Five years in the making, Hollie Smith has braved a relationship break-up, confidence issues and multiple lockdowns to make her new album happen. She talks to Chris Schulz.
A few weeks into Auckland’s current lockdown, Hollie Smith spray painted a piece of cardboard lime green. She spent time doing her own hair, make-up and wardrobe, then poured herself a gin and tonic and began thinking deep thoughts, about the world and “what I’m doing with my life”.
Then she walked downstairs to her makeshift film studio, sat in front of her homemade green screen, lit up a light ring, pressed record, and began singing into the camera.
Her dog sat in the corner, unimpressed, watching on.
The results, a stark, bare-boned music video filmed for the title track of Smith’s new album, are intense. Released on Friday after a rollercoaster five years, she named it Coming In From the Dark after emerging from last year’s lockdowns. “It’s one of those moments where you feel a burden dropping. You feel like you’re emerging from something that was holding you back,” she says.
But much of her album is also inspired by a relationship break-up. “It was feeling like I sort of wasn’t getting anywhere, hitting my head against a brick wall really and going, ‘Ah, okay, I don’t need to do that,'” she says. It’s made her new album more personal than the previous four. “It’s not normally something I write about,” she says. “I got some good material out of this one.”
All of that comes through in her black-and-white video, a fiercely intense watch that becomes joyous and uplifting as Smith’s vocals, a kiss off to an ex, soar alongside strings supplied by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
It looks like $1 million was spent on it. It cost Smith far less.
“How much does spray paint cost? It cost about $10,” she laughs, beaming in on a Zoom call from the same room she shot the clip in. She didn’t know how her selfie video would come out, and yells, “Yes!” when I tell her it’s mesmerising.
“I thought, ‘I’ll just sing it to camera … as honestly as I can.’”
Honesty is all over Smith’s new album. The 38-year-old pieced it together like a patchwork quilt through multiple recording sessions in gaps between last year’s lockdowns. Because of those super-personal lyrics, she believes it contains some of her best material yet. “Previously I’ve tried to keep things a little cryptic because I don’t want to be that exposed,” she says.
This time, as she jammed on her keyboard, she opened up. “Writing’s always going to be a cathartic process … it just falls out of me. It’s an unconscious kind of bleargh.”
It’s making Smith feel vulnerable. Nearing the release of her album, she’s been plagued by doubts. On her mind right now: “Is this still going to be relevant? Are people going to listen? Will people come to my shows?”
Yes, even after a celebrated career with a Best Female Solo Artist title next to her name, Smith remains nervous about releasing new music. “It’s kind of terrifying. I’ve had a pretty good run,” she says. “Is it going to continue? Do I need to get a job?”
Her concerns are, of course, needless, because Smith’s new album is stunning. From the uplifting sway of ‘Something Good’ to the brooding ‘Damage Done’ and the album’s centrepiece, the break-up piano ballad ‘The One to Go’, painful moments are turned into exquisite beauty, with Smith’s powerhouse vocals on full display.
Many first heard that voice on Smith’s APRA-winning 2006 single ‘Bathe in the River’, the breakout song from the soundtrack for the film No. 2. It’s a song Smith has “issues” with. That’s because the Don McGlashan-penned ballad hijacked her career, pegging her as a singer at a time when Smith wanted to be known for much more.
It put her in a box, one she’s been trying to escape ever since.
“I walked in, sung it four times, walked out again,” she says about the invite from McGlashan, who was putting the film’s soundtrack together with a supergroup called the Mt Raskil Preservation Society. “Next minute it’s this massive song.”
Smith had hoped 2007’s Long Player, her major label debut, would be her big statement, and make her known as much for her musicality as her muscular voice. “I wanted the album to come out and for people to see this body of work and acknowledge I was a musician,” she says.
Ever since, she’s written and arranged every moment of her albums, including her new one. If anything, she hopes Coming In From the Dark proves that once and for all.
Right now, Smith’s eager to go through her own process of letting go. Stuck in Tāmaki Makaurau’s seemingly endless lockdown, she’s exercising regularly, taking her dog for jogs, and scratching her travel itch by touring a virtual New York in Spider-Man video games on her Playstation.
Smith’s desperate to begin work on her new material, and points to the keyboard beside her as the place all her new songs start. “That’s where the magic happens,” she says.
But she can’t – her new album is still under her skin. She’s eager to get on the road and tour the album, let it loose in the world, but with dates planned across November and December, Smith doesn’t know if the current lockdowns will allow those shows to go ahead.
“I need to cut the cord,” she says, before nodding at the room around her. “Not being able to leave home does throw a spanner in the works.”
Hollie Smith’s Coming In From the Dark is out now. For tour dates visit holliesmith.co.nz.