Songs of home

Holly Arrowsmith sings about the sense of disconnection she encountered on moving to the big city...
Holly Arrowsmith sings about the sense of disconnection she encountered on moving to the big city. Photos: Supplied
Wakatipu folk songstress Holly Arrowsmith may have left the district, but her songs are still singing its praises, writes Tom McKinlay. 

There's a strong sense of place, and places, in Holly Arrowsmith's new album, A Dawn I Remember.

Some of them are spoken of with more warmth than others, but listeners are invited to one in particular; to a fireside seat in Colac Bay.

It was in the remote seaside spot in Southland that much of the folk singer's album was recorded, in the crib of producer Tom Lynch.

"We just thought it would be fun to take all the sound gear down and just be somewhere really quiet for two weeks," Arrowsmith explains. "We didn't have anything to distract us and we got so much more down than we would have in Queenstown, where we have done work previously."

They were next to the beach, but in midwinter, so inside was the place to be, with the fire going.

"It actually feels like you are sitting by the fire in that house when you listen to it," she says of the album. "There are little imperfections. I think in one song you can vaguely hear a truck go past and I really love that. I love that it is kind of human, it is not highly produced and perfect. I think it really suits the songs because they are quite honest and I think the integrity of where we recorded comes through."

Arrowsmith's brand of folk music is all about that sort of honesty, whether it's the open-book soul-baring of the lyrics or the pared back arrangements, the singer-songwriter exposed up front, often alone with just her guitar.

A Dawn I Remember travels to that place again, as Arrowsmith lays out the sense of displacement she encountered moving away from the Wakatipu, heading to the big city. Her Arrowtown home may never have been sung a more heartfelt farewell.

It's appropriate then, that she's back there, in Arrowtown, to field calls on the day the album is released to the world. Happy both to be back, at least for the moment, and with her work.

"I feel lots of things," she says of finally launching the album, the work of several years. "I am just in Arrowtown, where I grew up, at my parents' house, visiting. I am looking out at the beautiful hills that kind of inspired a lot of the album, and, yeah, I feel like I am in the perfect place for the release day. But feeling, like, a mixture of relief, maybe a bit of nerves, a lot of gratitude and support. But it's quite surreal after two years of work for something to be finally finished."

A good chunk of that gratitude is for the 335 backers who contributed the $24,678 to her 2017 Kickstarter campaign, the money that funded the album.

Some of the songs on the album go back as far as 2015 when Arrowsmith first left the Queenstown Lakes District, including one simply titled Farewell, on which she asks whether the metropolis will welcome her in or spit her out again.

"I'm going to a forest where the river's black with sin, and iron trees don't bend in the breeze" she sings. Then later in the song: "Big city's got a big economy, but it's killing its own community."

Relative to the obvious attractions of the Wakatipu, the big cities to which Arrowsmith headed - initially Auckland - get a tough review on the album.

"It's not explicitly about Auckland," she says, "I think it's about the feeling of a big city in general. I found Auckland quite difficult. We lived far out west, far away from anything."

She and husband, Mike Gilling, ended up moving back to the South Island, settling in Christchurch, but the contrast with the intimate village life of her formative years remained.

"It was a very stark contrast between growing up in this small town where you know everybody and there is a very strong sense of community and, kind of, the protection of the natural environment, too. You are tucked into this little valley and I can walk from my dad's house, five minutes down the street, and I am in the hills. There is kind of nothing in your way."

So, searching times, maybe, but creatively rich.

Arrowsmith (24) is in vintage form, both as songwriter and performer on A Dawn I Remember, her voice strong but vulnerable, rising and falling, breaking and lowering, inviting comparisons with a pantheon of celebrated folk and country singers. The songs don't need much else. But the minimalist settings on the album are also consistent with the way she plays live now too; just her for the most part, without a band.

"I wanted the album to translate well to my live show," Arrowsmith says. "It's definitely got layers of different things, but they are all quite subtle and understated."

There's an odd parallel, she says, with the way she intends to tour the album.

"We are restoring this 1961 Bedford bus that we are going to live in to tour around New Zealand and trying to cram your whole life into nine-by-two metres, you have to give up some stuff. I was reading about this design principle that great design is not when you cannot add any more, but when you feel like there is nothing more you could take out. I kind of applied that to the recording process. I felt like with each song, we asked `Is there anything that could be removed from this to make it more beautiful or simple; is anything taking away from its essence'."

Back in 2015, in a Tedx talk in Queenstown, a young Arrowsmith talked about the vulnerability of the artist, offering themselves for appraisal and opinion, hoping an audience will give something in return.

She says now she views the exchange slightly differently, knowing you can't rely on a particular response or even the ability to read an audience's mood.

"Someone sent me a message the other day with a beautiful metaphor about a stone being thrown across the water. The ripples that come out from the stone, the stone will never know where they extend to, the stone just sinks to the bottom of the lake. I thought that was really true for this. I guess that's the thing I am telling myself. I am throwing this stone out and I actually won't know where the ripples of that will reach to."

There will be some feedback, no doubt, messages of affirmation, but Arrowsmith is OK with most of the impact of her work being unknowable.

"The album has already fulfilled its purpose to me, personally. So I feel kind of content about wherever it goes now. But it would be really great if it opened up new opportunities for touring and progress."

Supporting roles on the album are unobstrusive. There's just a little electric guitar, when called for, a subtle dance of banjo, a lick of slide guitar, just a few keys of piano here and there, an organ in Autumn, a violin, just a suggestion of percussion, and some vocal harmonies. Nothing intrudes more than it should.

The album's duet, Love Together, features vocals by long-time friend and fellow musician Zach Winters, but again it's a supporting role.

"Doing the duet with him was really cool. We've done over 40 shows together, so we know each others voices and everything really well," she says.

Not that a duet was part of any particular plan.

"I don't really premeditate what I am going to write very often. That song, I actually wrote it in Piha. Mike, my husband, and I had been married for one year and we were living in Auckland and had left for Piha for a weekend, to get away from the city. We were just staying in this awesome little, like, mountain cabin, tucked in the native bush. When I got there I just felt inspired and that song just came out. I don't often write love songs, or even more upbeat songs, but I really love that song and I think it has a lot of connection for me to the place where I wrote it and how I was feeling."

The song had something of a Gillian Welch-Dave Rawlings feel, so it was decided it should be a duet.

Americana big wheel Welch is one of the voices that springs to mind when listening to Arrowsmith, and indeed, Arrowsmith says she's open to influence.

"I think I definitely notice that whatever I am listening to a lot at the time, reflects in what I am writing. I was listening to James Taylor a lot when I wrote Crying Woman, and I feel like it sounds a little bit James Taylor-y. But in the production process you probably use a lot more `Let's listen to how they did this song and see if that kind of idea would fit here'."

That said, Arrowsmith is confident she brings plenty that is her own, the difference that makes her stand out, a reason to be noticed.

"You bring yourself, and that's unique," she says. "I have never tried to emulate somebody. I have definitely drawn inspiration from different artists, but I think when you are trying to emulate someone, `You want to become Joni Mitchell', you will never really become you. Your voice and your experience and history, and everything, is what makes your music special. I think that's what I try to do."

And there are a lot of people out there in the world, she says. Plenty of listeners, plenty of ears - certainly more than there are artists - so with a modicum of luck, an audience for the Arrowsmith take on a time-honoured musical style.

"If you keep touring and you work hard, your listener base grows. There are plenty of people who are actually making a living off touring, who most people have not heard of, and they are just working away at it and they have lots of people who love their music."

Arrowsmith plans to tour the album around New Zealand in August and September, though nothing is locked in yet. Then maybe Australia later in the year, and even the US and Europe next year. Europe would be new for the musician, for whom Germany has a particular attraction.

"People rave about touring in Germany and say there is such a culture of going to live music.

"People come out, even if they have never heard of you, actually listen, and then buy some merch."

That stands as something of a contrast to New Zealand, where if it's wet, people stay home.

With touring in mind, Arrowsmith says it is good to have new music out. The songs she has written and recorded previously have done good service, but she has moved on since they were penned.

"It is really nice to have something that I feel represents me better now," she says.

It allows her to turn her mind to how she might present the new songs creatively on the tour.

The immediate future even holds the prospect of fresher material still, she says.

"I wouldn't be surprised if I write a few songs this week. It always seems to happen. I kind of get blocked when I am working on something, then once it is out the subconscious stress is gone and I just start writing again. We will see what happens."

Holly Arrowsmith: The albums

A Dawn I Remember, June 2018

For The Weary Traveller, winner of Vodafone NZ Music Awards Best Folk Album of 2016.

The River EP, June 2013. 

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