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Tiny Ruins’ Hollie Fullbrook talks childhood, songwriting and Neil Finn

Dan Webb
Tiny Ruins began a decade ago as the solo recording project of Bristol-born, New Zealand-based singer-songwriter Hollie Fullbrook. Now a four piece ensemble signed to Courtney Barnett’s Milk! Records, February 1st saw the release of their third full-length album. We spoke with Hollie in the lead up to the album’s release.

Some songwriters prefer writing from their own perspective whereas others prefer to tell their narratives through the use of characters. You seem equally adept with both styles. Which one do you prefer writing?
That’s a really good question. I don’t think I’ve been asked about this particular thing before (laughing). I’m a big fan of like, unreliable narrators and that sort of genre, so I do quite like sort of inserting myself in other characters. I feel like most songs are still about something quite personal but it might take the shape of another character. Sometimes I’ll give, you know, male lines to somebody else or I’ll poach someone else’s lines and I’ll say them… when I’m writing a song, without wanting to make it too far away from myself, I might think about you know the perspective of who is saying what and it’s something that I enjoy doing. There’s like a couple of characters in the new album… there’s a song called “My Love Leda”. I guess it’s – I don’t like the idea of always writing about myself, you know?

Many songwriters seem to find writing from their own perspective quite intimidating. Would you say that’s the case with you? Putting yourself on the line can quite daunting.
Yeah, maybe a part of it is that I don’t particularly like being confrontational and that I maybe do hide behind the story. I don’t feel like there’s often anything that I’m censoring in any way, and to me anyway, my songs are deeply personal but I understand that they’re not, they’re not super heart-on-sleeve confessional like some other songwriters that I admire and look up to, like Nadia Reid for instance. For them writing is like more of a therapy. There is something obviously therapeutic about it for me but I don’t see it as a way to kind of exercise myself through music… yeah, I guess I like hiding myself in my songs behind other characters.

Congratulations on the release of Olympic Girls. Judging by the first few singles, it would appear you’ve adopted more of a widescreen kind of approach to recording this new album. How would you characterise this release and how did the process differ this time around?
I would characterise this release as a much broader, more expensive, sonic palette, more of a band sound. Every band member kind of expresses their own personality more on this album than in the previous work that we’ve done together. My band mates have been with me for several years and we’ve grown up together and we’ve grown musically together. I feel like this album gives them more expression than maybe they had before. The way that we made it was pretty different too. Say for instance, the last album we made together which was Brightly Painted One (2014), that was recorded in a classic, like, book a studio for two weeks of tracking and mixing… the way this album was made though was over the course of a year. We recorded it in the same space that we recorded Brightly Painted One, but instead of using the big studio room, we used Tom Healy’s little room wish is um, basically it’s our practice room. So that’s where we recorded the album. It’s a great room because it’s dry and we were very comfortable in there and it’s quite intimate in there, it’s quite small… the whole process took us about a year of just going to the studio whenever the four of us could. Whenever we had a day on the weekend or a holiday or you know, around everyone else’s other jobs and commitments… but with each song we would dedicate maybe three days of like a bubble of time for just one song, and then we’d move on to the next one. It wasn’t like we were all working on all of them. Over the course of the year we would, you know, tackle one song at a time in these little bubbles of time. And we wouldn’t even really listen to what we were creating, what we had made until quite far along when we had a good collection… The writing as well took me a long time. Over the course of two years I wrote this album. Maybe a bit longer.

You’ve worked with a handful of independent record labels over the years. This new album is coming out via Courtney Barnett’s Milk! Records. What do you look for in a record label and why is it preferable for you to partner with a label rather than go it alone?
That’s a good question. What do I look for in a label, definitely passion and all the labels we’ve ever worked with have been very passionate. I think I look for a sense of community within the label and that’s something that Milk! has in spades. I look for really forward-thinking in terms of, how are people listening to music now? How can we reach them? And I did want to work with more women, you know that was something that I felt strongly in that over the years of working in the music industry. I’ve been helped by and worked with a lot of great men and including Milk! Records which kind of discovered me from the very beginning. And yeah, it just came to a point of time where I felt like with this album I wanted a fresh start, like a new era for Tiny Ruins, cos I felt like this album was a step in a different direction in a way and that’s kind of what sort of heralded that change. Um, why we don’t do it completely on our own, well, we’re releasing it on our own in New Zealand, because we feel like we understand New Zealand. We know how to reach people in New Zealand but we’re not a big band. We’ve been really lucky in that we have been able to reach people and we’ve toured all the cities a bunch of times but we still don’t have that, you know we’re self-managed and we don’t have that power of contact, the networks and money. We don’t have the funds to like, basically have a distribution that works worldwide just on our own steam. So that’s partly it, but also when I got talking to say for instance, Ben Goldberg at Ba Da Bing, who’s the North American label, you just get the sense that having feet on the ground, having somebody who really cares about this album and who is meeting you halfway and is investing in you and taking a risk with you and you’re putting a lot of trust in them. And that’s a good thing I think for artists to have someone that believes in them in a territory and who is willing to do everything in their power to spread the word of your album. It’s much easier now with Spotify for artists to find that audience organically and naturally but I still see a lot of bands floundering and not getting the recognition they deserve, because it is a complex thing putting out an album. And with this one we went through like six months of trying to find the right label for it, and I wasn’t against the idea of actually releasing it ourselves, but I did feel like it would have a better shot at reaching people if we partnered with some indie labels that really cared about it.

I almost feel like it’s harder to be a white guy in the music industry right now.

What do you feel are the greatest barriers to entry for female musicians these days and how are you working to overcome them?
I think there’s a lot of mental boundaries for young women looking at music as a career. I know that for myself, when I was a teenager, I just I never thought it was, you know, I didn’t know anything about indie music or the fact that you could survive as a musician without being like a famous star, you know, or a pop star. And not having that kind of luck or not having the personality of that kind of world. But this is you know, in the 90s, early 2000s, before the internet. And I think young people, young women now, maybe have a lot more role models that they can easily access and understand and know that – like, I didn’t know about all of these fantastic female artists when I was a teenager. But now I feel like it’s a bit more accessible for people to find Patti Smith and find Nina Simone when they’re teenagers. That’s part of it. So definitely seeing yourself in the culture around you I think is something that we’re all understanding now is so, so important for everyone to be kind of able to be represented and yeah, to see yourself in a position, gives you the idea that you could do that thing. I think some barriers are about networking and this kind of thing. There are a lot more bands that are made up of men and a lot more labels and industry historically as being a very male-dominated space… I remember a few years ago it felt wrong to say Spunk Records. I mean he said it but it felt like he couldn’t have three female singer-songwriters from New Zealand. You know, Aldous Harding, Nadia Reid. Cos I was saying to him, you should sign Nadia Reid and you know Aldous, and it was like, ‘but then there will be three female singer-songwriters’ and – this was years ago, but he ended up signing them both, to his credit. But the fact that that perception was there, it surprised me at the time. And now I look back and I think, oh yeah, like it really has changed, you wouldn’t really say that anymore. Although there’s probably some people who still think that and you know, we could be drastically different artists and some people still conflate all the female artists who are doing songwriter stuff. Even if the songs are really different… In many ways I feel like boundaries have been removed in the past two years and that’s something that I’m getting used to. Like I almost feel like it’s harder to be a white guy in the music industry right now. And, yeah like, really it does feel like there’s been a sea change and I don’t know whether I’m being overly optimistic cos I do feel like there is still lots of situations that I find myself in where I’m like, oh yeah I’m feeling a little bit uncomfortable, or that, you know, that wouldn’t have been said to me if I was a dude. That still happens but overall I think people are like, oh yeah I want to hear what women are saying in their songs, I want to hear what their stories are, I want to hear those voices. I think that that feeling is stronger now.

I thought that I was done for in my late thirties.

You’ve supported the likes of Beach House, Fleet Foxes, Calexico and Jen Cloher. Do you have a favourite tour highlight?
Well opening for Beach House was really incredible for me because I was a huge fan and that was one of the first shows I ever did… Victoria Legrand was watching me soundcheck and you know, that kind of doesn’t happen that often for an opening band to be listened to. But yeah, she watched and then she said ‘carry on going, keep on going, you’ve got a great voice’. Like kind of gave me you know, like a thumbs-up kind of, it wasn’t a thumbs up, it was a devil’s horn or whatever you call them. That um, that hand shape. And she like offered me whiskey or whatever. Like that to me as somebody who had literally probably done a few open mic nights, it was a huge thing in my mind but someone who I looked up to, you know, and had been following for a couple of years. You know like, I was a huge fan girl (laughs). It was one of those moments where I thought maybe I can really do this. So that would definitely be one of the early highlights. Opening for Jen Cloher recently was definitely a highlight because it reminded me how incredibly important storytelling is, from the artist. And Jen just tells these epic tales that are full of unbelievable humour and yeah she’s a real storyteller as well as a fantastic musician, so that, you know, I found watching her perform even just in a solo capacity, although I love the band as well, but it was really inspiring to me to see a woman in her mid-forties kind of breaking out with this album, that she kind of hadn’t expected to happen, and like, she says that herself. You know, I thought that I was done for in my late thirties. And it’s really encouraging and inspiring to see Jen play and perform and kind of just live the life she’s living. So that’s a highlight for me, yeah.

It got a little magical Neil Finn vibe to it that I just couldn’t have got if I had hired a fancy director or something.

You spoke about Beach House watching you during soundcheck, but Neil Finn went one further and made a music video using footage he shot of you during a soundcheck. Was any part of you annoyed when you found out?
No, I wasn’t at all annoyed. I was kind of charmed, you know, it was charming that he was interested enough in my music and he has taken a real supporting, encouraging kind of a role, especially on that tour.

I imagine it would have been a pretty surreal feeling at first.
It was surreal being on that tour, because I was actually playing cello in his band and opening the show solo, myself… I was completely overwhelmed by playing for these huge audiences across Europe with Neil. And I would do my own little show and I would play cello with his band. And this all kind of came together like a week or two before I left on this tour. They asked me to join. And so, it was something that I just found myself in amongst and I had no idea that I’d be doing that with them. Luckily one of my sort of high school, sort of childhood friends who I grew up on the same street as, he is a drummer and he was Neil’s drummer, and he kind of got me the in. He sort of put in a word for me and said, you know if you do want a cellist, I know Hollie she could open, and so that’s kind of how that happened. We had a blast and Neil was, I think, just in this phase of being really into this filming stuff. The whole little video that he made for my song “Me At The Museum”, he stitched that all together out of footage that he had filmed in San Francisco and you know all these kayaks and things, that’s all stuff that he filmed. And I thought that it was like the sweetest, most charming video that I could have had for that song. It got a little magical Neil Finn vibe to it that I just couldn’t have got if I had hired a fancy director or something. So, that was really special, yeah.

What do you make of him joining Fleetwood Mac?
I say like, Neil’s probably living his best life right now. I find it bizarre but also like, he’s probably just doing it for fun. And it probably is really fun for him. Yeah, he would be loving it. He loves being on tour. He’s incredibly hard-working. He would come back to the tour van after the show and be like, “right, I just got to go back, out the back to write a song now (laughs). I’m working on a song, I’ve got to finish it.” Very like prolific and yeah, amazing songwriter.

I found it pretty surprising when I saw that in the news, I must say.
The Fleetwood Mac news? Yeah. Strange, it’s a strange world (laughs).

I think this feeling of being an outsider and not quite belonging has probably always stayed with me.

You grew up in Bristol and migrated to New Zealand at age 10. How do you remember feeling around this age and do you draw upon any of those feelings in your songwriting?
Yeah, I was pretty unhappy to leave Bristol, and when you’re 10 years old you’ve kind of got your little mates, and you know, you’ve got your little neighbourhood haunts that you frequent and you’re kind of getting into the realm of being a young adult. You are a young adult. And I definitely feel like I had – I thought that I had it all figured out when I was like 10 years old, you know? But moving, it was a massive change, it was a huge culture change. Although it made me kind of really feel for people from even, you know, definitely more foreign cultures moving to somewhere like New Zealand. Because for me it was really difficult and I felt like an isolating experience and I was British, which is not a dissimilar culture… For about I would say the first year or two, up to two years, I was really miserable. I kind of knew that my parents were sacrificing a lot taking us there, and they were kind of doing it for us. My dad just got a job in New Zealand and the neighbourhood where we were living in Bristol was pretty – you know it wasn’t like Bristol is now. It was much rougher and it was kind of an industrial city and we were always being broke into, and like it was, yeah it was a different time like, early 90s Bristol. You know, like we had a barricade on the door… So they thought that they were coming to kind of a paradise where everything would be wonderful, and it is in many ways. It took me a couple of years to adjust and to make new friends. And I think this feeling of being an outsider and not quite belonging has probably always stayed with me. I consider myself a New Zealander and I’m the most at home when I’m here. And I love it. And I’m like, very grateful to be here, don’t get me wrong. But yeah, there’s a feeling of isolation and being a little bit like you don’t quite belong anywhere. It’s the same when I go back to Bristol now, I don’t feel like I belong there, but I feel this enormous connection to the place as well. It’s an interesting age to be kind of put through that upheaval and I also enjoy speaking to other people who moved or had a big change in their life around that age because it is almost in a way like you’ve become a teenager a bit earlier. You become a different kind of self-awareness when you have a huge change at around 10 or 11. That kind of you know, puberty setting and all these other horrible things going on. You’re kind of having this identity crisis at the same time, which, yeah, it was interesting.

If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
Oh wow. That is a very tough question… I mean, I feel like I would like to go back in time. Because like, come on, who doesn’t want to go back in time? So I want to go back in time to uh, the era of Scott Joplin. He wrote “The Entertainer” and then he had this really tragic life and he put on this musical theatre that failed, because he didn’t have enough money to like fund any costumes or anything. So, I would go back to that area and help Scott Joplin put on a good piece of musical theatre.