December/January 2019

by Silke Hartung

Ex-Pat Files: Blair Jollands

by Silke Hartung

Ex-Pat Files: Blair Jollands

London-based Kiwi singer/songwriter Blair Jollands has been described as having a ‘country and eastern’ sound. Comparisons drawn with Nick Cave, Bowie and Beck tell you that his song compositions, voice and recordings are of plentiful and international merit. Most of his previous album releases have been under the alter ego name El Hula, but among the NZM office’s ‘best of’ picks for 2018 was ‘7 Blood’, released under his own name, an album of exciting,sometimes theatric diversity that gets its name from an Andalucian mountain herb taken to combat Lyme disease – something he’s had the misfortune to have personal experience of. He regularly tours, plays festivals and collaborates with bands in all parts of the world, heading this way in January.

Can you start by telling us something about the scene you were in when still based in NZ, and what took you away from us?

blair jollands That’s going back 20 years now. I’d returned from Sydney after completing a music and production course and was living in Grey Lynn at the time, playing coffee houses like the Temple Cafe on Queen St, playing solo, guitar and harmonica.

One of my flatmates at the time was Stanley Manthyng of World Gone Wild reknown. I was introduced by him to other artists such as Jacinda Klouwens (Fatal Jelly Space) and Andrew Brough. I joined Andrew’s band Bike for a while before I left NZ, and also played guitar in Flat Hamster Man… Seattle grunge had made its mark and there were a lot of bands at the time ‘slightly’ influenced by that!

I was also working at Stebbing Recording Studios on Jervois Rd as a mastering engineer. I was really getting deeper into the art of music production and recording technique and would record there, or at the rehearsal garage Stanley and I shared up off Bond Street whenever I could. I finished my first LP called ‘Fuzzhead’. Stanley simply picked up the phone and called CBGB in New York City and booked me a gig for CMJ festival (it was that easy then!) and I set off for the USA with my guitar, a box of my new LPs and my dreams.

How did you get your foot in the door over there, both as a recording artist and sound designer?

I’d finished my US tour busking and playing open mics around the perimeter of the States, finishing at CMJ. Playing the legendary CBGB I went on stage after a band called 11… and that was the volume they played! Followed by me playing my Kiwi anti-folk. Brilliant!

I’d run out of money and needed to make my next move, so headed for London where I got work in a cafe off Saville Row. I was hungry and ambitious. Fuzzhead morphed into my band, joined by fellow Kiwi Rhys Hughes and a couple of hipster Poms. We played at ITC (In The City festival), gained management and some good momentum.

blair jollands

One day whilst on an errand for the cafe I passed a building that had ‘Cinema Sound’ posted right across it. Being a huge film fan and always being curious about film sound I decided to go in. I walked in on the very day that three employees had walked out to join the competition. Well if that ain’t fate… I started working the next day as ‘sound fx editor’, basically blagging my way in telling the boss I could fluently work a piece of kit. I couldn’t, but I learned quick.

That was the beginning of my sound design career. I now have my own company called Glowb Recordings that I set up so I could write-off the rent of my Farringdon recording studio at the time. Since leaving More Protein Records I’ve used Glowb for most of my creative ventures.

You’ve worked with some big names including Boy George. That doesn’t just land in anyone’s lap!

blair jollandsFuzzhead the band split. I was living in Portobello and had an 8-track studio set up. Darryn Harkness of New Telepathics was staying with me at the time. I recorded my second [El Hula] LP called ‘Hotel’ there, calling on some session help from Darryn, Nathan Haines and a bunch of local misfits.

A promoter friend of mine shared an office in London with More Protein, Boy George’s record label. George heard the album track Everything But You and signed me up for the single… which became the album… then another album.

Reading this back it all sounds too easy, but there was a lot of hard work, sacrifices made, highs and lows, sweat and tears to get to the places of these chance meetings.

How has having Europe right at your doorstep informed your songwriting and composition?

I feel blessed to be a New Zealander. Coming from Aotearoa having the amazing culture and music here and the neighbouring South Pacific nations has strongly influenced my songwriting, especially when talking about the amazing Pacific rhythms we have, it has given me a solid foundation and unique voice. But when I landed in London I was blown away by all the sounds I was hearing. It was deafeningly good. I was like a kid in a candy shop. I soaked it all up. The record I made that I mentioned earlier (‘Hotel’) reflects this time!

What sort of Kiwi artist do you think should consider migrating to London?

Ahh, that’s a tough one… London isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s brutal and brash and damp and cold… but there are opportunities here if you’re willing to stay and put the time in to make the connections and communities. It’s a very different culture in the UK. Even though we think we know if from a distance it’s getting your head around it when you arrive, especially if you’re a young and impressionable musician. The music business has totally eaten itself and rebooted into something I don’t know anybody really fully understands currently, so it’s challenging to navigate at the moment. There are no fixed stars you can plot to. If you are persistent, hungry and have some wanderlust then perhaps make the trip!

blair jollands

What’s your visa situation?

My grandfather was born in England so after five years living and working here, I got a British passport. It took a bit of organising but I don’t remember it being too tiresome a process. I think it is more so now though…

Do you tour the UK and Europe? Got any tips for fellow Kiwis in that regard?

The music biz is very tough right now. Big artists are doing okay, the smaller ones are struggling. People are tending not to buy independent music anymore but prefer to stream it on the usual platforms, which makes it harder for independent musicians to survive.

It’s a chicken or the egg situation. To get any decent support from agents or promoters they want to see a story, that your social stats are high, and finally that the music is good… in that order. It’s bonkers. If you’re on your own you just have to forge your own way having these things already in place. It’s a costly procedure in time and on the pocket. It can be heartbreaking, but like I said, this ain’t for the faint-hearted.

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