An Interview with Hollie Smith


Hollie Smith is one of New Zealand’s most recognisable singer-songwriters. She began her career in her teens, collaborated with some of the industries best, and has had numerous number one singles and albums. She is touring Australia this July. Her current album, Water Or Gold, is out now!

Firstly, what was the idea behind the creatively artistic cover for the album?

The artist, who’s quite well internationally known, is Askew One. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand. He’d done some really beautiful portrait stuff in a recent exhibition. I approached him and asked him if he’d be keen to do the artwork and he was really really excited about it! He goes through this amazing process of layering different colours on flexi glass using this really interesting process. He did a couple of the single artworks as well, [so it] was a real pleasure to have him involved. [It] was all pretty exciting and I’m very lucky!

Where does the title of the album come from and what does it mean?

There’s a track on the record also called Water or Gold. I liked the name to be fair (laughs). But the song itself was within different perspectives, what’s more important to you personally, and your perspective on what’s important?, what’s success? and what’s value? All those kinds of things [in] trying to find value in what you have, as opposed to what you think you should have.

Basically, between water and gold, if they were your only two options what would you choose? But, of course, without water you’d be dead (laughs). I like the imagery of the name and that fluid, solid imagery in my head, the colours and the idea behind the track [so] I thought it was a good way to go. There’s no specific theme to the album it was just what I thought was relevant for a title.

I was watching your music videos and you look different in each and everyone of them, and sometimes even within the same music video. Is that an intentional thing, using hair and make-up to create different characters and looks?

Kind of. I mean everyone has their fun times to kind of explore, experiment with the fun stuff like that. I’ve got a pretty good team with me who give ideas, and they want to try stuff out as well, so it sort of happens quite naturally. It’s not really too much of a planned concept behind the different alter egos, it’s more just having fun with hair and make-up.

[Lady Dee] was probably a little more character-orientated. We green-screened it and super-imposed all those images behind like that. [We had] a small team [and] we shot that in a day [so] it was actually quick turn around that video. A quick little throw together [that] ended up looking great from the visual side.

The song was based around dealing with friends who were going through some difficult times but not being able to see it objectively, [and for me to stay] ready for them when they figure it out in the end. It’s about people living their own secret stories going on, just facing their own demons. Loosely. It’s more people’s perception of what it means.

Is that song a good indication of the new album?

I think so. I had a pretty different writing process for this record, so the songs are all actually quite different. But I think it’s a really cohesive album [and] it works really well together, but they all sort of go on a slightly different little tangents, so [Lady Dee is] a good representation of the arrangement and sound and things like that, but there’s definitely lots of different kind of feels on the other tracks as well.

The previous records I wrote on piano, which lends itself to a little bit more sort of chordal movement and vocal movement. Whereas, writing on guitar, I tend to simplify things – more simplistic chords and movement. I wrote a lot of this album on guitar but in a few different ways and writing with a few different instruments, which change the sort of vibe of each track as well [and makes it] different than the others in that regard.

[But] it’s not too dissimilar. People who are familiar with my music they’ll still recognise all of the same elements in this record as well, in regards to the vocal arrangements and the way I’ve sort of pieced the album together, but there’s a few more up tracks on this record, where, my other two, are a bit more ballad-orientated. This one, there’s a few more songs on it that are a lot more higher energy.

Is music a great way to get over bad things and celebrate the good things in life?

Yeah, it’s funny, because people always do the whole tortured artist, create drama to be able to write and all that kind  of thing,  which I definitely don’t agree with – I’d definitely prefer to have no dramas (laughs). I don’t write when I’m having a bad time but generally, in hindsight, when I’ve got sort of more clarity over, I tend to write quite a bit which comes quite naturally and not even necessarily about what’s happened. Once I’m feeling a little more clear about perspectives and understanding things a bit clearer, I’m able to have a pretty good writing period.

Do you get nervous before releasing a new album?

Yeah, to some extent. I try not to get too worked up about it, but obviously it’s been a long time since I released my second record. I’ve done other  collaborative projects and other music in that interim, but not a full Hollie Smith record. It’s been ten years since I released the first, so I’m a little bit kinda like, “wonder how this is gonna go down”. It’s been a while since I’ve been in people’s ears again. I can’t really get too worked up about it or you’ll go crazy [but I’m] more curious to see how it goes.

So far I’ve had a really good response, so I’m pretty grateful that people are liking it. I really like it. I think it’s a really great album. I wasn’t sure it was going to get there actually. Near the end of the recording process I just didn’t think it was quite come together the way I had planned. I’ve only listened to it a bunch of times as well, so the more I’m listening it the more I’m liking it and hearing new stuff in it, and thinking it’s the best one I’ve done (laughs). When the album was finished it was probably the first time that I properly listened to it. So, I guess, I’m going out with this record on release with fresh ears on it.

With the other records, I recorded them live in a studio, so I was sitting with them for like six months before they were released. Everything was there and done and we were chipping away at small details on the top of it. So, the other albums I’ve done, by the time it’s been released I haven’t heard it in months; whereas this one, because the process was a little bit different with the recording – we weren’t all together in a live studio; we were selectively jigsaw puzzling over the year – so by the time we got to mix, I still hadn’t kind of heard everything cohesively until we put it back together again.

You opened for Bob Dylan and Coldplay when they were in New Zealand. What was it like opening for some of the world’s biggest acts, and did you get to hang out with them a bit?

It was good. I’m always honoured to share the stage with such people, of course. [I didn’t get to hang out with] Bob Dylan, but that’s not strange [as] I don’t think he interacts with anybody from what I understand. But I hung out with the other groups, yep.

Is it inspiring watching such well-known acts perform?

Yeah, definitely. Everyone you work with musically, you definitely take certain things away from. Obviously, doing support, it’s not working with them specifically, but it’s always inspiring watching big acts do what they do on stage. I listen to a lot of different music and I’m constantly finding inspiration from different things, people, experiences and places, so it all encumbers to one big thing.

I’ve had a lot of different influences over the years. I was about five, [when] I went through my James Brown phase. My Dad played music and it was sort of blues rock orientated kinda stuff. Billie Holiday, I did a lot of jazz through High School. [I] started writing when I was eleven, so that went through all different kinds of stages over the years when I was growing up doing different things. I couldn’t pick a specific influence [as I’ve] definitely listened to a lot of stuff for a very long time.

Is overseas where you would like to ultimately release your music, and specifically the new album?

It just depends. It’s difficult. It’s pretty hard to fly six people overseas from New Zealand and not lose your house (laughs). We’ll just play it by ear ,and if there’s opportunities that come up, we’ll just try to make it work and try and do what we can do to get some tracks in some other territories.

Music is so easily accessible nowadays due to the internet – which can either be a really good thing for an artist or bad thing. Do you think being in New Zealand impacts your level of success?

I think opportunities would be a lot different if I was in somewhere majorly center-wise like New York or London or something like that – which is still maybe on the cards – but New Zealand’s a particularly small industry so that makes it doubly as hard cause you can’t just sort of keep touring the same areas. Like if you do a show in Auckland, you can’t really go back for another couple of months. You’ve gotta be strategic about where you’re touring, how often and all that kind of thing. Because there’s just such an over saturation of the market over there at the moment with the whole lot of New Zealand acts which have been really successful now, and also, the number of internationals coming over to New Zealand – which again, even for them, they’re trying to do extra shows to make up for those losses. All of a sudden New Zealand’s a viable option to get down to, so it means people are saving their money to go to big shows or there’s a lot more choice in their local areas.

People go, “that’s great ’cause people will hear your music and they’ll come to your live shows” and it’s like, “nah, not really”. (laughs) It’s not really that simple. On both avenues, with touring and releasing, it’s pretty difficult to stay afloat and also, more importantly, not being able to afford to get overseas and do those things. You could make all those markets work if you have enough money to get over there and do that then that would be great but you kind of can’t afford to invest into your business essentially because you’re not getting enough to live. All those things are quite frustrating but it’s just about being strategic and creative with the game plan and just sort of chipping away at it really and just doing what you can do.

But hopefully it will come around full circle and people will just realise that there won’t be decent music in the world ever again if they don’t start supporting it in some tangible way. I mean, there will always be good music and people will live on the streets to provide good music. You can’t really get away from it if you are in it for those sort of reasons, but hopefully the respect within the actual artistic avenue of music sort of can sort of continue to live somehow in the world.

Is it one of those things where you have all these little victories in your career but you’re still constantly working and fighting hard for those bigger breaks?

Kind of. It’s still a little bit different now. It’s more using strategy and what you can do and what you can’t do. I don’t know if I’d necessarily pack up my life and move overseas on a whim of someone promising me the world. [I’ve] done that before [and I’m] probably not that keen to necessarily jump into anything again. It’s just whatever feels right, just establishing the right relationships and trying to continue to do music and make a living – which is more and more difficult these days obviously.

We’ve got things happening with this record overseas and so we’ll see what develops with those and follow what feels right at the time. I think it’s just a matter of being right time, right place. So far I haven’t been in that particular time and place, but I’m feeling confident that I’ll be able to make something work at some point that works for me and where I am now that I’m a little bit older.

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