All the Nadia Reids, Aldous Hardings and Tiny Ruins start somewhere in small venues across Aotearoa. Picked up by student radio, fellow musicians’ whispers, and word-of-mouth would carry reviews of their extraordinary talent across the land until eventually, even our mums and dads have heard of them. One such talent, in the early stages of her career, is equally folk-adjacent indie singer-songwriter Violet Hirst, originally from Tāhuna Queenstown, via Te Whanganui-A-Tara Wellington where she studied film production and philosophy, and fronted local indie four-piece Ski Resort. Silke Hartung caught up with Hirst to talk about her debut album, the gentle ‘Donegal’, released independently in August 2023.
Just off Auckland’s Karangahape Road, on Gundry St at some-time all-ages haunt the ‘Old Folks Ass‘, as broadly written on its wall outside, paint is flaking off the walls. The place isn’t in great shape, but tonight there are extra floor lamps with warm bulbs, carpets, and lots of plants to endearingly decorate the area in front of the stage where the concert will take place.
The audience are in their mid-twenties on average, music fans that have likely discovered Violet Hirst thanks to the Student Radio Network whose charts she topped with Descending Song, and reached a respectable top three spot with Alternate Ways To Pray a few months prior.
Performing ‘Donegal’ in its entirety to celebrate its release in August 2023, the sound was intimate and lush thanks to being a five-piece band made up of seasoned young local indies like old Tāhuna high school friend and frequent collaborator, Daffodils’ Reuben Scott, Kane Strang and Mitchell Innes of recent Flying Nun signing Office Dog, and Canadian Madeleine Mirunuk.
And seemingly quite naturally, it was about more than the music and cosy ambience. There was expressive dancing in many shapes, including Violet herself. What would Kate Bush do? Evident to everyone present was how special that rainy night was, how flawless, nuanced and emotive Hirst’s singing and song writing. The real deal, with the crowd standing in the rain outside afterwards, not ready to leave, raving.
While Hirst is now based in Tāmaki Makaurau, the 24-year old’s family is still in Tāhuna, providing a retreat to get back to, to recover from the hustle and bustle of life.
Mother Margaret O’Hanlon is a vocal coach (among many other musical endeavours), and her father Nigel Hirst plays the saxophone around town. Both are well known and well-engaged in their community.
Growing up, “music was always happening,” she recalls. Alongside the inevitable and inimitable Taylor Swift, she lists a variety of eclectic influences with great ease, her mention of Weyes Blood (“Writes songs are a bit more fun than mine,”) hardly a surprise, a love for Kate Bush (“I love how theatrical she is, and for me, it’s always the voice!”), for This Mortal Coil with Elisabeth Fraser (“… beautiful range”), Paul Mescal (“… really committed and sensitive”), FKA Twigs, Devonté Hynes, Jon Brion, Nina Simone.
“My mum does a lot of original music theatre down there, and while I’ve been in a couple of her shows as well, I grew up watching. Performing arts has just always been a huge part of me. I danced for like, 13 years as a kid and I loved it, as much as I love music and singing. But I think at one point music took over a bit more, when your time gets limited as a high schooler.”
Directly south of the 45th parallel south, nestled between the hills of Central Otago, a stone’s throw from the Clutha river, sits Cromwell’s Donegal St. With a stunning view of the mountains this otherwise unassuming small town street is home of a little house lovingly referred to by the O’Hanlon-Hirst family just as ‘Donegal’.
In January 23, the stars somewhat aligned allowing for an uninterrupted six days at the house, when Hirst, Reuben Scott, as well as engineer and producer De Stevens (Marlin’s Dreaming) had time available to get together to record an album.
The album was partly funded through Creative NZ‘s Creative Communities Scheme on the premise of showing there’s talent coming out of the region.
“I wanted to make the album there. I’m always really blessed with my upbringing because it felt quite pure. It felt like the world I’m trying to create in my music, you know, without cell phones.
“In Queenstown, I suppose, I already have a good community track record being involved in many production and performances. So it came down to being in a small town with a good budget.
“One thing I offered in my proposal was putting on a performance of the album for the community, bringing it back home. And I think highlighting that this work would try to encapsulate Central Otago in its sound, and this being a good ‘promotion’ or artistic flag for the town also may have helped. Queenstown and central Otago really lack the support of original music and creativity on a professional level.”
There wasn’t much left to think about in terms of the arrangement of the songs, Hirst remembers.
“The songs themselves already had a form because I’d been playing them as a live set for a long time. I was living in Pōneke, and I got to play semi-frequently after the lockdown, so the songs felt quite solid.
“Because De was producing the album, I was thinking more about the soundscape with him. With that, I think I said I wanted it to sound very warm. I wanted this to sound like the house and like the wind and I think that’s what incorporated recording the guitars,” Hirst recalls, smiling over the memory.
“We used the living room and De bought all his gear and set it up like that. I think that’s why the album sounds so rustic.”
The songs, self-described love letters to her time spent between Te Waipounamu and Wellington, are predominantly very personal, not holding back on her own thoughts and feelings. The more specific, and “true” the writing, the more comfortable Hirst is with sharing.
“Most of the songs are personal, like personal accounts, but not all. I don’t write songs by writing in my diary often, but they are all I know, they all come from my story.”
In the past she has indeed drawn on literature to write; the magnificent Sabine, for one, released on its own in 2020, draws on Nick Bantock’s Griffen & Sabine books, however, ‘Donegal’ is more personal, reflective and introspective, something Hirst takes pride in.
“I don’t think you should be ashamed of how you feel, because everyone’s going to feel that way at some point, you know.”
The evocative Alternate Ways To Pray with its quotable lines, impeccable phrasing and utterly charming music video was inspired by lines taken from conversations with her mother.
“Mum would always tell me, ‘Youth is on your side, you don’t have to worry’. That was what keeps coming back to me in that kind of youthful, concerned nature of thinking, ‘I’ve got nothing figured out, and I don’t know where anything’s going’.”
“I feel like I’ve only been really awakening to that in the last year of wanting to be an independent woman, doing everything from like, meal prep to keeping yourself and paying for everything on your own, like groceries. And then I’ve just realised, you don’t to need to be alone. Just to let love into your life in whatever form!”
The song hits on something special live, not just for the audience, but for Hirst herself, too.
“It feels like there’s a general vibe that goes on with that, between the band, and the audience, that’s really special, and I feel like we’re really getting to know each other during that song, so that definitely makes me feel really alive.”
Her heart song, she says, is Brave Me. It makes her dance, literally.
“I spent the summer dancing in my mum’s falling-apart art studio to that song! When it goes to that lower chord, it’s like the floodgates opening, and it just feels like an ultimate release to me! It became a song to move to and a song to heal to.
“I think after I’d written all the songs for the album, I said to my best friends that I just want to dance for six months. I felt like I’d been so in my head, and I just needed to be in my body again.”
With ‘Donegal’, Hirst achieved a timeless gem that allows the listener to know her, and find themselves in her lines. The delicate and deliberately warm spaciousness of the production will appeal to folkies and indie fans alike, leaving the door open to develop her sound into any direction she might choose in future recordings.
Now better connected, and surrounded by creatives, some of which are fellow musicians, navigating the industry got a little easier.
“It feels like we want to lift each other up. And yeah, that’s a really beautiful thing.”
A music video for Descending Song in the can, there are plans to record more music at Roundhead Studios before the end of the year, again with Stevens who is now employed there. After that, some time out is on the cards, going back down south again to relax for a while. For now, Hirst is exhausted, though she says;
“I think maybe down there, I might feel inspired again.”