Song of the day – 85: Holly Golightly And The Brokeoffs
C’mon. It’s always time to be excited when there’s a new Holly Golightly album in the offing. This one doesn’t disappoint. Not whatsoever.
Hey, here’s an interview I conducted with the lady for Plan B #22.
This is the raging moon. High above the New Forest where wild horses roam, illuminating the narrow roads of the Sussex Downs where fungi grow in tree crevices, hidden in storm clouds looming over London. Red, shadowy, slightly opaque. Fingers blur. Pots rattle in a deserted house boat. In the distance, clown music.
If you were to ask me to describe a recording studio I cherished, I’d say Liam Watson’s Toerag – I’ve never been there, but it’s situated in an alley between two semi-detached houses in the dingy suburb of Homerton, London E5, with checker floors and wonderful old analogue mixing boards like George Martin used in the mid-60s. Billy Childish has recorded there; not coincidentally, so have The White Stripes (for 2003’s sprawling Elephant); so has Miss Holly Golightly.
Miss Holly Golightly. Forgive me while I swoon. Her name, her music, her whole persona is associated with a certain exquisite 50s-style fashion and rock’n’roll; sharpness, style. Her music is a drawl of simple eloquence, a sugar-sharp dispatch from past times where a song was a song, and a melody a melody, and all that mattered was honing the sound so you could communicate both with élan. I can’t think of anyone so able to define her own sound this side of Kim Deal, although I’m not convinced it’s entirely deliberate on Holly’s part.
She is, as Jack White once put it, herself – and there is rarely a higher compliment. She follows her own path. She’ll tear tiny cracks in your heart, if that’s what you want.
This is the raging moon: the moon underneath which to rage. See it rising above the flutter of wastepaper and curl of cigarette smoke amid the blurry street lights of Elephant And Castle, see it setting proud and full as horses run rampant through fields and brooks and meadows. There is only you and the moon and the stars. How can you not feel your heart cracking?
People confuse lo-fi with amateur.
“Oh what, you mean like slapdash?”
…And that’s not Toerag at all.
“Toerag’s nothing like that. Nobody could be more obsessed than Liam. Everything that Liam has is the best it could possibly be for its time, even if it’s not in pristine condition. That’s not slapdash, that’s a life’s work. I don’t know what lo-fi means. It sounds like something that someone didn’t put a lot of thought into. You probably know a lot more about it than me.”
I’m sat opposite Holly in a dim sum restaurant. I was once told she’s friendly, but guarded. She seems flat-out friendly to me. It seems like we’ve known each other years, even though we’ve never met before. (“Once,” Holly corrects me. “We met once before.”)
“I’m somewhere in the middle between slapdash and amateur,” she continues. “I just got an old four-track to replace my last one that my cats had pissed in; they took a shine to it for some reason. So it gave up the ghost and that was really lo-fi because two of the channels were fucked on it. I’ve got this new one that’s probably a couple of years older, but I have no idea how it works and I’ve been practising for my tour with my buddy’s backing track tape playing in the speaker behind me. It’s funny because people thought that I’d gone out of my way to get the sound, as it was recorded in a barn with a really high roof and all this reverb, but it was totally unintentional.
“My boyfriend said, ‘God, people pay a fuckin’ fortune to get that sound’. And that is the irony of it. I don’t really know how anything works. I know how to work it for my purposes, but everything I have is capable of so much more. I’ve got a new laptop and I know that it can probably fly me to the moon but it’s all I can do to pick up my email. It doesn’t interest me.”
Miss Holly Golightly. I mean, yes, she’s named after Audrey Hepburn’s elegantly doomed debutante from Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and yes, she once helped front Thee Headcoatees, three brazen cigarette-smoking females from the early 90s who inspired a generation of lady garage bands, especially in Japan. (They were actually even better than their brother band Thee Headcoats, for whom they initially formed just to add whoops and sighs in the background.) A girl group, but man they were tough – they had a real ragged glamour. Everyone was in awe of them. They were the kind of girls you thought you could be friends with, but you might not wanna…
…and no, I still don’t know her real name – it comes as a shock when someone reminds me that
she has one.
“I’m a jack of trades,” says Holly, “because I know a lot about everything, but not enough to be an expert in any field. Probably the nearest thing that I’m an expert in is breeding horses. That’s my creative outlet.”
Were you successful at that?
“Yes, to a degree. [Holly had been living out in San Francisco, in an apartment above hipster venue Bottom Of The Hill, but she broke her foot in a riding accident, necessitating her return to London. It also put paid to her dancing; Northern Soul mostly.] It’s not a huge turnover but it is massive job satisfaction. Turning out well-behaved, mannered animals makes me proud of myself.
“But a lot of people would say that the local authority stuff that I do is very specialist as well. [Holly has been an anti-social behaviour housing officer in South London, among other roles.] But there are a lot of people like me just scamming it, just reading it as they go along.”
Holly Golightly is quite prolific. According to her website, she’s released 14 solo albums since turning solo in 1995 – and God knows how many singles. They vary in style, from 1995’s playful, nicotine-stained Good Things to the bluesy Serial Girlfriend (1998) to 2000’s more poppy God Don’t Like It with its stand-out, harmonica-led garage duet ‘Feel Something’. All are deceptively simple. One album might be slightly more redolent of early Rolling Stones; another might have the odd burst of Hammond organ; another might have a killer of a single hidden among the superb craftwork. My favourite, 2003’s Truly She Is None Other, is composed of 13 fully rounded, dryly emotional songs, with a low-end production like Ringo given full rein on the early Beatles recordings; sparkling and slightly scuffed-up.
I pick up the cover to this year’s Holly Golightly And The Brokeoffs album You Can’t Buy A Gun When You’re Crying and it’s all sepia tints, fading memories: two scrawny adults, standing as if in passing in an old church. On the back the pair are walking through a monochrome broad country lane, slightly apart, cold: she, dressed up in some form of country girl plus-fours, he with a smudge of a tie, shoulder-length hair. The music inside is all salutatory duets and warning shots fired across the brow of Americana: the odd clatter of a piano, a mewling of pedal steel, stately and sparse.
It’s like the direction you wanted The White Stripes to take after hearing Jack’s ballad with Holly from Elephant, but knew they never would, too restricted by expectation. Nick Cave could relate to some of the songtitles: him, and Tim Hardin; him and Skeeter Davis; her and that whole generation who grew up thinking ‘Hurt’ was a Johnny Cash original. Refined, like Johnny’s old sparring partner June Carter, or Nancy Sinatra wh
en she was still keeping company with that salacious old soul Lee Hazelwood.
You’re extremely productive as a recording artist, aren’t you?
Why is that?
“I make my own entertainment. I always have done. My parents are Londoners, but I grew up with my grandparents and we lived first in Wales, then moved to the wilds of East Sussex, and there’s
not much to do of an evening. If your nearest neighbours live three miles away, you’re not gonna
be hangin’ out with your buddies. As soon as I got a regular tape recorder, I was taping John Peel, mucking around with my guitar. I’m an only child and I come the middle of fuckin’ nowhere, so it came out of boredom really. Being prolific is something I do to fill the time when I’m not doing anything else. I can’t really relax. I’m not very good at sitting on my arse watching rubbish telly. Although that’s exactly what I should do some of the time.”
When you record an album, do you intend it to sound a certain way?
“It’s accidental, really. It’s a case of not knowing any better. I’m quite narrow in my view of music anyway. They do all sound different to each other, though. Sometimes I’ll have an idea and I’ll say I want the whole album to sound like this, but I very rarely record a whole album at once, I’ve only done that once, which was a couple of years ago. But that’s not how it really works for me cos that’s two weeks off work. And when I say two people would still be tuning their guitars weeks. But I don’t know what I would six months…I think I know more what my music to sound like.”
How do you manage to write so many lyrics?
“I don’t think I have that much to say to people; lyrically, it’s all ground that’s been trodden before. You know; ‘My boyfriend’s run away’. And, er, ‘Oh, he’s come back again’! I don’t sing about cars or submarines. I sing about what I know. It’s very simplistic. There are only a few directions for my songs to go in. I like a very traditional formula, I like a verse and I like chorus. I write with backing tracks and whatever goes on top of that comes afterwards.
“I write lyrics all the time, I’ll have reams and reams of paper and then I’ll have the four-track, and I’ll just go over and over them to what bits I want to use. I’m always singing in my head when I’m riding. When I was doing endurance riding you have to keep up a steady pace for 25 miles a day, and that’s a lot of miles to get through. It’s no different to when they used to have to move cattle across the plains; they made up songs. It was something to do.”