- October 2014 -
HAVE A BEER WITH TINY RUINS
Tiny Ruins released their second album, Brightly Painted One, in May 2014 and have since embarked on an international tour of New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the U.S. and Europe, seeing them through until Iceland in November.
Formed as a solo project in 2009 by songwriter Hollie Fullbrook, the band now includes bassist Cass Basil and drummer Alexander Freer.
While continuing to be based in New Zealand, Tiny Ruins has spent much of the past three years touring throughout Australia, the UK, Ireland, Europe and the U.S., touring with and opening for bands such as Beach House, Joanna Newsom, Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes, Sonny & the Sunsets, The Handsome Family, Calexico and Neil Finn.
Previous releases include 2010’s collaborative EP Little Notes, 2011’s celebrated debut Some Were Meant for Sea, and a collection of older songs & B-sides titled Haunts, recorded by the band on 8-track and released in 2013.
We chatted with Hollie from Tiny Ruins over some drinks at The Punch House before the band’s gig with Sharon Van Etten at Thalia Hall in October.
The Show: Tiny Ruins with Sharon Van Etten // Thalia Hall // October 10, 2014
Drinks of Choice: Hollie Fullbrook, acoustic & electric guitars, vocals and cello (Campari and Soda, whiskey neat or Stones Greek Ginger Wine).
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: You and the band are from New Zealand. What city are you currently living in?
Hollie: The three of us live in Auckland, which is the biggest city in New Zealand, but it’s not the capital. It’s quite far north so it’s a warmer climate and semi-tropical. It’s a big sprawling city, which can be quite hard for people who don’t know it well. There’s no real heart to the city. You have to know where you’re going. But it’s a great city and it’s got the biggest music scene.
Kristen: Did you grow up there?
Hollie: I was actually born in Bristol, England, then moved to New Zealand when I was 10. I grew up in West Auckland through my teenage years and I went to high school there. When I was about 18 or 19 I left home and moved to Wellington, which is the capital of New Zealand, where I spent five years living. But now I’m living in Auckland again.
Kristen: How do you feel like New Zealand informs your writing – if at all?
Hollie: I feel like it kind of has to. My writing is quite closely interlinked with my own life, and the places where we grow up become part of us. I’m sure there’s a lot of New Zealand in my songs. Some of it is blatant with actual place names, especially on the new album Brightly Painted One. The first track “Me at the Museum, You in the Wintergardens” is about a real museum in Auckland. A few of the songs on the record actually mention specific places. But a lot of the songs are written in different countries as well. I think the places that you grow up or you experience can be transformative in the way that you write and create.
Kristen: You started off writing and performing solo and now you’re with a band. How has that changed your creative process or how you approach music?
Hollie: It has been a gradual change. I think it’s really natural when you’re meeting other musicians, you become friends, you want them on your album, you start living with them … [Laughs]. You form a band. Cass and I have lived together in the same flat together for the past three years, and Alex is an old friend as well. The three of us toured for about two years officially as Tiny Ruins, but we go farther back than that. They played with me on my first album and they recorded some of the demos for that as well. It has been a long time of working together. Going from a solo artist to working with a band hasn’t affected my songwriting though. It’s still very much something that I do in my own time.
Kristen: Do you lead the songwriting process?
Hollie: Yeah, I’m still the one bringing the songs to the table, then we decide as a band what they need in terms of the arrangement. Cass and Alex are both super-professional musicians. They went to jazz school, whereas I’m completely untrained. I grew up playing the cello so that’s where I got my formal training, but in terms of singing, I have no technique whatsoever. They see a song that I’ll bring to them really objectively, and they’ll pretty much hit the nail on the head of what I feel it needs. Alex will pick up a drum part that feels right and play around with it a bit, but it’s essentially his part. Cass is the same way with the bass line, and she’ll pick something that fills the song better. I usually agree with them both completely. They’re so intuitive, and they are able to play around me. I’m a little bit erratic. My guitar playing is slightly loose and changes tempo often.
Kristen: In a way then it’s nice that they have that jazz background because they’re used to improvising.
Hollie: Yeah, and really listening to each other. It’s cool that they can pre-emptively know what I’m going to do. I think often from the audience’s perspective, because what they’re doing is quite minimal, it can seem really simple…I think an audience might sometimes underestimate what they’re doing because it’s very delicate and thoughtful.
Kristen: The whole album Brightly Painted One feels that way to me. How do you feel like your sound has progressed from the first record to this album?
Hollie: I feel like the songwriting is stronger on the new album in that it’s a bit more relatable. I never planned to be recording the songs on the first record. I got picked up by a little record label in Australia based on the strength of the demos, so those songs were not written with the intention of recording them or doing anything with them. They’re more like little stories, or little vignettes of characters, whereas with the new album, there’s one story. I think the new album is better at personal expression; I feel like there is more of myself in the songs. But I intentionally wanted this album to be quite different from the first one. I wanted it to be louder and more richly arranged, which I think it is. In the general scheme of things, it’s still quite a pared back, minimal-sounding album.
Kristen: But like you said, when you listen closely, there’s a lot of really smart arrangements going on.
Hollie: A lot of it is also accidental. Recording is often made up of little happy accidents.
Kristen: What was a happy accident on the record? Is there a particular song that comes to mind?
Hollie: Yeah, we tried lots of unique-sounding musical instruments with this record. One of them that worked really well was actually a hammer dulcimer. It was kind of like a mandolin guitar. It’s got 18 strings, and it’s similar to a little harp with a hammer. I tuned it, we played around with it and we ended up with these quite crazy sounds. Tom Healy, our producer, put a delay effect on it, and it created this really beautiful shimmering sound. You can hear it on “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round.” I think we really pulled it off with that song in particular. Some of the other songs weren’t quite where they could have gone, but the songs that really mattered to me, we really pulled them off with these spectacular little details. Also, in terms of accidents, sometimes a song will be so easy when you thought it was going to be a really hard one to record. The song “Me at the Museum, You in the Wintergardens” we pretty much did it in one afternoon with minimal takes. And a song that you think is going to be really easy, like “Carriages,” ends up being really hard. That was a hard song to pull off.
Kristen: Why do you think it’s that way with certain songs and not others?
Hollie: I think it has to do with the external environment that you’re in when you’re recording. Sometimes there are other things going on in your life that distract you. Or sometimes you just can’t feel the song or it doesn’t have the magic that you need. I’ve found that it’s often imperfections that clench a song for me. You think, “That’s got the feeling. That’s got the intention behind the words.” For instance, the song “Reasonable Man” was originally recorded in a big room. It had really bouncy and crashing drums and it was recorded one semi-tone up from where it is now. It was sounding almost up-tempo, a little bit too fast. I was listening to it and it just felt wrong. So we ended up recording it in the small room, putting down the guitar and vocal at the same time, and then building up the other parts. It turned out that the small-room setting let us get the right feeling behind the words, whereas the other version didn’t.
Kristen: It’s kind of like intuition; you just know.
Hollie: Yeah, you do, and there are thousands of those small decisions that you have to make in the studio. You do it one at a time. There’s always a part of you that thinks, “We could have done that better,” but you just have to accept that that’s the version you’re showing to the world. But then there are songs that you end up being really happy with and they’re great. But no artist is ever 100 percent satisfied with everything they do. But overall, we made that album on a pretty low budget. It was just a group of friends, and I’m really, really happy and proud of the work we did. Tom, who produced it, spent countless hours on his own in the studio fixing it. There was a lot of generosity and love that went into that album, and it feels really good.
Kristen: Was it recorded in New Zealand or Australia?
Hollie: My first album was recorded in Australia, connected to the record label I mentioned earlier, but we decided to record this one at home. We recorded it about 10 minutes down the road from where we live. It’s kind of this underground collection of studios – a collection of different sound engineers and musicians who have little rooms. I don’t feel like we really have that here in Chicago, but maybe I’m mistaken. It makes it affordable for artists who don’t have a major label behind them. It worked well for us because we were able to do it over a period of time as opposed to cramming three days in the studio. We had the luxury of being able to work with our friends, and we also toured in between recording. We actually recorded it over a period of six months. We were able to work on it slowly, as opposed to renting out a studio and rushing through it. It was a longer process but it was comfortable. It was nice to drive down the road to record and drive back at the end of the day.
Kristen: You’re currently touring with Sharon Van Etten through the end of October. Is this tour your first time in the States or have you played here before?
Hollie: We were here about two months ago for our first headlining tour as a band. We did 25 to 30 shows across the U.S. starting on the west coast and finishing on the east coast. They were all great shows; they were all really small. When we were in Chicago last we played The Hideout. We loved it. That tour was about breaking new ground and meeting people who were hearing our music for the first time. A lot of the shows there were just a handful of people there. It was really fun and we learned so much. It was a real beginner’s tour. We just kind of set off in the van not really knowing what the hell we were doing.
Kristen: But that’s part of it, right?
Hollie: Yeah. We’ve done lots of touring in Australia, England and New Zealand, so it was a lot of getting used to and enjoying a new culture – eating in the diners and staying at the Super 8 motels.
Kristen: What’s the biggest difference that you’ve noticed between our culture and where you come from?
Hollie: There are so many. In New Zealand we have quite a conflicted culture. We have a lot of influences, but a major one is British Colonial ideas and attitudes. We were settled by the British in the 1800s, so English character traits do affect our identities. We’re a lot more reserved and not as…
Hollie: No, not at all. There’s a big drinking culture. I feel like Americans have a different attitude towards life. They’re not afraid to be proud of themselves, congratulate themselves or celebrate success. In New Zealand, we have a feeling of needing to downplay our successes. You have to be self-deprecating, you have to make fun of yourself and not take anything seriously. There’s this coy shyness or something. New Zealanders go into the world with an unassuming attitude. They’re observers. We went to Canada and we were thinking we wouldn’t notice a difference between there and the U.S. But it’s so different! American culture has more craziness. There’s more blatant grotesqueness and it’s really fascinating to me. I love it.
Kristen: Especially in settings where people are going to see live music, I’m sure.
Hollie: Well, we’re lucky because we get a sense of America that we would never get if we just came here as tourists. We’ve been deposited into these little towns and these little venues that we would never be exposed to otherwise. It’s a real thrill to be able to do that and to play music to people.
Kristen: Let’s talk about being on tour. How is it challenging?
Hollie: There are lots of moments on tour where you find yourself being not the person you want to be It really tests your patience. Like sharing beds. Or I’ll find myself snapping at somebody because they didn’t park in this place or that place. Touring can really make you quite hardened. I’m not the same person I was five years ago before touring. I’m not as … nice.
Hollie: For instance, if one of us is sick or has a cough and is coughing all the time, a normal person would be like, “Let’s get you to the doctor,” but now you’re pretty much like, “Stop coughing!” You find yourself in situations that – in normal life you would stop for a minute – but when you’re touring, you have to tough it out. You have to just keep driving. You can’t miss a show because you’re not feeling well.
Kristen: Yeah, it’s like you don’t have any other option. You either want to do this and keep going – or you don’t. In a way, maybe touring weeds out the people who don’t really give a shit about making music full-time.
Hollie: Yeah. Well, I’m lucky, too, because Cass and Alex are the greatest. Everything we do, we do it together. That includes the shitty times and the great times. I feel like I’ve heard stories of bands hating each other on the road and there being terrible tension. I feel really lucky that we get along really well. The little fights here and there or the sometimes silences – those are actually nothing. And today I was being dorky and was trying to look up on my phone an app that allowed me to accept credit card transactions for the merch table. You find yourself doing weird stuff like that. Being a musician, there’s a lot of admin and self-management.
Kristen: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Hollie: I think people in their 20s and 30s come from a very privileged generation in that our parents and our teachers told us, “You can do anything you really want to.” I’m not talking about everybody – I’m talking about people who grew up privileged and had free schooling. But I think having my mum and dad say, “Just do what makes you happy,” was really important. They never plotted out a path for me, as opposed to their parents who expected them to do one thing and one thing only. I remember a point in my 20s where I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had no idea. There were too many opportunities, there were too many options. I ended up studying law. I went to university for five years, got a law degree and a lot of that time I was thinking to myself, “I don’t really think I want to be a lawyer.” A lot of my friends were in similar positions. They’re really intelligent and full of ideas, but they didn’t buy into this rigid thing of careers that came before us. A few years after I got my degree, I just started accepting that life is really chaotic and random, and I figured I should really do what I felt like doing: which was playing music. I remember one day thinking: I should do something with these songs. I keep writing them, I might as well see if anyone wants to listen to them. And why I did that was ultimately based on the advice that you should do what you want, what’s deep inside of you. I think I did dream of playing music and being a songwriter but it was a really deep-down hidden dream that I didn’t express to anybody. Then I got to this stage in my mid-20s where it was now or never. So I did it. And now I’m almost 30, but I’m still playing. So, even though it’s really generic advice and it can make you feel overwhelmed and lost thinking, “I don’t’ know what I want to do!” it’s a good reminder to say to yourself: You have a way out. You can focus on your inner talent or what comes naturally to you. You can put your energy there and be happy.