wears the trousers magazine


holly throsby: no need to shout

A rather belated conclusion to our Australia Week!
Read the rest of our special features here.

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interrupting yr broadcast: holly throsby

Australia’s best kept secret isn’t that the Aussies covertly talk in received pronunciation, it’s one Holly Throsby, esteemed creator of some of the most unassuming, quietly startling music ever to come out of the Antipodes. Her third album, the somewhat daringly named A Loud Call, was released a year ago down under but has only just received a domestic release in the UK – a delay that has caused much consternation in the Wears The Trousers office, not least because we’ve been sitting on an interview with Holly since she toured here last September. Now, at last, we’ve shifted our backsides and dusted off the tapes.

Meeting Holly Throsby in the dimly lit basement of one of London’s many rite-of-passage venues, at its worst a dank little sweatbox, it quickly becomes apparent that our conversation will be forced to compete with the loud intrusion of someone else’s soundcheck – not an ideal situation for two individuals whose naturally comfortable speaking volume lies somewhere between a cat’s purr and a 4am phonecall. Determined to persevere, we huddle in close to the microphone and get to chatting.

Holly has been in London for a couple of weeks. It’s her fifth visit to the city. Her first was back in the autumn of 1997, on the day that Diana, Princess of Wales, had an unfortunate encounter with a Parisian underpass. Today she has been to see the Tate Modern and especially enjoyed the Kandinskys. She’s been to Topshop, mooched around Shoreditch and Soho, and ridden on some double-decker buses. “Lots of very London things,” she shrugs. But mostly she’s just been missing her dog Jones, her much loved chocolate Labrador.

Despite her owner’s many lengthy and far-flung travels, it seems that Jones has got it good with what Holly describes as “a complex series of dog-sitters.” “I’d wanted a dog for years and years, ever since my last dog died. But before I got one I had to make sure that I would be able to tour and it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s something a lot of musicians find they can’t really have, but I have lots of friends and family that I have booked,” she explains.

Anyone who has paid close attention to Holly’s lyrics will notice that (wo)man’s best friends are not infrequently referenced. Crowd-pleaser ‘Don’t Be Howling’ starts out with the memorable lyric, “I get home after one and the dog looks drunk / He should walk it off with that little strut he does,” while the touching dissection of ‘We’re Good People So Why Don’t We Show It?’ ends with Holly’s blunt assertion that she wants “to raise dogs; dogs and money.”

But none of her songs are really about her canine companions. Holly is lyrically fixated on relationships, and, like Nina Nastasia (who, incidentally, named her debut album Dogs), often constructs her songs around snatches of conversations and small, specific scenarios that lurch out of the pulsating giant macrocosm we like to call love. These snapshots might almost seem mundane if it weren’t for Holly’s beautifully poetic, economic turns of phrase delivered in a sometimes ironic, sometimes oppressive hush. Inside, is she laughing or crying? It’s not always easy to tell.

Holly was surrounded by music from a very early age (her mother is a radio presenter, her stepdad a big Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen fan), and while she put time and effort into learning guitar, it was films that really captured her imagination at first. After finishing high school, she spent 8 years working in a cult video store in downtown Sydney (“I loved it! I still go there!”) and would often write film reviews for local magazines.

At the same time she was studying for a double major in English and international politics, but her teenage experimentation with writing and recording songs eventually took over. She laughs at the inevitability of it. “When I look back now I realise that my entire teenage years were taken up by a complete kind of obsession with music. I did that more than I did anything else, but I still never took it seriously. I always wanted to go to university and I fancied myself as some kind of academic, which I did not end up being!”

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Even from her earliest release, 2004’s On Night, Holly’s knowledge of obscure cinema and the intricacies of narrative modulation has fed into her songwriting. “I feel like I think in images more than words,” she muses, which leads into a discussion of the comics she penned and sketched as companions to both On Night and its 2006 follow-up Under The Town. I really wanted to see one after reading about them on the web (“Isn’t Wikipedia a strange phenomenon?” she grins) but alas she’d already sold her last copy back in Australia.

“They are incredibly lo-fi,” she explains. “In fact, they are more like a zine than anything else. They are kind of vague surrealist fantasies.” Oddly enough, Holly says she’s not particularly into comics on a wider level, though she does enjoy Jeffrey Lewis’s efforts. “When I say ‘comic book’, I use the term liberally!” she laughs. “Mine are really not that funny, but I enjoy doing them.”

The word of mouth success of On Night saw Holly take up several prestigious support slots for the likes of Joanna Newsom, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Devendra Banhart and Smog, though it seems that no one was tempted to slap her with the tag of ‘New Weird Australia’ (“I don’t really think that would apply to me,” she shrugs). The release of Under The Town cemented her growing reputation with an ARIA award nomination for Best Female, but the biggest development was in Holly’s own belief in her voice.

“I really did almost talk my way through my first album,” she laughs. “When I was recording Under The Town, I felt like I was enjoying singing a lot more, and for this new record I really grew to love it. It was liberating! I always felt like a songwriter but feeling like a singer is a different thing to me. Now I feel like that is a very important part of a song – it doesn’t just sing itself!”

A Loud Call is indeed a marked progression for Holly, not only because she really opens up her voice, but also in that it exudes a sense of optimism lacking from its predecessors. “It’s not as deathly as the first two albums, which is really nice for me,” Holly says with a smile. “There is something about the production that is very lush and full sounding. We used a lot of organs and drone instruments, but in a very beautiful way, which I think helped with the romantic feel to the record. Plus I felt a lot more optimistic this time while writing the songs.”

Unlike some other artists, Holly plays fast and loose with her songs before entering the studio, preferring to let a lot of the magic happen organically during the sessions rather than rehearsing everything down to the last note beforehand. She openly admits that a lot of her ideas for the album went out of the window when she got into the studio. “I was mainly wrong in terms of what I thought might work,” she laughs. “I like to keep the recording process full of surprises. I was still writing a couple of songs when we were there. Luckily I had good people around me.”

Those good people included studio whizz Mark Nevers, whose involvement in the record marked the first time that Holly had worked with a producer outside of Australia, plus accomplished musicians from Lambchop and Silver Jews. The bulk of the album was recorded at Mark’s studio in Nashville, Tennessee in just over 2 weeks, during which Holly was treated to a tour of the local attractions (including a trip out to Memphis) and dinner at a different restaurant each night. “His choices were really fun. One day we had fried chicken that was recommended by a Yo La Tengo record sleeve!”

One of the highlights of the sessions arose when Holly asked Mark if he knew anyone locally who could provide a strong male vocal for the song ‘Would You’, which she describes as “a very traditional sort of call and response duet.” As it happened, Mark had only just completed work on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Lie Down In The Light, and champion crooner Will Oldham was still in town. One phonecall later and he was in the studio with Holly, singing into the same microphone. “I was so honoured!” she gushes. “It was a very intimate experience. I think he did an absolutely perfect job.”

The critics think so too, it seems, as A Loud Call has been hailed as Holly’s finest work to date. It may not be the roof-raising experience the title at first might suggest, but there’s a real sense of the artist blooming out from the metaphorical wall her first two albums sidled along. “I felt the title was wildly appropriate to me,” she explains. “On Night had a real nocturnal feel and so that title felt very appropriate, and Under The Town really seemed to fit. This one I did think about for a long time before I settled on it.

“There’s lots of yells and screams and calls on the album, in the lyrics, but also it just sort of felt like it was about the romance of it, as though that was the loudest call of all.”

Alan Pedder

Holly Throsby plays End Of The Road Festival in September, so expect a few more UK dates to crop up around that time.

‘Would You’

‘Now I Love Someone’ [live]

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[…] include The Waifs, Little Birdy, Bertie Blackman, Sneaky Sound System and Zoe Badwi. No love for Holly Throsby this year? Very disappointing! The 2009 ARIA Awards will be held on November 26th at the Sydney […]

Pingback by multiple ARIA nominations for sarah blasko, kate miller-heidke « wears the trousers magazine




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