The cover of this issue of NZ Musician brings together four independent and individually talented songwriter/performers, each with recent or imminent album releases. First up is Hollie Fullbrook, much better known as Tiny Ruins. With just one album and a fill-in EP under her belt, Tiny Ruins has already achieved unheard of international recognition for an independent Kiwi indie folk act. Two things are true about Tiny Ruins’ gigs, when she plays here in NZ at least: they are very likely to sell out, and you will be able to hear a pin drop as the audience goes almost eerily quiet, listening intently to every lyric. Silke Hartung booked a spot in Hollie’s busy schedule, ahead of the release of her sophomore album ‘Brightly Painted One’ in early May, and her impending European tour, for part of which she’ll be supporting Neil Finn.
Greeting Hollie Fullbrook, aka Tiny Ruins, ahead of our interview, I admit to her that I’ve found it difficult to come up with questions because I feel that I already know a lot of her older, and newer stories, from catching up frequently at gigs.
“Ooooh dear, what have I told you?” she jokes in reply.
A similar disclaimer is warranted to readers. I met Hollie in person for the first time just before the release of her 2011 Tiny Ruins’ debut album, ‘Some Were Meant For The Sea’, and have looked after local ticketing and merchandise at her Auckland shows since. Few people outside of her band would have seen as many Tiny Ruins’ shows as I have, and I happily confess to being a huge fan.
Having moved to Auckland from her native Bristol, back in the day, Hollie went to Avondale College – along with fellow musicians Lisa Crawley, drummer Alistair Deverick, Tonga Vaea (Spacifix), and numerous others you may have heard in one place or the other over the years.
“I was in the classical music groups as a cellist. I really wanted to be in with the cool guys, the jazz /rock guys, though. I don’t even think I auditioned, but I remember I thought, ‘Could I possibly sing in that style?’ and felt I was in no way good enough. I was no trained singer. I do not have that voice, and I think Paul Norman, the teacher, knew that.”
Hollie also recalls she didn’t feel like committing to classical music and its disciplines, while really enjoying so many other styles of music as well. Subsequently, instead of music she studied the next best thing: law, with a side of English literature and theatre, at Victoria University in Wellington.
Fact: Apart from the Profs bar exam, Hollie has a full law degree – only six months practical training remains for completion.
“I finished mainly out of stubbornness. I came out of it very disillusioned about how everything works in the world, and feeling even more lost. It’s the kind of degree that makes you feel like you don’t know anything.”
She admits that the choice of degree was essentially made on a whim, and it was only her inevitable academic success that compelled her to continue with her LLB (Bachelor Of Laws).
“Writing for ‘Some Were Meant For The Sea’ happened while studying, so in a sense it was almost quite escapist. Imaginary worlds, imaginary people and characters and vignettes. That was still related to things I felt and was experiencing, relationships and things. Those songs were fun, but I wrote them with no intention of recording.
As she revealed in NZM’s June/July 2011 issue, Hollie’s early live performances caught the attention of Australian label Spunk Records, way before she had actually recorded anything. Released in 2011, the album and artist were immediately embraced, her wistful, unadorned indie folk winning fans and accolades. And it wasn’t just NZ critics and audiences – in the few years since Hollie has toured overseas 10 times, including the States, Australia, Europe and the UK.
Any such inadvertent approach to songwriting has dramatically changed for ‘Brightly Painted One’.
“For this album, I’m in a different place – physically as well! Some songs were written while I was in Spain and Italy, where I worked as an au pair for five months, in a situation where I’m on my own, feel a little isolated, don’t speak the language – a bit more inward looking.”
Some touch on the subject of Hollie’s well-publicised scooter accident, on the East African island of Zanzibar, a few years ago now. On her way to her first European tour she detoured to see her boyfriend, who was there at the time. It was looking like they weren’t going to be in the same place for quite a few years.
“That in itself was quite a difficult thing,” she admits.
An unplanned off-road excursion left her with several fractures to her hand, shoulder and foot – in a place where suitable health care wasn’t so available.
“I had a good rough up, and it took me a while to get back on my feet. While the physical trauma was obvious, the broken heart very much wasn’t. It was like a physical manifestation of that.”
An eager international audience had been left waiting, so three months later she was back playing guitar and touring.
“You know, it was a traumatic time for other reasons than the injuries,” she sums up the experience.
Returning from one of those overseas tours back in early 2013, both Hollie and her bass player, Cass Mitchell, were keen to record the new songs they’d been performing.
“We were kind of unsure how to do it, and who to do it with. We tried all these different scenarios and that’s how we ended up recording ‘Haunts’ with Jonathan Pearce on an 8-track.
By now more a band than a solo project, Tiny Ruin’s second release was a 6-song EP, recorded pretty much live and old-school analogue over a weekend in Waipu, and released mid-April 2013.
Just 12 months later she now has ‘Brightly Painted One’, a two-sided sophomore album that offers more of those carefully crafted lyrics Hollie is known for, often chosen for their aesthetic flow, that evoke dreamlike images of smiling through heartbreak, growing up, longing, and turning points to name a few. On a production level, ‘Brightly Painted One’ is one step up from previous releases, not only with added instrumentation.
“We knew we couldn’t do this totally analogue – this album needed some careful layering.
Tom Healy was a friend and working with him as engineer/producer naturally just fell into place. With drummer Alex Freer (Artisan Guns, Lisa Crawley, Clap Clap Riot) being part of the live band, Hollie decided to put a lot of attention into recording a great drum sound.
“My feeling for ‘Brightly Painted One’ was that it was more of a band album that needed to be richer, with a few more arrangements. The more I worked with Tom, the more he worked in atmospheric effects, funny delays on guitars, interesting sounds that I wouldn’t have been able to conceive of before. He was really good at all those little details that now I really love about the album.”
For help with further instrumentation she didn’t have to look far.
“I live with a bunch of musicians and it seemed nice to be making an album with your friends. I wanted as many friends as possible involved.”
Multi-instrumentalist Finn Scholes recorded brass and Hammond organ, while Siobhanne Thompson added violin. According to Hollie, the arrangements were decided collaboratively, or often made up on the spot via improvisation. Cass Mitchell took on co-production duties, having played the songs on previous tours. Between the two of them, Hollie says, they had a good feeling for what the songs needed.
“She was there pretty much for all the recording, whether she was doing it or not. She was a good sounding board when I was unsure about something, and she’s good at having that different ear.”
Recording at Auckland’s The Lab, it took half a year to wrap up the tracking and mixing, due mostly to what Hollie describes as her erratic schedule. Where ‘Some Were Meant For The Sea’ could be seen as a collection of aural short stories that live independently from one another, it is quite different with her new album.
“There’s a journey in this album. I would say ‘Brightly Painted One’ are contemplations on one long story,” Hollie says earnestly.
“How much of your own journey?” I ask.
“Everything! I think they’re all about me. This album was more about processing things I was going through. It’s kind of a cliché that that’s what songwriters do, but that’s just how it is.
“The songs in the first half lead to one another and then something changes. It’s almost like an epiphany moment in She’ll Be Coming Round. Straw Into Gold follows right afterwards, which is like, ’Got it!’ It’s important to me to think of the album in its track order. I know that’s not how most people will experience it, the way people listen to music now. It’s funny because the track order wasn’t super deliberate – I shuffled songs around, tried all sorts of different listings and suddenly it all became clear that there was actually a natural order in the story of this album.
“I thought that was actually quite scary. You write in a way sometimes that you’re not aware of linking to other ideas you’ve been exploring, or just words. The word ‘carry’ or ‘carriages’ appears in most of the songs, same as this idea of weaving. You don’t notice it at the time you’re writing them, and it’s only by the time you’re done that you think, ‘Hmmm, maybe I was working through something there’. “
The album’s title is taken from the first verse of the centrepiece and thematic-turning point of the album that is She’ll Be Coming Round.
“Like a brightly painted one,
Freed from the turning of the wheel,
Her mane a-dancing in the wind,
Eyes fiery as the sun,” Hollie quotes herself.
“In my mind, when I wrote the song there was the image of a woman on a horse. A lot of what the album is about has to do with that image.
“I was thinking a lot about the woman on the horse, and I did lots of image searches. There’s another song called Chainmail Maker and there were a few things on the album that linked to this kind of heroic figure of strength, feminine strength, to armour, to a soldier, so I was actually looking for pictures of Joan of Arc. I’m not saying the album is about Joan of Arc, it was just part of my imagining what the artwork could be about.”
Researching ideas for the album’s cover, Hollie came across a 1960s Bengali book that she felt fully encapsulated the idea she had in mind. She commissioned painter Joel Dwyer, to create an original artwork, using the book’s colourful, geometric, modernist illustration as inspiration.
Fact: The painting is about as big as a vinyl cover and currently sits covered in bubble wrap in Hollie’s room.
The album will come out via Spunk Records in Australia, along with Arch Hill/Flying Nun in NZ and Bella Union (Beach House, Fleet Foxes, M Ward etc.) elsewhere overseas.
After playing a Going Global showcase last September, Hollie was approached by Bella Union’s Simon Raymonde – who had previously been given her debut album by Spunk.
“It was so old school and cliché to be approached at an industry event that I had been quite blasé about – wrongly!” she laughs. “Every show you do does count!”
This happened around the same time as praises for the band via Twitter by none other than director and musician David Lynch, and a support slot for Australia and NZ with musicians’ musicians Calexico. In mid-October last, Hollie went on to perform five shows at CMJ in New York, where chance led Raymonde to her show yet again. Deals were made. Apart from a contract with Bella Union, Hollie scored a booking agent for the States and several festival invites.
“It’s luck, but it’s also working very hard for years to be considered for this thing, or have the band to pull it off. I feel like I worked very hard on it, but also try not to make it become a business.
“I’m quite strict with myself in terms of how hard out I go with organising, being my own manager. There’s a balance of living a life that isn’t all about you. I’ve enjoyed steering it because I enjoy learning about the management side of things, and it’s important to have the control over it as well.”
She says her main challenge is the time taken up with administrative tasks.
“I spend hours and hours on the laptop. Planning tours is stressful. I’m a homebody – just the thought of going on tour means I don’t sleep well for a while. It’s a lot to organise and financially the burden is on you.”
By the time this issue of NZM is published Hollie will be overseas yet again, handpicked by Neil Finn to open for him on the European leg of his world tour. At the suggestion of Finn’s tour drummer, Hollie’s childhood friend and old Avondale classmate Alistair Deverick, she was auditioned as second backing singer and cellist to join his band for the entire tour. Good timing with the release of ‘Brightly Painted One’ in Europe led to Finn generously offering her to play as support instead.
“It’s quite surreal. I think it’s great that Neil and Sharon thought, ‘Hey, let’s invite a bunch of young people for this tour!’ I’m proud of Alistair, too. Being an old friend, it’s quite special that we get to share being on this big deal tour together.”
NZ remains her most supportive market, though that may change with the wider release of ‘Brightly Painted One’. It’s hard for a folky act to break into Australia, but with the support of Spunk sales there have been strong. Radio play has also been good and the band has built up a good live following with enthusiastic fans, thanks to touring with people like Hollie Throsby and Seeker Lover Keeper. Playing on her own in Oz is still a thrill, she says, never knowing how many people will turn up.
“It’s just a matter of following it up, carrying on going back there. Not just going once and then not going back for two to three years. It’s funny how there is this market right next to us and yet there is not that much cross-pollination of our music. Australian bands find the same over here. There’s awesome stuff going on there that we don’t know or really hear about.”
As Q Magazine writer Andy Fyfe said of ‘Haunts‘: ‘Fullbrook’s hushed yet forceful songs, packed with obsessives and resilient loners, demand your full attention.’