Hollie Smith looks tired. She exudes a warm, engaging disposition, but she has that slightly jaded, where-am-I-now? look which betrays the fact she's been back in the country less than 24 hours. She spent yesterday flying back from a whirlwind, 'drop everything and go' one week visit to New York and LA. She is back with news that we both know will have all manner of media clamouring for her attention over the next few days, and will propel her into national news status. But for now the public are gloriously unaware of the imminent announcement, and we are able to chat, uninterrupted, at one of her favourite Wellington haunts.
There is no contradiction to Hollie Smith; everything about her radiates raw honesty, passion and emotion. Her manner and physical appearance match the sound that comes from within it - expressive. She wears her heart on both sleeves - arms heavily tattooed, a landscape and living tribute to life affecting times. A girl next door with an undeniable inner intensity, she has a voice that all the smoke-filled rooms and late night tipples in the world won't give you. This is a body being lived in. An impassioned soul. If there's a fire burning inside it's a bushfire - the type you can sense without needing to see it. Hollie Smith is bona fide. The real deal.
Smith was Auckland-born and schooled, but in a musical sense is more Wellington-bred. She credits the capital city's music whanau/collective for keeping it real and allowing her to step up to the plate.
"The great thing about Wellington is there's a community to hang out and play music with, and have fun. It doesn't have to be a gig, or to a set list, or a rehearsed thing. It's really apparent how much easier it is to work with other people. Small venues here have music "cause they love it - it's just about having a nice group of people playing at your venue. There's a freedom to create, to make up music on the spot, and to be able to share it. That's why it's so magic and so much good music comes out from it."
Since her arrival in Wellington in 2003, Smith has been a staple of the scene she is talking about. Appearances with the likes of Illphonics, Trinity Roots, Fat Freddy's Drop and Fly My Pretties confirmed her as a heavyweight talent and key player. Of all the artists she's worked with, she singles out Trinity Roots for being instrumental in her development.
"They were the first band to take me on when I came down to Wellington, literally two days later. I ended up working with them on a demo of The Dream, which was on the 'Home, Land and Sea' album, and that led to me working with them for a couple of years. They changed my mindset in regards to music, got me inspired and turned me around."
Procrastination thrown aside, in 2005 Smith released her self-released, self-titled debut five-track EP, made up of songs written, she says, when she was 15 or 16. She has continued to lend her voice to countless other people's projects, including the now anthemic Don McGlashan-penned hit Bathe In The River, which really got the country taking notice. Somehow she also found time to travel with the Loop crew on their 'OE:Brazil' excursion, leaving the local Brazilian players in awe of her talent.
The graduation from EP to album has been a trying and difficult process for Smith, the off-field side of the business incessantly keeping her preoccupied. A split with manager and friend Toby Larmer saw her switch management to the husband and wife team of Morgan and Nicky Donoghue.
"Toby and I are good friends and we got a bit complacent. We were too close personally and I wanted a more professional relationship. Morgan is a 10 year veteran, and it just happened by default. I was joking with him that he could do it (manage her)."
Even with new management, the business side of the industry threatened to weigh her down.
"I think about marketing and promotional strategies, being involved with products. It's been a constant battle trying to give the music making side suitable attention while balancing the business side. There's a lot to taking care of the whole 'how to put out an album'. I've been surprised by how anticipated it's been."
Smith commenced work on her debut, 'Long Player', immediately after her EP release. Considerable time was given to finding the right people to work with, playing live, and writing.
"I've always written on guitar but I've started playing on the piano - there's more depth in the chord structure."
After appearing on the albums of so many other artists' , Smith naturally had a considerable pool of talent keen to return the favour.
"Wellington's such a collaborative scene. You do all these small time gigs with different people, and then when it's time to do an album you don't have to stick with the people you've got for that project. If a part comes up that you think would be perfect for so and so you get them to play it and it sounds exactly how you imagined it. Wellington's that community of playing with each other and supporting and influencing each other."
The core band on 'Long Player' is comprised of musicians who have been playing with her for a few years now. Crete Haami (Police Lucifer, Residue) on bass, Jeremy Toy (Opensouls) on guitar and Darren Mathiassen (Rhombus, Trinity Roots) on drums give her a dynamic and genre crossing team. Smith herself wrote a lot of the music lines. The choice of backing vocalists (which feature so predominantly on 'Long Player') was a crucial one. Hollie Smith's own voice - a smoldering, rich, and ultimately breathtaking combination of soul and blues - would demolish most b/v's. The line up she settled on, comprising Lisa Tomlins and Deva Mahal, with Rio Hemopo (TrinityRoots) and P Digsss (Shapeshifter), is sublime. The addition of the Mission Choir from Kilbirniein Wellington makes 'Long Player' vocally one of the finest albums this country has produced. Soulful, uplifting and majestic, the vocals (also written and arranged by Smith) have a depth, power and feeling that work to immerse the listener in Smith's voice and stories. Of the many trump cards in the 'Long Player' hand, it is her own vocal performance in combination with her backing singers that will propel the album into classic status. She says she had singing lessons for a short time when she was young, but didn't want to be controlled by technique. She spends a long time on her lyrics as they are always the inspiration behind her voice.
"I try to get in touch with it. I'm driven by the emotion that inspired the song in the first place."
As for her cast, Smith says all backing vocals were recorded together in one 12 hour session. They would do five or six takes, but would usually nail it in one. She was thrilled to have the services of the Mission Choir.
"I'd always envisioned a choir, and it was a highlight of the album recording them. They are a church-based community choir and there were about 20-25 of them in the studio. It was quite emotional."
With all the pieces in place, the recording and knob twiddling side of the album came together quite quickly. After one month of rehearsals, the band entered Mike Gibson's Trident Studios in Wellington for a two week session in late December, where they were recorded live. The vocalists did their sessions at Trident early this year, the order being backing vocals, lead vocals, choir. Smith herself was in the studio over a period of two months and is also a co-producer. She is the latest in a roll call of Wellington musicians heaping praise on the influential Gibson, who filled the role of engineer on 'Long Player'.
"He was my moral support throughout. He took on a whole role you wouldn't expect."
Her other go-to man throughout the process was band guitarist Jeremy Toy, who also served as co-arranger and co-producer. Smith says his ear for subtle detail was crucial. Toy also provided the link to Dave Cooley, who mixed and mastered the album from his base in LA. Cooley had previously worked on Toy's Opensouls album, and his credits include a swag of releases from international artists.
"It was basically mixed and mastered over the Net. We would either listen to it (in NZ) in realtime playing from his desk in LA, or he would put it up when he finished work for the day and we would download it at the start of our day. He did basically a mix a day over two weeks. He'd mostly have nailed it and we'd change minor details and sign off. We did this through instant messenger."
On her recent trip to the States Smith took time to detour to LA to meet Cooley, who came across "... just as I'd expected."
'Long Player' is being released through Soundsmith Records, Smith's own label, one she established "just to create a business to keep everything separate." As such this is its first release. With manager Morgan Donoghue being recently ex-of EMI it is no surprise that 'Long Player' is licensed to EMI NZ for distribution. Okay, so here's where it all starts happening.
It was EMI NZ MD Chris Caddick who sent a pre-release copy of 'Long Player' to the offices of Blue Note Records, New York. When legendary Blue Note President Bruce Lundvall heard the album, his reaction made for a story headed straight into musical folklore. On his way to visit his wife in hospital, Lundvall had grabbed the album to listen to in his car. So excited by what he was hearing, he almost crashed before he pulled over and started making phone calls.
Wellington's music scene being the close knit community that it is, I had heard Smith was back with a big announcement. But when she actually tells me, the interview stops as first I, then Hollie Smith herself struggle to take in the scope of this opportunity. Like a school kid sharing in a secret, I shake my head in bewilderment as my smile slowly spreads. Smith has had a lot longer to ruminate on the possibilities, yet the news has clearly not yet fully registered. 'Surreal' is the word that keeps coming up. It's easily 10 minutes before I realize I haven't written a thing.
"I got a personal email from Bruce saying he loved the album and was very interested in having me on his label. They would've waited (for her to come over), but we had to go at the drop of a hat (three days later) to ensure the NZ release went smoothly."
Lundvall hasn't held back on his feelings about Smith.
"When you hear someone this exciting you don't think about anything other than, 'Let's sign her as quickly as we possibly can'. She is one of the best soul singers I've heard in a long time... she simply has that star quality you can't describe."
Her meetings with Lundvall were mind-blowing.
"We were in Bruce's office and I was surrounded by telegrams from Miles Davis. There were platinum records of Norah Jones and John Coltrane on the walls. We would go out to lunch and Bruce would be sharing Miles Davis and Jesse Jackson and Bill Withers' stories. All of these most amazing people you could imagine he's been personal friends with for years."
Smith was given the option of signing with Blue Note or offshoot Manhattan Records. After much soul searching, she chose the latter. "We met both. (Manhattan MD) Ian Ralfini was really pushing for me." He has since described her as having "a depth and passion that I haven't heard for a long time."
Smith continues: "Manhattan seemed the better option. I'll have more creative control and they have great people who are really involved. My marketing and promotion people did Whitney Houston's first album and some Aretha Franklin stuff. I felt immediately comfortable with them. They had heard of a bunch of (NZ) bands I mentioned. People think that no one knows what's going on down here, but they do." She has signed a full works multi-album deal for universal (excluding NZ) release. Manhattan are considering a "very tentative" date of February 2008 for worldwide release. Rumour has it they have already mopped up signings for film. Hollie will be spending time in New York later this year after completing the 'Long Player' tour over July and August.
The 10 tracks on 'Long Player' are all new. They capture a passionate, sophisticated and mature take on soul and blues with beautiful forays into gospel, jazz and (being a Wellington release after all!) roots. Although we can expect three to four singles, one thing 'Long Player ' is not, is a pop album. Smith doesn't feel this will stop the kids. And indeed it has not - the album easily went gold in its first week, entering the album chart at #1.
"Bathe in the River crossed over genres and age groups. That opened up lots of opportunities for me to appeal across different demographics."
She smiles at the irony as we joke about the meaning of the word 'featuring'.
"That was the first time I've done a song without being involved in any part of the writing. People think that song is hugely me, but it's completely the opposite."
We say our goodbyes and I leave genuinely excited and awaiting the reaction as New Zealand hears her news in a few long days. This time the songs are all hers. For those who didn't already know her, that's the real Hollie Smith who just stood up.