Music is how Hollie Smith breathes by Madelaine Empson
Hollie Smith’s mum always said she could sing before she spoke. The soul singer-songwriter started performing shows at just 13 and has made an indelible mark on the New Zealand music landscape. Smith has three number one solo albums, including her double-platinum debut Long Player (2007), and numerous awards and accolades to her name. Hers is the voice of Don McGlashan’s iconic song Bathe in the River, which appeared on the soundtrack for the 2006 film No. 2 and has scored many a Kiwi moment.
It was around this time that Smith signed a multi-album deal with the legendary jazz label Blue Note in New York. The deal collapsed, jeopardising her rise to superstardom. Coming out the other side of what she calls a soul-destroying time, Smith found her way back to music, which she lived, breathed, and slept as more acclaim rolled in for her sophomore album Humour and the Misfortune of Others (2010) and 2016’s follow-up Water or Gold.
After a five-year break, Smith has just released her fourth solo album. Alert Levels permitting, she’ll perform Coming In From The Dark at Meow on the 8th of December as part of a nationwide tour.
Can you tell me about when your career kickstarted with Bathe in the River and Long Player?
I moved down to Wellington when I was 19, 20. I was working with Freddy’s, and went on tour with Trinity Roots and recorded with them, which was a massive turning point. The industry feels very different down in Wellington than it does in Auckland. It was a lot more of a family affair with the collaborations and the way things rolled out. I did an EP and I’d done a lot of collaborations in Wellington, and then focusing on Long Player at the time, I’d said that I wasn’t going to do any more for a while. Then out of the blue Mr Don McGlashan gives me a call and asks me to sing on this track, which is just going to be this simple track in the background of a movie that he was scoring… Next minute! Bathe in the River releases and becomes one of the biggest New Zealand singles in history at the time.
At the time I struggled with it to be fair. I really wanted to be known for songwriting and my own music, so Bathe in the River kind of swooped in and stole my thunder. I wouldn’t even perform it live. It was a weird move, but I was 10-foot-tall and bulletproof and incredibly stubborn. I love singing it now and have done for years.
The year after Bathe in the River came out, Long Player reached number one on the RIANZ charts. How did that make you feel at the time?
Funnily enough, I was always really ambitious. When it won the awards and was selling really well is when I got picked up by Blue Note. During that time, which was so exciting, I was in New York dealing with major record executives and flying around the world meeting other heads of office. In my head that was never going to be the pinnacle. I was chasing the dragon a little bit, I was going to be Lorde, essentially. Nothing really phased me at that point. World domination was key.
Is world domination still key for you?
The Blue Note jazz label had been my dream since I was little. When the deal went sour and collapsed in the way it did – which was pretty cruel really for an unknown New Zealand actress to be shelved and sued, all these other horrible things that happened – it really damaged my view on what music was in my life. All I had before that was music, and I loved it, I was on one path. When that happened I really did have to rely on my friends and family. Mentally and emotionally I was pretty unwell. Settling the deal meant that I couldn’t write or release any music because they could have technically claimed it, so that’s why there was the initial long period between albums. That also meant I didn’t have money to match what my reputation was in producing music in New Zealand at the time.
I didn’t think I was going to do another record, but I got to a point in that journey where I could cathartically sit down and write music again and enjoy it. It went full circle into understanding why I love music. It wasn’t because of all the other stuff, it was because this is what I do, this is how I breathe. Being able to move forward with a different take on things. Then I was just a bit gun-shy really, I just wanted to establish myself again in New Zealand. Years went by and I’m still here!
How do you feel you have evolved musically over those 15 years – especially looking at Coming In From The Dark?
My tastes have changed, but I don’t think this album is a black and white departure from Long Player or anything else I’ve written. In some ways I feel like the songs – the chords and progressions – on this album are a lot simpler than some of my jazzier material in the past. But then it sounds complicated because I decided to put an orchestra [New Zealand Symphony Orchestra] on it. It’s hard to make something sound simple when you’ve got 90 people playing strings!
What does Coming In From The Dark cover emotionally and thematically?
You was around the time Trump was running for president and the Syrian refugee crisis was happening. Essentially just the exhaustion of being so saturated with media and trying not to feel guilty for switching it off at times. Damage Done has elements of the hashtag movements – #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. Heaven Only Knows was very much around the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I wrote it about a week before George Floyd was murdered, and didn’t quite know what it meant at the time. A week later I was like, ‘Oh, there you go’.
There’s some relationship stuff, a few social commentary-inspired ones, and more personally, a friend of mine Billy, he passed away a few years ago. He had lost his son in a horrible accident, and within a year he got diagnosed with a really rare form of lymphoma and passed away shortly afterwards. That song was him coming home, going to be with his son, which I think his body did for him.
There’s lots of different elements; there’s been plenty of life lived over those five years.
Did COVID affect the record?
COVID was in the production but not in the songwriting. I had it all ready and we were going into the studio, then the first lockdown happened. It ended up being a big COVID jigsaw puzzle. When I did eventually stick it all back together again, I got a bit of a fright. It was a big cacophony of sound, everyone had been recording parts remotely without the other parts being on there. So I spent the subsequent few months essentially dissecting it back to make it make sense again.
What are you most looking forward to about the upcoming tour?
Playing new songs to people is always amazing. Seeing how they’re received and which songs work, which environments they connect with. I’m bursting at the seams to get out there and perform again. I always put everything into performances, my band’s incredible musically, and hopefully visually we’ll be able to provide a nice evening out. I just want everyone to come and enjoy it. Buy the album, support local. It’s a damn tough time. If it’s not me, if you’ve got a favourite New Zealand artist, I implore you to go out there and support them any way you can.