When musicians describe their new album as ‘vulnerable’, that’s all too often code for ‘this album lacks real inspiration’. It will likely consist of slow ballads and the lyrics will be a mix of tortured metaphors and navel-gazing narcissism. The tunes won’t be catchy, or memorable, lest they take away focus from the artist’s all-important inner pain. Vulnerable is all too often code for dull and whiny – but not so when it comes to The Bollands. Ailee Slater caught up with the now Auckland-based globetrotting folk duo to talk over their new third album, ‘All Of My Ghosts’.
With Christian Bolland on guitar and vocals and his wife Joyce on keyboard and vocals, The Bollands practically live on the road. They met in New Plymouth, lived in Taiwan and honed their sound in Hong Kong, touring three continents in the meantime. Their brand of foot-stomping folk is infectious enough to warm the most cynical of hearts, with the type of choruses that leave your throat sore and your beer spilled.
Bollands’ songs are populated by a cast of hard-luck chancers that you cheer for and pity at the same time, best typified by the forlorn, drunk-since-breakfast narrator of Down To The Bone, or the hapless creep of Stalker. Throughout their career, Christian’s rasping, tender voice has given these characters life, and a typical Bollands song is one that doesn’t just celebrate human frailty, it makes it get up and dance.
The Bollands’ third studio album, ‘All Of My Ghosts’, released in late January, provides a new take on the hearty campfire jams that have won the duo fans around the globe. Yes, the songs are still catchy. Yes, beer will be spilled, and feet will stomp. Yes they’re still about drinking – but this time it’s a lot closer to home.
“With this album I wanted to write songs that were real, honest and personal,” says Christian. “Getting personal is something we’d never really done. Most of our songs were written about characters, up until this point. But I thought – why not give reality a crack?”
‘All Of My Ghosts’ takes inspiration from Christian’s own tumultuous youth. From the quiet conflict of family and romantic struggles, to the raging moments of chaos that define the journey from boyhood to adulthood, to the experience of joining a cult. Yes, that’s right – Christian joined one in his teens, and he sings about it with raw, compelling honesty in the album’s closing track Fielding.
“I’ve never been that good about writing about myself,” he says, explaining that it’s not easy to open up about his personal experiences on stage.
“It feels too vulnerable. It took me a few years just to get up the confidence to write about me, regardless of what other people think.”
Fielding, for example, nearly didn’t make in onto the album.
“Chris wanted to throw out quite a few songs, including Fielding,” Joyce explains. “I had to fight for those songs. I had to convince Chris that his personal stories were worth telling. Normally it’s me filtering out songs and saying they’re no good, but with this album it was the other way around.
“I’m really glad he’s taken the journey to be able to write songs about himself. I’ve heard many of these stories from Christian’s past, he’s got a lot! He was scared about being vulnerable and sharing them, but I’m happy he has. It’s been a good journey for him.”
The evolution from writing about characters to telling personal stories is striking in light of Christian’s reluctance to expose his history on stage, yet at the same time completely natural for a band that thrives on experimentation and evolution.
“We’ve learned to let our songs grow, improve and take shape through the audience,” says Joyce. “It’s a process that’s developed during our time touring in Asia. We used to be worried about making a mistake on stage, but audiences in Asia are so forgiving! It means we can be more confident playing live and explore a song without needing it to be ‘perfect’ from the start.”
“Over the years, our touring and travelling has brought a kind of healing to me,” Christian adds. “We’ve met amazing people and played amazing shows while travelling the world, which has also allowed me to travel to my own past. When you know there’s a great community of people around the world, that makes it easier to write the songs that make you feel totally vulnerable.”
Both say that the most interesting musicians they’ve shared the stage with have all managed to surprise the audience.
“We played with a band called Junk Roach in Japan,” says Joyce. “They had props and costumes and soundtracks, and then they were playing Goth metal on two Spanish guitars. It was mind-blowing! And it also gave us ideas.”
“I love anything that surprises you, or makes you say, ‘I totally didn’t expect that!’” Christian agrees. “It’s about having the balls to be unpredictable, to give yourself over to pure creativity. Sometimes the audience doesn’t like it, but I love that bravery – just getting up there and doing your thing. I aspire to do that.”
The stories The Bollands tell, fictional or real, are nearly always universal. On ‘All Of My Ghosts’, their songs whisk the listener into lost memories and snapshots of both overpowering and everyday emotion – from drunken bliss to haunting guilt, to the simple delights of spicy Mala hotpot, as sung by Joyce in Stare Into Space.
“We want people to experience moments, of the hard times and the good times,” Christian explains. “I think it makes the world a little nicer when people can experience those things together through the vehicle of music.”
Music is a vehicle that’s taken The Bollands around the globe and back again. Wherever it takes them next, the story is sure to be a good one.