Originally this piece was to be an interview with Mungindi singer-songwriter Jess Holland combined with a review of her new album, Whole Lot to Say, which is why this interview is being posted later than first planned. However, the album really deserves its own post – thus, this is the interview alone. It is always a pleasure to speak to Jess, who is a working musician – and very impressive live, if you get the chance to see her.
I saw you playing in Tamworth this year, and you did a lot of gigs around about the place, in fact, you were turning up in spots where you weren’t even necessarily advertised as being, I noticed.
Yeah, that’s right.
And I also noticed that there was a group of really active younger musicians and by that, I mean, people like you who were sitting in on other people’s gigs and turning up in spots where they weren’t even listed to play, and I felt, it just seemed to be very vibrant and positive and the whole feeling around it was really great, so I was wondering if that was your experience of Tamworth and, if so, did you make some good connections or good creative connections?
That was definitely my vibe. I went up there with X amount of gigs and by the time it was finished, I’d been guest at so many other different gigs, it wasn’t even funny. And it was so good, because you get to meet so many other people and it was fantastic, great vibe.
So were these people you’ve met up there or were they people you knew already and it just happened that you all ended up playing together?
A bit of both, actually. It was good because a lot of people that I knew went – I went to the academy, the CMAA Academy, back in 2011, so it was good to catch up with them again, and go and check them out and have a bit of fun with them, and then also get up and do a few songs with them. And then from there, it was acquaintances of theirs, so it was all really tightly connected and the people that I knew and then people that they knew and it was fantastic. It was really great.
Partly what I found interesting was the conception of country music amongst a lot of people is that it’s mainly for older people and certainly there are a lot of older people at Tamworth, but there were a lot of young performers there who did attract an older audience, but also I found that a lot of the performers like you were really knowledgeable about their music. They really love country music and it’s a really interesting time, I think, in country music in Australia.
It is. It definitely is at the moment, as you said, a lot of people think country music – they think old, they think twang, they have these really different preconceived ideas of what they expect country to be, but little do they know, as soon as you hit Tamworth, there’s just a whole different vibe. I mean, yes, it does attract a lot of older crowds, but like you said, there are so many new people that are just so interested in country music and I had a lot of people coming up to me, saying to me, ‘Oh, I didn’t actually think that I liked country music.’
But then I’ll listen to you or I listen to the likes of Harry Hookey or someone else that was a younger performer and they really enjoyed their show. And that just goes to show that country music isn’t just the twang, it isn’t just attracting old people, it’s attracting all sorts, which I think is great. And, as you said, it’s very interesting about country in Australia at the moment, because of all the little rifts and everything that’s happening, but I just think it’s fantastic. Tamworth really made the point that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what you think country music is, that everyone is in the same boat and they really enjoy the time.
Tamworth itself is a great place for people to make creative connections, and I was reading in your material around this album, that you’ve met Rob Long at Tamworth during StarMaker. I presume it was in Tamworth, or during the competition?
And also there are musicians playing on the band, like from the Adam Eckersley Band and Adam himself. I mean, these are all people – you kind of all flow together in the one place in January and then flow apart, but those connections can really have an impact on you throughout the year.
Yeah. They definitely can. At Tamworth, like you said, everyone comes into the one hub and if you’re not performing yourself, you go and see as many other performers as you can, and do a bit of bar hopping and that sort of thing. And it’s then that you really make a lot of friends and you really make a lot of connections as in the music industry. And then you’ve got those connections for the rest of your life sort of thing, so for me it was really good. I met Rob Long, back in the 2013 at the Toyota StarMaker, which is in Tamworth. And from there I met Adam and Ben Elliot, who’s the drummer for Adam, and it really helped shaped my album. So all those people were on the album, which worked out really, really well.
You met Rob in January 2013, so that’s only last year – the album’s about to come out and that seems like a really short timeframe. Even if you had all your songs written, it’s still short, I think, to meet someone, form that relationship, that producer–performer relationship and then get the album recorded. Does it feel like it’s been quick to you or do you feel like, oh, it’s taken forever?
No, it is quite fast, the time period, but as soon as I met Rob Long – we’ve been talking to each other in regards to music and me recording with him for about three or four months prior to StarMaker, and I found out about Rob through mutual musicians that we both know. He’s actually originally from Gulgong, which is only 20 minutes up the road from Mudgee, my hometown. And so, there was those connections already, and then as soon as I met Rob through StarMaker, it was like an instant connection musically. We really got along well as mates, and then also we really were on the same wavelengths in regards to the ideas for the album. And so we really just clicked and it felt like that I known Rob for a long, long time and that I’d been working with Rob for a long time. So, for me it was very quick for people to look upon and say, oh, man, from the point of time that you met him to when you recorded, it was only January through to August, that’s when I started recording with him. But it just felt like I’d known him for ages because he knew exactly what sound and everything I was after straightaway, so it worked really well.
In terms of the sound, ‘Fine Lines’ is the single I’ve heard, and it’s a country song, not necessarily in the construction of its lyrics so much, but there are country elements musically in it. In the liner notes for ‘Ain’t Quitting This Run’, you said that people tried to change your sound. Well, it sounds like you’re firmly country now; so I wondering what those people tried to change you into?
I think because my image and my sound is very unique within the country industry, especially in Australia, there’s probably not anyone else out there like me, which for some people it was a little bit daunting to actually take me on and take on my sound. But for me, I had a lot of people saying to me, you should be writing more mainstream and you should be doing this and you should look like this. And I just found it really daunting, because never before had I had anyone say to me you should be doing this, and so it’s really cool to come across the likes of Rob Long and a few others, because they’re like, no, this is unique, this is what people are after, they’re not after the same little blonde people that are trying to be like Taylor Swift. They’re after something unique and I soon realised that, hey, I was never going to be like those blonde girls that have got the flowing locks and like Taylor Swift. That’s just not my sound at all.
My sound is country rock and with a slash of blues in there, so for me, that in itself is very unique and I just basically stop worrying about what everyone else is thinking and really make music that I was happy with and that Rob and I both agreed on that worked. I’m so glad that I did because I’ve really found my niche now, and I could not imagine being happy if I had brought out an album that I wasn’t 100 per cen happy with. And I am, so I can’t wait for everyone to hear it.
People can tell, I think, when you’re not being authentic, particularly if you’ve got a big stage presence, you’ve got a big voice and so you’re the sort of performer that an audience will pay attention to, but they’d be able to tell if you weren’t being authentic about what you’re doing, if you know what I mean?
You’re not a very good liar, Jess, I think is what I’m trying to say [laughs].
Look, I totally agree. I consider myself to be a very modest, very authentic and what you see on stage, I’m not putting on at all, which I couldn’t even imagine trying to put on. I wouldn’t even where to start, because the way I talk, the way I sing, is Jess Holland through and through. If you were to stop me in the street and have a chat with me, I’d be exactly the same. And I think that’s one of my positives, I suppose. I am who I am, and I’m not about to dye my hair and wear a pair of brand new cowboy boots. The thing is, it’s hard, because I do wear cowboy boots everywhere I go, but that’s – I always have [laughs].
It’s just who I am.
Yeah, they’re practical a lot of time, if you’re out in the bush and doing stuff.
The last time I spoke to you, you were about to do a solo tour of Queensland. So you’re used to playing on your own; I was wondering if it was a bit strange to have all these other musos in the studio playing on your songs?
It was fantastic. I actually started off in bands and then obviously as time got on, it’s just a lot easier to tour sometimes as a solo artist, because you’ve only to worry about yourself and what you’re doing. But this time, I’m actually going to be doing quite a few launch gigs that are with a full band, which I’m really excited about. And for me, I just really enjoy whether it’s recording or performing or whatever, I enjoy playing with more than just myself, because you can have so much fun and you really connect with people, and I generally don’t play or perform with people unless I connect with them straight up. And you soon find out whether or not you connect musically with them because they’re easy to get along with and they just have a lot of fun on stage like you do, so I’ve been pretty lucky so far. Everyone I’ve worked with I’ve really connected musically with, so it’s been great.
How are you going about choosing people for those launch gigs?
For the Newcastle launch gig, it’s actually the majority of the people that I recorded with, which is really easy. Then for the other two, I’m actually performing with a band called Streamline and they’re from Gunnedah, and I’ve already performed with them a number of times before at some gigs, so I go back to the old faithful that I know that are going to work for me and that I really lot have a lot of fun with, and so it makes it a lot easier for me, for sure.
Certainly I do think your voice would sound great with a band, because there are a lot of singers whose voices actually aren’t powerful enough to go over the top of a band, but it sounds to me very much like you could more than do it, if you know what I mean?
[Laughs] So are you saying, I probably would not need a microphone with my howling? I’m really looking forward it to, I’ve always enjoyed and I really love performing with a full band so it should be a lot of fun.
Just on a technical note, because your voice is such a strong instrument: do you do a lot of vocal exercises and warm-ups and practices?
No. Surprisingly I don’t, because I’ve never actually been trained. I probably should. Sometimes I will do warm-ups, not so much warm-downs, but warm-ups, especially if I’m doing a lot of gigs over a weekend or over a week. If I’m doing a gig every day, it pays to warm up because I always get on stage and it’s a bit croaky or whatever, but generally I’m a little bit probably irresponsible, in the fact that I don’t probably look after my voice as well as I should, just because it’s always worked for me that way, and if it ain’t broke why fix it, sort of thing.
The only thing is the cautionary tale of Troy Cassar-Daley having to go and have surgery last year.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. One thing I do, I definitely keep it really hydrated with water and I know that if I’ve got gigs coming up, I keep very hydrated and I’ve got this rule, I don’t have any dairy on a day off, because sometimes if you have any dairy or milk or whatever, sometimes it can be a bit gluggy in your throat. But, yeah, drink plenty of water, and I definitely do warm up if I’ve got a long line of gigs all in a row, but it’s really very straightforward, you don’t talk too much the day before or the day after, that sort of thing, but generally I don’t do runs or that sort of thing, warming up for me is just make sure that’s it warm and working property … It’s all usually pretty good.
Well, it’s working so far.
Yeah, that’s exactly right [laughs].
[Laughs] So out of the songs on your album, I have to ask: do you have any favourites? It’s probably like asking you to choose between children, right?
I do. I like them all for very different reasons. ‘Fine Lines’ is definitely one of my favourites, hence why I wanted to bring it out first because, I guess, it’s a bit of a close one, like bit personal, hits home. ‘Leave You Damaged’ is probably one of my favourites because it’s a lot faster and a very sassy, raunchy song. But probably one of my favourites is number 14, which is called this ‘This Ol’ Guitar’, and basically I’ve stripped it right down. It’s only vocals and guitar and it’s basically about this old guitar that I was given from a very, very young age and just an old nylon battered thing, and I still have it. And it went with me everywhere, yeah, it’s old faithful, so that’s what the song’s about.
Now in terms of your live performance, you’re a passionate performer and I would imagine this is a passionate record, but I was also wondering how hard it is to sustain that intensity of feeling across several takes for a vocal track?
It can be quite trying sometimes, because when you’re recording everything that you’re playing or singing or whatever, you do three or four times at minimum, depending on how you’re feeling. So sometimes it can get a bit trying, but basically you’ve got to keep your vibe up and really just remember what you wrote the song about and really stay in that vibe of it and in that zone. Because as soon as you dip out of it, the take is never as good, and basically you keep going down and down until you have to stop, I suppose. But really the key for me is just to remember what I wrote the song about and get into the song, in the zone of the song, I suppose, which sounds corny but if you don’t, you really lose your momentum and your vibe for it. It can be a struggle especially when you can do six, seven, eight, nine songs in a day depending on how you’re going, so it makes for a huge day but it’s well worth it at the end.
It’s not corny at all. It’s what being that storyteller is about. If all you’re doing is singing the words and that sound, that doesn’t connect to a listener, but if you’re able to convey the emotion that or the experience behind the song, then that’s the best reward for the listener.
Yeah, that right. And, I mean, you’re always going to do that on stage, because you’ve only got to sing it once generally, but it can be really hard in the studio, especially if you’re not necessarily used to being in the studio. I’ve only been in the studio a few times, and it took me a little while to get settled in and the nerves and that sort of thing, and just feel a bit more comfortable. So by the time the vocals came around, see you don’t do the vocals until towards the end, which really helps because by that time you’re comfortable, you’re in your zone and it’s like your home away from home. So by the time the vocals come around you’re really used to the environment and you’re basically setting aside two or three days to do the vocals and you don’t have to push yourself. It’s really all up to you and how you’re feeling, but if the momentum’s going I just keep going and it worked really well this time, so that’s good.
You did some crowdfunding on Indiegogo for this album, which obviously worked, ‘cause you’ve made the album. Would you do that again?
Definitely would do it again. It was a great way for people to contribute to the album, and say, hey, I was part of that album. And, it’s really cool because all that stuff will be sent out today or tomorrow, which will be very exciting. And for me it was really great, because I had a few people come out of the woodwork, and they contributed whether it was for a CD or whatever – you don’t have to contribute an X amount of money, you can contribute whatever you want, which I thought was great because people can contribute 10 dollars, 20 dollars or if they want a certain package which I thought it was great, and I really thank all my contributors for that, because it really supported me and made me feel as though, yes, I could do this album and that. So it worked really, really well. Definitely recommend it.
I’ve got one last question for you, which is: in the liner notes for ‘Wasn’t Alone’ you say there is no other feeling like music, and I was wondering how old you were when you first realised that?
Look, I don’t really know.
I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve really been this tall, since I can remember, and I’ve always had music in my life and I started playing instruments from a very, very young age. And I just always really enjoyed it, and looking back, I think, I always knew that there was nothing else like music because I was always really happy, no matter what mood I was in or how my day was going, as soon as I listened or performed or played some music, my mood was totally switched, and I was always happy. And I think you only really get to realise that when you get a bit older, because you become a bit more in tune with yourself and how you feel and all that sort of stuff. Since I’ve been doing it a bit more full time professionally, I definitely realise there is nothing else like music. And I think I’ve known it my entire life but just only the awareness is only just there in the last probably five years or so, I suppose.
Well, I think what you’re doing is fantastically inspirational for other musicians or other people who are creative. It sounds like you’re living in creative flow, really. You’ve dedicated yourself to music and it’s a passion that’s been there for your whole life and you’re living it, and that’s really amazing. So congratulations.
Oh, thank you. I’m pretty lucky. People think, oh, it’s so easy, but it’s not, there’s so much behind it, and you don’t realise what all the press and all the stuff behind it until you climb straight into and it’s been a huge learning curve, really steep, but I absolutely love it, and I seriously can’t imagine myself doing anything else, so, yeah, it’s pretty cool.
Whole Lot to Say is out now.