Monday, January 14, 2013

Interview: Jess Holland

Jess Holland is making a name for herself as a solo performer and also with her country music trio, the Hickory Sisters, and she'll be appearing in both guises at the 2013 Tamworth Country Music Festival (dates at the end of the interview). I spoke to Jess recently to talk about both of her projects, and to find out a little more about her.

I wanted to start off by saying having read your bio, what an interesting person you are.
Thank you [laughter].

But I couldn't work out if you were still a teenager or early 20s, so I'm going to start off by asking you if you had that voice when you were a teenager but if you're still a teenager, then I don't know how to rephrase it [laughter].
I'm actually 26, so not a teenager. I've always had quite a big voice and I guess it's just developed with age.

No one ever knows where voices come from, right – every singer has their own voice – but it seems like it's coming from this big reservoir within you, so I was wondering, I know you have a musical history in your family, so it sounds a bit to me like your voice draws on your whole family history, if that makes sense?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely you're right, music is definitely a family orientated type thing, like it's in my blood and, yeah, I guess it's always been with me and all of the influences, whether it be family or external, I guess they've gone to make up my unique style.

Your voice and your singing style sound like you could go jazz, you could go blues, you could go country, could go rock, and I guess you've got these two bands that you're playing with in Tamworth who have different styles, so it seems like you've obviously got a lot of creativity to explore?
I consider myself to be pretty creative and I like all subgenres of country music, if that makes sense. Because these days country isn't just flat out one thing – it entails a lot of different subgenres and incorporates blues and rock and all that sort of stuff. For my own music, I market myself as country rock because I do have rock ’n’ roll and I love blues and that sort of thing. I've always played and grown up with and listened to country music, so I guess that's where that side of the influence comes from. With my other band the trio, the girls, Hickory Sisters we've all come from different backgrounds and we all love different styles of country music and that sort of thing, so we've tried to incorporate all of those and all of our, I guess, different uniqueness, because we're all very different, so we tried to incorporate that into our band.

It says in your bio that you like Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette and I was wondering, since you're in a vocal trio, if you've heard the album Trio with Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt?
Yeah, I have, I have and we love that sort of stuff.  We all love the Emmylou Harrises and the Gillian Welchs and that sort of thing. We’re not trying to be like anyone, these are our influences, and I guess we're just basically saying this is our sound, you know, like it or leave it.  But we're not trying to be or sound like anyone because we all come from different country music backgrounds and coming together we all work very well and we connect very well musically, but we do have very different tastes and I guess that's what makes the sound so great, because there's nothing else like it out there.

Do you have to work at your harmonies – because I presume in the trio that you're harmonising, so some people harmonise naturally, some people have to work at it.
We've actually been very lucky because we've all just done it automatically.  We actually first met each other at the CMAA Academy of Country Music in Tamworth in 2011, and we didn't actually play that much together at the academy, it wasn't until the following Tamworth Country Music Festival that we all sort of decided to busk together and that sort of thing. We just pulled it off really well and we decided well, hell, why not try and do it and get ourselves out there as a trio professionally. So we don't have to work at it, which is actually really easy, but we all live in different areas of Australia, one of us is here in Mungindi, one of us is in Melbourne and the other is actually in Tamworth.  So we don't get a lot of time to catch up in person and it would be great or easier if we can just pick up where we left off and we do that both as friendship and musically, so we’re very lucky.

Do you ever rehearse over Skype or over the phone?
Not really rehearse, I guess we're more likely to write music over Skype or over the phone. We talk all the time and we're all best mates and we don't have a lot of time to, I guess, practice, but we don't need to I think we all know what we've got to do and we all practice individually anyway and it just seems to come together really well.  We catch up and talk all the time and we haven't really needed to work at it, which is great.

It sounds like it's meant to be, if it flows together so easily.
Yeah, and it has literally been that black and white, and initially we weren't sure how well because we all live in different places, but it has honestly been one of the easiest bands I've ever been in.  Literally, we just drift into place and sing and it was fabulous, it was a great feeling.

You have an EP and an album out and you're writing songs for the Hickory Sisters, so in your own head, do you kind of split off the songs that you're going to do and keep some for you on your own and then some for the group?
Yeah, absolutely.  Like, I just sort of write. I don't say, ‘Okay, well today I'm going to write for the Hickory Sisters, tomorrow I'm going to write for myself’.  I sort of write whatever comes out and whatever influences me and whatever I'm feeling at that time. And if it works out that it's something that I want to pursue for my personal album,  well, that's what I do, I take it for myself.  If it's not necessarily something that I would want to put in my album I take it to the girls and we decide that way, and we all do the same thing, because all three of us are actually individual  artists as well as in the Hickory Sisters. We're all writing frantically all the time, it's not like we're putting it into categories, if that makes sense.

I actually think that's probably quite unusual to have three people who have distinct careers and paths and interests of their own to be able to work together, so really it does seem like it was just meant to be.
We're so happy with how it's all worked out, and like I said, we are only brand-spanking new, so it can really only go up from here and we're just so excited for Tamworth because that's going to be our next major festival, and that's where we really will be showcasing ourselves as the Hickory Sisters. We’re not worried about it at all, not nervous or anything, so that's great, really excited.

For you, though, having two different acts to play with at Tamworth, does that mean that during Tamworth itself you're kind of running around trying to get some rehearsal in with both.
Not really.  The way I've actually worked it, it was quite, quite easy because I'm actually doing gigs and we're going to incorporate a feature artist, I suppose, which is going to be the Hickory Sisters. And at each of any of our gigs that we're doing, we're going to do a sort of a half-hour or 45 minute set in our gigs so it showcases us at the same time. So it's not like, you know, ‘I'll finish here and have to go to a Hickory Sisters’, we've all done it so it makes it easy on all of us and sort of incorporate it with what we're already doing, so  it's going to roll really well.

So is there anything you're looking forward to at Tamworth apart from your gigs?
I love Tamworth because I just love to stroll the streets and see all the young busking that's coming up, because, really, anyone that you see  busking is the future of country music, and it's so good to see that so many people are enthusiastic about country music, and for me the vibe is just incredible, it's like no other festival that you can ever go to because it's a week and a half, two weeks jam packed of country music and with excited and enthusiastic fans. So it truly is fantastic.

I agree, I think it's unique in the world as far as I can tell and it's certainly the most friendly festival you can ever imagine, and I think I often say it's because people aren't trying to be cool.
Yeah, absolutely.  People are coming from everywhere and just to come and experience Tamworth and it is where everyone comes together, no one's trying to, I guess, outdo anyone, we're all in it together and it's just such a great vibe and friendly atmosphere and it's really all about the music, it's not about competition. So that's why I love it.

For you I guess it's a bit of a homecoming, because you went to CMAA and that was obviously a really beneficial experience?
Yes, it was. It was honestly the best experience for my country music career and the best step towards a professional full-time career. You learn everything from stage presence to the business side of things. And it really, I guess, drilled into me that that's exactly what I want to do, where I want to be with my life and I really haven't looked back since then, it's just cemented it in  for me.

You grew up in Mudgee now, I've been the Mudgee, I can't recall that there were a lot of venues for country musicians to play, so I'm wondering if that's the case or is there a good country music scene around Mudgee?
I think it's grown.  There’s definitely a huge music scene in general in Mudgee and I'm really lucky because I've been a part of that music scene in Mudgee ever since I was at school, you know, I would play with other bands that I knew ever since I was really quite young. So for me it's perfect because they don't really discriminate – there's not ‘this venue is country music, this venue is rock’, it's all pretty well incorporated in as one music town, and Mudgee is really good like that because there are pubs and then there's also a wine bar and a brewery and that sort of thing, so whether you're country music or rock or jazz or blues, you get a good run.

It sounds like it was a good place to grow up then.
I loved growing up in Mudgee. I was also involved in music and theatre groups and all that sort of stuff and it really has a lot of opportunities for music. So it was fantastic.

I read that you've got 13 songs, I think, for a new album for next year, so have you started recording those or are they done?
I'll actually be recording in Newcastle from February, so at the moment I'm just in the early stages or mid stages really of doing all the particulars and getting them right, so when the band and I go to record, we can just zip in and do what we've got to do and have it all sounding right for the recording. I'm really excited about that – I can't wait to get my new stuff out there and just keep the ball rolling.

So the band you record with, is that the same band you play with?
Yeah, the Silver Spurs, so it really makes it really good for us because not only are we recording together and, I guess, bonding that way, but it's the same people, we've got great chemistry on stage and I've just been so lucky with my musical journey because I've got great musicians and people around me, so it makes it very easy.

And you've recently or, I think, fairly recently given up your day job to become a musician; has that been scary?
I will admit, I'd be lying if I said it hasn't been scary, but, look, I just can't wait. For me it's just, you know, the next step to a full-time professional career and that's what I ultimately want – I want to be out there with my music and people enjoying my music and come to my shows, and it's very difficult to juggle a fulltime music career and a full-time career. So, I had to take the difficult step and just do it.

It's always the challenge with anyone in the arts finding that balance and I really think it's amazing when people do what you've done, which is a leap of faith as much as anything else.
Yes, and look, I struggled for so long because I loved my job and I love my music, so it's not like I'm leaving on bitter terms or anything, I loved my job and if something happens and I have to go back to my job, look, I would love it. But at the moment my primary focus is on my country music career and I'm stoked, I'm ready to go.

So that means, I guess, a lot of well, you've already done a fair bit of playing around the country, but I guess even more getting out there, booking gigs, getting to meet people?
Absolutely, and I guess in the last sort of 6 to 12 months I've definitely expanded my orientation not just around the area that I live. I'm getting myself out there and after I recorded my album, I did a Mudgee to Melbourne tour, so I went all down the east coast and around Sydney and Newcastle and that for me was the best experience, because I'm building my fan base all around Australia, not just in one area. So I will continue to do that and next year, after I record my second album, I'm actually planning a Call Girl Tour so I'll be touring the entire state, so I'm pretty excited about that.

So when you do that tour, is that you and a guitar or do you take the band with you?
I'm actually going to take the band again on tour, so I really want to get the most out of this tour and show people exactly what Jess Holland is made of and what the style of music is like, and the best way to do that is with a full band.

Do you play any covers in your sets?
I do.  I try not to play too many covers because I'm trying to get myself out there with my music, but I love playing music from artists that have influenced me, like Janis Joplin and Johnny Cash and that sort of thing. So I'll incorporate that into my show and everyone loves it.  I think it's also important to show people who you are as well, not just your music, so that for me is the best way to  show where I've come from and what my influences are as a person and not just musically. It makes a bit of fun as well.

[Laughter] I asked because this interview is a bit about what you're doing in Tamworth, so it's so audiences know what to expect. 
Because I do a lot of solo acts as well, I try to do 50/50 and so people know not just my music but they're also interested in my style, and I play songs that are true to my style and who I am as a country artist. So, yeah, that's what you can expect from me.

And I forgot to ask you before, when we were talking about your songwriting, which instrument do you write on?  Piano or guitar?
Both, actually, I write on a range of instruments, not just those two.  It just depends on my mood and what the songs involves. I'll write predominantly on the guitar or piano, but I've written a few songs on the mandolin and newly I've just picked up the banjo. I try and keep it fairly diverse and interesting.

So you're a true musician, then it sounds like you can turn your hand to pretty much anything?
I like to play a few different instruments and I always have played a wide variety. So I like to incorporate that in my shows because people remember you for not just your singing abilities but what you can do, in your talents and how you portray yourself as a musician.  A lot of people sing and play guitar and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's good to take yourself away and have people remember you for something else as well.

It sounds like you've got all the elements in place and this is just a matter of building your career now and getting audiences out there to see you. The first time I was listening to your music, I thought it was such a great sound and it's the sort of sound that I can imagine in a live setting would really welcome people in, if that makes sense you know, that kind of warm sound.
Yeah. And I try to stay true to myself and sort of keep everyone happy and incorporate all styles of music, but I stay true to myself and my style and what I like, but I like to make sure everyone has a good time. There's nothing more you can really want from a show is to walk away and say ‘Yeah, that was fantastic, I had a lot of fun and the music was great’, and I hope to have that in my show.

2013 Tamworth Country Music Festival dates

Friday 18th January 2013 | 1.30pm
Saturday 19th January 2013 | 1.30pm
Tudor Hotel [front bar]
with special guests Hickory Sisters

Sunday 20th January 2013 | 2.15pm
Tamworth Songwriter’s Association Showcase
Outback Bar, Wests Leagues Club

Thursday 24th January 2013 | 5.30pm
Imperial Band Room

Thursday 24th January 2013 | 7pm
Tudor Hotel [back bar]
with special guests Hickory Sisters

Friday 25th January 2013 | 4pm
K-MART Stage, Peel Street

Saturday 26th January 2013 | 12pm
Tudor Hotel [back bar]
with special guests Hickory Sisters

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