Originally published at ABC Arts Online, January 2015
"I feel everyone is singing their life more than their environment," says Hollie Fullbrook on whether she feels that any specific sense of New Zealand permeated her 2014 album Brightly Painted One. And she has more reason to ponder over place than most. The burr of her accent has a distinctive, if not strong, New Zealand melody, yet for the first 10 years of her life she lived in Bristol, England. She has spent prolonged periods travelling in the USA over the years and spent most of 2014 touring with her now three-piece group, Tiny Ruins. Perhaps because of this quite peripatetic experience, rather than a concentration on one place or landscape, it is the inner life and impressions of day-to-day circumstances that make up her rich, understated acoustic-based songs. "Everyone is singing their relationships, their challenges and troubles, though environment does come into it."
Fullbrook lives in Auckland, a town that nevertheless does cast a large shadow over Brightly Painted One, an album that saw her touring the world in support of Neil Finn, as well as impressing such remote figures as seminal film director and serial dabbler in multiple art forms, David Lynch, to the point of a collaboration between the two. The album's quite breathtaking first track, 'Me at the Museum, You in the Wintergardens', is a perfect introduction to this delicate but raffish artist, presenting a well-known Auckland landmark as something deliberately mysterious and fabled, adding a vaguely European refinement and elegance to something apparently mundane and prosaic. This is, it appears, the key to Brightly Painted One.
"The Wintergarden is a real place in Auckland and it's right next to the museum," says Fullbrook. "Anyone living in Auckland would know exactly where I'm talking about. It's kind of a gentle song, with a classic romantic feel, almost a bit more English maybe.
"I guess the song and the album are about the meeting of dreams and expectations with cold, hard reality. How do you turn mediocre or lacklustre situations into something mythical, how do you write a song for your everyday life and make it its own world."
That song was composed in the wake of being rejected for a job at the museum in question, while another, 'Straw Into Gold', explores similar issues of purpose, ambition and disappointment. "The philosophy of living is something I think I touch on quite a bit in my songs."
Tiny Ruins was initially Fullbrook's solo project, resulting in her debut Some Were Meant For Sea in 2011, a much sparser album without the textures and atmospheric variety of Brightly Painted One, which was fleshed out by new permanent band members Cass Basil on bass and Alexander Freer on drums. Fullbrook is open and flexible regarding what their increasingly meaningful involvement might mean for future Tiny Ruins releases, which she says, with some irony, "might even be more quiet." But there is little doubt Fullbrook remains the group's spiritual epicentre and certainly the source of songs, even if some kind of evolution is very possible.
"Cass and Alex are both amazing musicians, but sometimes amazing musicians aren't songwriters. I'm the untrained musician of the three of us but I've always written songs.
"Tiny Ruins songs are pretty personal, confessional and based on experience. I feel that so far they have been my confessions, and maybe it would be strange if someone else wrote a song for us, but it's definitely not out of the question. We're very democratic as a band, we all make decisions and do everything together."
Following the tour with Neil Finn and his band in the first half of the year, performing in regal venues to large audiences, Tiny Ruins carried on their world tour with their own shows, which were somewhat more modest and intimate in terms of venues, and less luxurious in terms of travel and accommodation. It was in the midst of these shows, "waking up on someone's floor in Boston", that Fullbrook began her journey with David Lynch, who in 2013 released his second studio album The Big Dream. She received an email that morning from New Zealand's trailblazing pop tour de force, Lorde, who was curating the soundtrack to the film The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1. Due to her profile and connections, Lorde chose to unite Lynch with Fullbrook for a track on the album. "I was lucky enough to be included in her grand scheme," says Fullbrook.
She ended up in Lynch's Los Angeles studio for two days recording a song, which, unfortunately, was then rejected by Lorde for the final soundtrack, but is set for a release of some kind in the new year.
"He was every bit as enigmatic as you hope he would be," she says of Lynch. "When we recorded the song together he almost treated me like I was an actor, giving me things to think about while I was doing the takes, putting an idea in the mind to express in the music."
Another of Fullbrook's impending releases is an EP in collaboration with Hamish Kilgour, founding member of seismic New Zealand band The Clean, one of the most influential acts on the illustrious Flying Nun label in Dunedin in the early eighties (Brightly Painted One was also released through the enduring imprint). That release, she says will be, unsurprisingly, "slightly more indie or alternative".
Those two significant projects may well see her reach new audiences, following on from her definite approval from Finn's rabidly devoted legions of fans. Auckland, it seems, is her place of refuge for writing songs for a potential third Tiny Ruins album, thus the first half of 2015 is likely to be a period of fertility in this way, even if she has little idea of what direction or mood they will take. These days, she is not relying on the frustration of missing out on jobs in the cultural sector to provide the kindling for songs.
"My overall aim is to try and write songs that I won't get tired of singing, where the lyrics will continue to mean different things to me as I live out the years. It's kind of my own challenge to myself."
Tiny Ruins performed as part of Sydney Festival,2015.