Sunday, March 23

interview: hollie fullbrook (tiny ruins)

Hollie Fullbrook by Georgie Craw
Hollie Fullbrook, the talented songwriter behind Tiny Ruins, talks to Adrian Ng about her upbringing and David Lynch. A shortened version of this interview featured first in Critic on the 23/03/2014.

Are there any special moments that has sparked your love for music?

We found my mum's old auto-harp in the attic; it had quite a mystique to it - the fact it was boxed away, this beautiful thing. As a little kid, my nightly ritual was to sing all the songs I could remember out my window - this was probably influenced by some Disney scene! I memorised the soundtracks to the few old films we were allowed to watch - Dick Van Dyck stuff. I loved the sound of the guitar when Mum played it on the rare occasion - the tapping of nails on the steel strings and the smudgy fret noises from lack of practice. She would play old songs from a band she had been in, songs her ex-boyfriend wrote. It was always kind of a big deal when she pulled out the guitar. When I was eleven, my grandad unearthed that same guitar. Mum had broken her wrist and hadn't played it in years. Grandad likes country music - Johnny Cash songs, schmoozy ballads ("fair young maid, all in a garden...." etc). He would belt them out in his thick Devonshire accent, his voice a low rumbling growl. H taught me the chords for 'Amazing Grace' one day, and it was like an instantaneous love-at-first-play situation. I wanted to join in with the bunch of dudes at school who played Nirvana covers.

There have been lots of special moments, but also special people. I had good music teachers growing up. I grew up and lived in Bristol, England until I was ten. My first music teacher was a woman named Jane who introduced me to the cello when I was seven. I remember her house as being very dark and full of strange stuff - objects and furniture that always made me quieten down somehow. She was lovely but also quite stern - she demanded a lot of respect from me, which was quite a feat, as I was quite a wild little kid. There was also my cello teacher in west Auckland, Robyn, who lived up the road from me, and she was the loveliest person, it made me want to keep playing. My music teachers at Avondale College were cool in all their different ways - the school had a strong music department and culture surrounding it, and I forged lots of strong friendships in that place.

Also, hearing Beatles' songs for the first time - once, sleepily, during the car-pool to school, it startled me into awakeness. This happened again when a French exchange group sang 'Michelle' in the school assembly; and when I was lying on the floor of a grown-ups' party with my friend who had appendicitis. I remember jumping around the lounge with my brothers listening to the White album as Mum did the ironing...I found Beatles' songs particularly mesmerising - I think lots of kids who hear them do - that mix of catchy, sentimentality and the bizarre. But I felt like a bit of an outsider for liking the Beatles then - it seems ridiculous now, claiming indignantly to have been a hard-core fan of the most popular, oft-mentioned band in history. I remember the moment where I turned my radio station over from solid gold to 91zm, the evening before I started third form, telling myself I had to conform or I'd be doomed. Music was wonderful but it could also land you in vulnerable territory if you didn't know or care about what was going on at that stage in the late 90s. The Spice Girls left me cold, I have to say. I felt the awkwardness of all that really acutely! But maybe that was also just being thirteen and fourteen - the worst ages. 

Later on, my dad introduced me to heaps of stuff - Neil Young, Bob Dylan, country stuff like Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch...I also remember falling in love with Nina Simone & Billie Holiday when I worked in this little second hand clothes shop in Titirangi one summer. I did a few hours on a Sunday, and the whole shop was mine to run. There were never any customers, but I cranked up the funny old collection of CDs there - jazz singers and all the French ones - Edith Piaf, theatrical wartime stuff...I was kind of open to anything, but often just seized upon whatever came my way.

Your music always make me feel such a sense of nostalgia. There is quite a mystical, ancient quality to it. How do you interact with your music? Is there a certain mood you are trying to capture and immerse yourself in?

Thank you, that's really cool. The only way I can explain how it feels for me, is that I follow a bit of an Alice trail - writing, when it's going well, is like half-remembering something from a dream you had, but it's all in another language; it's something you have to crack. And a cloud sort of clears. Maybe the subconscious has a big part to play in it, I don't know, because often it feels like a trance-like state when you've been repeating the same little guitar riff around and around and all these images sort of flash by. It's like bringing something from the inside out into the open, to feel like the outside isn't so unrecognisable. 

It's a mix of defence and surrender for me, because being vulnerable can actually make you feel a lot tougher. Being honest about how it feels sometimes to be a human on this crazy planet is like setting the balance or something within yourself. After writing a song, it often feels like I've emerged stronger, and nothing anyone says can sway me. But then there's also a huge feeling of doubt, when you re-visit the idea a few days later. There's hard work and lots of drafts to every song and it can be frustrating and even dull.  But at the end of the day, it's just fun to play around on the guitar, for me. Some tunings and chord progressions are just thrilling to follow - instinct decides the next chord...and when an idea starts to emerge out of the void - when you thought you'd never think of anything original again, and it get a real kick out of it. Music is constantly new and interesting to me, even if I'm working from the realms of classical, folk and blues sometimes - those are markers I guess, for what holds me down, and then there's this newness and sense of possibility that keeps things fresh.

For you, what usually evokes the urge to create? Films, conversations, emotions?

Nothing in particular, but all of those things definitely have urged me to write. You know that feeling when you're on Wikipedia, and an article leads you into another and another and suddenly you feel like you're going down quite a specific a tunnel and finding out these startling things - if I ever get that feeling, it usually means it's a trigger for me to write a song. Something about 'discovery' or 'epiphany'  or 'stopping dead in tracks', 'putting two and two together' - like cracking a sort of code I guess, it's that feeling that I think to myself "I need to grab some paper and jot all these thoughts down". Just feeling curious about something, rather than the usual feeling of numbness or blandness - that's the secret signal.

Your touring schedule has been quite impressive over the past few years, has playing internationally given you a new perspective when it comes to doing music as a profession?

I guess I've realised how hard it is, which I never quite contemplated before I began. I have heaps of respect for bands who make it over to New Zealand to play for us. It's a long way and not economical. Touring is a slog, even for successful, or what appear to be successful, musicians. It takes a lot of patience, problem-solving, hardiness...and you have to let go of the idea that you will make money from it - all your cash goes straight back into the next thing...but it's a fun time as well. It helps if you have good friends on hand, which I do in the form of my bandmates Cass and Alex, who are amazing. Though we do seem to 'step up' a little each year, I still just see it as a cool way to travel and to experience the world and all its madness, and to hopefully reach some people with your music in far-flung places.

Tell me about your upcoming album Brightly Painted One. It's a beautiful title, what inspired it? How are you approaching this release in comparison to your previous records?

The title is from one of the songs, 'She'll Be Coming 'Round'...I wrote it in this small Italian village set in coastal mountains, where I was sort of an au pair for a while. The material on this one has been written over the course of about three years, and spans a very important time of my life post-study, where I finally dedicated myself to making music and travelling a lot as a result of that.

We recorded it as a band, at a studio called The Lab in Auckland, which has a big main room which we used on a couple of occasions to get a bigger sound, but also a warren of corridors and small rooms, where we did the bulk of tracking. We layered this one quite a bit, over the course of about six months, in between touring. There's more in the way of brass, strings, organ parts, percussion, arrangements...still minimal like my first one, but weightier perhaps. Some Were Meant For Sea was recorded quite spontaneously in Australia by myself and J Walker from the band Machine Translations (who, incidentally, just released a beautiful album The Bright Door). So yep, on this one I felt more of a sense of being at the helm of a larger gang of people, planning & shaping it with Tom Healy, a friend who has a small studio set up in a part of The Lab, who did all the engineering and mixing. Three of my flatmates played on it, including Cass, who'd helped me develop and demo most of the songs while we were touring in Europe the year previously. I see it as a very local project, bringing in friends, and the talent around us even down the artwork, painted by Johl Dwyer, an Elam student.

We are trying our best to have a well-coordinated release, with four different labels involved (Spunk & Arch Hill for Aus/NZ, Flying Nun for USA, Bella Union for UK/EU), which is a really great thing and I'm happy that the past few years of working pretty independently and doing most stuff ourselves has led to us teaming up with some really good people to take the record into the world a bit more.

I've heard David Lynch really loves your music. Are you a David Lynch fan?

Ha, yeah that was a crazy surprise. Yes, I'm a fan of his, from what I've seen. I loved Twin Peaks - I more or less watched the first series all in one go. The bass line from the theme song still comes to mind, especially when in small towns. Such a visual director - I can't shake these really vivid images from his films. I watched Mulholland Drive by myself on afternoon television once in my teens. Whoa! Visiting LA at  eighteen and also more recently to play some shows for the first time, I felt like that the town in particular brings a lot of context to his films. There is a weird mix of the familiar and the freaky, suppressed stuff - kind of the horror and the unsettling of normality.

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