Monday, September 8, 2008

Holly Throsby: When Darkness Falls



To tell you the truth, it wasn’t easy. Holly Throsby, long, black-haired, long-handed and feminine in this particularly intelligent way, seems to open up and close down, enthusiastic at one moment, then politely, decisively, no.

Her record On Night might well be mistaken for one of a slew of female singer-songwriter releases now about, but hers is a real achievement: lyrically way ahead of the pack, warm but grievous in its celebration of a love ending, and a social scene going to the dogs along with it.

The melancholic drive of Nick Drake springs to mind in some songs, along with the plaintive restraint and textural shading of early Beth Orton with a certain Australian containment. If one could define the style it night be called something like ‘contemporary acoustic realism’, keeping in mind the vaguely cinematic sense of watching the songs unfold.

On Night was recorded near Saddleback Mountain on the east coast of New South Wales, in the country home and recording studio of producer Tony Dupe, who has built a reputation as a Downunder sound texturalist, taking the folk spirit out into earth and sky. To put it another way, Throsby and her fellow musicians worked with the windows open. “You can hear lots of birds, crickets, and a dog too,” she says. “I wanted to let that in. But it’s not just those sounds, it was something about the pace of the recording there. There’s a real domesticity to it. I see my record being very concerned with mundane domestic things.”

At 25 the maturity of Throsby’s lyrical vision wouldn’t be out of place in a Richard Ford novel of betrayal. On Night - as it’s self consciously literary title might suggest - is not just a love lorn set of acoustic songs, but a larger portrait of an endangered community of feelings dissolving into darker places. The social sense of it is really surprising.

I tell Throsby it reminds me of a bunch of people in their mid 20s with their trainer wheels on for adultery. Having fun for now, even finding something beautiful in their pain, but in danger of being in some deeply unhappy place if the same bad habits stretch into their mid 30s.

“Are you telling me we should be careful of our frivolity?” she asks sardonically before confessing there’s some truth to the insight. She doesn’t try to discuss it, however, though she does admit, “None of my friends like to talk about the record. The people closest to me just do not listen to it.”

Does she think she is a harsh observer in the songs?

“Harsh.” The word is weighed up, not right. I know that, she does too. I feel like I have laid it on the table like a slightly unpleasant pebble that should probably be moved.

It’s true that the booth where we talk at Badde Manors CafĂ© in Glebe, Sydney, its upright narrowness, the noise around us, accentuates a mood of having been pushed too close together for comfort. Maybe, too, she’s learnt something of the art of resistance from listening her mother, the elegant ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) radio announcer Margaret Throsby, at work. Telling all is not Holly Throsby’s desire, at least not in this situation.

She gets a little irritated, or maybe distressed, and asks me “if Nick Cave has to put up with questions about his personal life?”

I tell her lines about “dead birds on the stairwell, some ugly morning, fell from their nests, no, don’t tell your parents when we start sharing each others’ beds” (We’re good people but why don’t we show it?) and a male friend who “can’t see where his friends stop and his lovers begin” (Things between people) as well as injuring fragments like “the wings of birds and the arms of girls” (Don’t be howling) keep surfacing to grab you powerfully and invite that curiosity. That she doesn’t necessarily have to answer anything; that philosophising about it might do. And that maybe, finally, it’s just hard to know where she ends and the songs begin.

“I don’t really have an interest in talking about my personal life in plain speech. I really like making records. I’d talk about this stuff to my mates,” she says, easing off, then adding with a quirk, “but it’s kinda hard to discuss it with someone who is taking notes.”

She takes the CD off the table and shows me the artwork (her own design), four simple primary images: her head turned away as she lies on a bed, her face not visible; an owl; some mountains; a midnight sun reflected on water. “I didn’t want any redundant imagery anywhere - in the lyrics or the artwork.” I feel as if she is trying to share something with me as she does this, to include me with her actions in a way that half makes up for the edges in how we have communicated.

It’s not surprising Throsby tells me she is reading the nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson, “a Ted Hughes transcription from her original papers.” She explains how “her poetry is written in this olden days style, but you can tell it’s in the vernacular of how people spoke then and I really like that a lot.” Dickinson’s story interests her, “how she lived in a room all by herself and separated herself from the world and just wrote. And was, I think, completely uncelebrated in her life.”

She also talks about another American poet, Walt Whitman, and his robustness; of the singer Morrissey and how brilliantly he deals with sadness as a theme, especially with The Smiths. “Those records with The Smiths are so cheeky. More cheeky than overwhelmingly sad, and he’s very matter of fact about his pain too. That’s part of it.” These energies matter to her.

“I don’t see my record as a sad record,” she says. “Maybe some of the songs are sad, but putting them all together on an album is slightly triumphant. I respond to sad things,” she confirms carefully, “but also the things that go with it like longing and wanting, which I don’t see as negative things. There’s something ceremonial about turning all that into art. And it’s not the end because after doing it I like to have a good dinner, get drunk with friends and watch TV.”

As Throsby gains momentum - not unlike the record and the way it seems to zero in on you as you listen - she says, “I don’t want my sense of humour and chaos to be drowned out by the sadness.”

Throsby certainly knows how to involve you in a scene, how to create a mood impressionistically and pull you very close. Almost as an aside she observes, “The more honest you are about your experiences the more universal they become. I used to think specifics would make things more esoteric but I’ve found the opposite.”

What’s clear in her mind, and she says this like someone who really means it, is how she was “very conscious of wanting to make a whole album for one, and to make it themed in a sense. That’s why I called it On Night. I wanted it to be clear I was thinking a lot about that. It’s not an accident images appear again and again across the record.”

“It’s funny when you put songs together and a weird, accidental narrative comes up,” she says, in as revealing a way as she willing to be. “It’s like having a dream – the fact you are able to decode it means you knew what it was to begin with.”

- Mark Mordue

* First published in The Big Issue, Australia, 2005.
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