I’ll never really understand how my heart works: Freya Hollick

Freya Josephine Hollick answers the door for at her home in East Ballarat wearing a brilliant emerald green cable-knit jumper. The weather has swung between the first blast of oppressive late spring heat and squally freezing rain. A friend’s couch left on her verandah is coated with fine dust broken up by spots of water.

Her album The Unceremonious Junking Of Me has just been released. Recorded live to half-inch tape in the old-world surrounds of the Main Bar, it’s astonishingly bereft of the over-production we are delivered in contemporary music. Instead we are presented with the stark simplicity of Kat Mear’s fiddle, Pete Fidler’s mandolin and steel guitar, and Hollick’s soaring, melodic, transportive voice.

It’s hard to believe Hollick is just 27. She has the voice of someone who has lived a life, many lives perhaps, in a world far removed from ours. She wears her musical loves on her sleeve. Bluegrass. The Carter Family. The ballads of the Appalachians. The blues. Her guitar playing is stripped back and complements the tales she tells.

And the tales of The Unceremonious Junking Of Me run to eternal themes. It is an album born of personal heartbreak and rebirth, of grief and of discovered love.

We talk in her lounge room while her baby daughter Opal has another animated conversation with herself in the next room.

We should start with the eternal blues question: where were you last night?

Freya Hollick: (laughs) Out in Blackwood. I was with Nick and Janet Dear, who are a oldtime bluegrass family. They've lived out there for years. My brother went to school with their son. They're amazing players, and they run a few different little festivals, they're a big part of the bluegrass scene. And there were some players from North Carolina there that I had met in Harrietville at the Mountaingrass music festival, halfway up to Mount Hotham.

I listened to The Unceremonious Junking Of Me again today. Your voice is remarkable, and you inhabit those Appalachian, those bluegrass, those country influences as though you’ve lived them forever. But of course you haven’t.

No – or at least I don’t know about having done that. I was on Henry Wagons’s show on Double J a couple of weeks ago and he was asking me how important the past is to my music. It’s kind of like your soul has existed for however long. I won’t ever know the secrets of the universe, but I feel as though my soul has lived through those existences before, because it’s so natural for me to sing in that way and write the songs, that it almost doesn’t feel like it’s me that’s writing them.

I haven’t been to the United States, but I harbour that desire. I do, absolutely. I mean as a traveling musician, when you’re starting out – I’ve been doing this for 12 years now. But really in this style probably only four or five years. And I took a couple of years off to have Opal. So it's really like starting again from the beginning. You start out at the bottom of the pecking order. 

At the very best you can hope to cover costs if you travel interstate, which it doesn't really happen at this stage. So yes I have decided to get to the States. It's a matter of balancing. At the moment I’m working three different jobs, doing the music and looking after a toddler.

I mean if money was no object, I probably would have transported myself over to the States a long time ago.

Does it make you love it more?

Yeah I think so. It makes me want to work really hard for it. Probably when I get there I’ll just be blown away by the fact that I’ve saved the money to get there. It makes it more special.

We’ve talked before about your musical influences, from Syd Barrett through to jazz. Do you live to hear other music, or do you find yourself drawn back to the same sources?

It changes all the time. I talk about it with my dad a bit. Things that you once loved can sometimes become completely irrelevant after a while, and you think ‘How did I ever listen to that’, you know? It just doesn't resonate with me anymore in the same way that it used to.

And then there are other musicians I’ve listened to since I was a young teenager and I still – anytime I put on their record, it's like the best thing. With country music in particular you certainly gravitate towards particular artists but I'm always excited to hear someone I haven't heard, songs that I haven't heard by people.

Every musician I meet tells me about something I don’t know. And I’m not someone that needs to know everything, so it’s nice learning. I love it when people can teach me something. I love lots of different music, I grew up listening to lots of different music. Everything from jazz through to Sonic Youth. I draw influence from everywhere. I love calypso music. I love Latin music. Anything someone can show me, as long as it’s good.

This album is about heartbreak. It’s about your heartbreak. How have you come through that? How has it fed you?

I dont think I would be writing the way that I'm writing, or that I would have written that album, without those situations. So I’m actually really thankful for the breaking up of that relationship, especially as a new mum. I mean it's definitely strengthened me in ways that I could never imagine prior to having children.

It’s pushed me to want to pursue music more and do what I really enjoy. Sometimes when you get really dark because something's happened in your life, some kind of event – whether it's incredibly traumatic, whether it's a relationship falling apart – then you can create. It takes disaster for rebirth and respawn. It’s fuelled my desire for writing powerful lyrics. I write lots of songs now, which is really good.

So I’m quite thankful for it. But that's the only way I could come through it, from playing and writing about it. Making some kind of beautiful thing from that muck and mire.

The relationship disintegrated shortly after Opal was born.  And so I was raising her, living with my mum and dad. And after about five months of doing it mostly on my own, we split up, because he was fairly absent.

So he's not there at all?

Yes. And it's not so bad if you know what to expect, but when it comes out of nowhere… You make plans with someone for your life and how things will be as a two-parent family and then it slowly disappears over the space of a few months. It’s pretty hard to digest, especially when you’re sleep deprived. But there are much worse things in the world.

I think it's taught me so much about myself, and I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now or as strong as I am now, and I wouldn’t be able to write the songs that I can write now without having gone through that, so it’s a blessing and a curse I suppose.

You can be strong outwardly but there’s always fragility within. It’s like the inside of an eggshell. You’re just the yolk, really. (Laughs)

Tell me about loving a child.

It's amazing. She's crazy and wonderful and there are obviously ups and downs, as with anything. But it transforms your way of looking at the world. It removes the self in a lot of ways, and you just want to make everything as beautiful as you possibly can for them, and that transforms your life at the same time because you’re not focussing on what you are doing for yourself, you are trying to make a beautiful existence for them while they can be sheltered –  before they discover that what the world’s actually like.

How does Opal manifest herself in your writing?

I always talk about her as the shining light. She often comes through in that capacity. But she's also my salvation in everything that's happened. Her and music are the two things that keep getting me out of bed in the morning.

Has it been that harrowing?

At times. I mean I try think of myself in the scheme of the universe. (Laughs)

Do you find support here? You’re one of Ballarat’s most loved musicians, surely.

I've been around for a long time in Ballarat. I’m part of the furniture. Brownie points perhaps: won a few hearts, lost a few. Yeah, it's hard to tell. But I think people like it. I've changed quite a bit from when I started playing. I always played folk music. It’s finding yourself.

You’re like a more-sharpened knife.

Yeah. Yeah it's finding the music that you love. I was exposed to a lot of music growing up, but never to old blues and Appalachian music. I came to that through the music I was listening to contemporary country music and people like Bill Callahan. He does a version of In The Pines. It's fantastic.

“The longest train I ever saw, went down that Georgia line; the engine went by at six o’clock, the cab went by at nine.”

It’s a great song.

I first heard it as a child, in a 60’s film, it was being sung at a funeral. And then later The Triffids did it on their album In The Pines. And that led me back to Leadbelly, who may or may not have written it.

Yeah, there’s that tradition of using the same tunes and changing the lyrics slightly. They say his is the first recorded version. I found Leadbelly after I found the Carter Family version. And I found it absolutely chilling and powerful, and I wanted to write a song just like that. That and Wildwood Flowers and I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes was my introduction to Appalachia, through the Carter Family.

But I came to blues prior to coming to country music. I had a partner who was big into old blues music. Son House, Skip James, Muddy Waters.

Skip James was a bad man.

Oh, there’s a lot of terrifyingly bad men in blues music. Yeah. And then of course Opal’s father was also really into blues but he liked the country stuff as well. Yeah, you draw influences from everyone you meet, I think.

The title of your album is not complimentary. It’s saying to someone, ‘you’ve done this to me’.

Unceremoniously.

I was initially going to call it ‘Heartjunk’, and I spoke to the guys from Heart of the Rat Records, and they said, ‘you can come up with something more poetic than that,’ and I came back to them with that – The Unceremonious Junking Of Me.

And it sort of sums up what the record’s about.

You recorded it live to tape.

Yeah live to half-inch tape. One full day and two half-days, at the Main Bar, upstairs.

It was really only two microphones, and then there were other little add-on microphones and bits and pieces, but mostly it was just through one old microphone.

It was great. Myles Mumford, who recorded it, is really talented. So there was not much fussing about. He really knows what he's doing, so it was really enjoyable because it was just like playing live. I don't think we took any more than three takes of any of the songs, and usually we ended up using the first take anyway.

It’s piercingly clear.

Right, isn't, it, yes. Yes, sound quality. I heard it on CD first but then when the vinyl was pressed and I heard it on vinyl, it sounded how it was supposed to sound. It's just makes much more sense for it to go through a valve microphone onto half-inch tape then onto vinyl.

It was mastered by Dave Briggs who was in The Little River Band. He works really fast and does a really brilliant job. He's got an amazing ear for mastering. We did it in one afternoon. I don’t know how their ears work but it’s differently to how everybody else’s ears work.

Where do you hear the music in your head?

I think it takes a little while. I’ve written a lot of bad songs when I was younger. Some of them were alright, but I don’t play them anymore because time rolls on and you have different experiences and things become irrelevant. So I'm more of the mind to just keep moving, keep writing. But for me, usually I sit down and I might have you know like one line, a powerful one liner, and I build around a song around that. And will usually start with just plucking the guitar and and then finding a melody over it that I haven't sung before.

What do you think was the key to learning the guitar style you have?

It always comes back to people like the Carter family, and Ma Carter’s guitar playing.

And also Justin Townes Earle’s playing really influenced me at a time at a time that was probably formative for my playing style; he was starting to be big to be around when I was really getting into country music. That probably influenced me from not only country music but from blues music as well.

It's the soaring vocals over the top of picked guitar that has a sort of fat bass line so you hear –  it's like almost like doom chicka doom on the guitar and then you have these really wailing high notes over the top. When you add harmonies into that, over the top, and another underneath – it’s those layers of things in Appalachian music and old-time music.

But in blues; I mean - Bessie Smith. If you listen to her voice over the top of what the the music is doing. She she sings like she's a trumpet or a saxophone, and she's hitting all these – she’s way above where the rhythm is.

You said to me when I arrived that I’d come at a good time, because you were having a ‘think’ about where you are with music. What does that mean?

I think just - I mean the current political climate that we’re in at the moment feels rather dystopian. You know, it's an ‘end of days’ kind of feeling on the planet. There’s a lot of scary things going on out there; I mean there really always has been, I suppose. The men who are in power in this country and in America teaming up could do a lot of damage.

And I worry simultaneously about that and then more specifically about how things are for artists in the world at the moment. It's really hard to do what we do, and travel around to places and sometimes not break even. So you drive up to you know the top of New South Wales to do a run of shows and you might not even pay for petrol.

You’ve caught me on a week where I’m questioning whether it's worth it to continue doing it – but then I don't think I could ever not do it at the same time. I don't want to do anything else at all, and if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to help myself but go back into music.

But it's just that every now and then you take a notion to, you know, straighten up and get a nine-to-five job: pay the bills, buy a house.

But you’re determined.

You learn a lot of tolerance working in hospitality and in dealing with humans on it on a daily basis in that capacity. People can be really rude and you don't ever forget the people that were rude but it's the determination to push and to do what you want to do is maybe out of the necessity to avoid ever having to be doing something that you've done for years that you don't particularly enjoy.

Perhaps that's what it is. And to forge a future for Opal and myself. The dream is to eventually be making enough money that I can support her and myself from just playing and it might take twenty years but… yeah. More and more people are doing it, living as artists. as well. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day. He took the photograph for the cover of my album. He's brilliant. He's photographed some really huge people. But we're all struggling. All artists.

What was your childhood like? Your father is a painter, I know. Was it idyllic?

I really had a great childhood. I have a brother and a sister. We have a very, very happy upbringing. We're really blessed. Mum and dad still are together. My mother was a  kindergarten teacher and they worked really hard and put us all through a really good school.

My dad’s mum lived around the corner from mum and dad’s house and we would spend afternoons after school at her place, and she was a huge influence on all of us. She was just a very gentle caring person. She was a vegetarian her whole life. And just loved kids, you know. But we also had another set of grandparents in Ballarat. We had two sets of grandparents and our parents here together. There was never really a bad moment.

My grandmother is still alive and lives in Ballarat. She still sees over me and Opal. Strong. To have four generations in one room is pretty special. It’s really special to have that support network, that nurturing, from a young age.

My pa ran a fruiterer’s business, which is now Peaches, I think, out in Wendouree, near the tennis centre.. They lived until recently around the lake. My pa and grandmother were born in Ballarat. Their parents were born in England.

Ballarat has had boom and bust affair with music, throughout the 1980s and 1990s. And that smaller town ethos meant the scene was more ecumenical, punks playing with ska musicians playing with pop. And that died away, to a greater extent.

Well I was born in 1989, so I missed that.

But you are the next generation.

Yeah, yeah. It’s funny; I think there’s – I don’t know what it is , I don’t know if people are more complacent, because there’s TV around the clock, social media – I feel like everyone’s a little bit brainwashed. Not everyone. But the passion to write protest songs should be rife at the moment. It doesn’t seem to exist in small rural places.

I feel myself getting complacent, and then I make a concerted effort to not feel complacent and find out as much as I can about what's going on in the world. And it can destroy you. I think people protect themselves by not reading papers, not watching the news – because it’s easier to NOT know about it.

Particularly at this point in time, this is why it’s an interesting time for me to talk to you, I think. Because I almost feel like I can't function, because I'm so consumed by the goings on of the planet and I can’t think outside of it. I think of the world as this tiny little speck in a multiverse, within which we don't really know what there really is, outside of our solar system.

And then other times it becomes much more direct and much more like, ‘oh dear, humankind will probably die fairly soon’. I mean, I’m a human, I should probably care about that. (Laughs)

Tell me about love.

Love isn’t rational at all, which is why it’s dangerous. Your brain isn’t really connected to love, aside from the chemistry that goes on that makes you think you’re in love with someone. Or that, you know, that you are in love with someone. But no rationalising, no thought process can actually figure out why you do things that you do for love.

I’ll never really understand how my heart works, but it does whatever it wants. It’s like a wild horse.

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Freya Hollick is playing at the Main Bar in Ballarat on December 3, with a full band, and supports from Dan Watkins & Kat Mear and Aaron Searcy. 

Tickets $18 + bf from Oztix

Freya previously spoke to The Courier for our What’s Art Got To Do With It? series.