Singer-songwriter Hollie Fullbrook, who records as Tiny Ruins, is back from a tour of Europe. Her debut album, Some Were Meant for Sea, secured her career-enhancing performances on the BBC radio shows of Tom Ravenscroft (John Peel’s son) and Bob Harris and on the Word magazine’s website, plus a four-star review in Mojo.
In New Zealand, the album is one of seven finalists for the soon-to-be-announced Taite Music Prize, our equivalent of Britain’s Mercury Prize. The quietly sung and only slightly less quietly spoken Fullbrook is not about to get ahead of herself, though. “The radio interest especially in the UK was something I would not have imagined,” she says. But even so, despite support slots for rowdy jungle bluesman CW Stoneking (where holding the crowd’s attention was “quite challenging”) and a good turnout for her London solo show, some gigs had no more than 20 people in the audience.
“I think if I hadn’t [had the radio support] no one would have come. “From where I stand, hearing about success and things, everything’s been going really well and I’m really lucky, but you’re definitely playing small shows and you’re still touring around on your own, which is hard. I definitely don’t feel like I’ve made it in any sense of the word. I haven’t earned that feeling, either. I want to make more albums and write better songs. I definitely don’t feel I’ve reached what I want to be doing.”
From where the rest of us stand, though, what she has reached is impressive. “Lean in, friend; lean in, friend/And I’ll tell you a tale./Be good, friend; be good friend/As I tread the stage a while,” Fullbrook begins Some Were Meant for Sea, and proceeds to tread that stage with the deftest of musical and lyrical touches.
Andrew Tidball, DJ, managing director of music website Cheese on Toast and one of the Taite judges, describes the album’s 11 songs as “personal storytelling with warmth and heart; the songs prove the adage that keeping things simple can, so often, be the most effective and rewarding course for the listener. I listen to a lot of music for a job; but I found myself listening to this particular release for the simple pleasure of music.” Often, the pleasure is one of exquisite sorrow, with Ravenscroft praising the album’s “vast beauty” in a blog entitled: “Why do I listen to so many sad songs?”
Why does Fullbrook write so many sad songs? “I grew up playing the cello, I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. Even playing the cello, I loved the sad, the mournful cello pieces over the happy ones. Those were the ones I chose to play. So I don’t know if it’s just something I’m drawn to. I don’t consider myself a particularly sad person.”
At this, Fullbrook laughs, as she does frequently throughout the interview. So no, not a particularly sad person. “I think everybody has both elements in their personality, to a greater or lesser degree. But when I played all of my new songs in a row the other day, I thought, ‘I need to write a couple of happy ones or the next album is going to be so dark.’”
So she’s set herself a challenge: to write a good happy song. “Sad songs are easier for me to write and maybe they’re easier for every one to write. A good happy song is incredibly difficult to write.” Fullbrook, 26, spent the first 10 years of her life in Bristol in the UK, before her family moved to Auckland. She’s of an age where she could have followed any number of musical paths, but was set off on a folk-inflected singer-songwriter one by parents who’d play Leonard Cohen, James Taylor and Lindisfarne, “and Irish music in the car when we were going on holiday”.
Her dad “was always a fan of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. He, without pressuring me, put them on my bookshelf and tried to play me things he’d thought I’d like. Things like Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch.” And then there was Tanita Tikaram. I would never be so crass as to bring her up with a young female singer-songwriter, but Fullbrook does so herself.
“It’s kind of funny, because I totally forgot about her, but when I was five I was really obsessed with her. I said I wanted to be like Tanita Tikaram when I grew up.” Fullbrook hadn’t listened to the record in question for 15 or so years when she found it in a shop a few months ago. “It was really strange hearing those songs again, because I knew them so well.”
For Fullbrook’s second album, which she hopes to record after returning from supporting the Handsome Family and playing festivals in Europe, the plan is for a bigger sound palate incorporating musician friends. The songs, she says, are more coded and impressionistic, less obviously stories.
I ask if she saw the recent Bon Iver performance at the New Zealand International Arts Festival – a consummate example of how a singer-songwriter can extend himself. “I didn’t go to that show, but it’s been made really clear to me why musicians start out in a certain vein, then expand into something totally different.
You think, ‘Oh, why did they change from the fi rst thing?’ But I think it’s just a natural human thing to want to grow, to not be put into a restrictive box or genre and to just want new sounds for yourself.”
Fullbrook’s new sounds should be available for us all this time next year. Meanwhile, the old ones are there for the relishing.
SOME WERE MEANT FOR SEA, Tiny Ruins (Spunk).