HOLLIE SMITH / “Hollie Smith Mixtape”
Source: Breath of Life (BoL Mixtape – June 1, 2009)
Hollie Smith is a Soul singer/songwriter born 1983 in Auckland, New Zealand. Mtume and I have discussed the New Zealand Soul music phenonmenon a number of times without coming to any definitive conclusions. But both the quality and quantity of Soul music emanating from Aotearoa, aka New Zealand, is proof that something serious is happening down under.
Early on I was confused because Hollie Smith looked white but was rocking serious Maori tatts on both arms. Also, while trying to find her music I ran into an album of Celtic music by a Hollie Smith who looked something like the New Zealand Holllie Smith but I just racked it up to coincidence and moved on.
Back in 2006 when I first started seriously trying to find out more about Hollie there just wasn’t much info and only a handful of tracks as a guest artist and a short, six-track EP.
Three years later the tale is finally getting told and it’s an engaging story. But before I get off into the dangerous mix of facts and speculation, let me share some background info on the tracks on the mixtape.
Initially I was only going to select from what I thought was Hollie’s debut full-length CD called Long Player (which I already had), but then as I dug deeper and tracked down a number of interviews and articles, as I hooked the pieces together the picture became clearer and clearer.
How did you break into the business/get discovered?
I didn’t really get discovered. I worked f***ng hard for 10 years! I did a lot of stuff at school. I worked with the Northcote College Big Band, which was really famous, well it was well known at the time for being the best in the country, did some gigs and was writing from when I was about 11. So I’ve always been doing it for as long as I can remember, then I moved down to Wellington and started working with Trinity Roots.
So how did you first get into music then?
I’ve just always done it. It wasn’t a choice that I made, it’s just always there…it’s just always what I did.
How hard is it to be a successful musician in NZ?
In New Zealand it is very hard. You can’t get into it for the money; I still haven’t made any money! I mean, you could go the completely opposite Britney Spears way, but that’s not music, that’s performance. It’s just lots of hard work and never giving up. But I never really felt like I had a choice, I never created a plan B for myself – it’s
always been what I was going to do.
The business involved is also really difficult to get your head around. It becomes a really, really huge part of music, which is not what you’d expect but you’ve just got to be smart and learn about it so you know what you’re doing.
First, there are two Hollie’s. In her previous life, at age 16 and under the direction of her stepfather, Steve McDonald, who is a professional musician specializing in Celtic music, Holly recorded an album of Celtic music. Most of the music on the album was written by McDonald with three or four Celtic standards including a version of “Amazing Grace” that is replete with percussion and bagpipes. The album, Light From A Distant Shore (1999) did very well, selling over thirty-thousand as an independent and also earned Hollie Best Female Vocalist at the 1999 National Jazz Festival of New Zealand.
Hollie received offers to tour and record. She went to the USA and even recorded a second album. But it was not what she wanted, so Hollie pulled the plug on the second album and decided to forego Celtic music altogether.
Hollie was clear. James Brown was her idol and she wanted to be a black singer. Hollie had seen a video cassette of Brown and looked at it repeatedly. She was six years old at the time and the song that most impressed her was “It’s A Man’s World.”
Soul music came from such a degree of struggle that you can’t help but feel like there’s something more behind and in it. I’m interested in the political and cultural aspect of society and the way that it’s changed and the way it’s similar in every place. The struggle that music came from is very powerful to me. Music has always changed history.
I try not to write about me. People can take my songs at face value, but I try to put more layers, to have deeper things—political, religious and cultural. That’s what the songs are to me, which gives me the inspiration to sing them over and over again. They remind me of ideas and ideologies that are important to me. A lot of the songs are based on being able to look outside your own reality and being able to understand and be open-minded about what’s going on, things that many people choose to ignore.
Hollie’s heritage is English, Dutch and somewhere in the bloodline also some Apache. She definitely doesn’t sound like she looks, or vice versa. After walking away from a good shot at fame and fortune, and turning her back on the music of her immediate ancestry, Hollie Smith gave up on actively pursuing music for a minute until she moved to Wellington in 2003.
Hollie had received an invite to sing background on a Trinity Roots project.
They were the first band to take me on when I came down to Wellington, literally two days later. I ended up working with them on a demo of The Dream, which was on the ‘Home, Land and Sea’ album, and that led to me working with them for a couple of years. They changed my mindset in regards to music, got me inspired and turned me around.
By the time the project was finished, Hollie was featured on two tracks, “The Dream” and “Home, Land and Sea” on the 2004 album Home, Land and Sea. She also went on tour with the group.
Then in 2005 Hollie put out a self-titled EP consisting of five songs she had written over the years.
Hollie’s voice on the Trinity Roots album Home, Land and Sea attracted the attention of folk who were working on a movie. They had already recorded Don McGlashan’s song and he was satisfied but Toa Fraser, the director, wanted a more mature sound, sort of like the woman who sang on the Trinity Roots album. Hollie got the call.
Hollie’s 2006 soundtrack recording of Don McGlashan’s song “Bathe In The River” went on to be a monster hit in New Zealand (22 weeks in the top 10). Once again offers were proffered.
Soon thereafter (I think I have the timeline relatively straight but the details are hard to piece together because back in the nineties Hollie was not getting the attention she’s getting now and there’s very little info available online), anyway, Hollie had been working on her second debut release (or third if you count the shelved American project).
In the midst of all this the phone rang one day in August 2007 and Hollie was invited to open for Bob Dylan. A bootleg of that performance has surfaced. It was just Hollie singing and playing keys, along with her producer and guitarist Jeremy Toy.
The concert was a success. The new album was a big success (went platinum in New Zealand) and directly led to an offer to record with Blue Note Records. When Hollie flew to the USA to meet with Bruce Lundvall and EMI executives, everything was going swimmingly except Hollie decided she would prefer to be on Manhattan, a subsidiary label which would give her more freedom to record how and whatever she wanted.
A decision was also made to upgrade the debut, sort of make a second first impression that was really a second, second impression. It was a wise decision.
When I heard the initial release of Long Player I was not as interested as I had been in the EP. The Long Player (Special Edition) is a different story. Three new tracks were added and those tracks were recorded in Philadelphia in September 2007 with James Poyser producing. Poyser is noted for his work with Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Al Green. Plus some tracks were taken out of the mix and back in New Zealand, Hollie did a remake of two or three cuts. The result is a much stronger album.
Oh, wait I forgot to mention another major recording project—there was a New Zealand-Brazil collaboration in which a bevy of New Zealand artists journeyed to Sao Paulo, Brazil and collaborated on an album that was underwritten by Bacardi. One of the two tracks recorded with Apollo Nove was “Bela Luz.”
And now Hollie has embarked on a third new beginning in which she will move to New York to work on a forthcoming project, and tour internationally, and who knows… to be continued.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Hollie Smith Mixtape Playlist
01 “Philosophy” – Long Player (Special Edition)
02 “Miracles” - Live @ Civic Theatre – Auckland
03 “Miracles” - Long Player (Special Edition)
04 “New Dawn” – Long Player (Special Edition)
05 “So Long” - Long Player (Special Edition)
06 “Come For Me Here (Original)” - Long Player (Special Edition)
07 “Come Here For Me” – Live @ Civic Theatre – Auckland
08 “Amazing Grace” - Light From A Distant Shore
09 “Home, Land and Sea” – Home, Land and Sea (Trinity Roots)
10 “Bathe In The River” – Naming Number Two soundtrack
11 “Child Standing” – Hollie Smith EP
12 “First Time” - Hollie Smith EP
13 “Bela Luz” – OE: Brazil
14 “Sensitive To A Smile” – Light Of The Pacific – The Very Best of Herbs
15 “Be Whole In Thee” – Long Player (Special Edition)
16 “I Will Do” – Long Player (Special Edition)
17 “Come Here For Me” – Long Player (Special Edition)
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