A lot of shit went down since ‘Long Player’ came out,” says soul chanteuse Hollie Smith, as we sit enjoying the sun on the deck of her shared flat in Ponsonby. “It led me to having a big break from music in general, and writing and all that sort of thing.”
The bright Auckland sun is rather in contrast to the topic of conversation. Ostensibly NZ Musician is here to find out all about Smith’s new record ‘Humour and the Misfortune of Others’ but that album can’t be discussed without first delving into the turbulent issues surrounding its creation.
Hollie Smith came to widespread national attention in 2006 when her powerful pipes bellowed the Don McGlashan penned Bathe In The River to the number two spot in our music charts. The song’s gospel flavour seemed tailor made for Smith’s strikingly strong voice, and even though she had been steadily building a following of her own for a number of years, it was this song from the film No. 2 that would turn her into a household name.
Her debut record ‘Long Player’ quickly followed on a wave of media attention and adulation, almost going double platinum and nabbing her a bunch of NZ Music Awards including Breakthrough Artist of the Year, Best Female Solo Artist and Best Aotearoa Roots Album.
This all helped promote her to the attention of the legendary New York-based jazz label Blue Note Records which signed her up, President Bruce Lundvall himself seen picking up his pen for TV3’s cameras which were ostensibly present for the momentous occasion. It was the fairytale overnight success you hear about, even though it had taken her seven or so years of hard yakka to achieve. Outwardly everything looked roses for the 24-year-old singer/songwriter, but underneath the press release façade of impending global success was a very different story.
“I think I was quite misrepresented after ‘Long Player’ happened,” Smith says with a weary sigh. “A lot of people thought I was doing really well, financially, and on a surface level everything looked like it was being pretty ideal, whereas behind the scenes there were a lot of things going on. We had a lot of conflictions with people that I was working with. These were longtime friendships that soured due to just misunderstanding and naive reactions to certain situations. Obviously I was signed to Blue Note in New York, and that ended really badly.”
EMI NZ are handling the release of ‘Humour and the Misfortune of Others’ and before talking to Smith I had been directed by an EMI publicist not to ask about the Blue Note saga. But as he’s not here, and Smith herself has brought it up, I decide to ignore the request and ask her how so?
“They ended up breaching the contract quite severely,” she says matter of factly. “Well, it kind of went beyond that. It went to EMI America at one point and they got heavily involved and tried to make some changes that I wasn’t gonna go with. Essentially it ended up ending really, really badly. I’d invested a lot of money and time and energy into that project and essentially I was left at a standstill for a long time. For a couple of years I couldn’t actually write anything because of the consequences of what they’d done. It just left me in a really bad position where I was just stuck. I couldn’t work overseas with ‘Long Player’ or anything like that.”
That doesn’t sound good at all, I say.
“I was in a really bad place and that was really hard on an emotional level. And a personal level. Essentially my whole six years worth of work had just disintegrated in front of me. The mental pressure of what that put on me and what I was doing this for and why I was bothering with this industry and things like that... It was a big question period of if I was even going to continue on this journey.”
That major corporation controlled inertia and the accompanying pressure sounds like the exact kind of thing that would completely sap the creativity out of a person.
“Yep, absolutely,” Smith confirms. “It did. But also I was too scared to write anything because of some of the contractual things, even though they breached it. I didn’t want to give them anything else. I didn’t want to start writing a second album or getting on to recording a second album because there was potential there for them to come in and own it as well. So basically for a couple of years I had that standstill period. I was completely helpless and lost a lot of confidence and lost a lot of energy. Financially I was broken as well.”
So after all that considerable local success and the promise – since broken – of the global Blue Note audience, Smith found herself beyond rock bottom; her album unreleased, unable to tour, unwilling to write anything new and essentially unrewarded for the album so many had thought was her ticket to fortune and fame. All the hard work increasingly seemed like it was done for naught and all she could really do was watch her profile slowly wither away from public consciousness. I ask whether it was hard to find the motivation to begin writing again.
“Oh, absolutely,” she says. “I was so out of touch with writing and I sort of hated music. It was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing this for?’. It was a really long time before...” she trails off before finishing her thought. “Essentially I realised that I need music in my life or else I lose my mind. It’s my only vent and it’s the only thing that keeps me sane. It was nice to realise that I didn’t have to do music, but I wanted to do music again.”
So she started, albeit a lot more tentatively than previously. But because of the strange circumstances in which she found herself, her writing style took off in a completely different fashion from what she was used to.
“Because I hadn’t been writing and I was quite out of touch with writing, as soon as the verse and chorus was done I just went ‘tick, tick the box. Next one, next one.’ They’re a lot more simple and a lot more basic, melodically and musically. It wasn’t until later when I got the confidence back up that I went back to those initial ideas and established them a lot more and got the finished song out of it.”
The result is a second album that sees Smith drop the technical musical affectations and cryptic lyrics that characterised ‘Long Player’ in favour of relative simplicity and lyrical honesty. It’s a record that simultaneously showcases her artistic growth as well as being an incredibly personal album. I ask if she perhaps thinks now that despite everything the whole rigmarole ended up being a perverse kind of liberation.
“Yeah, I do,” she agrees. “It’s a lot more of a cathartic album. I’m writing a lot more personally and a lot more... ‘inside voices, inside voices’. Normally I never liked to write too personally about my own situation. I liked to keep that reasonably private. So it’s definitely an album of release, not an album of obligation, which makes the sentiment of the record a little bit different but also directs the music in a different way.”
Was it difficult to write from this new first person perspective?
“No, I think it was probably easier,” she shrugs. “I really struggled with lyrics on the first album and I was really careful about what I was saying and a lot of it was really cryptic and didn’t make a lot of sense. I kind of left it up to people’s interpretation. Whereas this time round I didn’t give it so much thought. The music on this record was very much me venting and very much getting shit out, so it was a lot easier to write in that it was just ‘Raaagghhh’.”
At this she laughs and the mood lightens considerably. And if all this is beginning to sound like Smith has gone all Alanis Morissette on our collective asses you don’t need to fret, she hasn’t. Despite the necessary personal venting, ‘Humour’ is an album full of Smith’s exceptional soul/funk stylings and doesn’t really carry any of the emotional baggage that birthed it.
After her quietly tumultuous few years I ask if it’s good to be back?
“Yeah, I think it’s gonna be,” she laughs. “I’m getting there.”
Produced by Riki Gooch in a two week blitz at Revolver Studio in rural Waiuku, she describes the low key recording process that involved plenty of beer drinking interrupted by dipping into the studio for the occasional take. As the album was essentially recorded live this easy-going process directly influenced its vibe.
“The ironic thing is that it’s a lot more of a personal album but I’m a lot less precious about it. I was a lot less precious to give Riki the creative control over some of the songs and for the band to have their own arrangements coming through on the tracks. And you can tell. It’s a nice album to listen too. There’s no conflict involved in it. People have nice conversations and laugh a lot when they’re listening to it. It provides a really nice energy and I think that comes through in how we put it together and made it. It was done with no burdens.”
Looking up, and with a wide smile, she finishes our conversation with a pointer to the new Hollie Smith album’s lengthy title. “It’s good to feel productive again and it’s definitely good to have a lot more emotional freedom. I’m quite excited.”