Nick Bollinger delves into the homegrown soul of Hollie Smith.
It begins with the simmering chords of a Hammond organ, a rhythm section straining at the leash, and a voice that could be straight out of some black southern church, warming up with a wordless, soulful moan.
Water Or Gold is the third full-length record Hollie Smith has released in a recording career that is now well into its second decade, and comes on with the kind of assuredness that says you are in the hands of someone who knows what they like, what they want to hear, and are going to do it their way.
Hollie Smith wrote and produced all the songs on Water Or Gold, and it seems very much the product of her particular tastes. She cut her teeth singing along to classic Aretha Franklin and James Brown records, picking up licks and phrases along the way from artists as diverse and individual as Chaka Khan and Prince – all of which I can hear traces of in the opener, from which the album takes its title. Not that it comes off as pastiche. Perhaps the biggest lesson she’s learned from her heroes is that, however much you admire the tradition, the real task of the soul singer is to find one’s own voice. And for most of this album you know you could only be listening to Hollie.
But if Smith has long since absorbed the lessons of her singing heroes into a style that’s identifiably her own, as a songwriter she still sometimes wears her influences on the outside. And in the case of a ballad like ‘In Love Again’, it is as though she has built her song on top of the foundations of an existing classic - in this case James Brown’s ‘It’s A Man’s World.’
Hollie Smith’s trials in the music industry have been well-documented. Enough to say that her career was held up for several years when what was supposed to be her big international break turned to corporate custard. And the residual bitterness from that experience seeped through the songs on her last album Humour and the Misfortune of Others. The title was a strange misnomer; there was little humour and the only misfortune under discussion seemed to be Hollie’s own. You won’t exactly find humour on Water Or Gold either. But there’s a sense that singing about life’s hardships and losses is the surest path to that intangible thing called soul.
Water Or Gold doesn’t fundamentally change Hollie Smith’s formula. As a singer she’s always known who she is and what she wants to do. But as a collection it offers more for the listener to latch onto, as it delves deeper into Hollie’s increasingly personal brand of soul. It’s a record that reaches out by reaching in.
Songs featured: Water or Gold, Anymore, Helena, In Love Again, Holding On, Poor on Poor, Older Younger.
Water Or Gold is available on Warner Music.