21 does seem way too young to finding yourself a ‘weary traveller’ but Holly Arrowsmith has a history of travelling and plentiful evidence of a youthful maturity. Last year she delivered a TEDx talk on Honest Music, and opened for internationally acclaimed folk enigma Rodriguez on his recent NZ gigs in Auckland and Wellington. Her just-released debut album is big on the personification of nature, something she has learnt and adopted from famous poets of centuries past. Recently married and even more recently having moved from the inspirational central Otago to Auckland, with plans to return to her native US, she talked with Finn McLennan-Elliott about the path towards ‘For The Weary Traveller’.
Holly Gilling (nee Arrowsmith) has spent nearly the last 10 years of her life in Arrowtown and Queenstown. The striking natural environment of Otago is woven through her songs, evident even in titles like Lady of The Valley, Mountain Prayer, and the opener of her new album, Mouth Of The Morning. Living for now in Auckland city, Holly says she needs this connection to the physical environment to write her distinctively panoramic songs.
“It was so easy down there, all you have to do is step outside and you’re in it.”
‘The smell of the wild pine, blows on the wind
And their heavy branches sing out an old solemn prayer
To the cold mountain air’ – Mountain Prayer
‘And our love will be a river, flowing out into the sea
Started in the mountains
Where you washed my feet’ – Love Will Be A River
In some moments her very landscape-grounded, but often soaring debut album, ‘For The Weary Traveller’, is almost an ode to the Queenstown area.
“Lady Of The Valley is about a mountain in Arrowtown called Brow Peak, that is shaped like a woman lying down. I personified her in that song. Flinted is about the autumn leaves, inspired by a road out in the country called Speargrass Flats. It’s a big long road with beautiful huge trees, and in autumn the road gets covered in these colours.”
Unsurprisingly her songs start as lyrics before getting a musical arrangement, and she says she has to have her guitar or she just writes poetry.
“I write quite personally, it tends to be about how I am feeling and my own experiences. Some of my writing isn’t necessarily inspired by things I’ve seen [though], often it’s by something I’ve read.”
“I read quite a lot of poetry, Longfellow is one my favourites –– a naturist poet. There’s a line in one of his poems that inspired me, ‘The red sun on the mountain bursts’. It’s just such a vivid image and I like to create imagery with my words and paint a really detailed picture of something that a listener can imagine in their mind.”
The 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is also quoted on the album’s inner cover, with words from his ‘A Psalm Of Life’, written in the 1830s. Born herself in New Mexico, Holly moved to NZ with her family at the start of her teens. Hardly of a musical lineage, music nonetheless did play a part in her upbringing.
“My dad is a music appreciator,” she laughs. “My mum can play piano and she has a beautiful voice. ‘Round the house when I was little I can always remember mum singing. She decided she wanted to learn guitar when I was about 15 and bought this gypsy jazz guitar, I think she liked the look of it. She didn’t really enjoy it, and so I inherited this beautiful guitar. It’s unusual and it’s not the way it should be played. But it does give it an interesting sound.”
‘For The Weary Traveller’ was engineered and produced by Steve Roberts, who previously worked at York Street and is now living in Queenstown. Along with Tom Lynch of Queenstown AV and events company Tom Tom Productions (who helped release the album), he started a project studio for the recording, nestled in a valley in Queenstown. Both had also helped with her earlier stripped-back EP ‘The River’, released in 2013.
The album features Lynch on bass, omnichord and some electric guitar, Stu Graham on a phenomenal number of instruments and Marc Hamilton on drums. Alice Tolich recorded her cello and cornet in Dave Baxter’’s (Avalanche City) tree house studio, Gordon Maclean added double bass from Scotland and Luke Thompson sang harmonies.
They wanted to create authentic, timeless folk with a heavy focus on the lyrics and there’’s lots of talk of the time taken in “crafting” of the album’s lyrics and music. Indeed they had originally set a mid-2014 date for completing the album.
“One of the most time consuming parts was finding the perfect acoustic guitar sound for each song. We ended up borrowing seven or eight different guitars.”
The recording was funded in part by a $10,000 AMP ‘Do Your Thing’ scholarship, sponsored by a Queenstown mortgage broking firm, that she won in 2013. With the album finally in the can a two week Kickstarter campaign was initiated in May this year to raise $4500 for ‘mastering, manufacturing and promotion’. It met its target with days to spare and was eventually over-subscribed by $1800.
Recording the album near Queenstown almost feels like Holly’s last act in her teenage hometown. Earlier this year she moved to Auckland, which now looks to be a stepping-stone before she heads to the United States.
“Arrowtown was a good place for me to start, but there isn’t a live music scene down there. What is there is dedicated to covers, but I guess that’s what you get in a tourist town. So it was a great place to start because in a lot of ways I was the only one doing what I was doing, so it provided a lot of opportunity. I wasn’t short of opportunity, but it was getting to the point where it was going to come that way.”
She feels good about being in Auckland.
“The scene with the musicians that are here is very close and welcoming and we’ve met a lot of lovely people who seem to be willing to help – and it’s not competitive.”
The ‘we’ refers to her husband, Michael, the pair having travelled the country in a van that seems to be almost a part of the family.
Holly’s sweetly beguiling singing voice often draws comparisons to Joni Mitchell from audiences, indirect praise which she seems very happy with. It differs little from her almost child-like spoken voice, a natural confidence coupled with that southern lack of pretension which is engaging. With the aid of an Auckland-based publicist the weeks before the release date saw her talk to an enthusiastic flock of media, resulting in numerous features including a live interview and performance on National Radio’s afternoon show in early August. The audience must’ve agreed with the host’s glowing praise, sending her into the Top 10 of a number of local iTunes charts shortly afterwards.
A supportive and welcoming community is something that Holly embraces, as part of the highly successful Kickstarter campaign she gave away free set bags that were made by a company who employ women out of the sex trade in Jakarta.
“I really want to use my music to do things like that. It’s kind of the heart behind what I’m doing.”