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People to watch this month: Hollie Smith, Soul Diva

People to watch this month: Hollie Smith, Soul Diva

When Hollie Smith steps onto the stage in Auckland on April 15, it could go one of two ways. Struggling with pronounced mood swings and lacking former collaborator Anika Moa’s natural gift of the gab, when she can’t get the patter right, Smith just has to let the music speak for itself.

“I’m really up and down, but I’ve definitely got a little better at trusting that I’m not going to say something stupid,” says the North Shore-raised singer.

“I’ve definitely had a couple of gigs where I got tongue-tied and nervous. It’s hard to make a personal connection with everyone in a room. It’s like having a conversation with a bunch of people but they can’t talk back and you don’t know what they’re thinking. Sometimes I feel like I’m in tune with the audience, and sometimes I feel like I’m missing the point and not connecting.”

By the time she performs in Auckland, however, Smith will already have ticked off most of the dates of a national tour supporting her new album, Water or Gold, so the show should be well oiled.

The album is Smith’s first solo outing for six years, and only her third in a career that began in earnest in 2006, when she soon became a ubiquitous figure on the local scene and regularly fawned over by the likes of John Campbell. Blessed with a powerful and emotive voice that saw her win a Best Female Vocalist award at the National Jazz Festival when she was just 16, Smith created ripples in 2003 when she sang backup with Wellington group Trinity Roots. But it was giving righteous voice to the Don McGlashan hit Bathe in the River that blasted her into the public consciousness.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m in tune with the audience, and sometimes I feel like I’m missing the point…”

Later, when legendary American jazz label Blue Note signed her and then left her stranded, another former victim of major label shenanigans, Moa, was there to mentor her; they went on to perform in a one-off project as Anika, Boh (Runga) and Hollie.

Having joined the Auckland exodus to Tauranga before it was fashionable, Smith devoted herself to the pressing task of raising her son (now seven). “My boy was pretty important to me and it took a lot of time to do that,” she says.

“It definitely felt like one or the other. I was spending a lot of time teacher-aiding at his kindy and school and trying to stay involved in his day-to-day, working round him rather than the other way round. Weeks disappeared on me.”

Water or Gold finds a more worldly-wise Smith re-entering the fray with new skills and methodologies. An intensely personal set of songs largely written on guitar rather than keyboards — which in places gives it a rock-style drive — the album is as thoroughly modern in its production as it is traditional in its 1960s soul hues.

“We recorded the band stuff in Wellington at my drummer’s house, and I recorded my vocals at home. I’ve never engineered my own vocals before, so it was very much a crash course and a real struggle.

“I got a lot of vocal takes that I wouldn’t have got if I was in a studio environment with other people around — but because I’m on a main road, I had to wait until 11pm. I was doing 11 to 3 in the morning, then getting up at the normal time.”

Hollie Smith, The Tuning Fork, April 15. holliesmith.co.nz

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of Metro. Photo: Steve Dykes.

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