It’s been a decade since Hollie Smith bounded into the nation’s view with that song about bathing outdoors, and nine years since the release of her debut album ‘Long Player’ – which went on to win her a set of four 2007 Tui’s and sell upwards of 30,000 copies – double platinum. As its name suggests, her 2011 follow up, ‘Band of Brothers, Vol: 1., written and recorded alongside Mara TK, was billed as the first of an exploratory collaborative series – but here we are five years on with a third ‘solo’ album. Hollie Smith tells NZM’s Melanie Stevenson that she just hopes people will give ‘Water Or Gold’ (read our review here) a try, and listen to it in its entirety – like in the old days, when people used to listen to albums.
While eternally grateful for the opportunity to perform such a successful song, Hollie Smith still can’t escape a legacy that is not really hers, or help but wonder what would have happened if her 2007 album ‘Long Player’ had been released first – before a Don McGlashan track made her world famous in New Zealand.
“I had just written this album which wasn’t dissimilar to Bathe In The River, and I had been working [in the industry] for 10 years prior to that, and it felt like Bathe In The River came in and stole the thunder a little bit. No one had really done the gospel thing before which is what my first record heavily was.
“I think I was like, ‘Oh I’m just going to be known for that song forever now instead of my stuff,’ so that was where it was bitter sweet. But I am so lucky to have been a part of it and I was grateful for the opportunity.
“I always loved singing it, I just sort of refused to for a while,” she laughs. “Because I was guns-blazing 23 and it was all about me.”
Perhaps I was naive in thinking that same guns-blazing Hollie Smith was who I would be interviewing at her Tauranga home. She certainly doesn’t look to have aged much in 10 years, and that husky voice and unabashed laugh are still the same, but the once bullet-proof party girl has moved on. The Hollie Smith of now is somewhat philosophical, considered and apparently happy taking life as it comes – even when it comes to her new album, ‘Water Or Gold’.
“I just hope people will give it a little listen and give it a try. And listen to it properly, maybe a couple of times because my songs aren’t mainstream radio-friendly hits. You’re not going to listen to it once and go, ‘Wow’, unless it’s something that particularly resonates with you.
“So I think it’s an album you have to have a couple of listens to, and it’s like my other albums in that respect. I don’t blast out the pop songs so it needs a bit of a chance. Hopefully people will listen to it and if they dig it, spread the word a little bit.”
Many of us are forced to grow up when our 20s are over and we face responsibilities of one sort or another, and Smith has had more than her fair share of ups and downs over the last while. She moved to Tauranga almost four years ago to help raise her now ex-partner’s son, and says that experience has made her a more positive person and a lot happier. Last year she nursed best friend Helena McAlpine before she died after a long and often public battle with breast cancer. Following McAlpine’s death, Smith spent two hectic months putting together ‘Water Or Gold’.
“It’s been a pretty tricky year,” she acknowledges with understated honesty. “It was hard to gain momentum with this record because of all the personal things that were happening.
“I think this was probably good because I don’t think I have ever had something distract me that heavily. Looking after Helena and nursing her was probably the first time in 10 years that I’ve actually sat down for more than a few days and not once thought about music at all. Ever. And it was actually quite an amazing feeling. Everything was just at such a crazy level there wasn’t anything about it that triggered any kind of work reaction… It was quite a miracle I pulled this record off!” she laughs.
It has been six years since she last released a solo album, 2010’s ‘Humour and the Misfortune of Others’ following three years after her multiple award-winning ‘Long Player’ debut. ‘Water Or Gold’ proves different to those previous offerings, grittier and seeming to pack more of a punch. It still has the soulful ballad tracks that have that specific Hollie Smith sound, but also has much more of a rock/blues element, and more.
“I’ve written a lot more on guitar for this record so it changes the dynamic quite a bit,” she explains. “It’s a little bit more riff-orientated, as opposed to when I write on keyboard which is jazzier and chord-orientated. This has simplified things a little bit, which has been quite good. The songs are a bit simpler which forces me to sing a bit simpler as well. I’m not adlibbing over lots of chords. It’s actually feeling a bit more structured, specifically with the songwriting. There are definitely a few more ‘up’ tracks in there.
“There are not really any songs that are the same. You’ve got rockier ones then you’ve got really quirky ones and a poppy kind of disco-y one and then your typical kind of gospel ballad… They seem to fit together which is great, but they are individually different tracks and I like the diversity of it.”
Another reason for the difference in sound stems from financial limitations, which in turn influenced the way the album was put together. Her two previous albums were recorded live in a studio, through analogue gear, while this one was essentially done digitally, Smith working closely with her long-standing rhythm guide Darren Mathiassen.
“He was the one collecting all the pieces,” she says of the Wellington-based Shapeshifter drummer.
The album also features Marika Hodgson, “…one of my favourite all-time bass players in the world,” and Daniel Hayles on keys and horns. Jol Mulholland, who produced Hollie Smith, Anika Moa and Boh Runga’s 2013 album ‘Peace of Mind’, helped out on guitar, as did Black Seeds’ Mike Fabulous. Smith’s dad also guested on guitar.
“There’s this one track, Water Or Gold, that we’ve comped together about four of five guitarists because we kept going, ‘Oh it’s not quite right,’ so we spliced them all together.”
After finishing the recording late last year, Smith decided to travel to New York where the album was mixed by Kiwi producer and engineer Aaron Nevezie (The Black Keys, Danger Mouse). She admits to not feeling that confident about the album prior to mixing – and being pleasantly surprised since.
“I kind’a had to go. Just the way the recording evolved – it was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle so I needed to really get the sound done properly in post because it was all over the place. It wasn’t how I normally work, so I didn’t feel comfortable sending it off. I had to pull on a little bit more of the production value in post production than what I would normally do.
“It’s funny because when I was making the album, and through the whole process I thought, ‘Nope, this isn’t good enough,’ and I didn’t like it at all. Even after the mix I was pretty unconvinced. But I’ve listened to it a few times now and I think it is probably the best record I’ve done. There are songs that I love on all my records but I think the energy on this one’s a bit different. I just hope that people listen to it in its entirety. Like in the old days, when people used to listen to albums.
“I’m curious to see how it’s received. I don’t know what to expect on that one because it’s been a minute, so I don’t even know how many people are even going to listen to it! I’m hoping more than a couple!” she laughs generously.
Following a local album promo tour Smith is considering packing her bags and heading once again to New York, where she first went to sign with Blue Note a full decade ago.
“I’m just seeing what happens with this record here, and will maybe aim to get over there next year for a little while. There are a couple of people I was working with and am still in touch with who live there.
“I’m not thinking that things are going to happen overnight, but at this point I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ve got no money, no anything in that regard. I haven’t got any personal obligations basically at the moment which has all changed quite significantly to where I was six months ago, so I’ve really got nothing to lose, and if I gain anything it will be cool to get away, even if nothing else.”