Meet: We chat with Holy Holy’s Tim Carroll about the new album, writing and recording songs and setting the studio on fire.

Australia’s sparkling pop duo Holy Holy’s forthcoming album ‘Hello My Beautiful World’ is due out on Friday, 20 August 2021 through Wonderlick Recording Company. Recorded in Victoria and Tasmania, Tim Carroll, part of the duo with Oscar Dawson, says of the album:

We were given all the freedom in the world to do whatever we wanted, and this is what we did. The songs dwell in the details of living. Dreams are a theme. Dreams you have when you’re sleeping. Not the dreams you come up with when you’re awake. Not a series of desires. Dreams where you have no control, and you scare yourself.

This sound like an audacious and exciting journey to look forward to. You can pre-order here.

In advance of the album’s release, we had the chance to have a very entertaining and in-depth chat with Carroll to discuss in detail the journey to writing and recording the album and the inspiration and collaborations along the way.

First of all congratulations on the new album – you must feel a sense of achievement given all the horrible things that have been happening over the past 18 months…

I’m really happy to be where we’re at, with an album finished, and I’m really proud of what we’ve done.

Debut albums are often the result of a lifetimes’ worth of experience. This is your fourth after a three-year gap – how did the writing and themes develop in the album?

Is it three years since we released something – could it be that long? ‘My Own Pool of Light’ – when did that come out? 2019? Oh my God it feels like we just released that, and it wasn’t that long ago.

I’ve been thinking a bit about the writing.  One of the things with the writing of this album has been a case of trusting the process. Making time for Oscar and I to be together with everything that we need around us and then just trusting that the inspiration will come.

Even though I’ve been writing songs for a long time I still feel like I’ve got a lot to learn and some of that is actually letting go of various bits of baggage and bits of insecurities and being more willing to put myself out there, and put ourselves out there, and maybe trust ourselves more. That’s the kind of journey I feel like I’ve been on, and so I almost feel like with each record we do, we come closer to making the music that we want to make. Earlier there were various things holding me back, and now I feel a great sense of freedom to try things and I feel quite free in the writing process.

 Is that because you are gaining more confidence as you go along?

I think confidence is one thing and maybe experience, being used to being in the studio and used to song writing.

I remember when I first started writing songs, I did have this idea that inspiration would just strike you and it would either come or it wouldn’t come, and when it did happen, it was this somewhat miraculous process. Now I believe that you can create the right circumstances for writing and recording and I guess that comes out of experience. Just knowing that if Oscar and I get together and we’ve got the gear and the microphone set up, then inspiration will come.

And also, our label have been really amazing – like incredibly hands off in terms of just trusting us to do what we want to do, and with this record in particular we’ve produced it ourselves and mixed it ourselves and wrote it ourselves.  We were just in these small studios, one in Dandenong and then in one of our home studios, so it felt quite private and insular, and there wasn’t a lot of outside influence which meant that we were free to do what we really wanted.

That reminds me of the way Nick Cave says he writes songs. He has a strong discipline and gets to his dedicated office at 9am and sits there until 5pm and just writes – he doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike.

Yes – I often think about him and what he does. I saw him when he came to Hobart for that tour and it was just him and the grand piano – did you see that?

Yes, I did – it was amazing.

Yes! And he was saying incredible things like apparently sometimes when he’s writing lyrics, he will just start the day with just reading an hour of poetry to get himself into the poetic mindset. I’m definitely not at that stage yet! I feel like this record – and maybe it’s just wearing rose-tinted glasses looking back now that it’s done – came together just incrementally. We just chipped away at it, and it sort of just came together. I think it is our best record yet…

There seems to be an overall air of resilience, optimism, and hope in the themes of the album, particularly with the title track, ‘Hello My Beautiful World’ with its poem placed at the centre of the album…

I feel like with a lot of things with Holy Holy it has that element, but then there’s also a melancholy associated with it – for example the poem has a kind of underlying sadness – I feel like there things that are left unsaid in that poem that are important. It’s an essay on the planet but there’s no mention of civilisation or the destruction that is occurring or any of the various anxieties that exist. There’s a conscious decision not to mention those negative things but I feel like those themes sits in the mind of the listener in the subconscious. For me, the title of the album is exactly as it sounds and exactly like the literal meaning of it, but also there is this sort of sadness that that sits underneath as well.

So, what is your song writing and recording process?

It can change from song to song. Sometimes one of us will come up with an initial spark, which might be just like a little couple of chords on a synthesiser. During the lockdowns I taught myself Logic and I was up late at night watching a couple of hour-long YouTube tutorials on Logic, and then each morning I would wake up and be like ‘OK what did I learn last night?’ – like how to build a drum beat or how to do various synth parts and stuff like that.  I then wrote a few sketches of song ideas that I had this Dropbox folder called ‘Teams Logic Journey’ or something like that! Then I would send it off to Oscar and he would say ‘this one’s got potential or this one’s got potential’.  

When we get together in the studio, we sit there with guitars and basses and synths to hand with a good microphone. When we are writing we are building a beat and a few chords and getting a vibe happening, and then I’ll usually just start improvising vocals. I’ll do a few takes until I feel like I’ve explored as much as I can. Oftentimes I will leave it and won’t do any more than that, and then Oscar spends some time sifting through my improvisations and the various tapes and finds the bits that he finds most compelling. I often feel that in terms of my vocals, he is my editor: I do all this stuff and then he goes through it all and finds the bits that are compelling, and he will build various compositions and we’ll go back and forth via email . And then, once the song start to take shape, we might go back and get a better bass sound  and a more defined take that’s a bit more sticky, and clarify things.

On this record, we had a couple of collaborators so oftentimes we would send stuff to Japanese Wallpaper – the whole session with the stems –  and he would sift through it and send us back his version of it. He might take out our bass and replace it with synth bass or add some arpeggio. He’d mostly add synth parts and various other production things. We would end up with his version and our version and hybridised them – choose his best bits and our best bits and polish them and finish the vocals. Then our drummer, Ryan Strathie, who we’ve worked with from the beginning, would come in and we would do a live do a session on the songs that have live drums.

You also work with Kim Moyes from The Presets too?

Yes, that was in the pre pandemic time. We were at the writing stage, and it was lovely. The deadline was far away, and we were just trying to come up with a bunch of different ideas for possible songs concepts and vibes, and we reached out to him and asked if he wanted to do a writing session.

I hadn’t really done that before  –  when I first started making music I used to hold on to the idea of song writing pretty tightly and felt like co-writing was some kind of like a cheat,  something other people did, but I felt like it was something that I shouldn’t do.  It took me a long time to realise that it’s actually great and really creative and there’s nothing bad about it. A lot of really successful music makers do it, and in the end it is really special to end up with a song that you wrote with somebody else  – there’s a special bond that you end up having with that person.

So we reached out to Kim and just rolled up to his house one morning, not really sure what was going to happen or how it was going to unfold. He was really sweet and took us in into his home studio and we just sat around and talked a bit about what it was that we were trying to achieve with the record. I remember talking about how Holy Holy was now playing on festival stages with these massive crowds – this was pre-pandemic – and thinking about capturing that feeling and what kind of energy we wanted to be putting out on those stages.

We wanted to make music that was going to work well for the kind of live shows that we’re doing now. And he pulled up some beats and some synth parts and then I was improvising vocals. Between morning and lunchtime, we punched out five different to sketches for songs – a few chords and a few vocal melodies – and then one of them was turned into ‘The Aftergone’ the latest single that we just released.

 Speaking of ‘The Aftergone’, how did you come to the collaborate with CLEWS?

I came across CLEWS a few years ago through some festival work when they were just a brand-new act, and I was looking at a lot of different bands and I thought they were really cool. Then our label Wonderlick signed them, coincidentally, which I thought was cool and then we took them on tour as our main support and they were really great company and really funny and really talented singers.

I’m pretty sure by the end of that tour we would have been singing a bunch of songs together on stage  – we often do that with our supports on tour  – we try and wrangle them into singing with the band because it’s nice for them and it means that by the end of the tour you’re all really close and that’s how we like it to be.  Every time we come to Sydney we always say to CLEWS ‘hey come to the show and sing some songs’ and then we did a ‘Like a Version’ cover of that Lorde song for Triple J Radio so we’ve been collaborating them for a couple of years.

With ‘The Aftergone’, I wrote the pre-chorus and Oscar was thinking about how we were going to do this live – you can’t be singing two things at once. I’ve always liked male and female vocals together and it adds a nice colour, character and texture.

I saw that you have got Queen P and Hayley Mary as supports for your upcoming tour, which is great, but CLEWS are mentioned as touring as part of your band?

 Yes! Actually crazy, really yes. One of the features of Holy Holy  songs is heaps of melodies because Oscar and I ultimately are both melody writers and so oftentimes songs will have three different vocal melodies. Oscar writes the bass part and I love his bass playing – it’s really melodic so you have you got this hooky bass lines and then he’ll often have three guitar melodies and I like that this density of melody means that the records takes multiple listens – listening really deeply and repeatedly to appreciate. So, we were talking about how we’re going to do it all live and especially with CLEWS singing on ‘The Aftergone’, we just decided to see if they’d be up for coming on the whole tour and singing on a bunch of songs that have backing vocals. We’ll have Queen P and CLEWS at all of the shows and Hailey Mary at some of them.

What in your opinion makes a good pop song?

I think that ultimately it comes down to how it makes the listener feel. And so, there’s a whole heap of different types of tricks or styles that can work and I think it’s important in a way not to get hung up on that, but if a song comes on and it has a vibe and you feel just transported by it then that’s the ultimate kind of mark. But going into the weeds of it more, it’s almost the exact opposite of what we were just talking about before in terms of having all the different melodies together but sometimes simplicity is key and having space in the music.

Oftentimes when you listen to the biggest pop songs it can be shocking the degree to which there’s really not much happening – it’s just like that bass part, that drum, that vocal –  three motifs working together in a way that’s compelling.

It’s like Lou Reed allegedly said – anything more than three chords is jazz…

(laughs) It’s funny because when this band started, I used to write all the songs on my acoustic guitar and then I would take them to Oscar and Oscar and the band would flesh them out into songs and as the band progressed I play less and less guitar. Now I’ve got to the point with this record where I can’t play the songs because I don’t even know what the chords are because that’s not how we write anymore, so I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many chords are in these songs (laughs)!

What’s your most favourite Holy Holy track?

There are moments on various records. I’m really proud of ‘Sentimental and Monday’ because I have fond memories of writing it and it is quite a personal song. It means a lot to me when we play it live, and when you do the opening chord and the beat and stuff and people go ‘ah, it’s that song’ and I can hear the ripple going through the crowd of people reacting and singing along. Seeing that it’s gone gold in Australia and there are a million streams on Spotify makes me happy. I can’t really believe that a song that I wrote on an acoustic guitar in Sweden when I was jobless and friendless and bandless and without a label and managerless ended up becoming a song that meant something to people in this country. That’s very special to me.

On this record, there is a song ‘So Tired (Coda)’, the second last song – I really love that. That’s more of a vibe thing – I remember writing it and it all spilled out of us in a couple of hours. We just found this mood and chased it. It was one of those situations where the studio just caught on fire for a moment.

We found this vibe and Oscar and I suddenly had so many ideas, but we just didn’t have that much time – we were going to do hand claps, tambourines, vocals, bass, guitar: we just smashing out these parts. It became a frenzy in the studio, the beer started flowing and there were a couple of moments – Oscar was doing a guitar solo at the end, and he was just shredding and shredding. It was sounding awesome, but it wasn’t quite right and we happened on this idea of a harmonised guitar solo with less notes, less shredding but more this recorded arrangement. We were actually slightly influenced by the song ‘Redbone’ by Childish Gambino in which there is a cool harmonised guitar solo.

What are you overall musical influences and what other Australian artists do you recommend we listen to?

Musical influences? We love Phoenix. There were a couple of times on this record where I was trying to channel Robyn, the Swedish pop icon and Future Islands is a band that we like but then also on this record, it feels funny even say it, something like Rufus du Sol was an influence: we wanted to touch on some kind of dancey big festival vibe, but, I guess, in our own style…

What is the Holy Holy style?

We’ve got such strong kind of sense of the style we like – what we bring melodically to the music has such a flavour or character to it that I feel really comfortable trying different things and knowing that ultimately it will still sound like us. I don’t think there is any risk of someone saying this does not sound like Holy Holy. It’s just playing with different kind of parameters of what the project can be.

One of the things that I just can’t believe really after all these years is that every time we set out to make a record, Oscar and I have been on the same page about what it is we wanted to do. Every time we finish a record, I’m saying I want to do this next and Oscar is like ‘ it’s like exactly what I also want to do’ and with this album, we were both on the same page wanting to explore this kind of wild, melodic cinematic pop dance music.

In terms of what bands to watch out for in the country – my favourite band at the moment is King Stingray…

They are great, aren’t they? I saw them at Dark Mofo…

I was involved in getting them to come down for that – I was programming for Dark Mofo and I was like ‘got to try and get King Stringray to play’. Which show did you see them at?

I was at the Odeum when they played with Confidence Man and A. Swayze and the Ghosts’ – I reviewed this for Backseat Mafia.

I was at that gig!

Sumner are a cool band from Tasmania is another band I like – I’m actually at their place now recording. I like Parcel, King Gizz are great, Tropical F#ck Storm are great.

What’s your connexion with Tasmania?

I live here in Launceston.  I’ve been living here here for about 7 years and moved down when my wife and I just had a baby, and I run a little festival up in the northeast of the state and that’s the other key thing that I do outside of Holy Holy – the Panama Festival. I also work on Dark Mofo.

Thanks for your time and congratulations again on the album.

Thank you and good luck making sense of that interview (laughs).

Feature Photograph: Simon Eeles

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