December/January 2022

by Ella Karalus-Glannaz

Hollie Smith: Orchestral Manoeuvres From The Dark

by Ella Karalus-Glannaz

Hollie Smith: Orchestral Manoeuvres From The Dark

Entering her third decade as an artist, Hollie Smith has reached a stage from where her major label promotions folk happily reference her as ‘one of Aotearoa’s most beloved artists‘. Supporting that accolade is a history of three local chart-topping solo albums, but outside of that her 2006 rendition of Don McGlashan‘s gospel song Bathe In The River, and more recent performances alongside comparative newcomer Teeks have been instrumental in elevating her public profile. Hollie‘s latest album, ‘Coming In From The Dark’, went straight to number one on our Official Top 40 Album chart, making it an impressive four in a row. Ella Karalus-Glannaz had the pleasure of talking with her.

History will reflect on 2021 as a watershed year in the New Zealand music industry’s embrace and support of Māori artistry and language, and Hollie Smith is another who has played an active role in that overdue process. The title track from her self-produced 2021 album, ‘Coming In From The Dark’, has been released in both English and Te Reo Māori versions, and in addition, saw Smith mixing her richly soulful voice with the instrumental backing of the NZ Symphony Orchestra – one of three songs backed by the NZSO on the album.

Described as being tender, triumphant and full of hope, the song obliquely tells of overcoming personal challenges, with all the instrumental splendour and emotive vocal hallmarks of a major motion picture soundtrack.

“NZSO got in touch with me funnily enough!” Hollie recalls, her pleasure evident. “They saw that I was arranging some strings on an Instagram story and reached out saying they were wanting to do some more local stuff, so that ended up coming together.”

“It’s interesting just the way it changed the dynamics because, you know, if you’re familiar with my other work then you know I use backing vocals heavily, and really like arranging them. That’s essentially what the strings ended up doing, as opposed to vocals. So yeah, far less vocal arrangements involved because they were all taken up, but I think it works.”

Hollie is open about the hard work that was put into the making of this album and, inevitably as it seems, the additional challenges Covid brought to the table.

“I mean this whole album was a different process, just going through the whole Covid situation and piecing it together and jigsaw puzzling it together – I’ve almost used every engineer in the North Island! We had the studio in Wellington with two or three different engineers, Hamilton, Teeks, Sol3Mio and Raiza Biza were all done separately, and then guitars were recorded separately too. So when I stuck it all back together again it was a complete mess and I thought I’d wrecked it! I was just like, ‘I think I overcooked it just a little bit.’

“So then I just had to go through the process of basically dissecting it and carving it out, and you know, moving bits around and just sort of jigsaw puzzling it back together so it was a bit more cohesive than the cacophony of noise that it started as.”

Writing songs in the first place seems to hold few problems for her.

“The melodies and the chords for me are the easy part. I’ll just start playing around with a progression I like and, you know, be coming up with a melody over the top, and then essentially just sort of start phonically creating a sound I’d like over it with the vocals. Sometimes that makes words and then I make the sentence and see if that’s gonna work with anything else.

“That’s almost when I realise what I have been thinking about or what has been on my mind, but I don’t plan what I write, it’s just what comes out, I don’t think I’ve ever written a song the way that I thought it was going to turn out.”

Surrounding herself with a strong team allowed Hollie the opportunity to self-produce her fourth studio album.

“I rely heavily on my band, they do a lot. So that’s Darren Mathiassen, Johnny Lawrence and Daniel Hales, they’re all based in Wellington, they just always bring their A-game to the table. I had a little session up in Auckland with Tom Broome and Guy Harrison for a week (just because I had limited time in Wellington), so basically bossed them around for about four days in Tom’s studio to try and get the arrangements where I wanted them and sent them down to the boys,” she says with a smile.

“I mean they were in control of their own sound, they know what they’re doing and I trust them implicitly with that, so they bring heaps to the table in regards to sound design, tone and style. It wasn’t overwhelming, but I also had just so, so, so much support and help. The team of people that are involved in putting this record together, and who put up with me, were all so incredibly patient and kind.

“I always thought this album was going to be completely stripped back, but then, you know, I couldn’t do that because all of a sudden I had an orchestra! There were so many ways to take it from the bare bones of the songs, and that’s why I’ve felt this is probably my stronger, or strongest material I’ve written. Just because the bare bones of it still stood on its own, and it was just about how we were gonna colour that and how we were gonna go forward… but I’m just a sucker for organ, and I’m a sucker for bass!”

Discussing how the various lockdowns over 2020 and ’21 can hinder creativity and motivation, Hollie admits finding herself quite exhausted over the last few months, struggling not with her own challenges but with the negativity of others.

“The main thing that I’ve found really hard with this lockdown is I don’t think people recognise when they’re on social media all the time, and just constantly reading nasty comments. I think it really does impact how we go about our days. If you’re around positive stuff and positive energy all the time you know that’s going to be a different situation.

“It’s been super hard feeling motivated, I mean it’s just me sitting down at the keys or with the guitar, and just fiddling around when I’m in a certain mood so I think that’s why all my songs are literally the same BPM because I must be in that kind of mode, the 110 BPM kind’a mode!”

‘Coming In From The Dark’ was released in the last days of October, during Auckland’s longest running lockdown, appearing as the nation’s number one album on November 1, an oddly mixed blessing with launch gigs and album release touring ruled out by the pandemic.

“I jumped up and down a few times and then sat down and went, ‘’Cool, now what? I’ve got nothing to do. I can’t go anywhere!’ But, to have a fourth consecutive number one, that was really my goal for this release.”