest period of time you’ve ever finished a proper project in?
Shit yes. It was pretty excessive. I mean, realistically the workload we were doing was insane. We put a lot of deadlines on it. Creativity speaking, it wasn’t forced, but we had to meet those deadlines. We were working to finish it. So we were writing purposefully.

What was the writing and studio approach like?
That was the thing. We didn’t really have time to think about it. Mara produced some beats and we got a couple of other people to send through some beats. We had a musical bed to go on. He came up to Auckland from Wellington, and we spent a few days writing melodic ideas. Then I came down to Wellington for a month and we were writing every day and recording at night. We never really stopped and listened to songs or critiqued them. It kind of all just organically fell into place where it should. We didn’t have time to sit back and reflect. We just went with it.

Who were the other people who contributed beats?
We got two from Christoph El’ Truento, who is an up and coming younger dude from Auckland. He is really talented. I really like him, and Mara has done some work with him. We got a track from a guy from Portugal who Mara worked with when he attended the Red Bull Music Academy. Also, 10acious — a producer who has worked with Scribe and King Kapisi – sent us a track. We didn’t end up using it in the end, but we wrote a song to it and built a new body for it, so he was involved as part of the songwriting team. The rest of it was Mara’s beats. Then Mara and I co-wrote the lyrics and melodies.

Where did you work on the record?
We pretty much did all of it in Wellington. I just moved in with him and his partner and child. We’d write at his home during the day and record with Ryan Prebble at The Surgery studio at night. Then Lee Prebble would come in and do the mixing. We’d get up early, write till around 6pm, have dinner, then head to the studio until midnight, or sometimes 2am, then do it over again. I came back up for a couple of weekends to get some space, and that ended up helping a lot. We pretty much went all in. Our every waking hour was just sitting there – working, talking, thinking. We’ve only just finished it and it all came about pretty quickly, so I haven’t moved on much. I’ve only really listened to it a bunch of times. When we were mixing it down, me and Mara were joking that this was the first time someone has sat down, listened to a final mix and not been completely sick of it. We were listening and we were both like, ‘fuck. That’s actually not bad.’ We were both semi-surprised that we’d pulled it off, but it really poured out – and we were still listening to it with fresh ears.

It really is a true collaboration isn’t it? And in this sense, it’s almost a brand reboot?
Essentially, why I established ‘Band Of Brothers’ was so I could have a side project. I wanted to work with different collaborators and within different genres, and experiment more with how I sound and how I write. I also wanted to get a bit more emotionally detached from my work as well, and get different influences and inspirations by working in different ways. This way I can branch out and not necessarily compromise the Hollie Smith brand. I’m interested to see if people who follow my old stuff will follow this stuff. I think I’ll probably make some new fans and lose some old ones. I think it is still relevant to the Hollie Smith sound. It’s just a very different project.

Something I think is really great about this is the fact you’re about to head to Europe on a recon trip, and you’ve also just finished a record which will translate very well over there.
Yeah, I’m going out to Berlin for a month. I was going to go there for longer – create contacts, try do some gigs with Mara and check things out. At the moment I think it will be more just looking around and seeing if I can establish distribution or do any gigs that come up. I’m not putting any pressure on myself though. I’m just going to go along and see what happens. A big element in getting Mara involved was knowing that I was going to Europe. I wanted to create a bit more of a market over there, which I haven’t had the means to do the last few years. So having something more relevant to that market to take over there is good. I’m hoping there will be some interest with that. And if anyone is interested in ‘Humour And The Misfortune Of Others’, that would be great. I think with Mara’s contacts, and the way Electric Wire Hustle is going, there will be some potential. Gilles Peterson [from Radio 1] is a big fan of Electric Wire Hustle, and Zane Lowe [from Radio 1] could be keen. I think we have a few ins to try and get at least some underground interest or radioplay. I just need to see first hand how everyone we know is doing it over there. Be it Electric Wire Hustle, Shapeshifter or Ladi6. I’ll just see if I can jump on anything and just do anything which feels comfortable or relevant to me and what I want to try and do. I don’t even really know what that is though yet, so hopefully something starts to make a bit of sense. Then I’ll feel like I have a bit more direction regarding doing stuff overseas.

What about back here at home?
Hopefully later in the year, once the Rugby World Cup madness has calmed down, we’ll be able to tour the record around the country. Maybe it will be in a sound system style like Ladi6 and Parks do. Or maybe we will translate the songs with a full live band. I need to sit down with Mara and have a chat about where he will be at, how much time he will have, and how it could all work out. If he can join me and we can pull something together for a bit of a tour, it would be awesome to do it together.

Buy ‘Band Of Brothers Vol. 1’ here.

Hollie Smith:

‘Walking in Autumn Rain’ sourced from ‘Rip It Up’ No. 342, Aug-Sep 2011. Used with permission.

Posted in: From the ArchivesGeneralInterviewsRip It Up

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