words and interview by hannah boyle
photography by georgie craw
This interview first appeared in our new physical publication ‘A Music Journal’ – on sale now
In the burdensome social and political climate that we currently find ourselves in, music can often provide healing for tumultuous times. It is a warm embrace to cling to, a whisper or shout in what feels like eternal darkness, or something else entirely. What if we, as artists and musicians and writers alike, turn away from fragility, and delicacy, towards something darker, louder almost? Music as healing, as argument, as protest.
One of 2019’s first great records, Olympic Girls is Tiny Ruins’ new, and arguably best release yet, as gorgeously crafted and produced as we’ve come to expect from Hollie Fullbrook, but with a new edge; a new glint in its eye, a new splendour at its core. In its introduction, the new record is pitched as a celebration of experimentation and spontaneity, and it’s true to say that it feels more full-bodied and rich than either of Fullbrook’s previous two records.
The greatness of Olympic Girls can be found in the balance, between what’s been and where we are now, but more so in the importance of what the album stands for. Simply reaching for new heights isn’t what makes a great record, but this collection of songs is powerful enough to stand alone as simply that, while also carrying a torch for women straying from the artistic boxes they have been placed within, challenging their inner creativity, making music to suit the time, reclaiming space as their own. There is more to be found than simply poetry and beautiful soundscapes, there is also the desire to “bust through the ceiling, raise glass to the sky”, little by little, piece by glinting piece.
You said, ‘I think I’m the most excited about it than I’ve ever been about anything I’ve made’ when asked about Olympic Girls. Can you talk about the roots of the album, how the process began and flowed to a definitive end throughout the year you spent creating it?
While touring our last album Brightly Painted One, between sound checks, in motel rooms and on days off, I would work on little guitar ideas, chord progressions. By the end of it, I had several guitar parts that I knew had something special going on. I remember thinking of them as vaguely medieval in style, like little dances. They were quite fun to play. Songs began to develop from made-up chords and more diverse picking patterns.
My first album was made up of simple folk songs, narrative vignettes almost. The second started branching out a bit more, hinted at a bit of progression with songs like ’She’ll be Coming ‘Round’…but this album saw quite a leap. I had slowly become a better guitar player, with all the touring and practice. I was able to do more and explore more on the guitar. It felt more natural to do so, and I was technically able to. So it felt a bit different, going into these new songs.
Once our touring wound down I slowly found my way back to a place of feeling lyrically inspired. The first was ‘One Million Flowers’. It had a kind of explosion feeling about it. The lyrics were exuberant and kind of loose. So that set the scene for the songs that followed. I played it to the band, and it kickstarted the record. Things went slowly though.
I was pretty burnt out the year following Brightly Painted One… searching in a kind of numb state, drawing from things that gave me the feeling of ‘One Million Flowers’ – Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, planting bulbs and seeing their forms take shape out of nothing, the feeling of being newly in love, Van Gogh’s sunflowers. I really wanted to focus on bright colours – almost taking a cue from the last album’s title.
So Olympic Girls grew first out of numbness, then into a period of happiness and stability, and then towards the end of writing and recording, great sadness. I think of it as a sprawling, experimental, happy album… that still has a sense of foreboding.
Your songwriting has always exuded a lyrical tenderness akin to the most delicate and fragile of poetry. How important is it to you to capture this gentle wordsmithery, and does it always come naturally?
Ha, I think that over time I’ve actually been trying to subvert gentleness. We feel sceptical of gentleness, fragility, tenderness right now. It doesn’t suit this time. As a writer, I’ve often felt herded into a ‘gentle’ box that I’ve then felt constrained by. It’s more fun, challenging and truer to myself to put a stronger personality that has teeth into songs. But subtlety of lyrics demands subtlety of music to be heard.
Most of what I try to do is to find that in-between feeling. Because while gentleness, softness is in my nature, I’m also teasing, obnoxious, tenacious. I feel misread when people only get ‘gentle, lovely’ from it. And I think that’s an easy category to place women songwriters into, unfortunately. Maybe especially with this album, I’ve been more interested in pushing up against those expectations, and delivering lines that are visually strong in that poetic sense, but that can remove the floor from under the listener too, you know?
I might not always get there but that’s the carrot I’m chasing. I have found that the songwriters I’ve met that are the most vulnerable and willing to be exposed musically are the gnarliest characters. And I think we all resent being characterised as these kinds of whimsical, fragile creatures. But maybe that’s what also pushes us, or has pushed me, at least.
Is songwriting a transient occurrence for you? Do you fluctuate between writing in vast amounts and sometimes not at all? How do you deal with this?
I know that the secret to being a more prolific songwriter is daily discipline. Sitting down at 8am every morning to write lyrics. But I can’t honestly say I do that very often. I do try to play my guitar for at least half an hour a day. Usually in the evening. That’s how I develop guitar parts/melodies/the musical side – constant revisiting, and kind of reminding and searching, because if I don’t practice them, I forget the musical ideas. I record them as voice memos on my phone.
Sometimes lyrics pop up, if you’re allowing yourself the window every day. But usually I feel very lyrically frustrated if I try to write every day in a ‘disciplined’ way. Lyrics for me are a mysterious thing – it sounds cliche but for me it’s true – they don’t seem to bend to 8am sessions. I do chip away at them in a notebook, but it’s usually more of a manic sort of splurge on my laptop when I have no other distractions. So it’s an intense window that sometimes occasionally comes before me and opens.
The best lyrics, I think, are really ideas, distinct ideas. I have to be actively looking for them, seeking them, in the back of my mind… it takes a conscious effort – but it’s not a state of mind I can be in any time I want. I can’t get there every day, or even every week or month. I’m a really slow writer. I find that guitar parts – the musical ideas – flow and arise really easily, but not so with lyrics. How do I deal with it? I don’t know. Just muddle on. It’s excruciating sometimes. Then it magically happens again. I want to be a prolific 8am-er, because I do feel the pressure to be writing more. But I haven’t reached that level just yet.
For many who create, art (be it music, poetry, sculpting) can emerge from an intense hunger to make something of their own. It can often provide a valuable outlet for release. Is writing music a cathartic experience for you?
It allows you a kind of disguise sometimes. Or total control. Or the feeling that you’re being seen and heard. It has occurred to me that I may be my best or truest self in song; that it’s the best iteration of myself I can be, to anyone. At its best, it can feel like being set free.
I come from a family of engineers – practical, mathsy sort of people. Sometimes I find my natural thought process is infuriatingly mechanical. Like an engine that whirrs on and on, that is too analytical, too critical. I have trouble expressing myself clearly in conversation when I don’t know someone well. I try to fit in to whatever is happening around me, a kind of feeling of being out-of-body.
Playing music has always been a means of coming back to myself. I started writing songs when I was fourteen, so the process feels like a very familiar, normal and necessary thing to do. When I’ve no time to write or noodle around on a guitar, there’s a sense of pent-up frustrated energy, and a physical urge to make that space. When I finally sit down to play, it’s just a really happy and contented feeling, a secure feeling. I feel really lucky to have that, and always encourage people to learn or keep up with an instrument, because it’s so cool to be able to sit down and play yourself a tune.
In Olympic Girls we see you moving towards larger, more explorative soundscapes, a somewhat unexpected progression from the wistful strings and caressing guitar rhythms of your previous work. How was the process of expanding your musical palette in practice?
I have a truly amazing band. Cass, Alex & Tom have been my musical collaborators for several years now. Tom Healy on electric guitar also produced this album and our last, Brightly Painted One. We recorded both albums in the same little space – our underground practice room, just the four of us. So we are really exploring our own landscape, it’s not an outside influence. We wouldn’t have wanted to make the same thing twice. It’s maybe each of us being more expressive and comfortable with each other, too. We’ve been through a lot together as friends, touring companions, bandmates, since recording BPO in 2013. When I write a song, they are the first to hear it. We workshop that song, find its best expression…over time we’ve developed a trust in each other. I don’t dictate their parts – they come up with their own for our recordings. They each have strong musical personalities, and I love the ideas they come up with; it’s very rarely that I feel something is not serving the song.
These new songs also called for ‘more of everything’. As I mentioned, the first song ‘One Million Flowers’ felt like I”d turned a corner in my songwriting. They were weirder and more complex musically, so they pointed us toward more lush arrangements. The recording process on this album was a gradual, glacial kind of thing as a whole. We approached each song with a real patience – we worked solidly, but in a relaxed manner. But then again, we also recorded each one fairly quickly once we were focused in on it. Weeks would go by before recording the next one. So each was in its own little dedicated vacuum, but within the same overall environment if that makes sense.
When dissecting the career of musicians and artists alike, people often use the word ‘maturing’. Is this a word that resonates with you? How do you feel your craft has grown over the years?
I guess I would agree that I am maturing. Girl, I’m a woman now. There is a certain magic to the early songs, I think, of any songwriter. They connect to audiences in a really different way. There is a kind of hardcore love for them because they are so pure.
Tom said during recording that it felt like there was ‘a lot more of me’ in the new songs. I would tend to agree. So they feel like they’ve gotten closer to the core of something maybe.
You’ve mentioned a lack of connection to a geographical space. How do you think this affects your sense of identity and in turn, your work?
It’s a feeling I’ve had at times, moreso as a teenager. I moved from Bristol to Auckland when I was ten, and it shook my whole sense of self. But also ‘made me’ I guess. I’ve not been someone who has a strong sense of belonging anywhere in particular. Maybe feeling like an outsider has turned me towards writing more – a kind of ‘making sense’ of things. I kept a diary for many years as a kid/teenager and I think that’s what its purpose was.
As I’ve got older, I feel quite connected to my immediate surroundings. I feel at home where I am living at the moment, and I try to nurture that feeling by going on walks and keeping a sort of routine. Visiting local op shops, for instance. There is a comfort in repeated visits to spaces that feel ordinary, where you know they’ll be playing a particular ‘classic hits’ radio station.
It’s also people that I’m interested in, interactions, conversations – and they can happen anywhere. I’m a homebody in the sense that I love being in a space I have made my own.
I like to make whatever space I am in more homely. I have started taking a candle around with us on tour, for instance. I think the idea of what home is, and also the dichotomy between the internal and the external world has always been a big part of what I write about.
Olympic Girls was released Feburary 1st 2019,
via Ba da Bing! / Milk! Records / Marathon Artists